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QSR Feature
How Going Green Can Hurt Your Business
One unforeseen result of the sustainability movement is the growing consumer backlash against greenwashing. Is your brand guilty?
How Going Green Can Hurt Your Business

“Natural.” It sounds like a good choice, but what does it really mean? What about the words “recyclable” or “chemical free”? What do they say about the products that bear them on their labels? As it turns out, not a whole lot. “Natural” is vague at best, “recyclable” refers to anything that could be reused in some way (the possibilities are endless), and most items that claim to be “chemical free,” in fact, contain chemicals—just nontoxic ones. Quick-serve operators can’t really be sure of what is what without doing research that goes well beyond reading the product descriptions suppliers provide.

Welcome to the confusing and even more frustrating world of greenwashing—one of the biggest reasons it’s not easy being green.

The Green Sweep

As consumers have become more concerned with going green, companies have taken advantage of the opportunity to make more green.

“There’s been a clear spike [in advertisements that make environmental claims] from 2007 through 2008, and we know that spike has continued through 2009,” says Scot Case, vice president of TerraChoice, a North American environmental marketing agency. “When you look at the number of ads that reference environmental initiatives, clearly it’s something advertisers see as important.”

But as environmental marketing increases, so do instances of greenwashing.

“Greenwashing is a way of hiding the truth or masking the truth in some way about the environmental attributes or sustainability of a product,” says Joe Pounder, director of product innovation at Georgia-Pacific Professional Food Services Solutions.

Anything that leaves consumers with an incorrect or misinformed impression of a product—even if the claim that causes the confusion is technically accurate—qualifies.

“Often, greenwashing can take a very general statement that to the average consumer sounds great, but with further investigation you find out there’s nothing under the actual fluff,” says Michael Oshman, executive director of the Green Restaurant Association (GRA).

Take, for example, biodegradable cups. While they might biodegrade under specific circumstances and given enough time, landfills often don’t provide those circumstances—so the “biodegradable” cups that end up there will never break down.

In a 2009 report by TerraChoice, more than 98 percent of the 2,219 products examined were guilty of greenwashing on some level, with cleaning products being one of the biggest offenders.

The statistic becomes even more concerning when operators consider the consequences of purchasing one of those items.

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