The Green & the Greenwashed

Ten Who Get It and 10 Who Talk a Good Game

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The Green

Its green week was amazing. NBC Universal programmed some 150 hours of environmentally themed content encompassing all of NBCU's divisions across multiple platforms for the week of Nov. 4-10. But it's part of bigger changes company-wide. (Even the vehicles and boats at Universal Studios' resorts have been made eco-friendly: The mechanical version of "Jaws" now runs on 100% percent bio-diesel fuel.)
Makes the fuel-efficient vehicles of tomorrow, today. With the Prius and its parsimonious 48 mpg rating, it doesn't just control half the hybrid market -- it's a brand that's synonymous with the word, the way facial tissues are "Kleenex" or bandages are "Band-Aids." Russ Finley, a Seattle-based engineer who frequently writes on the environmentalist blog, aptly noted, "Visibility is a necessary condition for status. That's one of the beauties of the Prius. It's a billboard on wheels."
PG&E has made real strides to lower emissions and educate the public about energy issues. As of last summer, customers can sign up for ClimateSmart, a carbon-lessening plan in which the average customer coughs up a little more than $4 a month, but can breathe easier as a result: ClimateSmart funds tree plantings, which store CO2 that would otherwise contribute to global warming. PG&E's greenness is all the more remarkable because the world's largest utility was previously best known for dumping 370 million gallons of carcinogenic broth into unlined ponds in Hinkley, Calif.
When Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott announced two years ago that he intended to be "a good steward of the environment," numerous eyebrows were raised. Environmentalists were slack-jawed, but so far, offer plenty of praise. The World Wildlife Fund has 10 employees working with Wal-Mart on several projects, including sustainability of fisheries. Enviros say its sheer size and scale -- Wal-Mart isn't just the world's largest retailer; it's also the largest private electricity user in the U.S. -- sends a very powerful signal that already is having effects on the way its suppliers produce products for the retail giant.
In November, it became the first national restaurant chain to go entirely rBGH-free. (As in "recombinant bovine growth hormone"; a synthetic hormone that stimulates milk production in dairy cattle, it's banned in most Western nations, except, of course, America.) Chipotle began serving 100% rBGH-free sour cream last year, and has begun shifting to rBGH-free cheese over the last several months, a move it will complete by year's end, making 100% of its cheese rBGH-free.
Often referred to as "Whole Paycheck," the greenest of green grocers might draw sneers from "locavores" who seek to curb polluting transport, keep preservatives down and local farmers thriving. But for the well-heeled and the aspirant well-heeled consumer, its stores have become both status symbol and singles scene that screams, "I'm green; let's carpool to the Obama rally together!" Analysts say Whole Foods enjoys a roughly 6% pretax profit margin, compared to traditional supermarkets, where it's closer to 3.5%. In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the fourth consecutive year recognized Whole Foods for its commitment to the development of new renewable energy capacity.
The shoe company has given new meaning to the words "carbon footprint" with the introduction of "food nutrition labels" last year that reveal how "green" its products are. At this stage only part of its collection carry the labels, though all footwear and clothes are scheduled to be labeled by 2009. It's Greenscape sneaker, for example, scores 3.5 (1 being the fig leaf from the Garden of Eden, and 10 is, say, the boot of The Toxic Avenger).
The Swedish design experts cut more wood than Paul Bunyan, but, happily, they do not accept wood from intact natural forests or from forests with a clearly defined high conservation value. Last year, it gave all 9,000 of its employees a fold-up bicycle for Christmas -- an effort to slash environmental pollution and offer an alternative method of transport to get to work. And, like Whole Foods, it's working to move all its stores to completely renewable energy and working to end the use of plastic bags: It currently charges a nickel for plastic bags to discourage their use, and donates all revenue to the nonprofit conservation group American Forests.
A decade after Estee Lauder snapped up Aveda for $300 million, the cosmetics company has amazingly managed to hang onto its green image. Amazingly, because many of the ingredients in Aveda products have changed from pure organics to synthetics. But the company knows it must hang onto its pro-ecology customers in other ways. To its credit, Aveda is well on its way to becoming the first beauty company to manufacture entirely with wind energy. Moreover, its latest marketing campaign, entitled "Beauty is as beauty does," highlights a new green issue every six to eight weeks -- both in print and with in-store displays in its 8,000 salons.
While American automakers like Ford are reneging on their pledges to go hybrid, Honda is on track to sell over 250,000 hybrids a year by 2009. In October, Honda also disclosed that a car based on its CR-Z Concept -- a compact, lightweight sports car with a hybrid engine -- would also enter production. The company is also planning to release a sleek "global hybrid" family car in 2009 designed to appeal to a broader audience.

The Greenwashed

Bottled water is inherently a disaster, ecologically speaking. To make a single plastic water bottle, twice as much water is needed as fits in the bottle. And that's before you factor in the 1.5 million barrels of petroleum that are needed to make the 25 billion plastic water bottles made yearly -- 80% of which are then simply thrown away.
It's "Live Green, Go Yellow" campaign appears fundamentally about tricking people into thinking Flex-fuel vehicles are hybrids. In fact, they actually exploit a loophole that leaves us even more dependent on oil and actually boosts American food costs. (A hog's diet is 80% corn, so when the cost of feeding Wilbur and Porky goes up due to the use of corn to produce ethanol, so do consumers' pork chops and apple sauce.)
Last month, Toyota undertook the most widespread corporate-image rehab campaign to date: The commercial asks, "Can a car company grow in harmony with the environment? Why not?" Not coincidentally, it also last month joined domestic automakers in lobbying against higher fuel-economy standards. It's bizarre stance on the debate has revealed Toyota's larger strategy: Sell more big, simple but inefficient pickups like the Tundra. Because Prius' "hybrid synergy drive" is both complex and expensive, the popular gas-electrics are not money-makers. By comparison, the oil slurping Tundra, could eventually contribute $10,000 per truck to the bottom line.
Bottled water is inherently a disaster, ecologically speaking. To make a single plastic water bottle, twice as much water is needed as fits in the bottle. And that's before you factor in the 1.5 million barrels of petroleum that are needed to make the 25 billion plastic water bottles made yearly -- 80% of which are then simply thrown away.
With its almost cinematic "Human Energy" ad campaign that launched in October, it seems like Chevron is being sympathetic to the problem of global warming. But then the ads quickly shift, attacking wind and solar energy as solutions that are far too futuristic, while oddly touting geothermal (much less commercially developed than booming wind and solar) as the "real" solution. Chevron's already investing profitably in geothermal -- along with oil, of course.
In 2005, Wal-Mart pledged it will spend $500 million a year to increase fuel economy in Wal-Mart's truck fleet by 25% over three years, with plans to double it within 10 years. It's also announced an ambitious goal to reduce greenhouse gases by 20% in seven years. How is Wal-Mart actually doing? A look at their recently released report show that the company's carbon emissions actually increased by 9% last year. Unsurprising, then, that Corporate Ethics International shows that two-thirds of Wal-Mart's campaign contributions in the last election cycle went to candidates who earned failing grades from the League of Conservation Voters.
The world's biggest polluters and emitters come together and preach amorphous "cap-and-trade" while still lobbying heavily to block other and/or incremental solutions in Congress. Bravo! With partners like these, who needs adversaries?
NBC Universal notwithstanding, G.E. hypes its "eco-magination" campaign and oxymoronic "clean coal" technology with ads featuring a dancing chunk of anthracite. Meanwhile, GE also continues to sell coal-fired steam turbines while its finance unit seeks out coal-related investments including power plants, which are a leading cause of carbon-dioxide emissions in the U.S.
Greenpeace gave Nintendo the first totally failing, zero grade for the company's seeming lack of any effort to curtail or eliminate toxic chemicals or to recycle its products. In its sixth annual report on consumer electronics, Greenpeace says Nintendo "completely fails to show any environmental credentials." (In fairness to Nintendo, its new Wii system is more energy efficient than Sony's PlayStation, but efficiency wasn't one of Greeenpeace's criteria.)
While its standards put most U.S. furniture and furnishings companies to shame, its the enforcement of those standards that leaves much to be desired. Two years ago, Ikea set a goal that by 2009, at least 30% of the wood for its products would bear the imprimatur of the Forest Stewardship Council. As of today, less than 10% of the wood used to make its furniture in China meets that standard.
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