Archive for the ‘greenwashing’ Category

Greenwashing the Tar Sands

suncor greenwash imageRegular readers will know that I have an interest in what’s often referred to as “greenwashing”.

Here’s a good example. An ad for Suncor (a big Canadian energy company) appeared in a recent issue of Canadian Business Magazine (May 10, p.24). The ad includes the obligatory green imagery (excerpted at left). The text of the ad reads as follows:

“As Canada’s premier integrated energy company, Suncor has achieved success by seening the possibilities. Developing Canada’s oil sands, as well as energy resources from coast to coast and beyond, brings us even more opportunity to take action on environmental issues. Just as innovation made oil sands production viable, new technology is helping us reduce our impact on air, land and water. For Suncor, seeing the possibilities is the first step towards responsible development.”

What makes this greenwash? Well, to start with, there’s the green imagery and allusions. The pretty picture, and the vague reference to “taking action on environmental issues,” etc. Put that against the backdrop of Suncor’s reality: the oil sands (a.k.a. “tar sands”) are an undeniably dirty source of energy, and more generally the company’s environmental record is far from stellar. Now, it’s worth noting that this ad goes beyond mere associative advertising. Suncor isn’t just trying to put its name next to a pretty picture of trees and fluffy clouds. The ad cites stats. In particular, it brags about:

  • “45% decrease in GHG [greenhouse gas] emission intensity at oil sands based on progress to to the end of 2008 compared to 1990 baseline.” Sounds good, but is it? How does that compare to other companies? Is that a legislated reduction, or voluntary?
  • “22% decrease in absolute water use at oil sands from 2003 to 2008.” Again, sounds good. But while “absolute” (i.e., total) water usage is important, a reduction in that doesn’t necessarily imply an improvement in methods. It could just as easily imply a change in overall production.
  • “$750 million actual and planned investments in renewable energy.” Again, a big number. But not quite so big once you consider that Suncor is a company with over $30 billion in revenues each year. And most importantly, notice that the $750 million includes planned investments. In other words, the company is taking credit for stuff it hasn’t done yet, or even (as far as we can tell) started.

So, what’s wrong with the ad? Are there any lies? Not literally, I think. And probably no lies in the sense of false claims that would be actionable under false advertising legislation. Is the misleading? Well, it’s certainly a rather glossy portrayal of a company engaged in a dirty business. So, like other examples of greenwashing, it’s a distraction from the truth. It attempts a bit of sleight-of-hand. Is a stage magician lying when he distracts you with the flowers in his right hand while his left hand dips into his pocket to retrieve the missing coin? No, not really. But then, the magician is offering entertainment, making our lives better. Greenwash offers a form of distraction that does little more than muddy the waters of discourse about corporate environmental responsibility.

(Thanks to Robin Hansen for showing me the ad and pointing out the greenwash.)

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?

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