Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Fear not global warming, peak oil, polluted air and water -- big business will take care of everything.

Is Corporate Greenwashing Headed for a Fall?

Imagine you are a communication technician on a planet in another solar system that is facing an ecological disaster and is looking for new solutions. One day you suddenly pick up broadcast signals from Earth that happen to include a man talking to a group of children sitting beside a hulking vehicle he is describing as a "vegetarian" because it uses a fuel called ethanol. The segment ends with the statement: "Chevy: from gas-friendly to gas-free. That's an American revolution."

Then you get a transmission from something called BP that is talking about going beyond -- beyond darkness, beyond fear, beyond petroleum. Another from Toyota shows a vehicle being put together like a grass hut and then disintegrating back into nature without a trace. The messages keep coming -- from General Electric ("eco-imagination"), Chevron (celebrating the miraculous power of "human energy") and so on.

As you receive more of these signals, you rush to your superiors and announce the good news: Planet Earth has wonderful entities call corporations that can solve all our environmental problems.

Residents of our planet may be tempted to jump to the same conclusion. These days we are bombarded with advertisements that want us to believe that major oil companies, automakers and other large corporations are solving the environmental and energy problems facing the earth. Fear not global warming, peak oil, polluted air and water -- big business will take care of everything.

In the late 1990s we saw a hyped-up dot com boom that came crashing down. In the past year or so, we have seen a hyped real estate boom turn into a credit crunch and an unprecedented number of home foreclosures. Are we now seeing a green business boom that will also turn out to be nothing more than hot air?

The "Green Con"

Today's surge of corporate environmentalism is not the first time business has sought to align itself with public concerns about the fate of the Earth. Two decades ago, marketers began to recognize the benefits of appealing to green consumers. This revelation first took hold in countries such as Britain and Canada. For example, in early 1989 the giant British supermarket chain Tesco launched a campaign to promote the products on its shelves that were deemed "environmentally friendly." That same year, Canadian mining giant Inco Ltd. began running ads promoting its effort to reduce sulfur emissions from its smelters, conveniently failing to mention it was doing so under government orders.

In 1990 the green business wave spread to the United States in time to coincide with the 20th annual Earth Day celebration. Large U.S. companies such as DuPont began touting their environmental initiatives and staged their own Earth Tech environmental technology fair on the National Mall. General Motors ran ads emphasizing its supposed concern about the environment, despite its continuing resistance to significant increases in fuel efficiency requirements.

Such exercises in corporate image-burnishing did not have a great deal of impact. For one thing, environmental groups wasted no time debunking the ads. In 1989 Friends of the Earth in Britain gave "Green Con" awards to those companies that made the most exaggerated and unsubstantiated environmental claims about their products. First prize went to British National Fuels for promoting nuclear power as friendly to the environment.

Greenpeace USA staged a protest at the 1990 corporate Earth Tech fair, denouncing companies such as DuPont for trying to whitewash their poor environmental record with green claims. Greenpeace's invented term for this practice -- greenwashing -- immediately caught on, and to this day is a succinct way of undermining dubious corporate claims about the environment.

The general public was also not taken in by the corporate environmental push of 1989-1990. It was just a bit too obvious that these initiatives were meant to deflect attention away from recent environmental disasters such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and Union Carbide's deadly Bhopal chemical leak. It also didn't help that many of the claims about green products turned out to be misleading or meaningless.

'Little Green Lies'

The question today is whether people have become more receptive to corporate environmental hype. One thing business has going for it in the United States is that the Bush Administration has pursued environmental policies so retrograde that even the most superficial green measures by the private sector shine in comparison. Another is that some environmental groups have switched from an outside adversarial strategy to a more collaborative approach that often involves forming partnerships with companies. Such relationships serve to legitimize business initiatives while turning those groups into cheerleaders for their corporate partners. Former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach took it a step further and joined the payroll of Wal-Mart.

On the other hand, the use of the term "greenwashing" is enjoying a resurgence and has entered the mainstream. A search of the Nexis news archive turns up more than 700 mentions of the term in the past six months alone. Even that bible of the marketing world -- Advertising Age -- recently published a list titled "The Green and the Greenwashed: Ten Who Get It and 10 Who Talk a Good Game." Among the latter were General Motors, Toyota, ExxonMobil, Chevron, Wal-Mart, General Electric and Ikea, though Toyota, Wal-Mart and Ikea were also put on the green list for other reasons.

Other business publications have also been taking a more critical approach to green claims. Last September, the Wall Street Journal looked behind GE's eco-imagination campaign and found all was not well. For one thing, there was significant resistance even within GE's managerial ranks and among many of the conglomerate's major industrial customers. Then there was the fact that GE was still pushing big-ticket products such as coal-fired steam turbines that were significant contributors to global warming. Finally, the paper pointed out that the campaign was motivated in substantial part by a desire to increase sales of existing GE products such as wind turbines that could be promoted as eco-friendly.

In October, Business Week published a cover story titled "Little Green Lies." It began with the declaration: "The sweet notion that making a company environmentally friendly can be not just cost-effective but profitable is going up in smoke." The piece featured Auden Schendler of Aspen Skiing Company, a pioneer in adopting environmentally friendly practices. After showing off his company's energy-efficient facilities, he was described as having turned to the Business Week reporter and said: "Who are we kidding?" He then acknowledged that the growth of the company necessarily means burning more power, including the ever-increasing energy needed to create artificial snow during warmer winters. "How do you really green your company? It's almost f------ impossible."

Here is the full article.