The Keep America Beautiful Campaign and Greenwashing

Guest post by Michelle Thompson

Today, it’s hard to imagine a world without single-use packaging. But before the 1950s, we reused a lot of packaging. For example, people would buy milk in glass bottles and return the empty bottles to the store. Then the bottles were cleaned, refilled, and sold again. Litter and trash were not significant issues because Americans reused as much as possible.

After World War II, companies decided to use lighter, single-use bottles to reduce costs. This saved companies a lot of money. Corporations were able to pass along the cost of packaging to consumers, expand their distribution, and increase profits. But this created trash.

The new disposables that corporations made created a solid waste crisis in America.

Even though corporations created the waste crisis, they did nothing to manage the environmental impact of their trash. Businesses were able to pass off the environmental costs of their business to the public. Whereas before, they were forced to pay for the cleaning and recycling of their containers, they now passed that cost off to communities where trash was piling up.

“Keep America Beautiful”

The packaging industry and large companies like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola wanted to protect their new profits. They created a public advertising campaign called “Keep America Beautiful”. The campaign’s only goal was to reduce litter without harming consumer culture. It promoted the idea that litter was the fault of consumers, not the polluting corporations.

What is a litterbug?

The Keep America Beautiful campaign pushed the new idea of a “litterbug”. In 1947 a writer at the American Advertising Council created the term “litterbug”. A litterbug was someone who threw their trash in places other than trash cans. Keep America Beautiful said that litterbugs were the problem. This is the same Ad Council that went on to make public service announcements for Keep America Beautiful. The creation of the litterbug was used to shame people and to change behaviors. It also allowed consumers to feel ok about buying single-use packaging, as long as they threw it in a trash can.

Keep America Beautiful also stopped lawmakers from holding polluting corporations accountable. The Vermont legislature passed a bill in 1953 requiring companies to use reusable packaging. Corporations saw this as a threat, so they teamed up with the Ad Council to make PSAs. Creating a social narrative that trash was the responsibility of the public made it much harder to hold corporations accountable for their pollution. The 1953 the Vermont bill was not renewed and no similar bills were passed. Although the Keep America Beautiful campaign was not the sole factor in the policy change, its public message had a large impact on legislation.

Famous Ads

The Keep America Beautiful campaign communicated its message through public service advertisements. With the help of the Ad Council, the Keep America Beautiful advertisements were very widespread and impactful. Two ads in particular made the campaign well-known in America: Susan Spotless and the “crying Indian”.

Susan Spotless

The Keep American Beautiful campaign had several very notable ads. In the early 1960s, Keep America Beautiful created a character called Susan Spotless. She was a young white girl dressed in white who shook her finger disapprovingly at adults who littered. She also told adults that “every litter bit hurts.” Her appearance was meant to depict innocence, beauty, and cleanliness. These traits also reflected how we saw natural beauty and what Americans wanted their nature to resemble.

The Susan Spotless character was deeply rooted in white supremacist ideals. The campaign used the whiteness of Susan Spotless’s skin and clothes to represent goodness and purity. This commercial is one example of the ways environmental groups have supported (and continue to support) white supremacist and racist ideals. Another example of this is the “crying Indian” commercial.


The “Crying Indian” Campaign

The most famous ad from the Keep America Beautiful campaign is known as the “crying Indian”. It’s important to note that while some Indigenous groups are comfortable with the term “Indian”, others see it as a painful reminder of the history of racism, violence, and genocide of Indigenous peoples.

The “crying Indian” commercial depicts a man in traditional American Indigenous clothing on a canoe in a stream. As he paddles, he comes across more and more trash. He gets out of the canoe, and a person in a passing car throws a bag of trash out the car window. The bag lands at his feet. He looks up and sheds a single tear while a narrator says: “People start pollution; people can stop it.” It’s called the “most famous tear in American history”.

Racism in the Ad

This ad was problematic in many ways. Firstly, the actor known as Iron Eyes Cody was not Native American. Iron Eyes Cody was born to Italian immigrant parents and built an acting career by impersonating an Indigenous American man. Unfortunately, this was somewhat common in the 1900s. White actors frequently portrayed Native Americans in redface. Redface is the portrayal of Native Americans by white actors often in makeup to change their skin color.

Additionally, the ad has been criticized for depicting Indigenous Americans as “noble savages”. This is because they care about the environment (noble) but are shown as powerless or simple (savage). The noble savage trope is the literary concept of an uncivilized man. This man is inherently good and noble because civilization hasn’t corrupted him. However, not being part of (white) civilization also makes him a savage. This stereotype portrayed Native Americans as foreign, different, and less than civilized. It is an extremely offensive and racist stereotype.

@connorbeardox This PSA is absolutely WILD #psa #tv #commercial #native #indigenous ♬ Strawberry – Prod by Rose

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a marketing tactic to present a company’s unsustainable practices as “green”. Greenwashing is an ever-growing problem. Consumers want the products they buy to be sustainable, but corporations are often unwilling to change their practices. Instead companies use marketing techniques to imply their products are “environmentally-friendly”. These techniques include:

  • images of nature
  • the color green
  • terms like: eco-friendly, biodegradable, compostable, natural, sustainable, and recycling

Is Keep America Beautiful Greenwashing?

The Keep America Beautiful campaign is unfortunately another example of corporate greenwashing. While it focused on cleaning up litter, the Keep America Beautiful campaign did not advocate for larger solutions. It claimed that litter came from litterbugs, not from the companies that made the unsustainable single-use packaging.

Their shame-based campaign didn’t try to solve the waste problem from the production side. It also did nothing to penalize or set limits on corporate pollution. The Keep America Beautiful campaign was designed to shift the blame from the companies that made the trash, to the person who threw it out.

Keep America Beautiful even worked with its corporate sponsors on projects to promote recycling. Partners included Nestle, Bud Light, and Unilever. Yet the campaign was never critical of its corporate partners who created the litter in the first place.

How To Recognize Greenwashing

The first thing you can do is recognize greenwashing when it happens. If consumers can spot greenwashing, they can decide whether or not to support the company. To recognize greenwashing, look beyond the buzzwords and images for evidence of company practices. Approval from third-party sustainable organizations (like Fair Trade Certified) is a good sign that their practices are more sustainable.

Unfortunately, not all certifications mean a corporation is environmentally-friendly. For example, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) will certify organizations for a price even if they are destroying forests. The SFI certification is a form of greenwashing that companies use to hide their unsustainable practices. Corporations use a similar form of greenwashing when they promote wood pellets as renewable energy, even though they negatively contribute to climate change.

Research a Company’s Claims

You can also research the company to back up or disprove its claims. Be sure to check any past news articles about the company as well as the company’s own sustainability claims. Independent resources can provide company-specific environmental metrics. One of these resources is the EPA Greenhouse Gas Reporting Program. There are also independent resources that can help determine if a brand or company is certified to be sustainable. The B Corp Directory is one of these.

Join Advocacy Groups

You could also join or volunteer for organizations that are advocating for systemic solutions to global warming and plastic pollution. Be sure to thoroughly research organizations to make sure that any group you support reflects your values.

Dogwood Alliance is one organization that holds industries and governments accountable for greenwashing. We’re fighting to protect Southern forests and the communities that rely on them.

Take action NOW against North Carolina’s greenwashed biomass industry

Michelle Thompson

Michelle is Dogwood’s 2022 Forests & Climate Stanback Research Fellow. She has been interested in nature and conservation since growing up in upstate South Carolina. She is a masters student at Duke studying ecosystem science and conservation. Michelle is honored to continue her work in environmentalism at Dogwood over the summer and is excited by the opportunity to work with her community. In her free time, Michelle enjoys crafting, reading, and hanging out with her two cats.

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