March 29, 2007 4:00 AM PDT

When corporate 'greening' chafes environmentalists

When retail king Wal-Mart Stores started rolling out one pro-sustainability initiative after another, environmental bloggers and pundits were at first stunned.

"We've all been talking about it," said Lloyd Alter, a Toronto-based sustainable architect and developer who blogs at the environmental news and lifestyle blog Treehugger.

"It's what I call the 'October Surprise.' A year ago in October, when (Wal-Mart CEO) Lee Scott made that announcement of things that he was going to do, I was really skeptical, and I continue in some ways to be skeptical. Yet I'm constantly surprised and impressed when nearly every week another new (environmental) initiative comes up," Alter said.

Indeed, Wal-Mart has been planning a range of new programs, from renewable-energy campaigns to sustainable-electronics awareness promotions. And the most surprising part, for environmental bloggers like Alter, is that Wal-Mart seems to be for real.

These days, after all, it's not enough for environmentalists to be critical of antienvironmental corporate practices. With green technology a bigger buzzword than ever, plenty of corporations that don't have particularly "green" histories have been promoting a more environmentally progressive image.

Over the past few years, a new pejorative has entered the lexicon of environmental blogger slang: "greenwashing." The term is used in reference to advertising and marketing campaigns that the bloggers believe deceptively promote eco-friendly policies or products by companies and organizations that are engaging in practices that aren't particularly "green." And with the rapidly escalating interest in sustainable technology, references to "greenwashing" are being spotted more and more these days on blogs like Treehugger and Inhabitat.

The most common targets are, not surprisingly, energy companies and auto manufacturers. Alter says he first began using the term about two years ago.

"I was particularly upset about a campaign that Ford Motor Company was having for a new hybrid car (the Ford Escape), and I thought, 'Here's a company that's got one decent green product, and they're putting it in all their advertising and wrapping their whole campaign around it. It's not even that green a car. They just put a hybrid engine into an SUV,'" he said.

When image and reality conflict
Alter also criticized General Electric's "Ecomagination" initiative, which has been developing high-efficiency incandescent lightbulbs, when some environmentalists allege that GE should be cutting production of incandescent bulbs altogether and focusing entirely on fluorescent bulbs.

Even Toyota, the auto manufacturer that has arguably been the most successful in cultivating an eco-friendly image with the runaway success of its Prius hybrid car, can't seem to escape greenwashing accusations from environmental pundits.

Marc Alt, president of consulting firm Marc Alt & Partners, which specializes in environmentally focused corporate strategies, criticized Toyota for continuing to produce vehicles that get low gas mileage while the Prius gives it a "green" profile. The iconic little hybrid has a "halo effect," Alt said, giving the whole company an eco-savvy image, when in reality it "kind of hides the effect that they're putting out one of the biggest pickup trucks on the market"--the gigantic Toyota Tundra.

"A lot of companies are taking small steps" toward environmental sustainability, Lloyd Alter observed, "and their marketing departments are turning them into huge steps."

Clearly, environmental specialists are a nitpicky crowd. Which is why it's particularly noticeable that Wal-Mart, an unequivocal emblem of 21st-century middle America for both flattering and not-so-flattering reasons, is earning their seal of approval as a major corporation that's putting out legitimate green initiatives.

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Many environmentalists will never be happy with anything 'big business' does simply because, for them, environmentalism is simply of way of speaking out against capitalism without sounding too much backward.

Where I come from (Belgium), the Green Party is made up mostly from former communists who, after the demise of the USSR, had to find a new way to voice their opposition to capitalism. Environmentalism allowed them to do that, as well as push for more government regulation of the economy.
Posted by damienlittre (33 comments )
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Inthe US we never had the communist party in power. We just had Ralph NAdar and the environmentalists.
Posted by Too Old For IT (351 comments )
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Bloggers are the new journalists
It's cute that now users are running the show, and it may best be that way, countries such as China are keeping a tight rein on bloggers, but with growing trends on the Internet, upcoming sites such as <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> empowers people to post comments or blogs anonymously which previously if they do so with any criticism towards the government, they are more likely to spend the rest of their lives in jail.
Posted by AlienEric (42 comments )
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Solar power & recyclables don't amount to..
..much of WMT's product line. WMT is primarily in the business of selling food. Four years ago they made a bold "green" statement that it was their intention to start selling pure certified organic foodstuffs. Four months ago, they quietly killed that effort after they'd discovered the limited availability and substantially higher cost of organic foodstuffs. If they put a Walmarts branded organic food SKU on their shelves, they'd have no option but to slash their usual margin by half and that was verboten at Bentonville.
Posted by i_made_this (302 comments )
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The Bottom Line is...
...that where people have the freedom of choice, they'll choose what they want. In the U.S., there is really no compelling reason for an individual to buy one of the present hybrid vehicles (unless of course you're a treehugger). They cost more, get marginally better mileage (not better at all on the highway), and subject the user to various compromises (less interior space, costly battery packs, fewer options for mechanical service, etc.). GM pulled its EV-1, a purely electric car (no hybrid) because it wasn't economical for either side at the time.

The Euro-Greenies want to change those freedoms by limiting choices, or reducing speed limits, or other means.

Bottom line: until people truly perceive a reason to buy into eco-cars and similar green initiatives, they won't. That's why you drive a BMW, rather than a Prius, or a Focus, rather than a (fill in the blank). It's your choice.

I'm all for letting the free market decide what's available in an area, based on what the consumer wants. But the greenies just don't understand that.

Want to make a statement? Fine, buy a Prius or similar. But when I pass you, I see someone who spent a lot of money they'll never recover (unless they drive it 250,000 miles or so), for a car with so-so performance (which I value very much), to satisfy their need to "save the planet".

I realize they have their desires, which is fine. That we don't all have the same ideas of what's nice in a car is what makes buying a new or used car so interesting.

While I talk about cars, I think the same logic could be applied to other areas.

Of course, "your mileage may vary".

My 2% of $1.00.
Posted by TransplantGuy (249 comments )
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Freerider rational choice comes to mind
Well: if enough other people will step forward and purchase the more expensive and slightly less spiffy vehicles, then certainly My more inefficient car won't make that much of a difference to the environment. To overcome this 'rational choice' logic, often referred to as freeriding, some environmentalists want to level the playing field and make everyone participate in the 'solution' for the good of the environment.
'no fair letting the burden to implement the solutions fall upon the shoulders of a few volunteers only' they say. See.

When there are market failures, when it is a 'race to the bottom', the authorities have the duty to judge on the value of allowing unbridled freedom to act 'rationally' according to the conditions that exist (( conditions which are never ever purely 'naturally occuring'..... advertising; profit maximizing; creating the conditions of the market etc... always make for a skewed playing field)) and on the value of shaping the conditions in which people may act for the best interest of the entire group. ie: Let the private sector create the conditions or have the government put in place some parameters to level the playing field. Unbridled freedom for the Private sector OR conditions put into place to promote competition and the building of good citizenship traits in our people.

For the most part I believe in letting the private sector form and shape the conditions for the population at large. But when it is a race to cut down the last tree or to burn the last barrel of oil or to catch the last fish in the sea before someone else does, it is the duty of the government to step in and correct the shortcomings of the market. Thus far I am still hoping that the private sector will arrange and select for solutions to the environment without the government limiting and selecting our options.

So: who will step forward and do more for the greater good which all persons may enjoy whether or not they participated in the creation of that greater good?? We must overcome the short term logic which the rational actor theory claims as our overriding logic and choose to do what is most in our best interest "rightly understood" (De Tocqueville). Think of and do what is best for the whole accross time and place. Do this for our children, Do this for our peace of mind, Do this because here and now it is right.
Posted by jefframse (20 comments )
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Buy a Hybrid, Save the Planet...
So where is the criticism for the tree huggers who advocate the purchase of energy efficient hybrid vehicles only to see increased numbers of people going out and buying these cars thinking they are personally going to slow global warming.

Keep in mind the car has to be created from natural resources, pollution will be created in the production and distribution of this vehicle...and all the while their old car is STILL ON THE ROAD, being driven by someone else who bought it used.

Your best bet...if you really wanted to "reduce your carbon footprint", would be to buy a used Honda Civic or something. Dont think you're saving the world buy increasing your consumption. Make a difference by living with what you currently have.

Then feel all smug for a moment till you remember that eventually the Earth burns up in the Sun anyway.
Posted by aerovelo (2 comments )
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Further clarification
I was quoted in the above article and would like to further clarify my position. I don't feel that my position on the matter was portrayed accurately in the context of the quote.

I have always been a proponent of both Toyota and Honda for their early commitment to research, development and production of alternative fuel and hybrid engines. I often point to Toyota as an excellent example of a company making a material commitment to sustainability and emphasize how their dedication has, in part, helped them rise to their current market leading position. In my interview with the reporter, I was trying to emphasize how the Prius has had a halo effect on the company and how it helps them to be perceived as environmental leaders in the marketplace, even though they are still producing fuel-inefficient cars such as the Tundra (which could, of course, in the future benefit from a bio-diesel drivetrain). Probably a little-known fact is that Toyota joined with many other car companies in an effort to block new government regulations that would increase fuel efficiency standards and are party to a lawsuit in the state of California to oppose laws that essentially favor more fuel-efficient cars. The complexity of the automotive marketplace can lead to this kind of mixed-messaging even from companies that are perceived market leaders in environmental performance. In any case, to be clear, I highly advocate ANY commitment and action towards improving environmental standards by any company, and I feel that even the smallest improvements should be promoted heavily and rewarded to encourage further corporate and environmental citizenship.

The concept of "greenwashing" vs. substantive change is difficult to quantify in the automotive industry in many ways. By investing their research dollars in the 1990's in technologies with improved environmental performance, Toyota made a long-term bet that this strategy would be a market differentiator and a sound competitive strategy moving into the "peak oil" and climate challenged 21st century. Their strategy paid off with the incredible success of the Prius and validated the concept of using environmental performance as a market differentiator. Ford, in their own way, tried to promote a green image through admirable and environmentally sound efforts like building one of the world?s largest green roofs on the top of their River Rouge plant, but that kind of commitment never reached the consumer in a meaningful way as they failed to produce a hybrid car to compete with Prius in the marketplace. Ford has dedicated money to many other environmental causes, but in the eyes of the consumer (and thus ultimately the car market), none of these noble gestures helped their marketplace position. The consumer could not directly connect with these efforts and this dedication never made it to the showroom floor, a huge strategic misstep. Now Ford finds itself in the position of playing catch-up, even buying motors from Toyota for their hybrid offerings. Toyota rightfully won the hearts and minds of the eco-conscious consumer, although some have argued that the Prius fell somewhat into the "eco-luxury" position of other categories like organic foods and organic cotton that command a price premium for an environmentally superior product, a factor that creates some market resistance and impedes the widespread adoption of these offerings. By essentially creating a new must-have category with little-to-no competition, Toyota created a run-away environmental success story and defied these traditional marketplace category pressures, with a long waiting list of conscientious consumers willing to pay a price premium and to "vote with their dollars" for the Prius. With the uncertainty of the oil industry and increasing price-pressures on traditional fuel, the Prius has become a sound choice for both the eco-driven consumer and the eco-ambivilent consumer who is motivated simply by saving money on gas. The individual purchasing motivation becomes ultimately irrelevant however, as both decisions result in improved environmental outcomes, an ideal situation for proponents of sustainability. When eco-technologies can penetrate the market in a way that becomes almost invisible to the average consumer, everyone wins.

A deep analysis of the auto industry reveals many complexities that make generalizations very difficult, and make a one-sentence quote in an article very subject to false interpretation. I hope that some of the above commentary more clearly highlights my position on the matter.
Posted by Marc_Alt (1 comment )
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What is your Green Corporate Mission?
True. Business organizations are the first to understand their consumer behavior. They will go all out to promote thier "green face" to customers who demand it. They will certainly incorporate "green concerns" in thier corporate mission.

The need of the hour is to create a structured platform for Green corporates to educate them of their roles and responsibilities . One such platform was just created last week at <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a> . Green Corporate network is creating the right "PR office" for organizations seeking to green. You don't need to be a Wal-Mart or a Toyota to advertize your genuine Green steps to protect the environment!

Posted by ckdenv (1 comment )
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