Do famous environmental activists owe consumers anything?

I don’t have cable television, which means I miss stuff, like commercials that feature eco-model/author/activist Summer Rayne Oaks as the new face of Aveeno. I found out after seeing a tweet about a Greenwala post on the topic.

I looked around a bit more to make sure, and found that, yup, Oaks is working with Aveeno. I couldn’t find the commercial as a stand-alone, but you can see it at YouTube in a round-up. Click here – then watch the last few seconds of the video.

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Photo ©shannahsin via sxc.

Being in the public eye shouldn’t automatically denote public responsibility:

Often, if someone is in the public eye, folks will say, “That person needs to set a good example!” For example, consider how people freak out when choose-a-Disney-teen-star-of-the-moment smokes or shows up scantly clad to some party.

I don’t actually agree. Just because someone is in the public eye, doesn’t mean that they HAVE to, or even should set a good example. Especially if said famous person never claimed to stand for a specific cause or general goodness in the first place.

But what if you’re claiming “eco” as part of your brand – then are you responsible?

I think responsibility changes the second you publicly claim to believe in something, say you stand for such and such cause, or claim to be an expert on a subject. Then you should attempt to walk the talk and you do owe consumers a certain level of responsibility. Oaks is known as an “eco-model,” speaks at green events, wrote an eco-book, works as an environmental consultant and graduated from Cornell University with an Environmental Science degree. In fact her own bio points out…

Vanity Fair has named Oakes a “Global Citizen,” Outside called her one of the “Top Environmental Activists,” CNN hailed her as a “Young Person Who Rocks,” Glamour anointed her “70 Women of Green,” Cosmopolitan awarded her the “Fun, Fearless Female” Award, AMICA named her one of the “Top 20 Trendsetters under 40,” and CNBC named her one of the “Top 10 Green Entrepreneurs of 2010.”

Obviously, Oaks has built her brand up around eco-issues. It’s clear that the public, including media and consumers, considers Oaks to be eco-savvy and a good representative of green issues. It’s confusing as to why someone in this position would represent Aveeno.

How eco-friendly is Aveeno?

Let’s see…

  • They’re not an organic company.
  • Neither Aveeno or their parent company ( Johnson & Johnson) have made the cruelty-free pledge – which means they most likely test on animals.
  • Their Skin Deep scores suck. Not that Skin Deep is utterly perfect, but right now, Skin Deep is one of the best (and only) tools consumers have for learning about chemicals in body care, and they don’t rate Aveeno well.
  • Aveeno doesn’t disclose information about product ingredients at their website. Not only is this lame customer service, but a HUGE red flag when it comes to product safety and in their case, it’s even shady. If you click ingredients on their baby wash and shampoo page, here’s what pops up, “Natural Oat Extract – Natural oat extract has mild cleansing and moisturizing properties, and is very soothing to the skin.” Really? Is that all that’s in this product? Oat extract? Here’s what the actual label says, “Water; PEG-80 Sorbitan Laurate; Sodium Laureth Sulfate; Cocamidopropyl Betaine; PEG 150-Distearate; Avena Sativa (Oat) Kernel Extract; Sodium Lauroampho PG-Acetate Phosphate; Tetrasodium EDTA; Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate; Fragrance

Does the Aveeno company have any eco-pros?

They have a recycling reminder on their website and some of their products have good (good, meaning low) scores at Skin Deep. Aveeno also uses some Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paperboard and some recycled plastic in their packaging.

Most of the green stuff Aveeno does has little to do with their company and products though. Most of the time, Aveeno just makes huge public shows of greenness. For example, they’ve planted forests in Times Square, donated money to Global Green USA, given away reusable Earth Day bags and they’ve contributed over $400,000 to beautifying 28 gardens and 3 US National Parks (in collaboration with Organic Gardening magazine and the American Community Gardening Association).

Is Aveeno the most evil company ever to live – likely not. However, I’d never, EVER call them eco-friendly. Supporting eco-causes vs. actually BEING eco-friendly are two entirely different things.

Make no mistake, Aveeno is greenwashing.

Just to recap, greenwashing is when a company or organization spends a lot of time and money claiming to be eco-friendly via advertising and marketing, instead of using their time to actually create and sell eco-friendly products. For greenwashing companies, marketing comes before implementing green business practices that actually minimize environmental impact. Greenwashing can trick consumers into using products that appear eco-friendly, safe and healthy (for people and the planet) even if they’re not. Additionally, these greenwashing impostors take business away from genuine sustainable and organic products.

I’ve heard plenty of people call Aveeno “natural” or “eco-friendly.” That’s not a huge surprise. Aveeno sells a natural vibe, and fake or not, people buy into it. It doesn’t help that other huge organizations are helping Aveeno to greenwash. For example Aveeno was awarded the Green Good Housekeeping Seal and, insanely, they were publicly declared to be one of the greenest companies in America.

Now, Oaks is a part of these shenanigans as well. By appearing in their commercials, with the terms “eco-activist” splattered across the screen, Oaks is helping to falsely convince consumers that Aveeno is an eco-friendly company.

If Oaks was just working behind the scenes, say as an eco-consultant for the company, that would be one thing. It’s not like companies usually change on their own – eco-consultants are a very good idea. However, Oaks is more than a consultant. Oaks has put her face on the brand in a big way by being in an Aveeno commercial. It’s one thing to try and change a company from the inside. It’s entirely another to publicly represent a non-green company before they make sustainable changes.

Oaks has actually commented on this issue, so you can hear her side. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics started a Facebook thread about this issue and Oaks left a long comment in her defense. Also, Oaks recently wrote a blog post about her business choices – I’m guessing in pre-response to what people will say about this Aveeno deal.

But maybe I’m wrong. What do you think?

Does a publicly proclaimed eco-activist owe consumers anything? I think so. Even if you’re not famous – if you’re saying, “Hey, I’m eco-friendly, listen to me!” in my opinion, you’d better try your hardest to avoid greenwashing and offer people the best information you can. Everyone makes mistakes (even me). But blatant greenwashing is super lame.

Tell me what you think? Is it a good idea for Summer Rayne Oaks to partner with Aveeno or just a way to help Aveeno greenwash more efficiently?

Learn more about choosing safe and eco-friendly products:

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