First There Was Greenwashing. Now There’s Brownwashing?!

Anyone REALLY paying attention to issues of environmental protection and sustainability knows about the nefarious practice of Greenwashing, whereby companies and their PR firms make questionable claims that their products are eco-friendly, exaggerate just how eco-friendly they are, or worse, make no claims at all, but by adding green color and graphics of green leaves and trees and such to the packaging, they try to pass off a product that has no special eco-friendly attributes as one that does.

I heard a snippet of a piece on the public radio show Marketplace this morning, that appears to have been taken from an article in the Wall Street Journal, about how brown is the new green:

When consumers see brown they think green, say companies that sell products like paper towels, napkins and diapers.

Dunkin’ Brands Inc. and Target Corp.’s in-store cafes among other chains have made the switch from white to brown napkins. Next week, Cascades Tissue Group is trying what marketers long considered the unthinkable: brown toilet paper. It is pitching beige rolls, dubbing the product “Moka.”

Brown paper products are becoming an obvious way for consumers to show that they care about the environment. They assume the products are made with recycled materials or didn’t involve whitening chemicals.

Now, however, white paper can be made from 100% recycled fibers and whitened without the chemical chlorine, traditionally the primary complaint against it. Still, Cascades says dropping the extra step of bleaching reduces the environmental impact of Moka toilet paper by about 25% compared to their white recycled paper because of energy savings and other benefits…

So far so good. Nothing particularly bad here, right?

Well, this here is where the danger lies:

Even so, Dunkin’ Donuts decided to use recycled brown napkins about three years ago, in part because of what the color “symbolized,” says Scott Murphy, vice president of strategic manufacturing and supply for Dunkin’ Brands. Tests in a handful of restaurants showed the brown napkins made customers “feel like they were doing something good for the environment,” and matched the décor, he says.

Now, Dunkin’ Donuts still made a good decision. It’s great that they are using 100% recycled, non-bleached napkins! But the potentially exploitable thing is knowing what the brown in the brown napkins has come to “symbolize” and that it has the power to make customers “feel” a certain way.

The irony of all ironies in this story comes in the next paragraph:

At least one company adds brown pigments to non-chlorine bleached diapers to drive home the environmental message. The diapers need “visual differentiation,” says Louis Chapdelaine, product director of fibers at Seventh Generation Inc., a Burlington, Vt.- based company that specializes in eco-friendly household cleaning products and paper. It’s important “not so much that it’s brown, it’s that it’s not white,” he says. All diapers, if left undyed, would be the color of raw plastic or semi-translucent, he says.

What?!

Listen, it’s awesome that they aren’t using chlorine bleach to whiten their diapers. But these diapers stink, whether soiled or not, for their obvious attempt at Brownwashing. They could dye these diapers any color at all, so why brown? In fact, considering the unpleasant brown stuff that these diapers typically capture from the babies wearing them, you’d think that beige or brown would be the absolutely last color that Seventh Generation would choose, and this claim by their product director that this is simply a matter of providing “visual differentiation” really rings hollow. They even have a whole webpage dedicated to defending their brown-dyed diapers, though it, too, reads as nothing more than an elaborate rationalization.

Meanwhile, the folks at Babyworks.com and the Mothering Magazine online forum are none too pleased, and I have to say that I’m deeply disappointed in Seventh Generation, a company that has been an originator and a leader in the recycled and eco-friendly product marketplace. It could be that their products are still as eco-friendly as they always have been, but this brown dye thing and the excuses they make for it really has me questioning their integrity for the first time.

Sure, there are worse fish to fry, companies that have made no efforts to offer more renewable/sustainable products, and they won’t be earning a nod from me in my Celebrating Eco-Progress series anytime soon.

Let’s just hope that they don’t take after Seventh Generation and jump on the Brownwashing bandwagon too.

7 thoughts on “First There Was Greenwashing. Now There’s Brownwashing?!

  1. Thanks for saying. The greenwash has been getting more and more on my nerves lately and have noticed some of the brown paper products you mentioned. Now I’m inspired to dig a little deeper. Why is it so hard for companies to tell the truth?

    1. Helen ( there is only one l in my real name ) nods her head in approval at F&B shaking his head in solidarity… enough of this frivolity it is a serious subject … ;D !

  2. This is definitely an important thing for consumers to watch out for. Some people are excited by the prospect of buying ecofriendly products they’ll buy the first thing that seems green (or brown) without taking the time to research the companies making the products…and some companies definitely take advantage of that.

    I’ll definitely have to keep a watchful eye out! Thanks for the post!

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