While wandering the isles of the big Tesco in town looking for pesto or Echo Falls, you might have noticed Tesco’s ‘Grower’s Harvest’ range. You might almost miss the ‘exclusively at Tesco’ mark on these greenwashed products. The Grower’s Harvest logo is even adorned with green leaves – comforting for those of us who seek out organic or sustainably focused foods. Grower’s Harvest is a branch of Tesco own-brand, which explains such remarkably low prices for such a leafy logo. Tesco have obviously thought carefully about their branding for this line of products. This more farm-focused branding replaced Tesco’s flagship ‘Everyday Value’ range in 2016. Although upon closer inspection the packaging gives no suggestion of organic or sustainable credentials, the ostensibly earthy branding might lead a consumer to think otherwise.
Sustainably focused brands have dramatically increased in popularity over the last few years, with companies such as Oatly and Quorn providing plant-based alternatives. The sale of plant milks in the UK has grown by 30% since 2015 and in 2019 alone it was reported that in Europe 11,655 vegan food and drink businesses were launched (an increase of 93% from 2016). With this rising demand for ‘green’ foods and the Tesco Value line becoming a cultural meme synonymous with low quality, it is perhaps no surprise that the company decided to go for a more farmers’ market vibe. The range’s slogan ‘Farm grown’ somewhat states the obvious when it comes to selling fruit and vegetable products on a large scale; where else would these products have been grown? The Grower’s Harvest brand carefully goes as far as it can towards suggesting an organic ethos without actually having to commit to making that claim.
The Grower’s Harvest range is also cheaper than Tesco’s normal own-brand range without there being any discernible differences between their sustainability credentials. Tesco’s website outlines its commitment to sustainable sourcing and protection of animal welfare. To be fair, Tesco’s animal welfare ranking (issued by the BBFAW – Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare) is a Tier 2, meaning their focus on protecting animal welfare is ‘integral to business strategy’. Sainsbury’s, The Co-op and Morrisons also sit in this category, with Waitrose and M&S above in Tier 1. While this measure is important, it doesn’t negate the subtly manipulative nature of Grower’s Harvest branding. In a statement on their website Tesco reiterates their belief that ‘healthy, sustainable products should be affordable to all, no matter what their budget’. The higher cost of organic and ethically produced food products has been a consistent criticism of environmental movements, who are often accused of paying little attention to economic privilege. This cost barrier is evidenced not least with the animal welfare benchmarks mentioned earlier, where more expensive shops are ranked more highly. This is not the only time we have seen companies dress up own-brand products in bourgeois costumes; scandal erupted in 2017 when Waterstones chose to adorn some their shops with an ‘independent aesthetic’, duping their customers into thinking they were quaint little bookshops. We might ask if both of these reactions are rooted in a somewhat middle-class discomfort to ethically fashionable items being more widely affordable to all.
There is little wrong with Tesco branding their stock as ‘farm grown’ with green lettering, since these products are indeed grown in farms. The duplicity comes in the subtlety of the message which suggests organic credentials without there being any, and without there being any discernible difference from Tesco’s normal range. ‘Greenwashing’ (a term coined in the 1980s to describe fraudulent corporate environmental claims) has become increasingly dangerous for environmentalist movements. In February 2020 it was reported that several adverts had been banned by the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) for making baseless or misleading environmental claims. Greenwashed advertising has become a tool used by big businesses to create a green ethos for themselves in the collective subconscious of consumers. Vogue recently released a guide to avoiding greenwashed fashion brands, pointing out that buzzwords such as ‘natural’, ‘vegan’ or ‘eco-friendly’ don’t mean much without certifications to back them up.
This approach helps Tesco and other big brands avoid criticism from organisations such as Extinction Rebellion who seek, among other things, to reveal and confront the opaque supply lines which provide Europeans with such huge amounts of low-cost produce. The supply lines for Tesco’s Grower’s Harvest range are no less opaque (the Guardian reported in 2016 that some of the farms attached to Tesco own-brand products were fabricated), just tied up in the green ribbon of sustainability promises. While big supermarkets such as Tesco are obviously making some effort to address the climate crisis, they’ll have to go further than some deceptive green wrapping paper to effectively tackle the problem.