Cindy Burke is the author of To Buy or Not to Buy Organic and recipe writer for The Trans-Fat Solution.

Greenwashing on the high seas

December 3, 2007

Corporate food marketers are a crafty lot, who tend to leave out any bad news and play up any feature that may appeal to consumers. I should know; I have a degree in, yep, marketing. But my original career plan — to become a marketing director for a national food corporation — became impossible to reconcile with my distaste for the way unhealthy food is marketed to shoppers. Instead, I’ve made it my job to uncover the facts about food, particularly food that is marketed as healthy, and put that information out to you, the consumer.

Which brings me to Trader Joe’s. I used to love a good Trader Joe’s shopping trip, roaming the aisles discovering their eclectic mix of food, drinks, and goodies. No plastic cards for “membership,” no coupons, and no shareholders to cater to, just a wacky pirate theme and bargain prices. But lately Trader Joe’s has become a minefield for me, filled with choices that scream “ORGANIC” and “FREE TRADE,” but are considerably less wholesome if you look a little deeper.

A little food, a lot of packaging for the landfill.

None of the plastic containers for TJ food I buy — their store-brand maple syrup, Mediterranean hummus, goat-milk yogurt, or ricotta — are widely recyclable. The plastic containers either don’t have the recycling symbol code (a single digit ranging from 1 to 7 and surrounded by a triangle of arrows) or have a number not widely accepted for recycling. As I looked through my three bags of groceries from a recent TJ shopping trip, I realized that almost all of the packaging was completely non-recyclable or coded with the number 5 or 7 (seldom collected or recycled). The plastic waste from one shopping trip took up an entire grocery bag (yes, I did use a reusable Trader Joe’s bag). Even the organic fruit and vegetables are wrapped in plastic and packaging.

Those “feel-good” bargains from Trader Joe’s are just moving the cost to another place: my garbage. As a result, I’m left feeling pretty guilty after I shop there. On a similar trip I took this week to my local food cooperative, I was left with almost no waste that wasn’t either recyclable or compostable — just the plastic cap to my milk carton and the metal lid to a jar of salsa.

In another bit of greenwashing from Trader Joe’s, I picked up what looked like an earth-friendly can of cocoa (as earth-friendly as a non-recyclable container can be) and tossed it in my basket. I planned to use the cocoa to make Sneaky Chef brownies and see if the kids would eat them.

Cocoa is not the first ingredient in this package. And it’s not the second ingredient either.

It wasn’t until I came home that I took a closer look at the ingredient list. Wouldn’t you think that, if a package says “cocoa” in giant red letters on the front, actual cocoa would be a major ingredient in that food? Yes, you would. Well, think again, consumer, because when you take a closer look at the ingredients for this “Conacado Organic Fair Trade Cocoa,” you’ll find that cocoa isn’t listed first (sugar), or even second (dried milk powder). It’s third in the ingredient list, just before “organic guar gum.”

Whenever I see the word “cocoa” and nothing about “drinking” or “sweetened” or “hot chocolate,” my experience has been that it’s just cocoa powder. Other “drinking cocoa” containers define the contents of their package more clearly (such as Ghirardelli, which says “Sweet Ground Chocolate and Cocoa”). Baking cocoa, on the other hand, is typically called just “cocoa” (Green and Black’s organic free-trade cocoa is just plain cocoa, and says “cocoa powder” on the front; Hershey and Droste packages are simply labeled “cocoa”). These all contain 100 percent cocoa; you can add your own sugar and milk if you desire a drink.

The fact that cocoa was such a small amount of the total ingredient list of the Trader Joe’s cocoa was surprising to me, and I think misleading. I don’t want to misrepresent the facts, but I do think a package should not scream “COCOA” when it’s the third ingredient in the list, just before the thickeners and flavorings.

Now, in addition to a bag full of plastic garbage, I have to drive back to TJ’s to return this junk, and then go to another store to buy some actual baking cocoa.

I’m starting to see that pirate theme at Trader Joe’s in a different light. After my latest shopping trip, I think I’m the one getting plundered.

There are 3 comments on this item
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1. by Sarah C. on Dec 3, 2007 at 7:45 PM PST

I too love TJs. I can’t sop there regularly now since I am at least an hour away from the closest one. It does sadden me to find out that there containers arent more recycle friendly. Have you tried writing them? I have sent them emails on numerous occasions and always gotten a response back (not that actually do anything about it). If enough people write in about this issue, I am sure you arent the first to make the correlation, then maybe they will be more conscious of it in their future purchases.

As for the can of Droste doesnt have any cups of hot cocoa with swirling steam on it. Also, the color combination on that can is enough to deter me from purchasing it. I am just shallow like that I guess!

2. by tasterspoon on Dec 4, 2007 at 1:01 PM PST

I was almost fooled by that hot chocolate mix, too, but I was tipped off by the price, which seemed too low for pure cocoa, so I checked the back.

As supermarkets go, TJ’s still is pretty progressive and its hours are so shopper-friendly (as against the once a week Farmer’s Market or even the 9-6 veg market) I hate to give it up. I like to think they’re sensitive to the preferences of their target demographic, which is increasingly interested in the issues you identify, and I’m optimistic they’ll catch up if we clue them in.

3. by Fasenfest on Dec 7, 2007 at 7:04 AM PST

It is hard to say whether this is a case of “greenwashing” or giving the customer’s what they want. I think the responsibility (or probability) for change always start with the consumer so I’m glad to see you are making choices that will support the values you hold. And while it would be nice to see TJ taking the lead on the issue of packaging, this chicken/egg debate can best be mitigated by encouraging consumers and citizens of this carbon-loaded globe, to think carefully about what they’re buying into. Doing so puts the responsibility for change back to where it is most effective - in the everyday actions of everyday people. In other words.....thanks for writing this piece. It offers yet another strong voice, and eye, on the alternative. I, like you, have made other choices for my groceries. See you at the bulk bins..............

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