I recently saw a handful of memes making their way around the internet, warning people of the dangers of dihydrogen monoxide (water). The memes varied, but the general theme is even though it’s water, when it’s appointed a scientific name, people become afraid. Scientific illiteracy is a growing concern throughout the U.S., with an ever widening gap between scientific consensus and the general public’s beliefs. Until science get a PR team, and education in America improves, the difference between scientists and citizens is likely going to be an issue.
In February of 2015, The Washington Post reported the market for fast-casual food – which includes chains like Chipotle, Panera Bread, and many others – has increased by 550 percent since 1999. The main reason behind this is likely due to their claims to be all-natural with no artificial ingredients or flavors and the perception of consumers that this correlates with a healthier option. A quote from Chipotle’s website reads,
“We’re all about simple, fresh food without artificial flavors or fillers. Just genuine raw ingredients and their individual, detectable flavors. We source from farms rather than factories, and spend a lot more on our ingredients than many other restaurants. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Though it does imply a more ethical practice of farming that excludes factory (which certainly should incentivize consumers), one thing I noticed about this quote is their decision to not use the word “healthy,” yet many people would still argue that it’s implied.
Chipotle sales continue to grow because of this “natural” label. But what does “natural” actually mean? Merriam-Webster defines it as “existing in nature and not made or caused by people : coming from nature”. Obviously, this is an extremely broad definition, that can either apply to everything or nothing. By this definition, anything intentionally grown, or livestock raised for the purpose of human feed could be considered unnatural. Chipotle’s strategy is what is known as greenwashing: “Disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image”. By advertising as natural, Chipotle is inherently greenwashing by misleading consumers. They’re not alone however, many companies have this strategy, and from a business standpoint, it’s smart. They’re not necessarily lying in their “natural” claims and healthy, natural food is what consumers demand. But even after being linked to an E. Coli outbreak, they’re still widely regarded as healthy by many consumers due to the general public’s lack of awareness and gullibility.
Chipotle is just one example of a company using the lack of information in order to greenwash their product. I don’t necessarily believe they’re wrong for doing so, seeing as how it’s the consumer’s responsibility to make educated decisions. The real issue at hand is indeed the consumer. Until science and scientists can convey their findings to the public appropriately, and education in the United States increases, this will be an ever-growing issue. If people are afraid of dihydrogen monoxide, how are they expected to know what the scientific consensus is on GMOs, vaccines, and climate change, just to name a few.