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The GR Press Promotes “Corporate Sustainability”

August 9, 2009

033009-greenwashingOn Saturday the Grand Rapids Press ran a front-page story in the business section entitled “Eco-friendly packages have benefits.” The Press article looks at some recent decisions by four companies to make some changes in how they package certain food/beverage items; Spartan Stores, Old Orchard Brands, Ice Mountain and Wal-Mart.

In many ways the story reads like a public relations piece, with bits of information that are framed positively about what each company is doing. For example, when the Press writer refers to what Wal-Mart is doing it says:

In Wal-Mart stores, the changes are evident. Only highly concentrated liquid detergent in smaller containers is sold. Granola bars are sold wrapped in pre-cut tape instead of boxes. When suppliers are able to reduce packaging and costs, it has a ripple effect, said Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg.”

The Press reporter then goes on to quote the Wal-Mart spokesperson at length, with no other perspectives provided that might challenge what the company claims when it say this policy “benefits everyone.” It is almost like reading the Wal-Mart promotional material on their web page that touts the company’s sustainable practices.

The same is the case with the other three companies featured in the story, positive commentary followed by input from company spokespersons. In fact, the only other source cited in the story is a representative from a Muskegon-based packaging company and they also speak favorably about the trend with “eco-friendly” packaging.

The story also includes a highlighted section on what the companies have done, which includes the heading, “How the packages make a difference.” There is even a staged photo that the Press included with items from each of the companies featured in the story.

Green Capitalism

This story is part of a growing trend within the corporate world and to some degree within environmental circles where anything that is perceived to be eco-friendly it is celebrated. The problem with this approach, particularly for journalism, is that it tends to avoid criticism of corporate practices, which means that the public is exposed to less dialogue and less information about the long-term impact of such practices.

For example, there is a rowing movement of people who would say that the very idea of bottling water is inherently unsustainable. Ice Mountain/Nestle is making millions of dollars in profit off the use of water that should be part of the public domain and then the company turns around and tries to convince us that they are environmentally responsible.

Then there is Wal-Mart, the largest retail company in the world. Wal-Mart has a long history of exploiting workers, they destroy local businesses and take advantage of local communities, and have significantly negative impacts on local ecosystems. The fact that companies like Wal-Mart can continue to get such uncritical coverage should tell us something about the state of journalism in this country.

In additional to promoting Green Capitalism, this August 8 GR Press story also puts the emphasis on the demand side of the market. Over and over again in the article the Press reporter doesn’t challenge comments from corporate spokespersons who say things like, “A lot of the customers have requested more eco-friendly, recyclable materials.” This implies that it is up to consumers to demand sustainable manufacturing practices, when in fact other countries have decided that the responsibility lies with those who make the product, not just the consumers.

Germany adopted a policy a few years ago where manufacturers are responsible for all the packaging they produce. Once you are done using the product you can bring it back to the company and they must deal with the waste. Germany calls it their Green Dot Policy.

To emphasize that the Press views this issue from the consumer end of things they included an additional insert in the story. The insert is entitled “Green Shopping,” where the public is encouraged to “buy products in bulk” and to “buy products made from recyclable materials.” This insert came from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The problem with this type of reporting is that it helps to frame the debate about what must be done for humans to truly live sustainably in the world. (See a recent article by Derrick Jensen that explores what is wrong with individual behavior instead on real political change.) As long as the Press and any other news media fail to challenge corporate perspectives, or include independent perspectives, the public debate on one of the most critical issues of our day will be one-sided.

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