Green- or whitewashing, it’s still dirty

Ohio State’s Normand St-Pierre hits the nail on the head with an observation in this week’s Dairy Excel column: “The environmental freight train has left the station.”
Don’t say you haven’t been warned. Unless you’re a hermit, the green blip has been on the radar ever since the very first Earth Day. And environmental issues should share center stage with other issues – no one wants to go back to the days of the Cuyahoga River burning.
Now, everywhere you turn, another company is touting its noble environmental commitment.
Buyer beware. A new report, however, warns that not all green claims are equal.
The ‘Six Sins of Greenwashing’, produced by TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, details an marked increase in “greenwashing,” which means a company is misleading consumers regarding environmental practices or a product’s environmental benefits.
The six sins?
1. Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off
2. Sin of No Proof
3. Sin of Vagueness
4. Sin of Irrelevance
5. Sin of Fibbing
6. Sin of Lesser of Two Evils
All but one of the 1,000+ products studied committed one or more of the sins.
As I read the report, I couldn’t help but think of the current rbST labeling furor. To me, processors and retailers pushing for an “rbST-free” label are committing the sin of “whitewashing.”
Sin of the Hidden Trade-Off: Removing rbST as a management option may mean that some farmers will add cows to maintain milk production. Consumers who equate rbST-free with small farms may actually be triggering dairies to get bigger. Oh, and more cows mean more manure, too.
Cornell University has also found that use of rbST reduces the cost of milk production 31 cents per hundredweight. In the ongoing battle of slim profit margins, removing the rbST option could push some farms into the red and out of business. I’d wager that’s a trade-off no one wants.
Sin of No Proof: There’s no test to detect rbST in milk, and cows naturally produce their own bovine somatotropin. How do you prove something is rbST-free or not? Producers are asked to sign an agreement or an affidavit declaring they’re not using rbST, but will someone fib to get an edge?
Sin of Vagueness and Sin of Irrelevance: The vagueness sin means a claim is so broad that it’s real meaning is likely to be misunderstood. The irrelevance sin means a claim may be truthful, but it doesn’t help consumers seeking preferable products.
Well-intentioned consumers may think that buying rbST-free milk means they’re buying a safer, more nutritious, more wholesome product that is hormone-free and that has been produced in an warm, fuzzy way.
But there is no difference between rbST-free milk and milk from cows that have received injections of recombinant bovine somatotropin. It simply means some farmers choose to use a hormone that can increase a cow’s natural levels of bST to increase her milk production.
Large dairies use rbST, and some large dairies don’t use it. Small dairies use it, and some small dairies don’t use it. Pasture-based dairies use it, and some pasture-based dairies don’t use it.
“RbST-free” isn’t greener, it isn’t whiter. It’s not organic. It’s not a higher quality milk.
Sin of Fibbing: Processors probably won’t be guilty of this one, but since there’s no check, who knows?
Sin of Lesser of Two Evils: This sin isn’t relevant because it covers a claim that may be true, but the overall product risk is still questionable. Organic cigarettes, for example.
Whitewashing. Here’s the thing: According to the FDA, the amount of rbST in milk or milk products is insignificant compared to the amount of growth hormone that is naturally produced by our own bodies. Plus, rbST is not recognized as a hormone by human cells.
The use of rbST-free marketing to develop a good milk/bad milk mindset is whitewashing. And no one wins.
(Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or at editor@farmanddairy.com.)

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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