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The Dangers of Greenwashing: A Case Study

Like an increasing number of people, I go out of my way to find environmentally-friendly products. I care about what goes into and on my body, purposefully limiting the chemicals used in my home as much as possible.

During my searches for organic cane sugar, or natural, paraben-free shampoo - I often find a few (or many) products that are part of a growing trend known as "greenwashing". Greenwashing occurs when "a company or organization spends more time and money claiming to be 'green' through advertising and marketing than actually implementing business practices that minimize environmental impact".

This isn't just a case of false advertising. Greenwashing can be incredibly dangerous when complex problems are oversimplified, and a company markets itself as being environmentally conscientious, while continuing their damaging business practices. A recent example of this is General Mills' Honey Nut Cheerios campaign - #BringBackTheBees.

I'm sure you've heard of the global crisis of colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon where the majority of worker honey bees suddenly die or disappear. Why is this a huge concern? Out of the 100 crop species providing 90% of the world's food, 71 are dependent on the bee population. Our food supply is intricately linked to the health of bees. Their decline is like a canary in a coal mine, and something is horribly wrong.

In Canada, Buzz (the iconic bee mascot) has recently been removed from boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios. The marketing campaign includes an incredibly sappy commercial, showing humans saving cute animals around the world with children singing "Broken Wings" in the background. It is emotionally exploitative pablum.

The goal of the campaign is to "bring back" bees by giving away 35 million wildflower seeds - one for every Canadian. Yes, planting bee-friendly flowers increases access to healthy food for pollinators, but the plight of bees is far more complex than that.

According to Marla Spivak's TED talk - a video featured on the #BringBackTheBees website - bees are disappearing due to diseases and parasites, pesticide use, monocultures (like soybeans and corn), and flowerless landscapes leading to poor nutrition.

Here's the thing - General Mills is part of the problem.

Pesticide Use

Just like in humans, poor nutrition and agricultural chemicals are weakening the honeybee's ability to fight off deadly parasites (like the varroa mite), viruses and infections. Neonicotinoid pesticides are one of the largest contributors of CCD, with Ontario being the first in North America to limit its use. Neonicotinoids often coat genetically modified corn and soybean seeds, and the toxic chemicals become part of the genetic make-up of the adult plant. This means that bees absorb neonicotinoids into their bodies when collecting pollen. Neonicotinoids can confuse bees' sense of direction, leaving them weak, exhausted and unable to find their way back to their hive. The toxic chemicals have a huge impact on the complex behaviours and relationships within the bee colony. Neonicotinoids affect other important pollinators like bumblebees and solitary bees as well.

GMOs

Although never directly confirmed by the company, General Mills' products almost certainly contain GMOs (genetically modified organisms), developed using conventional commercial farming methods (including the use of herbicides and insecticides). Their cereals, for instance, are made from corn, soy and refined sugars - ingredients that are almost always genetically modified in the United States. Since General Mills has spent over a million dollars fervently blocking GMO labeling laws in the U.S., there's a pretty good chance that their products contain GMOs.

In 2013, with increased public demand, General Mills announced that they would remove all GMOs from their original Cheerios recipe. However, Honey Nut Cheerios is likely to contain more GMOs than the original ever did, considering its high sugar content (9 times the amount of the original Cheerios), and the inclusion of corn starch, Vitamin E, "natural" flavours, and canola oil.

A few days ago, the head of General Mills' U.S. retail operations, Jeff Harmening announced that since Vermont is forcing GMO labeling state-wide as of July 2016, his company will expand mandatory labeling across the country. (No word on whether this will include General Mills' products in Canada.)

This is a positive move, but you know what would be even better? Banning GMOs all together!

Monocultures

The way in which North Americans farm changed dramatically after World War II. Chemicals (like DDT) were sprayed on crops to increase yields and kill harmful insects, along with a massive decrease in the variety of crops planted. Corn and soybeans are now often grown as monocultures - and both are featured heavily in Honey Nut Cheerios.

This lack of biodiversity has contributed to the honeybee's decline, as they need to travel for miles and back in search of nutritious food. When one crop (or monoculture) is planted for acres and acres, bees do not have access to pollen for months at a time. This is one of the reasons why the #BringBackTheBees campaign focused on planting wildflowers, which bloom for most of the growing season and increase biodiversity.

There are a few things to be aware of. First off, when planting bee-friendly plants, you shouldn't be introducing new species. The plants should be native to your area, and not an invasive species. The least thing you would want to do is try to help bees, while killing off another important species of insect. Plants chosen should also be non-GMO (that's a given), organically grown (without artificial fertilizers or harmful chemicals), and preferably heirloom. Clover and alfalfa are wonderfully nutritious for bees, easy to grow (in many areas of Canada), and work well in fields or as ground cover. The key is to plant multiple varieties of plants, which will bloom at various times of the growing season to continually provide nourishment to pollinators.

So...where does that leave us?

Well, for one - it shows us that just planting a few wildflowers, without remedying the underlying clusterfuck of an environmental disaster - will not bring back bees. It's shameful that General Mills and its shareholders only care about improving their image to an ever more informed public - while doing very little to really improve things for bees. It's like calling yourself a vegetarian while gobbling down a steak.

Take Action

So, where does that leave us? For one, boycott General Mills until they stop using GMOs and ingredients produced using harmful chemicals and environmentally-harmful practices. Money is the only thing large corporations like this understand, so don't give them any of yours!

Grow your own veggies using sustainable methods, and buy from your local farmer's markets. Support your local sustainable small farmers!

Plant your own wildflowers and other bee-friendly plants around your home. Be sure they are native to your area and organically grown.

Educate yourself! The more you are informed, the less likely you will fall for clever greenwashed marketing.

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