Sara Lee's EarthGrains Smackdown: Why Greenwashing Is Hard to Get Away With

Last Updated Feb 24, 2010 5:09 PM EST

After an attack by the never subtle watchdog group Cornucopia Institute, it took less than eight hours for Sara Lee (SLE) to backtrack from green claims it made on its EarthGrains bread web site. On Monday, Cornucopia accused the bread maker of running a major greenwashing campaign ("Sara Lee Hijacks Organics"), prompting company staffers to spring into action and deep-six a bombastic claim that EarthGrains bread, which is not organic, is actually in some ways better than organic.

It was a nice try, but in an age of instant blogging and Facebook boycotts (not to mention increased vigilance over what constitutes sustainable food), that kind of overreaching just isn't going to fly. As Cornucopia pointed out, Sara Lee's claim that the conventionally farmed Eco-Grain wheat in its EarthGrains bread requires less land than organic farming is not substantiated by scientific research. Sara Lee issued a statement saying the whole affair over its claims about being better than organic was a "misunderstanding" and that the company has been "completely transparent about the environmental benefits" of Eco-Grain's growing methods. From the beginning, Sara Lee's save-the-Earth marketing blitz for the new "super-hero" grain in its bread smelled fishy. I earlier wrote about how the quasi-organic bread seemed a desperate attempt to lure green shoppers.

A few of the problems:

  1. Unlike organic wheat, Eco-Grain isn't produced without chemical fertilizers, just 15 fewer of them.
  2. There's no reduction at all in the use of environmentally unfriendly pesticides like the delicious-sounding 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid.
  3. Sara Lee is only using 20 percent Eco-Grain flour in its bread.
In the annals of Big Food meets sustainable farming, Eco-Grain flour is a baby step. Sara Lee might have been better served waiting until they could make EarthGrains bread with 100% Eco-Grain and then toning down its whole save-the-Earth spiel.