Thought Leadership

5 food and drink brands called out for greenwashing and the lessons we can learn

Published on
May 31, 2023
Maggie Spicer

As consumers become savvier to calling out examples of greenwashing from brands, it seems that no industry is immune. One of the most prominent is food and beverages. 

While many food and beverage brands are making strides with measures targeting packaging and plastic waste, overstating the environmental benefit of these measures can quickly lead to accusations of greenwashing. With commercial groups and regulators honing in on potentially misleading claims, greenwashing brands face increasingly severe repercussions. It's more important than ever to understand the commercial and legal implications of conveying your sustainability credentials truthfully and effectively. 

Read on to learn valuable lessons from recent greenwashing cases in the food and beverage industry:

1. Keurig K-Cup Drama Leads to $10 Million Settlement 

Keurig Green Mountain reached a class-action settlement and agreed to pay $10 million after consumers sued over its coffee pod recyclability claims. 

Keurig marketed its K-Cups as recyclable, and instructed consumers to remove the metal foil from used K-Cups, compost or discard the coffee grounds, and recycle the K-Cup itself. The complaint alleged that most materials recycling facilities (known as “MRFs”) cannot process the cups, resulting in the K-Cups being disposed of or contaminating other recyclables. A court agreed, and in addition to the settlement amount, Keurig also added new language to its packaging telling consumers: “Check Locally – Not Recycled in Many Communities” 

What can we learn from the Keurig greenwashing settlement:

  • Keurig took an important first step in clearly telling consumers how each component of the K-Cup should be disposed of. However, it failed to acknowledge how MRFs processed the cups themselves. 
  • Make sure to understand the recyclability of your packaging in the communities where it is being sold. If a packaging material cannot, or is unlikely to be, properly recycled where a product is sold, a claim that it is recyclable may be misleading. 

A screenshot of a Wall Street Journal article, titled "Terracycle Partners including Coca-Cola, P&G to Change Recycling Labels After Settling Lawsuit"

2. Terracycle Pushes Recycling Costs to Consumers 

An environmental group launched a lawsuit against specialty products recycling company TerraCycle and a number of consumer goods companies - including food and beverage names such as Gerber, Coca-Cola, and Late July Snacks. 

The group claimed that consumers purchased products from the named brands believing they could be recycled, free of charge, at the end of life due to TerraCycle recycling logos on the products’ packaging. However, they often discovered that the brands’ participation with TerraCycle was limited. This resulted in consumers having to pay for the brands’ products to be recycled with TerraCycle or, more frequently, discarding the products in landfill. 

As a result, TerraCycle and its partner companies agreed to notify consumers if a brand’s capacity for free TerraCycle recycling was limited, for instance by including a disclaimer on the packaging saying “Limited Availability.”

What we can learn from Terracycle:

  • Leave no room for shoppers to misinterpret your recyclability claims. Brands may lose consumer trust if the consumer feels deceived or easily misled. 
  • Convey clear information to consumers about the options available upfront, rather than hiding them on brand websites or in marketing materials.

A screenshot from a BBC News article titled "Oatly ads banned over 'miseading' environmental claims"

3. Oatly Misses the Mark on Green Claims

The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned a high-profile advertising campaign by oat milk brand Oatly for misleading green claims, forcing Oatly to remove the ads and acknowledge that they “could have been clearer”.

The ads compared the carbon footprint of Oatly’s milk with dairy milk. However, the claim could have been understood as a blanket comparison of all Oatly products and types of cow’s milk, when it was in fact based on a single product. Oatly also implied a scientific consensus by referencing “climate experts” for their claim that switching to a vegan diet is the single biggest way to reduce environmental impact. The ASA found this to be the opinion of one climate expert, rather than a larger group of scientists as implied. 

What we can learn from Oatly:

  • Don’t overstate green claims. 
  • Compare your impact fairly. Brands should consider how claims will be understood by consumers, and make sure to compare like with like when making comparative claims. 
  • Substantiate your claims. Oatly stated that they were a “science-based company and take pride in being precise,” but didn’t provide enough evidence to support their claim about emissions of the meat and dairy industry.

Click here to read our roundup of 5 greenwashing examples in the beauty and wellness industry

4. Starbucks’ ‘More Sustainable’ Straw-Less Lid

As part of a sustainability drive to reduce waste sent to landfills, Starbucks released a “straw-less” lid that offered consumers an open-faced plastic lid instead of the traditional version of its takeaway cup that featured a disposable straw. Starbucks’ Chief Sustainability Officer said that “recyclable, strawless lids for customers across the US and Canada is another step in our journey to reduce our environmental footprint.” 

The only problem? The new lid contained more plastic than the old lid and straw combination. The company noted that the new lid was made with polypropylene, a material that could be recycled. However, critics flagged that only 9% of the world’s plastic is reportedly recycled, meaning that this change would likely result in more plastic being sent to landfills. 

What we can learn from Starbucks:

  • Make sure that any packaging marketed as sustainable demonstrably minimizes your products’ environmental impact.
  • As with any sustainability measure, it’s important to consider how a product will be used (and disposed of) by a consumer.
  • Brands using plastic packaging should consider alternative, potentially compostable, materials.

A screenshot of an AdWeek news article titled "ASA Innocent Ban Reminds Us That Plastic Is Less Than Fantastic"

5. Innocent Brand Advert Not So Innocent After All 

Smoothie brand Innocent had an advertisement banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), after the ASA ruled that Innocent had “misled” customers over their environmental impact. A complaint from viewers, including the environmental group Plastics Rebellion, claimed that the advertisement promoting Innocent drinks exaggerated the environmental benefit of the products and were therefore misleading. Innocent replied, claiming that they’d intended to convey a “purpose-driven message” and show that recycling was better than disposing of their packaging. 

In response, the ASA issued a report concluding that the overall presentation of the advertisement, including the graphics and lyrics, created a misleading message because it could lead some consumers to believe that "purchasing Innocent products was a choice which would have a positive environmental impact when that was not the case".

What we can learn from Innocent:

  • Brands should be careful not to overstate their environmental credentials, or create the impression of an environmental benefit where one doesn’t exist. 
  • Environmental claims should be clear and supported by a high level of substantiation, following standards like the UK’s Green Claims Code or the US Green Guides

How to de-risk your sustainability marketing

In today's market, companies that greenwash risk alienating their customer-base. But that's not the only threat to their bottom line: greenwashing companies are also increasingly likely to face legal action. Whether, you're a Keurig or an Oatly, greenwashing examples like these pose a serious threat.

To avoid making the same mistakes as the brands above, you can sense-check your green claims against the criteria in the Provenance Framework – a free-to-use index of greenwash-proof sustainability claims. 

Want to use your positive impact to improve ecommerce conversion? Learn how Provenance can help you share evidenced, trustworthy sustainability claims online at the point of sale.

Maggie Spicer

Maggie is the founder of Source Beauty ESG. She combines a background as a supply chain lawyer for global technology companies with experience in skincare product design to help beauty brands and retailers with sustainability-focused compliance, design, and strategy.

The Provenance Team

Provenance powers sustainability claims you can trust. The global leader in sustainability marketing technology, Provenance helps brands and retailers share credible, compelling and fact-checked social and environmental impact information at the point of sale. Provenance’s technology is already increasing conversion rates, brand value and market share for customers including Cult Beauty, Douglas, GANNI, Napolina, Arla and Unilever

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