By Gabriele Scalise

Narratives of green transformation and sustainable living are now thriving, promoted by activists and digital movements. European markets and institutions adjusted their language to the “next big thing”. Do they walk the talk on food?

Green narratives have long been embedded in most cultures, placing humans and societies in natural environments. From the harmonious Dao to Shinto natural spirits, passing by the Greek consideration of nature as both risk and opportunity, flying on the wings of German Romanticism and wandering across the liberating countryside vibes of English Naturalism (and no, not Instagram’s Cottagecore trends). Persian culture even designed intricate carpets representing high-class gardens, which in turn symbolised a pocket-sized natural world, tamed by human design, in an ecstasy of symmetrical lines and intertwining shapes.

All this changed during the summer of 2018, when our social coordinates shifted. The youth took to the streets with Fridays for Future and now we don’t quite look at sustainability the way we used to. The European Commission’s agenda was revised, and politicians now have to worry about not being green enough to intercept new electorates. To be eco today is more than ever pop, cool, hip and mainstream. But with great popularity come different interpretations, generalisation and disinformation.

Green food offering and aesthetics is shaped, unsurprisingly, by companies. The main risk here is the new language brands employ to define sustainability – and its extreme simplicity. See, apart from being catchy, catering to the new green world of Gen Z is a win-win: the average company can increase their prices in the name of higher quality standards, connect with new customers through virtue-signalling and hide unsustainable practices behind a confident and colourful marketing campaign. 

But wait a minute: what does sustainability even mean? Is it about organic food, is it about fair labour conditions, circular economy, local empowerment? Let’s deconstruct it. More than a product, sustainability is a process. Delivering something, somewhere and to someone takes resources: unsustainable practices can take place in the production phase, in the transportation, in the delivery, or in the handling of waste. All that glitters is not sustainable. Yet, to rephrase J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring (“all that is gold does not glitter”), all that is sustainable does not glitter: there is an ever-increasing difference between what merely links to the green aesthetics and what is sustainable throughout most economic passages.

A worrisome trend embraced by many food multinational companies is defined as “compassionate capitalism” by Karin Gwinn Wilkins, researcher on development communication, in her Handbook of Development Communication and Social Change. It means convincing customers that the ecological responsibility lies in their hands, through their individual choices. In this way, the company is freed from liabilities concerning the environment. In a six-year-old study on greenwashing, mass media researcher Lucy Atkinson cites evolutionary psychology in calling it “competitive altruism and costly signalling”.

Many countries in Europe followed the same route with their digital marketing, painting themselves as green nations. One of these is Sweden. Scandinavian countries are known as champions of all things sustainable – socially and environmentally. As an example, recycling is a recurrent point in their digital narratives. Yet the most shown data refers to the excellent level of household recycling, not the national result: again, shifting responsibility to the individual level instead of making sure the bigger picture works. According to Eurostat’s data from 2018, the country is amongst the ones recycling the least in the Union. Combining its recycled percentage with backfilling and energy recovery techniques, it only reaches approximately 22 percent of its waste, while Denmark reaches almost 95 percent. From this datum it seems there’s much work to be done, while the identity being cherished online is different. We might call this information asymmetry – or even cultural disinformation.

On websites, the European Commission reports that together with consumer authorities it “swept” domains to assess greenwashing. They found out that 37 percent of the surveyed European sites featured “vague and general statements such as conscious, eco-friendly, sustainable”, while 42 percent presented claims which “may be false or deceptive and could therefore potentially amount to an unfair commercial practice”. Here’s this: the EU cares about greenwashing and monitors it. What about the material they publish themselves?

I took a look at the material of the Farm to Fork initiative, one of the main European-wide projects to promote environmentally friendly measures, cut pesticides and ensure affordable production. There, the language of the EU promotes a “transition” and cites “new opportunities”. Its main tool? Organic crops and livestock farming. In the text, the Union makes it seem as if bio products are safer, fair and more productive. It’s true that bio agricultural techniques lower the use of chemicals, which in turn promote biodiversity; the scientific benefits mentioned by the EU initiative end here: the rest is about support for local production. European GMO standards ensure more productive crops, and the safety level is well monitored by institutions. The EFSA – the European Food Safety Authority – certifies European-approved GMO as safe under “molecular characterisation, toxicity, allergenicity, nutrition and environment risk assessment”. In addition, the EFSA follows “post-market environmental monitoring (PMEM)”. US food standards, for example, admit substances which in the EU are banned and feature lower safety thresholds. Then there’s food fairness, which is not determined by a product being bio or not, but on how that product is managed through all its stages: that is why the Fair Trade label is not necessarily related to anything bio.

All in all, the communication side of the sustainable revolution seems just as challenging as the actual change in food production. Without transnational educational plans to define what is actually a sustainable compromise, without falling for buzzwords pushing for the vaguely green, both consumers and the environment will be in danger.­

By Gabriele Scalise

Illustration: Therése Lager

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