It starts with a light bulb. But not just any run of the mill watt-sucker—this is the much-touted CFL, the energy-saver that lasts ten times as long while using only one quarter of the electricity of the average incandescent. Accompanied by a press kit from General Electric’s new “Ecomagination” division, the wonderbulb rests cozily inside a bright green recycled cardboard sleeve covered with big, overlapping words like “sustainability,” “commitment,” “environment” and “conserve.” A corn-fiber string affixed to the packaging attaches a square of biodegradable fiber embossed with the GE logo and embedded with wildflower seeds, along with a little slip of rough, seemingly hand-made paper that bears a note encouraging you to plant the fiber and watch the seeds “burst into beautiful flowers.”
A second slip of paper bears a less lyrical message. “Warning. Lamp contains mercury.”
Such is the quixotic and paradoxical manner by which most journalists have been introduced to Ecomagination, trumpeted by GE as a “major environmental commitment” to design the next generation of highly efficient and eco-friendly products. The free light bulbs, full-page ads, television spots and high profile features are all part of a reported $90 million marketing campaign geared toward rebranding General Electric as a “green” company.
And in a related story, cemetery caretakers across the nation have reported hearing the muffled whir of spinning, late at night, deep underground.
Not that GE is the only major player to attempt to vest itself with the green mantle or otherwise catch a ride on the eco bandwagon. British Petroleum (BP) recently rebranded itself “Beyond Petroleum,” strategically adopting the sunflower -- the international symbol for sustainability -- as their corporate logo. General Motors (GM) is shilling ethanol and flex-fuel SUVs with its “Live Green, Go Yellow” campaign. And, in perhaps the most confounding turn of events, Wal-Mart has announced its intentions to both corner the organic food market and become a company that “runs on 100 percent renewable energy and produces zero waste.” Last September, the king of the big box took a preliminary step, pledging to cut packaging in the products it stocks by five percent over five years, beginning in 2008 (a move which Wal-Mart estimates will save the company $10.98 billion in related costs throughout the supply chain).
While some optimistic enviros believe these latest corporate incarnations herald the arrival of the new green economy and the “normalizing” of the green ethos, many more are concerned that this is nothing more than the elevation of greenwashing to an art form, an intentional and transparent play at the gullibility and short memory of the public, and the trendiness of all things green.
Still, it’s inarguable that mega-corps like GE, BP and Wal-Mart are uniquely positioned to literally change the way we live, making any move on their parts towards sustainable practices an unequivocal victory. Although this does not erase their respective legacies of environmental offenses or make any of them truly green companies, it does raise the question of how much good they may, in fact, be doing.
“The real question is: How good is good enough?” asks Joel Makower, founder of Green Biz.com and Senior Advisor to GreenOrder, a strategy firm that consulted with GE on Ecomagination. “Where do we set the bar? And what is behind it in terms of who’s actually setting the standards and calling the shots?”
Makower, whom the Associated Press has called “the guru of green business practices,” gets universal accolades from green activists as well. He points to a long history of industry thwarting or competing with sustainability standards by forming industry-run trade groups like Green Globes, a green building “standard” in use in Canada and the UK that was concocted by the public utilities to undermine the strict guidelines put forth by the US Green Building Council in LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the official green building rating system. Lower standards usually mean cost cutting for corporations, but greenwashing has gotten so pervasive that it has begun to affect public policy, and public safety, by clouding research on everything from global warming to GMOs.
But at least there is an accepted green building standard in LEED. There is no such benchmark for determining what a green business is. This is why Makower and his colleagues are actively trying to codify a “LEED for companies” known as SBAR (Sustainable Business Achievement Rating). Until then, corporations are free to reinvent themselves any way they want by redefining “green” to support their agendas.
GE: No Apologies, it’s Just Business
Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, has repeatedly gone on record throughout the Ecomagination launch saying that GE is not trying to be either trendy or conscious. Rather, they are after a sizeable market share of emerging green technologies. Not surprisingly, “Green is green” has become the official slogan of the campaign. To back up their claims, GE has committed to raising their investment in research and development for green technologies to $1.5 billion, and doubling green revenues to $20 billion by 2010.
The move has made a believer out of the not easily swayed Makower, who says the GE decision to go greener was a watershed moment in his 20 years of tracking corporate environmental sustainability. He fervently rebukes claims of greenwashing, going further to explain that when a Fortune 10 company recognizes that its future growth is directly related to its ability to make its business practices cleaner and more efficient, that’s nothing short of revolutionary. He notes, “It got the attention of a lot of other companies who said, ‘Wow, if GE is doing this, shouldn’t we?’”
And while there are virtually no voices condemning these initiatives, neither has there been an attempt to redeem GE from a legacy of ecological devastation. Much more than a household appliances manufacturer, GE makes plastics, water treatment systems, lighting, medical equipment, aircraft engines, nuclear reactors, missile propulsion systems and delivery systems for nuclear warheads.
From 1947 until 1977, GE dumped 1.3 million pounds of toxic PCBs into the Hudson River in New York, creating what’s been referred to as the largest toxic waste site in American history. They have never issued an apology or taken responsibility for the disaster, instead focusing their efforts and coffers towards overturning the 1980 Superfund legislation that made them retroactively responsible for the dumping. The Hudson saga culminated in a backroom deal with the Bush Administration EPA in 2004, which, according to an article in last August’s Vanity Fair, “commits to a fraction of the cleanup.” Their pivotal role developing nuclear technology for the Cold War and their much-publicized, highly illegal (and unethical) experiments with radiation were the subjects of the Oscar-winning documentary, Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons, and Our Environment.
So when they market a product that contains mercury as “eco-friendly,” it raises the larger issue of diminishing standards. In their defense, GE spokesperson Allison Eckelkamp had at the ready an EPA document on mercury, “Is It True That CFLs Contain Mercury? Why and How Much?” which explains that “CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury emissions from entering the environment because they help to reduce [by 77 percent] emissions from coal-fired power plants that produce the electricity required to power the bulbs.” No one doubts this is better, but it’s not a “green” light source. Extrapolate this across the Ecomagination line of products and ask yourself how many conventional materials -- like petroleum-based plastics or jet engines—are being relabeled as green products.
BP: Barking Propaganda
Oakland-based CorpWatch lists BP as the world’s second largest oil company. It is No. 4 on the Fortune 500 with 2005 revenues of $267 billion and $22 billion in profit. CorpWatch also ranks BP as the world’s third largest polluter. Their dossier on the company includes a litany of social and environmental abuses from Alaska to Colombia in the form of toxic waste and dumping, emissions, and violent repression of any attempts to organize labor or save ecosystems.
US PIRG reports that in just one year, between January 1997 and March 1998, BP was responsible for 104 oil spills in the Arctic. They are now thought to be responsible for three percent of worldwide greenhouse emissions, more than the emissions of Central America, Canada or Britain. BP lobbied Washington to explore in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and will spend $5 billion over the next five years doing so. Their opening salvo was last spring’s March 2 Prudhoe Bay debacle, when a leak in the Trans-Alaska pipeline dumped more than 6,000 barrels of crude onto the ground. The resulting shutdown of the pipeline cost BP hundreds of millions of dollars. Fortune called it “a PR disaster that, in a single blow, undid the green reputation CEO John Browne had meticulously crafted for BP over the past decade.”
Therefore it should raise more than an eyebrow that BP planned to spend $200 million between 2000 and 2002 in re-branding and $400 million in ads to position themselves as the post-carbon Messiah, leading the world one new sunflower logo at a time, “Beyond Petroleum.” They know, to paraphrase the film Syriana, that “it’s running out,” and you can’t spell “BP” without the “P.” It’s also fair to say they’ve known for quite some time that someone is going to have to build the post-carbon economy -- so it might as well be them.
Still, this does not a green company make. “One of the ways a company gets itself into trouble is when it lets perception get ahead of reality,” cautions Makower. “I fear BP is close to that. They have made significant inroads into solar, wind, fuel cells and biofuels [an estimated $600 million R & D investment into ‘BP Alternatives’], which makes them pretty aggressive for an oil company, but six years after the launch of Beyond Petroleum, 99 percent of their revenue is still from oil and gas production.”
Wal-Mart: Resistance is Futile
“With Wal-Mart,” Makower begins, “we have to ask ourselves the question: ‘If a cannibal eats with a fork, is it progress?’”
The company known as “Sprawl Mart” on The Simpsons is considered to be the very antithesis of sustainability. It operates a 24-hour, 10,000-mile supply chain that burns more oil, emits more gases and produces more packaging waste and pollution than several entire nations.
This is why Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott’s announcement that the company would begin mass-marketing organic food “at the Wal-Mart price” while moving towards “100 percent renewable energy and zero waste” was a colossal admixture of hubris, absurdity and confidence that this one corporation, with one sentence, can butterfly-effect an entire industry overnight.
Although no one in his right mind actually believes that Wal-Mart will, or even can, become a cradle-to-cradle company, there were those, like The Nation, who called the organic campaign “the democratization of healthier and better-tasting food.” But a resplendent chorus of voices is resolute in the belief that the big box’s involvement will undermine the organic movement. Organic/local advocacy groups like the Cornucopia Institute, the Organic Consumers Association and Family Farm Defenders have essentially accused Wal-Mart of declaring war on organic farmers. In a letter to Lee Scott, Cornucopia explained, “Those buying organic food are comfortable paying the historic premiums because they think that part of their purchase dollar supports a different kind of environmental, animal husbandry and economic justice ethic.” Sure, Wal-Mart’s organics may be cheaper -- but at what price?
When Wal-Mart and Whole Foods start battling for market share, wrote environmental webzine Grist, “The goal becomes not to maximize flavor or bolster local economies, but to minimize price.” Thus, the free market system consumes yet another industry which arose as an alternative to it.
Not that Wal-Mart is the only corporate agribeast threatening organic standards. Bestselling writer Michael Pollan pointed out in The Omnivore’s Dilemma that Whole Foods, generally considered a greener alternative to the average superstore, is also largely responsible for creating the demand that supports industrial organics. While the dialogue that’s ensued between Pollan and Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey has led to the company’s new $10 million commitment to source produce from local farmers, that’s chump change compared to the $15 billion organic industry -- a number that’s growing by nearly $1 billion annually.
As Pollan challenged the eco-crowd at the San Rafael Bioneers conference in October, “Can we buy our organic food at Wal-Mart and still consider ourselves food activists?”
Perhaps the better question is, if organic is going mainstream and corporations are going green, where is the activist going? Years in this business have taught Makower that Americans have a rather healthy hypocrisy about sustainable business. In the absence of government regulation, and in an economic system where business is the most powerful institution, when businesses do step up and make changes we’ve lobbied for, the first instinct of the public is to distrust them. When corporations do publicize their efforts, he continues, the public -- particularly the activist public -- tends to judge and scrutinize.
“The more [corporations] talk about their greening efforts, the more trouble they get into,” says Makower. Maybe activists should cut them a little slack.
Both the corporations and the activist community are grappling for answers in the race for a more sustainable society. But it may surprise you to learn Makower believes activists are being out-paced by the corporations -- which have more money and outreach systems -- and, he says, “The activist community doesn’t know how to say ‘thank you.’ ”
Not that Makower believes they should rejoice in every morsel of progress that is handed to them (he is, himself, an activist), but there is a point where a company like GE makes “all the right moves,” yet the activist community still cries foul. That is going to have to change if activists want more companies to go green.
* Chicago Immigrant Rally (photo essay)