CNET: When Corporate Greenwashing Chafes Environmentalists

by , 03/30/07

CNET Greenwashing Article, GE Ecomagination, Walmart

Greenwashing is a hot topic these days. We’ve seen unusually heated debate over our recent posts on GE Ecomagination and Walmart, and just yesterday we spotted this provocative article over on CNET about the issue of corporate greenwashing >

When corporate ‘greening’ chafes environmentalists >

Treehugger architecture guru Lloyd Alter is quoted throughout the piece, giving his opinion on GE and Ford Motor Company’s “Green” Initiatives, and Inhabitat friend Marc Alt (MAP) also makes an appearance, weighing in on Walmart. For anyone with an interest in greenwashing and corporate greening, this thoughtful article is a must read.

Read Full CNET Article >

+ Inhabitat post on P&G Greenwashing >

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  1. Marc Alt April 10, 2007 at 1:52 am

    Here’s an interesting related follow-on piece by Joel Makower on the topic, asking the reader to reflect on their own personal “greenwashing” and commitment to sustainability.

  2. Bob Ellenberg April 2, 2007 at 5:52 pm


    Jill is correct–you and Lloyd were not my tarpet and I apologize for not being clearer in my response. In fact, I had written a personal email to Lloyd yesterday in which I wrote, “From what little I know about you, I consider you a committed environmentalist and don’t place you in the camp of elitists.

    I admit it is often a tough call. Positions you may would call green would be called green washing by some and visa a versa. And as one gets into “shades of green” it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the blurred line between intended marketing hype and honest attempts to improve. I believe if indications are that it is an honest attempt to improve, that should be acknowledged with encouragment to do more and that is what I understood your comments to be. I personally agreed with the positions you specifically took on Walmart and Ford–Walmart’s improving but has a long way to go and Ford’s vehicle was simply green washing.”

    My comments referring to “elitists” as idiots was perhaps a bit harsh but when I see the movement starting to win in the market place and people voting with their pocket books–we are winning. We have a long way to go but I believe the economic incentives are what is turning the corporate tide and think it is only going to speed up.

    I am personally involved in what I thought was going to be a simple house design project in which I try to look at every aspect of sustainability. I often find conflicting information on products and products that have pluses and minus and the entire process has been immensely more complex than I ever imagined. However, I am becoming better educated in how to make some of those choices and that sometimes there are more options if you dig for them.

    Thanks for your continued efforts. I’m sure I’ll get my turn at being misqouted soon enough.

  3. Jill April 1, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Hey Marc and Lloyd-

    Thanks for commenting on this post and getting involved in the dialogue here. It seems from your comments that you feel Bob’s comment was a direct critique of your perspectives and quotes in the CNET article. Upon going back and rereading his comment, I can see why you might feel this way – but that wasn’t my original impression when I first read Bob’s comment. I originally thought Bob was referring to earlier heated debates on Inhabitat more than your perspectives in the CNET article. In fact, I don’t think the CNET article portrayed any of you as being dogmatic around this issue – and even if it did have a slight “eco-geek” slant to it, I think it still portrayed the issues fairly accurately.

    I can’t speak for Bob’s intentions, but my original impression was that his comment was responding to some of the earlier heated debates that have occurred in Inhabitat’s comments around Walmart and Ecomagination. Whenever we have run posts about large corporations like Walmart and GE, we have gotten a ton of negative response and hate mail from environmentalists attacking us for even deigning to say the word “Walmart” or “GE” on our site – an attitude that I find very frustrating. Coming from this perspective, I totally know what Bob is talking about, although I don’t feel that either of you represent this negative, narrow-minded viewpoint that we see often see. But we certainly encounter this a lot here at Inhabitat, and so I believe there is a grain of truth to Bob’s comment, even if it was misdirected.

    For further illustration of my point, see the following posts and the subsequent comment threads (which “Bob” has been involved in as well):



  4. Marc Alt April 1, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Bob, you might want to re-read the article more carefully . Lloyd, myself and Joel Makower were all individually highlighting the positive impacts of Wal-mart’s efforts in different ways.

    From the article: “….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.”

    If you were to do a little more research, you will find that Mr. Makower has written extensively of the positive effects of Wal-mart’s sustainability efforts at his site:

    Regarding my comments on Toyota, I definitely feel that I was misquoted in the article. 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.

    The whole tone of the C-Net article was obviously trying to cast Lloyd, myself and Mr. Makower in a light that was perhaps a bit misdirected (i.e. “eco-geek”, “hard-core environmentalists”), but when you, Bob, start making comments about people’s children and calling people “elitists” and “idiots”, I’m afraid that you are the one that comes off a bit “holier than thou” and you undermine your main points which I am in agreement with.

  5. Lloyd Alter March 31, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    If I can say anything in my own defence, the article started with me saying “I’m constantly surprised and impressed when nearly every week another new (environmental) initiative comes up” and I thought I was being supportive of their initiatives. It is also true that I do not shop at Wal-Mart, but primarily because I try and buy local products and support local retailers, and live downtown in a big city and have lots of choice within bicycling distance, far from a supercenter, not because they are big and capitalist. Having lots of choice in this free capitalist system I choose not to support exporting the north american manufacturing base to China in search of always low prices. I don’t call that elitism, I call it patriotism.

    And my mother was never happy with my marks, either.

  6. George March 31, 2007 at 10:38 am

    Bravo Bob. It’s so easy and intellectually lazy to just go about complaining about big bad corporate American because it hasn’t fully met the near-religious standard set by the “elite”. The REALITY is that market forces are hugely powerful and the big shift that has occurred is with the CONSUMER who is now placing value on “green”…THAT i motivating the great economic engine to respond. If the consumer doesn’t want it, the engine won’t deliver it. Yes, the system is not always perfect and there are cheaters, but the reality is the this engine is huge and creates the jobs and wealth necessary to move in the right direction. There are lots of reasons (e.g.) to be wary of WalMart but don’t forget that it is a huge jobcreator, it’s economic benefit to mid and lower income people has been estimate to be far larger than any tax cuts to date, ever, and it is recognizing a growing value on green and sustainability. Cheer them on and celebrate that that largest retail engine in the world is starting to move.

  7. Bob Ellenberg March 30, 2007 at 9:13 pm

    I read it all and I don’t have a problem with Lloyd’s comments and he is exercising his rights in a free capitalistic socity to not be a customer of Wal-Mart until they get “green” enough to earn his business. But, the “chafing” of the “environmentalist” chafes ME—and I am an environmentalist! I refer to such critics as “environmental elitist” and I am definitely not one of them.

    If a company is promoting a practice that is not really “green”—that is green washing. But to criticize the legitimate positive steps they are taking simply because they don’t do EVERYTHING you want is so hypocritical. Examples—Toyota, who took the lead in developing the Prius (and risked lots of their money—not the governments) is still singled out because they produce the large pickup truck the Tundra. Did it ever occur to these “holier than thou” elitist that that there are necessary tasks to perform that a Prius can’t do? I own a Ford Excursion because I need to pull an 11,000 pound trailer sometimes. But I take other trips in my Toyota Corolla (I can’t afford a Prius yet).

    And the same type of comments go for their critique of Wal-Mart. Don’t dare commend them for what they do good—play up what they don’t do. And be sure to criticize their motives. It is nasty to do “green” things because it is good business, you must do it because it is the “right and pure” thing to do. Well, the last time I checked, I was still living in a free capitalistic society where making a profit was not against the law and is a legal and legitimate motive—including the motive to be “greener”.

    The ultra elite are idiots—they have won the battle and don’t realize it. When it makes “cents” as well as sense to them to be green and corporate America begins to jump on the band wagon—they have won. I hope these people don’t have any children. They are the type that when the kid who has been a C student comes home with some A’s and B’s, instead of congratulating them on the improvement ask why they weren’t all A’s and B’s.

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