Letter to the Editor: Why is Sweetgreen engaging in greenwashing right after facing backlash for recent failure to go carbon-neutral?

Articles on May 7 and May 9 stated “Sweetgreen promised to go carbon neutral. Now it’s serving steak” and “Salad chain says a cleaner farming method will offset adding steak to its menu. What is it?,” let’s not mince words: In its decision to add beef to its menu while claiming to aspire to carbon neutrality, sweetgreen is engaging in greenwashing. Responding to predictable backlash, the company has cited dubious strategies to mitigate the impact: regenerative agriculture and carbon offsets. 

What sweetgreen hasn’t shared, however, is hard data showing how the carbon footprint of the “regenerative” beef it’s sourcing stacks up to other beef on the market. One could wager it’s comparable. Furthermore, environmental organizations have criticized the carbon-offset market for its lack of reliability and traceability. Rather than simply throwing money at the problem in the form of carbon credits, Sweetgreen should reduce the largest source of emissions in its supply chain, meat and dairy. 

Beef’s carbon footprint is roughly 24 times the size of tofu’s and 51 times that of black beans. The simplest, cheapest, and fastest way for sweetgreen to meet its neutrality goal is to switch to more plant-based proteins.  

Mercy For Animals has engaged sweetgreen executives about the company’s need to diversify its protein portfolio and move toward sustainable plant-based proteins. The company’s beef rollout is evidence of management’s apparent inclination to put potential profits over the planet. According to sweetgreen’s most recent ESG report, the company’s total carbon emissions increased roughly 26% between 2021 and 2022. Notably, food-related scope 3 emissions (sweetgreen’s largest emissions category) jumped about 35%. 

The world is in a climate crisis. For the first time, global mean temperatures for the 12-month period through January 2024 were 1.52°C above the 1850–1900 pre-industrial average, breaching the threshold set in the Paris Agreement. A Harvard Law School report analyzing survey data of more than 200 environmental and agricultural scientists concludes that farmed-animal-related emissions from high-income countries should peak before 2025 to avoid further breaches.

So what should sweetgreen do? Innovate its menu to be plant-based by default. Presenting plant-based proteins as the default would likely increase customer-selection frequency of more climate-friendly options and decrease overall food-related environmental impact. And sweetgreen should reserve promotions for sustainable plant-based launches. 

Until then, climate-conscious consumers should not be duped by sweetgreen’s marketing campaigns or stated environmental aspirations. The company knows beef has a huge climate impact, and it’s spending marketing dollars trying to get you to eat more of it anyway.

Jennifer Behr is a corporate relations manager at Mercy For Animals. In her role, she works with companies throughout the food industry to create a more sustainable and plant-based food system. 

Mercy For Animals is a leading international nonprofit working to end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system. Active in Brazil, Canada, India, Mexico, and the United States, the organization has conducted more than 100 investigations of factory farms and slaughterhouses, influenced more than 500 corporate policies, and helped pass historic legislation to ban cages for farmed animals. Join us at MercyForAnimals.org