Taking Your Hybrid to the Carwash Greenwash

Wired featured the following story yesterday: Hybrids, We Never Knew Ya (by John Gartner), about the fact that not all “hybrid” cars are as environmentally progressive as the name seems to imply.

Marketers are jumping on the green-car movement and the gears are audibly grinding over what counts as a “hybrid vehicle.”

First applied to small sedans emphasizing fuel economy, the term is now blithely used to encompass a vast array of trucks, SUVs and luxury cars that in some cases offer only modest fuel savings over traditional vehicles, some critics charge.

Scott Nathanson, the national field organizer for environmental activist group the Union of Concerned Scientists (or UCS), contends the term “hybrid” is confusing at best and misleading at worst. “People think that it if you slap a hybrid label on something, that makes it a green vehicle,” he said. Not so.

According to UCS, the upcoming 2007 Saturn Vue Green Line SUV along with the GMC Sierra and Chevy Silverado hybrids, make claims that are “hollow” and classify them as “mild hybrids” that should not be considered the same class of vehicles.

Nathanson said that while the Saturn Vue hybrid includes useful fuel-saving features such as deactivating cylinders when not in use and shutting off the engine while idling, a hybrid should include a battery with a minimum of 60 volts of electricity. By way of comparison, the Saturn hybrid’s batteries (produced by Ovonics’ subsidiary Cobasys) are rated at 36 volts, while the Toyota Camry hybrid includes 244-volt batteries.

While hybrid vehicles from Honda, Toyota, Ford and Lexus include battery packs that can recover substantial amounts of energy from the braking system (known as regenerative braking), the Saturn hybrid battery pack “doesn’t have sufficient power to provide an assist to the engine,” according to Nathanson.

The worry, here, is that at least some so-called “hybrids” are being promoted as part of an effort at “Greenwashing.” “Greenwashing” is a pejorative term derived from the term “whitewashing,” coined by environmental activists to describe efforts by corporations to portray themselves as environmentally responsible in order to mask environmental wrongdoings. (Melissa Whellams & I have written an article on Greenwashing in the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Business Ethics & Society) So, it seems in this case, certain auto manufacturers (some with really awful environmental records) are putting a handful of vehicles on the market that can technically qualify as “hybrids”. By doing so, the companies stand to improve their reputation in terms of environmental performance, without actually making any real commitment to improving actual environmental performance.
The problem with accusations of greenwashing, of course, is that a lot depends on a corporation’s intentions, and intentions are notoriously difficult to read. If a given company produces just a handful of hybrid cars, while churning out gas-guzzling SUV’s by the millions, is that deceptive greenwashing or the first step towards real improvements? If a company markets what the story above calls a “mild hybrid” (one with an electrical system too weak to do much good), is that a half-hearted effort, or an engineering stepping-stone to something better?

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: