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Costco advertises its Kirkland Albacore Tuna as “dolphin safe,” seeking to appeal to environmentally conscious and animal-loving consumers. Only this marketing claim is not exactly true, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in California federal court that alleges, among other things, that Costco’s claim that its tuna products are “100% traceable from sea to shelf,” also is misleading and deceptive.

In more detail, the lawsuit alleges that the company contracted the supply and manufacturing of its private-label tuna to Bumble Bee Foods, which acknowledges on its own websites that it uses longlines to harvest tuna and albacore. Longlines, which can reach as much as 60 miles in length, are covered in baited hooks—as many as 10,000 of them—and dragged behind fishing vessels. This method of fishing is notorious for its environmental harms, including its terrible propensity for “bycatch.” That is, with longlines, animals not intended as part of the haul are frequently caught and killed, including dolphins and whales.

“Greenwashing” refers to practices in which a company markets itself and its products as being sustainable and environmentally friendly, whereas in truth, its offerings are just as rotten for the environment and irresponsibly produced as anything marketed by “non-green” competitors. Companies from all over the economy stand accused of such practices, with examples ranging from Thinx period underwear, which allegedly uses harmful chemicals even as it makes strong environmental claims; Burt’s Bees Cosmetics for, again, containing chemicals that are harmful to the environment, despite claiming its products are made of responsibly sourced materials that are derived from plants; and Mercedes-Benz, for advertising its electric vehicles using nature imagery, while also having to pay several billion dollars in fines after it was found to have cheated in reports of its diesel vehicle emissions levels.

The broader, “Chicken Little” problem here is that advertising that makes sustainable claims becomes irrelevant if customers learn they cannot trust or base their purchasing decisions on such claims. Even legitimately sustainable companies thus would find themselves unable to communicate the value associated with their offerings. Furthermore, misleading advertising skirts the rules, if not outright breaking the law. To rebuild consumer confidence, while also ensuring they are on the right side of the law, some industries have begun to impose self-set standards and demand accountability from their members.

For example, the fashion industry has long been criticized for being among the worst greenwashing offenders. Such allegations have prompted European Union and Australian regulators to crack down on misleading environmental claims. In response, various fashion consortiums and brands have expressed their willingness to acknowledge the pervasive issues, even if they continue to struggle to find ways to fix them. Such struggles are admittedly challenging to overcome. For example, how can a company realistically, confidently, and ultimately verify all its products’ green credibility if it does not have complete control over its supply chain—a scenario that is nearly impossible in globalized markets?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why is greenwashing a problem?
  2. Why do companies issue misleading or untrue claims about sustainability?

Sources: Lucianne Tonti, “Fashion Brands Grapple with Greenwashing: ‘It’s Not a Human Right to Say Something Is Sustainable,’” The Guardian, November 18, 2022; “Companies Accused of Greenwashing,” Truth in Advertising, April 22, 2022; Aaron Baar, “GroupM Founds Decarbonization Coalition in Latest Sustainability Play,” Marketing Dive, November 14, 2022; Corrado Rizzi, “Costco’s Kirkland Signature White Albacore Tuna Not as ‘Dolphin Safe’ as Advertised, Class Action Alleges,” classaction.org, August 2, 2022