November 7, 2023

Big Food’s greenwash looms over plastics treaty talks

Report finds food and beverage giants employ a web of CSR initiatives with little accountability that could slow global progress on plastic pollution, water access, and sustainable agriculture

Boston, Massachusetts – On the eve of global plastics treaty talks, new research from Corporate Accountability examines how large food corporations use the SDGs to greenwash and sugarcoat progress on plastic pollution and related global crises.

Big Food’s Big Black Box finds that three of the world’s most politically-active corporations—Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s—are engaged in a web of more than 80 multistakeholder-type initiatives purporting to advance U.N. SDGs impacting plastic pollution, as well as water issues and sustainable agriculture.

The research finds that while these corporations go to great lengths to trumpet their work around SDGs around plastic pollution (and beyond), they make it very difficult for investors and the public to understand and track what they’re spending, on what, where, when, and with what tangible benefit. On the one hand, they seem to want to leave the impression they are doing a great deal, but when asked by investors to disclose such politically-motivated spending, some argue such spending is either limited or too much work to publish.

Further, the report finds these corporations make a wide range of inconsistent and unverifiable, yet ambitious claims about what they are doing to achieve SDGs. This while continually failing to account for ongoing business practices that undermine the very same SDGs, such as Coca-Cola’s world-leading contribution to plastic waste, McDonald’s lobbying offensive against an EU law, and PepsiCo’s increased use of virgin plastic.

“The intent of Big Food’s greenwash seems plain. Broadcast that you are a ‘part of the solution,’ albeit to a problem largely of your own creation. Broadcast that you can clean-up your own mess without much accountability to the public. In so doing, justify a seat at a policy table you have no business being at, whether its plastic treaty talks or climate treaty negotiations. Use your influence to steer from or dilute needed, binding policies into ineffectual, voluntary, industry self-regulation,” said report author Ashka Naik, director of research and policy for Corporate Accountability.

With the 2030 SDGs “behind at halftime” and “woefully off track,” both a recent SDG summit and November’s plastic treaty talks offer an important opportunity to evaluate corporate cooptation of global policy. Could this be one of the reasons why SDGs are far from being realized? At stake is the very health and access to safe drinking water of about 25 percent of the world’s population; not to mention, a mass extinction resulting from plastic and other fossil fuel pollution.

The food industry’s efforts to propagate what many in civil society call “corporate capture”—and Big Business would prefer to label “multistakeholderism”—could prove a primary blocker of the global policy action needed to meet the 2030 SDG agenda.

For this reason Corporate Accountability and its partners are calling for plastics treaty talks to be protected from industry interference. They are also calling for food industry giants like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s to 1) stop interfering in policy making, 2) globalize disclosure of all of their political activities and spending, especially of UN SDG-related initiatives, 3) address values misalignment in their political spending, 4) publicly confirm the veracity of progress claimed on SDGs; and, 5) stop doing business as usual, once and for all.

“We’re being asked to basically take on faith the SDG and other ESG proclamations of these incredibly harmful corporations. Are we to ignore the political motivations of their proclamations? Policymakers should not be taking any of this at its face value. It is critical that the U.N. does not give any platform to those who cannot minimally prove the truth of their claims and let the public see what may be hidden in their books,” said Naik.


Corporate Accountability
Our Movement Needs You
You’ll receive email action alerts from Corporate Accountability.

Corporate Accountability is looking for a new Executive Director