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The Lawsuit Against JBS and Its Effects on Greenwashing

Accusing JBS of deceiving customers about its climate commitment, New York’s lawsuit has implications well beyond the world’s largest meat company.

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Earlier this year, the office of New York attorney general Letitia James filed a suit against the U.S. arm of JBS, accusing the meat giant of misleading customers about its climate commitments. In a new report, The Guardian talks about the far-reaching implications throughout the food industry and beyond as big businesses evaluate their approaches to crafting their sustainability messages for consumers.

Greenwashing will be a pivotal issue over the next five years, according to a conversation that The Guardian had with Todd Paglia, executive director of Stand.earth, an environmental non-profit. “It’s been 20 years of companies lying about their environmental and climate justice impacts,” Paglia told the British daily newspaper. “And it feels like all of a sudden, from Europe to the U.S., the crackdown is beginning to happen.”

Increasingly, consumers are demanding more environmental and social responsibility from the goods they purchase. The New York lawsuit cites a study finding that consumers are willing to pay up to 30% more for products with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Knowing that they need to be accountable, some businesses rely on false or misleading messages rather than actually changing their practices to be better for the environment.

The lawsuit contends that is JBS’s position. “Across its marketing materials, the JBS Group has made sweeping representations to consumers about its commitment to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions, claiming that it will be ‘Net Zero by 2040,’” it reads. “The JBS Group, however, has had no viable plan to meet its commitment to be ‘Net Zero by 2040.’”

Beef’s climate impact

“Consumers are beginning to be aware of the fact that meat, and particularly beef, has a very, very high climate impact. JBS is fully aware of this and trying to get ahead of that by telling consumers, ‘Oh, don’t worry, we’ve got it under control,’” Peter Lehner, managing attorney of the sustainable food and farming program at Earthjustice, told The Guardian. “But these emissions are so big and so hard to abate that JBS’s actions don’t show that it’s plausible that they’ll get to their claim.”

The report from The Guardian highlights how much our current food system contributes to the climate crisis, noting that we cannot tackle climate change without tackling food systems (in addition to fossil fuels).

As the largest producer of beef in the world, JBS has a huge impact on climate. As Lehner notes, cows belch methane, and the grains used to feed them are grown in environments where excess fertilizer causes water pollution or turns into nitrous oxide. “And that’s not even taking into account the slashing and burning of the Amazon to make room for more cattle, which JBS has been linked to many times over,” The Guardian reports.

Companies in other industries have faced cases of corporate greenwashing, the article notes, including Volkswagen, Delta, and KLM. But this is the first case against a beef company, according to Lehner.

Experts contend that, in all likelihood, JBS will lose the case in New York, and the beef producer will also likely face similar suits from other states. Regardless, the case will probably affect how more businesses operate and what they tell the public about their climate plans.

“You cannot just say ‘We’re going to be net zero in 2030’ when you have no plan, and the curve for your climate pollution is going straight up,” Paglia tells The Guardian.

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