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The Friday Digest: Tread carefully – this week’s catch-up is full of farm crap and fraudulent claims

Farmers are in the firing line. The majority of deadlines that farmers have been set to improve their environmental performance, and prevent pollution, have been missed. Between January 2020 and January 2024, the Environment Agency issued a total of 14,146 improvement actions, of which 61% (8,576) were not completed within the agreed timescales. Analysis of an FOI by Ends Report showed that more than half related to issues that impact water quality – which is in the spotlight currently.

It really hits the fan. On Monday, Sustain and Friends of the Earth produced data revealing that just 10 large agribusinesses are responsible for producing almost double the excrement produced by the 10 largest UK cities. Combined, the companies (Arla, Avara Foods, Banham, Bernard Matthews, Cranswick, Hook2Sisters, Karro, Moy Park, Noble Foods and Pilgrim’s Pride) have over 144 million animals in production at any one time, which create 55,262 tonnes of poo per day. 

Clustermuck. The analysis shows the food firms’ operational areas “clustered” around polluted river catchments, including the Wye. The number of intensive mega-farms is also one the rise, according to research by CIWF. It all seems to be coming to a head – and not before time. Fairr, the global network of investors worth a combined $70 trillion, estimates that global livestock manure amounts to some 3.12 billion tonnes (around five times that of human waste). What happens to this animal waste presents a “major threat” to ecosystems, the network warned in its 2022 report, ‘Creating a stink’. 

Own it. The Sustain and FoE research, like the Fairr report, highlighted a worrying lack of oversight on this waste within the supply chain. None of the 10 firms were found to have policies to prevent pollution leeching into water-bodies, for example. The companies have pooh-poohed the accuracy of the data. 

Cargill’s court case. Avara – a subsidiary of US multinational Cargill – is also facing a civil claim brought by law firm Leigh Day. The lawyers allege that the “clear primary source” of the recent pollution is Avara. This week they extended the claim to include Cargill given its role in providing feed, including phosphate-rich soya, for the chickens. It is excess phosphorous in chicken manure that leaches into the soil and into watercourses, causing pollution, the legal claim will allege.

Coke fix. Are such claims a PR stunt – Avara dissed the law firm for an “opportunistic attempt to profit from a serious environmental issue”– or will they help with the much-needed shift to sustainable food systems? “Those of us in sustainability jobs are (secretly) quite happy to see these types of lawsuits and big press moments,” a former supermarket sustainability director said, because “they really help us to get the agenda into the boardroom. It’s painful but helpful”. Others wonder if it’s a short-term fix. Responding to a report in the FT on the ‘new era of climate litigation’, Joe Zammit-Lucia from the Radix Centre for Business, Politics & Society in Amsterdam, noted that such litigation was becoming “normalised” but “there is a risk that litigation becomes the equivalent of climate cocaine for activists – a series of short-term highs followed by long-term self-harm”.

Green-dyed monster. Staying with laws and rules, but moving from intensive chicken and cow sheds to the great British countryside, we turn next to new research by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The greenwashing regulator has found that using green imagery, such as fresh produce or green colours – as well as terms like ‘natural’ or ‘plant-based’ in ads – was a powerful motivator in making people believe that a product or service was eco-friendly, even if the ad wasn’t making any specific claims. ASA research has of late had the tendency to tell us what we already knew, but there we go.

You don’t say. At a recent forum held by Footprint and DWF there was clearly concern about what brands could and couldn’t say when making environmental claims. These are nothing but crocodile tears, according to the likes of Nusa Urbancic at Changing Markets Foundation. “It’s very interesting how companies were happy to benefit from greenwashing all these years. And now they are afraid, despite the rules being quite clear,” she told us.

No more eco-score. The ASA also discovered that most people are making food choices based around nutritional value and health, rather than environmental impact (which is interesting given that the government said last week that is has “no plans at present to introduce a mandatory eco-label, nor to endorse an existing or new eco-labelling scheme”).

Sustainability budget. And speaking of making green claims, it’s worth highlighting a piece in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review. This looked at how best brands can market their sustainable products. Did you know for example that many customers have a “subconscious ‘sustainability budget’”, or that you should really be tailoring messages depending on how ‘green’, blue’ or ‘grey’ your customers are? 

NPD over PR. The report, by professors of marketing Frédéric Dalsace and Goutam Challagalla, is a fascinating read. However, those looking to find silver advertising bullets to bring in the big bucks from their greener products and services should skip to the end. “While we’ve made marketing the focus of this article, at the core of successful sustainable offerings lies innovation; there’s no substitute for it.”

Do consider our three other stories this week which cover the Brexit border bill, the supermarkets backing Britain and some packaging NPD for planes.