BOSTON - The launching of
the 2005 Ford Escape Hybrid this fall marks an auto industry first: the
coupling of a hybrid electric engine, containing the most energy-efficient fuel
system available, with an SUV, the least efficient class of passenger vehicle.
Conscious of the symbolism
of its innovation, Ford made the Escape Hybrid the centerpiece of a
multimillion-dollar environmental ad campaign titled "The Greening of the
Blue Oval." Printed on glossy, pullout inserts in Time, National
Geographic, Mother Jones and other publications, the ads declare,
"Finally, a vehicle that can take you to the very places you're helping to
Ford certainly could use a
touch of green. The company's gas-guzzling lineup - featuring the Explorer (the
bestselling SUV), the Excursion (the biggest) and the F-150 ("Built Ford
Tough") - has been a source of pride and profit for Ford. But it hasn't
been good for the environment. The Environmental Protection Agency recently
found that Ford Motor Co. had the worst fleetwide fuel economy - a truer gauge
of an automaker's commitment to the environment than whether or not it produces
a hybrid - of any major U.S. auto manufacturer for the fifth consecutive year.
The Model T got better gas mileage than the average Ford vehicle today.
Is the Escape Hybrid capable
of driving Ford from laggard to leader? Hardly. The company expects to sell
only 20,000 annually, or 0.5% of its total sales. Ford has offered no
guarantees that it will boost supply even if already high demand for hybrids
climbs higher. And even if more of the hybrids were on the road, the
environmental effect wouldn't be huge: Though decisively better in city
driving, the Escape Hybrid gets only two miles a gallon better highway mileage
than the nonhybrid Escape, according to the EPA.
The expected revenues from
the Escape Hybrid certainly don't justify its advertising budget: So why is Ford
spending so much to promote its new SUV?
It's a clear-cut case of
"greenwashing." Ford hopes to mold a public perception that Ford has
gone green, that the company is a model of corporate responsibility. Ford - and
CEO Bill Ford, who calls himself an environmentalist - are popular targets of
environmental activists. By hyping its hybrid and winning kudos from former
critics, the company hopes to turn a token of environmentalism into a publicity
pot of gold.
Ford certainly didn't invent
greenwashing. The Escape Hybrid is just the latest incarnation of a pervasive
business phenomenon. Shell has spent big money on ad space romanticizing its
relationship with the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, to which
the Shell Foundation has donated money. But that can't gloss over the fact that
Shell drills for oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico, where the sanctuary is
located. What's more, global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is a
leading threat to coral reefs worldwide.
Pacific Lumber, an infamous
logger of Northern California's redwood stands, has rechristened itself with
the pleasant sounding name Palco and has advertised its "environmental
commitment" widely as part of its rebranding. What it hasn't done is stop
No company has gone to such
great lengths to project a green energy as energy giant BP. In 2000, a year
after BP ventured into renewable energy by scooping up Solarex for $45 million,
it paid more than four times as much on rebranding, dropping its full name of
British Petroleum to become simply BP while adopting the environmentally
friendly slogan "Beyond Petroleum" and putting up billboards to
promote itself as an alternative-energy company.
But has the company really
moved beyond petroleum? The BP website tells it straight: "Our main
activities are the exploration and production of crude oil and natural gas;
refining, marketing, supply and transportation; and the manufacture and
marketing of petrochemicals."
Greenwashing is often
employed by industries hoping to avoid new environmental regulation. Earlier
this year, in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat a Mendocino County ballot
initiative prohibiting the planting of genetically modified crops,
biotechnology companies spent more than $500,000 to publicize the environmental
and health benefits of genetically modified food. Last November, the
Environmental Working Group acquired a leaked memo from PR firm
Nichols-Dezenhall asking chemical companies to fund a $120,000 campaign to
quash Californians' support for enacting the "better safe than sorry"
precautionary principle into laws governing approval of new chemicals. Some
would argue that greenwashers are merely exercising their right to free speech
in political advocacy and advertising. Yet the point of greenwashing is to
subvert grass-roots democracy and sucker consumers with deceptive environmental
advertisements that get around the Federal Trade Commission's
The FTC's rules have proved
toothless when it comes to greenwashing. In 1999, the FTC took no action
against the Nuclear Energy Institute, another lobbying organization, even after
finding the institute guilty of false claims that nuclear power is
"environmentally clean" and creates electricity "without polluting."
And most greenwashing is
more subtle, dealing in lies of omission. The claims made aren't false exactly
- but they're only a tiny portion of the truth. Ford is making a hybrid
vehicle. BP is investing in alternative energy. But when considered in the
context of the company's other endeavors, emphasizing those things presents a
highly skewed picture.
Corporate executives often
lament that they would gladly supply greener products if only there were
sufficient demand. It's Economics 101, they say. But their logic neglects an
essential lesson from the same course: Unless consumers have access to accurate
information about products, such as their environmental and social costs, then
the market will not reflect people's true considerations. The greenwash
marketing strategy helps companies preserve the status quo by attracting
progressive customers whose purchasing power might otherwise be channeled to
genuinely green businesses that are struggling to get a foothold in the
In the end, the slick images
and exaggerated claims of greenwashing by Ford and others divert our attention
from the corporate-fueled environmental destruction taking place all around us.
And that means that greenwashing, far from promoting a better world, is itself
a serious environmental problem.
Geoffrey Johnson is program
coordinator of the Green Life, a nonprofit environmental