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Business Comment

Expert View: More naive than Innocent - this green boast belongs in the bin

The Goodall household is well trained: compostable products get put on the compost heap; plastic bottles end up in the recycling bin. Where should Innocent's new smoothie bottles made from biodegradable corn starch go? Surprisingly the answer is, into a landfill site.

Innocent, the company with one of the purest brands in the UK, has made a mistake. For the past year it has used a new material called PLA for one of its ranges of drinks. It admitted last week that it would cease to use this bioplastic later this year. But on its website it is still making some surprising claims. It says that the bottles made from this bioplastic break down in garden compost heaps. They don't. PLA needs to be heated for several days to temperatures far above the norm in a domestic compost bin before it begins to rot. The bottles would break down in a commercial composter, but few local authorities operate one of these plants. Innocent's ethical consumers are going to find a lot of plastic bottles at the bottom of their compost heap next spring.

The company says that in households without compost bins, the bottles should be recycled along with other plastics. This is another mistake. Recycling firms need to separate the different types of plastic so that reprocessing companies can melt them down and recreate the original plastic for reuse. Innocent's PLA bottle looks and feels like a conventional soft drink container made from a plastic called PET. An Innocent bottle dropped into the plastic recycling box at home will eventually be sorted into a batch with Coca-Cola bottles made from the ubiquitous PET. The PLA will contaminate the batch, and may result in the reprocessor being unable to sell the plastic. PLA comes from the US, and recycling firms there have persuaded the bottling industry not to use the corn-based material in order to maintain the purity of recycled PET.

Innocent has also mistakenly said the new plastic is "carbon neutral". NatureWorks, the US firm that makes PLA in the heart of the corn belt, buys all its electricity from wind farms. However, the company does not claim that the farms growing corn avoid fossil fuels. They require large amounts of fertiliser based on fossil fuel; farmers use diesel to run their tractors and ship the grain to the factory; greenhouse gas emissions are substantial. Innocent didn't look carefully enough at the manufacturer's slightly ambiguous boasts on this issue; a claim that a product is "carbon neutral" is rarely true.

No one doubts Innocent's genuine commitment to running its business to the highest ethical standards. It was one of the first companies to decide not to ship its ingredients by air. Its ethical sourcing principles are an example to others: 10 per cent of profits go back to charities in countries where its fruits come from. It has even tested the idea of putting a carbon label on one of its premium products. Its pristine brand image is one of the reasons it can charge a king's ransom for a litre of pulped fruit.

Using PLA will have seemed an excellent way of keeping ahead of its rivals. Innovation is always risky and no one can blame Innocent for its enthusiasm in experimenting with a new plastic being sold aggressively by its manufacturer. Innocent has only ever used PLA in a small fraction of its expanding range of colourful drinks and the damage to its brand will be limited. Nevertheless, consumers will be a little bit more wary about trusting Innocent's claims.

There is another strange thing about the company's use of PLA: it is made from genetically modified corn. None of us are privy to Innocent's market research, but I would guess that its most devoted customers are anxious middle-class mums trying to get their children to eat more fruit. In my experience, people like this have a strong distrust of GM.

Why did Innocent decide to put its ethically sourced and highly nutritious foods in a container made from a substance that its customers would reject? And why did the company not tell shoppers of its decision? For a business like this, the green ethic has to run through everything, and for once its high standards have slipped.

Chris Goodall publishes Carbon Commentary, a business newsletter on climate change issues. chris@carboncommentary.com