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September 09, 2021

Will corporate greenwashing destroy local business?

The downturn has led to a handful of phrases entering our popular vernacular.

Terms like “layoff casualties,” “necessary cutbacks” and even “recession haircut” have become go-to words in this depressing lexicon we’ve been forced to adapt.

The latest, though, has sprouted from a new trend that – while it may seem harmless at the outset – might be more cause for alarm than we think.

It’s called corporate greenwashing, and it’s what big-time North American companies are doing in a bid to come off as local, community-enriched businesses when they may be actually furthest from the case.

You might have heard about Starbucks’ infamous un-branding recently, where the coffee shop transformed a handful of their locations – from a new sign and staff uniforms to cups and garbage containers – to feel more organic to the local neighbourhood. (The first of them just re-opened in Seattle as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea.”)

Or there’s HSBC, one of the biggest banks on earth, launching an ad campaign dubbing itself “the world’s local bank.” Winn-Dixie, a major U.S. supermarket chain, has now taken the tagline, “Local flavour since 1956.”

Even Wal-Mart, the heir to the evil image of AllThingsCorporate, now hangs giant green banners over its produce aisles that read, simply, “Local.”

According to Alternet, these trends aren’t exactly coincidence. They’re part of a focused, detailed strategy by corporations to capture the notion that, well, nobody really likes them anymore.

The news site does a good job taking the issue to task, however, spelling out how all this corporate greenwashing isn’t nearly as local as it’s made to sound.

Take Barnes & Noble, the world’s biggest book seller, for instance. The chain has launched a video blog site under the banner, “All bookselling is local.” The site features “local book news” and book picks from employees in stores in tiny community locales like Surprise, Arizona and Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

Only, Alternet argues, the local brand here seems more like a design to “disguise what Barnes & Noble (really) is – a highly centralized corporation where decisions about what books to stock and feature are made by a handful of buyers.”

And the concerns over these tactics are beginning to grow. There is mounting alarm that such corporate campaigns may succeed in permanently defining “local” on their terms for their benefit.

“That’s my fear,” says Michelle Long, executive director of Sustainable Connections, a coalition of 600 independent businesses. “People are going to do diluted versions and hold the space so that real campaigns don’t get started.”

By Jason Buckland, MSN Money



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Gordon PowersGordon Powers

A long-time fund company executive, Gordon Powers now heads up the Affinity Group, a financial services consulting firm. Gordon was a personal finance columnist for the Globe & Mail for many years, has taught retirement planning...

James HaversJames Havers

James is the senior editor of MSN Money living in Toronto. He has worked for the Nikkei Shimbun (Tokyo),,, Canadian Business and other publications. Havers turned to journalism after teaching overseas.

Jason BucklandJason Buckland

The modern-day MC Hammer of money, Jason can often be seen spending cash that isn’t his with the efficiency of a Wilt Chamberlain first date. After cutting his teeth as a reporter for the Toronto Sun, he joined the MSN Money team with...