Greenwashing or Real Change?

by Katy on March 8, 2010 · 23 comments

When I see eco-friendly claims on national products, my first reaction is “Ha, what a load of Greenwashing.” And although I don’t consider myself to be 100% cynical, I am a highly suspicious character.

I was perusing the cracker aisle at my local Safeway grocery store earlier this week, when I noticed that the Triscuit box was inviting me to “Join the home farming movement.”

Huh? Are Nabisco’s Triscuits now grown instead of “baked, not fried?”

A closer look showed me that each Triscuit box included seeds for either basil or dill, as well as instructions about how to grow the seeds and other educational information.

My next thought was to look at the ingredient list, sure I would be reading a lengthy paragraph of unpronounceable chemicals and trans fats. Instead, I saw:

“Whole wheat, soybean oil, salt, monoglycerides.”

Not exactly the “lengthy paragraph” I was expecting, although the monoglycerides are a trans fat, which I’m trying to avoid.

According to their website, Nabisco is:

“Working with to get everyone into the joy, the community, and the other bountiful rewards that are born of the Home Farming movement.”

This actually sounds good, but I just can’t wrap my mind around dry corporate Triscuits being part of the home farming movement.

The other corporate food that’s getting a eco-friendly makeover is Frito-Lay’s Sun Chips, which now come packaged in 100% compostable bags. I just watched the documentary Addicted to Plastic, so I’m on a fresh no plastics kick. This should be good news.

However, Sun Chip are made by Frito-Lay, who are also responsible for Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos and Tostitos. And if the company has truly embraced the ability to produce these compostable bags, why only do so for a single line of chips?

Marketing, that’s why. Sunchips are the snacks marketed to the healthy eating, hipster crowd, (a far cry from whoever it is that the Cheeto Cheeta is geared towards.) The Frito-Lay website even has a link for 46 steps to a healthier planet, which takes you to a listing of how the different manufacturing plants are lowering their environmental impact, although it appears to mostly be geared at the Sunchips brand.

I appreciate the compostable bags, I really do. But I would like to see all their bags be compostable, not just the Sunchips. (Which are actually my husband’s favorite chips.)

Both of these eco-friendly product changes are a step in the right direction, and not strictly a case of simple greenwashing. But most importantly, it (hopefully) tells me that corporate America is starting to get the message that consumers take this stuff seriously, and that there is money to be made selling to those of us who feel this way.

Now, about those trans fats . . . .

Do you feel that these changes are greenwashing or something more complex? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Blind Irish Pirate March 8, 2010 at 2:25 am

Any idea where to send a letter or e-mail to the big dogs on this topic of compost bags? Because my husband the Cheeto Cheeta does love Frito-Lay, and I do love composting.


WilliamB March 8, 2010 at 4:36 am

Triscuts have always been surprisingly good food. The ingredient list on my box is longer and not quite as readable but still acceptable to me. They’re darn tasty, too – I eat a lot of the garlic flavored ones.

I am skeptical about the compostability of those bags. What is usually meant in this context is “Compostable in a professional facility.” I’ve tried composting a couple of these items at home; they don’t decompose in my cold pile.

On the positive side, many good commercial things have started in small or niche markets and then gone on to the wider markets. Baked chips, for example. I do not consider all hope to be lost on this front.


Katy March 8, 2010 at 9:43 am

I “became of fan of Sunchips” on Facebook, which means I’ll get a coupon for a free bag, and I’ll try it out in my home compost.

Katy Wolk-Stanley
The Non-Consumer Advocate


Jinger March 8, 2010 at 5:53 am

I agree with WilliamB…most good things start small. Maybe, your position could be only to purchase Sunchips, non other, to do your part in this small movement.


Tammy March 8, 2010 at 6:01 am

I’m pretty naive re: greenwashing and was surprised when I read Fake Plastic Fish’s 3/3/10 post on compostable plasticware. Really frustrating. But I do appreciate all you bloggers do to check this stuff out – we are reading and by posting you are making a difference. Thanks. Tammy


Nancy from Mass March 8, 2010 at 6:44 am

Sunchips are also my son’s favorite chip. I like the new bag because it is SOOOO loud opening or even touching it, that I can tell if my son is sneaking snacks!


Nancy from Mass March 8, 2010 at 6:45 am

BTW: I’m not trying to be mean to my son…he would eat the whole bag in one sitting if he could!


Andrea March 8, 2010 at 8:16 am

I was soooo excited to see the compostable sunchip bag commercials during the olympics–not because I eat a lot of sunchips, but because I was hoping that Bearitos (and other health food brands) would follow suit and I could go back to eating Crunchitos guilt-free. But then I read Beth’s post about how compostable dinnerware doesn’t really compost (except maybe on a geologic timescale) and that burst my bubble. Maybe I need to buy a bag of Sunchips, throw them in my compost and see what happens?


LeslieK. March 8, 2010 at 12:44 pm

What I learned in my Master Recycler Class: Plastics that are ‘compostable’ are, like WilliamB says above, only compostable at very high temperatures, which can only be achieved in industrial compost facilities. Those are where the Oregon Zoo and Burgerville USA send their compostable plastics. They are not recyclable nor should they go into your home compost. Portland is about to start a new composting system that will compost food waste (cooked and uncooked) and, I believe, compostable plastics, in the Yard Debris program. You can try sending the SunChips bags back to the company to compost, or see if Burgerville, Oregon Zoo, or another industrial composter will take them.


Lisa March 8, 2010 at 1:04 pm

It smacks of greenwashing to me, but maybe I’m just being cynical. Like you, I can’t understand why the Sun Chip bags are compostable while the other bags are not. In the area I live in there are NO recycling centers. So unless a person either doesn’t buy these products or figures out an alternate use for the package waste….it ends up in the landfill. So far the only reuse I can figure out for the unfriendly chip bags are to use the shiny inner lining to make your own solar cookers. 😉 Meanwhile, I have everybody in the county saving their used plastic grocery bags for me. I make plarn and then crochet shopping totes and rugs from them. I live for the day when I no longer have to plan ways to reuse waste packaging…when it can be added to my home compost pile instead.


Mrs. B March 8, 2010 at 4:31 pm

I would be happier if all the chips were labeled GMO or NON GMO and sold in bulk bins for us to fill up ourselves….with our own reusable bag. It really can’t be that much more difficult for the stores to refill bulk bins instead of replenishing bags of chips.


Jeanine March 8, 2010 at 5:41 pm

But it wouldn’t be sanitary. I can just see a kid reaching their hands down in the bins. As with so many “public” green measures, there are Public Health concerns that would need to be addressed.

I ran into that when I attempted to bring my own container for my local deli to place my sliced lunch meat. If you think about, it…..the rules have merit.


Mrs. B March 8, 2010 at 6:11 pm

Sorry Jeanine…I was thinking about the kind like you would buy bulk coffee beans out of. They could make the hole a bit bigger and that way you couldn’t just put your hand in and snack while being in the store. I think it is sad that we can’t bring our own deli containers to the store.


Karen March 8, 2010 at 4:31 pm

I think we can expect more companies to jump on the green bandwagon, whether they are actually promoting green living or not. Btw, I love the image of “grown” Triscuits, Katy.

But yeah, there is a whole layer of verbal advertising and sloganry which uses positive imagery and ideas, ideas the companies hope we don’t look at too closely. Is a Triscuit a good buy, considering the parent company of Nabisco and its overall effect? Is a packet of seeds and website jargon really helping the planet or a sales gimmick?

In the end, the whole thing is a balancing act, isn’t it. We have to try to do our best to buy stuff that fits our needs AND promotes our values, I think. This is why I rarely buy names brands such as Nabisco, as many of these big corporations own other companies that, for example, test on animals, so even if “green”, I could not buy from them when they violate my other values.


WilliamB March 8, 2010 at 5:32 pm

Karen – in this age of very large conglomerates, how do you find and vet companies that meet your other values? (I’m taking some leaps in my thoughts about what your other values are, based on the ones you included in your post.)


Karen March 8, 2010 at 6:34 pm

WilliamB, I have a system which may be a little crazy and tedious, I admit it. I do go online and check things out. Most companies leave tracks online, from trivial sites to company profiles and investment data. For example, I will not knowingly buy products which are tested on animals. Start with Proctor and Gamble and keep on researchin’ all their subsidiaries…you will find out that many laundry products etc are owned by P and G, which refuses to discontinue their cruel (and useless) tests, and these are the companies I will not support. In America, some types of products do have to be tested, but many do not: soap, laundry, make up etc. Those are the products I look carefully at, because consumers do have a choice in what they support, and they do wield a lot of power.

I check the label of any new product that catches my eye. If it says “no animal testing”, I will check it out online even so. Yeah, this is not a fun process but one I can live with. I do research for a living, so for me it’s probably not such a big deal. I understand why this would be too big a hassle for others. My point in mentioning the animal issue is, the whole consumer thing is such a balancing act, and I know a lot of us are out there making tough decisions.


jen March 8, 2010 at 4:53 pm

KATY and WILLIAM B–I think the ones to buy for a more natural ingredient list are the Low Sodium Triscuits which are made from winter wheat, soybean oil and salt. No mention of monoglycerides if I remember correctly.

That said, I TOTALLY agree with MRS. B. The soybean oil in the Triscuits ingredient list still screams GMO to me which is frustrating. So, on my last shopping trip I bought some matzo crackers to try on hubby. We’ll see…


puppyluv March 8, 2010 at 5:15 pm

We got a bag of those the other day, and I did wonder if it actually worked. I guess I could test it, too. The bags feel really weird, sort of super-crinkly, I dunno, so there is something going on with them. But, do that many people really compost, to a point where it would be efficient to make the special bags? Because even biodegradable stuff takes a long time to decompose in dumps because of the lack of air or something, I forget.


Kayla K March 8, 2010 at 7:41 pm

I definitely think they’re doing the “green thing” just because it’s popular.

But, I’m very happy that it is so popular! I hope it sticks!


namastemama March 8, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Total greenwashing. Your post did make me go reach for a box of Triscuits. One of the only crackers I buy and said box was on sale. Ingredients: Whole grain soft white winter wheat (what the ?), soybean oil, salt. I never get a flavored kind because those have MSG. Cut out the Cheatos over a decade ago after reading DR. Andrew Weil. No MSG, no trans fats and no food coloring. i.e. NO Chester and most items on the snack isle. Haven’t seen the SunChips. The chips are right by the soda at our local store. Both non-food items. Only have to pass by on my way back from the dairy foods.
It is pretty easy to find the parent companies if you really want to boycot something. i.e ConAgra makes tons of stuff.
Today I planted over 70 seeds. Real food, no packaging and I know it will compost in less than 1 year!


WilliamB March 9, 2010 at 8:34 am

“Whole grain soft white winter wheat ”

namastemama, I can decipher this for you.

– whole grain: with bran, etc.
– soft: as opposed to hard; soft wheat has less gluten than hard wheat
– white winter wheat: this is one of the many varieties, I know the names but not very much about the differences; this strain is “white wheat” rather than “red wheat,” and grown in the winter as opposed to in the summer.

PS: I love your name, especially as I’m about to go to a yoga class. It’s a great cross-training option to complement my running.


Gannon March 9, 2010 at 8:05 am

Katy – thanks so much for your comments on our new SunChips bag. A couple of answers:
1) the reason we are only doing this on SunChips bags for now is capacity. This is a new technology with limited supply. As affordable capacity increases, our goal would be to expand these eco-friendly bags to other of our snacks.
2) it is true that our bag will compost best conditions called “hot active compost”. our website contains complete details on these conditions: Under other conditions, the bag will take longer to decompose. However, even if one does not choose to compost the bag, there is a further environmental benefit…as these bags are made with plants (a renewable resource) vs non-renewable resources.

Thanks again for your comments!

Gannon Jones
VP, Marketing – Frito Lay


Diana March 10, 2010 at 5:17 am

Can you say Greenwashing…I will admit it is a tiny step in the right direction. No one is addressing the many, many miles these food products travel to get to your table. If we cannot compost the bag in our own composting mounds then they have to travel again some distance (short or long) to get repurposed/composted. These days I take some famous guy’s advise and cook my own food. Making chips, french fries, pizza, nachos and even crackers is pretty easy and in return you get to control the type of fat you use…you can actually say goodbye to the trans fats.


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