Keep America Beautiful Ran A Master Class In Corporate Greenwashing

by Rudy Sanchez on 04/22/2021 | 11 Minute Read

The post-war economic boom of the 1950s wasn’t an accident. After decades of economic depression and wartime rationing, consumers were over it. It was time to let loose and live the good life.

A boom in retailers and more accessibility to durable goods was in full swing since the 1890s in America. While consumerism roared through the 20s, by the end of the decade, the speculation and desire-based economic boom had come to a halt as the stock market crashed, sending the global economy into a depression, only to be interrupted by World War II.

In more austere times of the 1930s and 40s, consumers still collected and separated everything from fabric to metal, letting nothing get wasted. Rag pickers and carters would collect unused and worn items to be broken down and sold, and organic waste would get utilized as compost and feed for home gardens and livestock. We designed many goods so they could get fixed, and packaging—like glass bottles—was intended for reuse.

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Just like the rockets and jet planes propelling us into a new kind of future, the economic boom of the 1950s required fuel and lots of it. Rather than accepting the economy as cyclical in nature, society and policymakers strived for continuous growth, and this required constant consumption. For its part, the public was all too ready for an easier life with fewer chores. But industry faced a dilemma—how do you get people to keep buying things they don’t need over and over again?

Plastic materials are renowned for their durability and being lightweight. During the decades immediately proceeding WWII, many industries emphasized the reusability of plastic containers and packaging to promote the material to consumers. Of course, that's not exactly a winning strategy when a firm is looking to sell as many tons of something as possible, a problem Modern Packaging editor Lloyd Stouffer thought could be solved with some light framing.

In a plastic industry conference in 1963, Stouffer proposed that plastic packaging makers drop “reusable” as a stated future, saying that “the future of plastics is in the trash can.” Lloyd wasn’t implying that plastic was of such poor quality that it belonged in the garbage, but rather that growth in the industry would need to rely on one-way bottles that eventually ended up as waste.

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Stouffer’s modest proposal was taken up in earnest by the bottlers, including the glass industry, which had lowered the cost of glass bottling to the point where it could drop 2-way returnable programs. There was a time when consumers drank beverages like beer from returnable bottles. You drank your favorite beer and then returned the empties to the store, which would then get collected, sanitized, refilled, and sealed. 

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Editorial photograph

Now, customers could buy their preferred beer brand in convenient “no deposit, no return” bottles. What seemed like a practical solution that balances the burden of waste between consumers, retailers, and bottlers arose as a means to protect costly glass packaging. But technical advancements in bottling and economies of scale that favored larger bottlers farther removed from customers reached a point that beer packaging became more expensive to collect and put back into service. In the mid-forties, nearly 470 breweries existed in the US. By 1960, that number more than halved to 229 breweries, with the five largest brewers gaining about 10% more market share. With a more localized distribution model, local breweries and soda franchises could collect bottles dozens of times and refill them. Massive distribution hubs farther away from consumers added cost to collecting and transporting empties. Beverage makers introduced one-way bottles, first made out of glass, then in metal cans and plastic, lighter containers that reduced transportation costs.

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A complete shift in the relationship between packaging, manufacturers, and end consumers took place. Where customers in the past purchased a product, consumer goods firms could now also pass along the cost of packaging to the customer—as a new feature no less! Consumers could now simply throw a bottle away once they satiated their thirst. Instead of having to lug bottles back from the beach or park to return to the store, leave them on the ground or literally toss them wherever. Out of sight, out of mind, right?

As it turns out, not so much.

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Consumers were happy with this new throwaway culture, and many industries were pleased as punch to profit from it. But the attitudes towards rubbish weren’t so great for the grazing ungulates in Vermont and the farmers that owned them. 

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Instead of spending their days gaily grazing in pastures, dairy cows soon found themselves gnawing on bits of glass along with their grass, which would cause grave injury and death. Vermonters saw early on the consequences of single-use trash, especially broken glass, and in 1953 the state passed a law that prohibited the sale of beer and ale in non-returnable glass bottles. And this didn't apply to other beverages—just brewskis.

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Despite being upheld by Vermont’s highest court, pressure by the beer industry caused the law to expire. They weren't the only state considering similar measures—like Michigan in 1962—and glass bottle makers and beverage companies took note. These firms adopted a new tact to protect their one-way, non-returnable bottles in an early greenwashing move that would preserve the new distribution model while also offsetting the responsibility for packaging waste onto the consumer.

Enter Keep America Beautiful.

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Perhaps coincidentally, Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a trade group whose stated purpose is to maintain American communities free from litter, also started in 1953, the same year as Vermont's bottle bill. Industry titans like the American Can Company, the Owens-Illinois Glass Company, Coca-Cola, and Dixie Cup came together to find a solution that wouldn’t impede the economic growth fed by this new kind of convenient consumerism. The stakes were high, as going back to collecting and reusing glass bottles would upend the new paradigm of large, regional distribution and would be a direct threat to the profitable economies of scale that came with it. Being compelled to bear the burden of their products’ discarded packaging would also add back costs that they successfully offloaded to consumers.

With a return to reusable packaging clearly off the table, the group instead began public awareness campaigns and initiatives that would shame the consumer into picking up after themselves, with early campaigns such as “Don’t be a litterbug.” The pitch was simple—don’t blame the industry for all this garbage lining the highways, parks, and nature. It’s on you, the customer. Yes, we made that bottle, but you bought it.

By creating terms like litterbug and shaming them through ad campaigns with the likes of Susan Spotless, the very same companies that encouraged Americans to toss aside tedious tasks and embrace the carefree lifestyle of post-war America were now manipulating the public to believe trash is solely a consumer's responsibility. That effectively absolved many of these industries from the problem they helped create.

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It might seem foolish to think that post-war Americans would gladly give back the convenience of one-way packaging while also taking on the onus of maintaining public spaces trash-free. Such a con would require an alliance with professionals that made a handsome living selling Americans just about anything to work.

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And that's when the Mad Men show up. Manufacturers got an early taste of what could happen should littering continue to grow as a problem in states like Vermont, and rather than have governments step in and place the responsibility on them, Keep America Beautiful teamed up with the Ad Council, a non-profit organization that coordinates with advertising agencies to create and distribute public service announcements. The Ad Council has a long track record of hugely successful campaigns, such as the Smokey the Bear forest fire prevention movement, the United Negro College Fund’s “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” and the McGruff “take a bite out of crime” crusade. It would be a decade into this relationship that the two groups would create what is still the most effective greenwashing campaign to date.

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By 1970 a growing environmental movement had grown roots in America and abroad, and the first Earth Day would get commemorated that year. The event was said to be inspired by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, after conservationist and then Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson caught a glimpse of the 800 square-mile oil slick during a flight. Over 3 million gallons of oil would get dumped into the Pacific Ocean, killing scores of birds and marine life.

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For the following Earth Day in 1971, the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful would debut a commercial depicting an Indigenous man in traditional clothing traversing a stream in a canoe. The man first witnesses the natural, pristine beauty of our world, but as he moves paddles along, we begin to see trash in the water. Now, he canoes through an industrial wasteland, and we get a glimpse of how dirty and polluted the modern world has become. As the Indigenous man parks his canoe on a litter-strewn beach, a bag of garbage gets thrown from a moving car and lands at his feet, an act which elicits a single, quiet tear while a narrator dramatically utters, "people start pollution; people can stop it.

The emotional ad left a deep impression on the public and would fetch numerous accolades, including two Clio Awards. But the KAB ad was as much a fugazi as the Indigenous actor that stars in it. In addition to gaslighting the public by blaming it for the garbage crisis they jumpstarted for profit, the ad featured character actor Iron Eyes Cody, well-known for portraying Native Americans in films like The Paleface, Massacre River, White Feather, and, yes, Ernest Goes To Camp. However, Iron Eyes Cody was not of Indigenous descent, as he claimed. Born Espera Oscar de Corti, he was a second-generation Italian-American who grew up in Louisiana and Texas. Cody would immerse himself in this lie for his entire career, even dressing for the role off-camera and fooling most of the non-Indigenous public for decades. Outed in 1996 by an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Cody would continue to insist he was of Cherokee and Cree descent, a sort of microcosm for KAB’s greenwashing efforts.

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Though bottle manufacturers and beverage firms conceived of Keep America Beautiful as a greenwashing tactic to deflect accountability for the very same single-use packaging they promoted and provided, it did help raise consumer awareness of the consequences of our modern lifestyle. That would bolster the burgeoning environmental movement of the 1970s that has grown since. And no doubt, the countless clean-up events they’ve supported over the years inspired environmentalists to seek actual solutions to ecological problems, including littering. By shining a spotlight on garbage, KAP likely also brought attention to issues such as acid rain, ozone depletion, smog, and climate change.

How much credit Keep America Beautiful deserves for inspiring genuine acts of environmentalism is hard to measure, considering many of Earth’s problems are also due to the wanton abuse of the planet for profit by some of the same companies behind Keep America Beautiful. It’s a bit like crediting your bully for motiving you to sign up for karate lessons.

Furthermore, it’s not like KAB did anything to stop the proliferation of the most pernicious packaging material of all, plastic. As the popularity of single-use containers ramped up in the 50s and 60s, plastic alternatives, as Stouffer detailed in 1963, were showing promise but still under development. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s that soft drink makers such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi could transition to lighter plastic bottles.

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For over seventy years, consumer brands and packaging manufacturers have expended considerable effort successfully convincing consumers that the planet’s existential garbage crisis is solely the responsibility of the consumer. Industry groups like Keep America Beautiful have convinced the country to take on the burden of addressing the growing amount of trash without actually making significant changes to their products and packaging.

In the fifty years since Keep America Beautiful’s most well-known public service announcement, we’ve learned that putting the consumer in charge of collecting used packaging doesn’t really work, and most of that trash gets sent to a landfill or incinerated. A better strategy, such as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), places the actual, long-term environmental costs of products on the manufacturers and holds them accountable for the entire lifespan of an item, rather than punt the costs and toll on governments and consumers. A more effective approach to trash, to be sure, but not one that a trade group like KAB is likely to champion anytime soon.

No, this Earth Day Keep America Beautiful is still leaning hard into consumer recycling because it looks like caring without actually committing to very much effort. Rather than think boldly with drastic shifts in packaging or doubling down on materials that can get reused in an infinite loop, firms behind KAB concoct collection trials and targets to continue justifying the use of plastic material in packaging. A sustainable alternative, returnable bottles, is an effective and historically proven strategy that doesn’t rely on a con fueled by slick advertising and litter-shaming.

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Still, it’s hard not to respect the hustle. In a relatively short amount of time, while taking advantage of an economic boom and an American desire to live the good life, beverage companies and bottlers made a bold play—sell consumers packaging they didn’t use to pay for, all while convincing them it’s actually a value-add. When the government starts complaining about the trash, play the reverse card and convince the public they’re the ones responsible for it. Oh, and then you inspire folks to get out there and volunteer to clean up beaches and highways. If only such dark magic could get used for good!

Decades of public campaigns might have worked to clear packaging manufacturers and brands of the blame, but the trash is still very much here, with bans on single-use packaging—an idea Vermont had in 1953— barely afoot and merely a drop of water in the garbage-filled ocean.

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