Chipotle's "Scarecrow": A Straw Man for Corporate Greenwashing?

In a striking new animated short, the restaurant chain Chipotle creatively critiques industrial agriculture and suggests that people choose the company's own food offerings as a wholesome alternative. The animation, titled “The Scarecrow,” is designed as a companion short for the chain's app-based video game, so it's largely free of branding or obvious advertising, making it feel like an actual film.

Despite being an ad, the film is noteworthy because no comparable restaurant chain has made a similar statement about our food system. With its unsettling depictions of factory farming and animal confinement, it's not quite greenwashing, because Chipotle does have a strong, if imperfect, record on sustainability. And even if the film were hard-core corporate "spin," it would be a masterful example of it, and is powerful enough to make people think about far more than whether they want a taco or burrito.

Not long after its release, the ad made rounds among food and environmental activists, and it didn’t take long for a scathing parody to show up. The parody, titled “Honest Scarecrow,” suggests that the ad is an emotional manipulation in the service of a giant corporation that is simply seeking greater brand engagement.

What is one to make of this?

The commentary on the videos brings up a two important issues: an unfortunate tendency among many environmentalists to display a knee-jerk anti-business (especially anti-corporate) attitude, and an even more unfortunate tendency of large corporations to use green language and imagery to sell burgers, fries, and other less-healthy fare.

I don’t mean to generally impugn environmentalists here, so I’ll give you an example. A eco-minded friend of mine said, after watching “The Scarecrow,” that despite its admitted emotional power, he felt it was ruined by its use as a marketing strategy rather than as a way to promote “real change.”

That’s a fairly common sentiment, and I believe it’s a harmful one. I dislike McDonald’s and corporate greenwashing as much as the next person, but that’s because I disagree deeply with McDonald’s unsustainable business model and unhealthy menu. Yet the idea that "business" as a broad category is inherently incapable of working for real change is absolutely wrong.

Sure, Chipotle is a business, and it is in the business of selling food. But that doesn't mean that “The Scarecrow” is not a powerful film dealing with important issues. Furthermore, it does not mean that Chipotle’s sustainability record, while imperfect, is somehow invalid. In short, “large company” does not always have to equal “unsustainable.”

I explained this to my friend, and he actually agreed with me. Then he added that the experience, in his opinion, was nonetheless cheapened by the fact that Chipotle is ultimately hoping to sell you a burrito (and, I might add, directing you to use their free app).

At the end of the day, though, two things are true: we need to eat, and the folks selling us our food need to turn a profit in order to operate. If we take to its logical end the notion that big business is incompatible with real change, the resulting choice is ridiculous: either Chipotle should stop making money, or it should stop trying to advocate for better food.

Now, this doesn’t mean that one powerful ad/film is going to stop the misuse of antibiotics in livestock, the run-off of our agricultural waste, or the corporate influence over our food system. It’s clear by now that the vast majority of businesses, without sufficient pressure from consumers and citizens, will not go the extra mile that is needed for true sustainability.

But there's no reason to assume, without evidence on a case-by-case basis, that “business” as a broad group cannot be a partner in the fight for sustainability. In fact, I would argue that it would be downright foolish to ignore the critical role that corporations—which, let's face it, are not going away anytime soon—need to play as key leaders in the movement for social and environmental change.

And you know what? Since I have to eat dinner anyway, I think I’ll go get a burrito.

Addison Del Mastro is a student at Drew University and a program assistant with the Center for a New American Dream.

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