Friendly Animals and Dew-Kissed Vegetables

An amusing article in Wednesday’s New York Times (registration required) discusses the phenomenon of greenwashing in food-package design. As writer Kim Severson defines it:

[Greenwashing] is not just a fake environmental ethos. Greenwashing, it seems to me, can also describe a pervasive genre of food packaging designed to make sure that manufacturers grab their slice of the $25 billion that American shoppers spend each year on natural or organic food … it’s only a matter of time before Cap’n Crunch shows up in a hemp jacket, raising money to save the manatees.

She goes on to describe how “greenwashed” design makes use of several specific clichés: First, “a gentle image of a field or a farm to suggest an ample harvest gathered by an honest, hard-working family,” which can include “strangely oversize vegetables or fruits” (and “if they are dew-kissed and nestled in a basket, all the better”); then there’s the image of “an animal displaying special skills or great emotional range,” like the “sax-playing, environmentally friendly earthworm” on certain Organic Valley packaging; and finally, a good greenwashed product needs “family history” coupled with a promise to give some proceeds to a good cause.

It’s good to see someone calling out wannabe-green food manufacturers on their infantilizing package design, which has always seemed like one of the most embarrassing things about buying slightly-less-environmentally-destructive snack foods. But it just seems wrong to lump “natural” Cheetos together with genuine (if excessively crunchy) do-gooder companies like Nature’s Path and Barbara’s Bakery.

If you read the text of the packaging—the “family history” stuff—on a box of My Family Farm cookies, for example, you’ll learn that the company’s founders are social workers and donate a portion of sales to children’s charities. I haven’t seen Entenmann’s making that kind of claim (yet). And while it can be moderately annoying to wade through blocks of text about farming practices and philanthropy when all you want is a fricking box of sugary treats, those claims are probably still the best way to separate the real-deal stuff from the cleverly repackaged crapola.