Greenwashing: Nestle's Eco-Shape Bottles

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As more and more consumers are actively searching out ways to be more environmentally conscious, more and more products claiming to be "green" are popping up on supermarket shelves. In fairness, some of these products have legitimate claims - they use all recycled content and are recyclable themselves, their manufacturing and/or distribution processes have been streamlined to conserve both energy and water, or they have been certified by an independent, objective, and trusted third party as sustainable. However, with the rise in consumer interest comes a rise in marketing and advertising spin - known as "greenwashing."

In 2009, TerraChoice updated its list of sins of greenwashing from six to seven: vagueness, no proof, irrelevance, worshiping false labels, hidden trade off, lesser of two evils and fibbing. The good news is that more companies are being responsible in their claims, but many are still making false claims. Nestle's Eco-Shape bottles are a good example of greenwashing. See the photo below of an outdoor advertisement announcing the arrival of the new bottle.

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First, the bottle has a presumably environmentally friendly name - Eco-Shape. That means it must be better for the environment, right? It's eco-friendly, after all. Well, it does use 15% less plastic - but less than what? The truth is that it uses 15% less plastic than the previous bottles manufactured by Nestle. The company's website now claims that their second generation uses 30% less plastic - an advancement, and a good one at that. But we'd be missing the point here if we didn't step back and identify the sins being committed - the Sin of the Hidden Trade Off and the Sin of the Lesser of Two Evils.

Let's tackle the trade off first. Nestle's more recent bottle contains less 30% plastic, making it presumably easier to recycle. However, what about other parts of the manufacturing and distribution process? One could argue the bottles are lighter and therefore may cut emissions in the distribution process, but I could not find any substantiation for that. Also, according to an article in Packaging Today called "Plastic Recycling and the Environment" (link here), "manufacturing plastics often created large quantities of nasty chemical pollutants, and depleted the Earth's bounded supply of fossil fuels." So the use of plastic water bottles at all - regardless of the fact that they have less plastic in them - is a trade off.

This directly connects to the next sin, that of the lesser of two evils. Yes, 30% less plastic makes these bottles easier to recycle. However, according to Earth911, only about 27% of all plastic water bottles used in the United States are recycled (link here). Clearly, a reusable bottle is a far more environmentally friendly way to consume the water you need each day. But Nestle is not in the business of protecting the environment - they are in the business of selling their products.

When it comes to advertising and marketing in general, consumers typically do not have the luxury of time to research every message they receive. When you consider the fact that the average consumer is bombarded with almost 3,000 messages per day (according to Seth Godin in an interview in Fast Company), it is easy to see why consumers often have to take ads at face value or at least presume a company like Nestle would not deliberately mislead them. And Nestle's ad does present the truth, even if it is one-sided.

To further complicate the issue, recycling plastics is not always viewed as an easy task. According to CNN, even though
80 percent of American households have access to plastic recycling programs, only around one in four of them take their plastic bottles to the recycling bins. Part of the challenge is that many consumers do not understand the classification system - there are seven different types of plastics that can be recycled, and the types cannot be mixed. In addition, the same CNN article reports that almost three-quarters of those surveyed did not know that plastic is an oil-based product and almost half believe plastic is biodegradable. So you have lack of education combined with lack of awareness leading to the majority of consumers simply choosing to not recycle.

It seems that more awareness and education on recycling, combined with better access to recycling centers, could help alleviate the obstacles. In the meantime, American households would be well served to leave the plastic bottles in the convenience store and carry their own reusable bottle to consume throughout the day.

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1 Comment

I really like the way that you are incorporating links and media into your posts! Well done! Wow - what a challenge that you post here for the public. Being bombarded with ads that are in themselves true, but how do we help the public sift through and analyze the claims that are being presented to us every time we turn around. Is this an educational or a policy issue? Something to think about...

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