Companies, Governments Accused of Exaggerating Eco-friendliness
As interest in green issues reaches a white-hot pitch, government
and industry are jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, touting
"natural," "biodegradable" and "environmentally friendly" practices and
Often, the claims are true. But sometimes, more money and
energy is expended on trumpeting eco-friendly practices than in
actually making those commitments a reality — a practice known as
Is the color green a cover-up, or is it a transparent window for environmentally friendly activities?
It’s no wonder that many are jumping on the bandwagon. Going
green can add to the credibility of local governments, reflecting their
commitment to stewardship of the environment and citizens’ interests.
As far as businesses are concerned, the growing market of
purchasing decisions based on the environmental and social impact of
products and manufacturers hit $209 billion in the U.S. in 2005,
according to the Pennsylvania-based Natural Marketing Institute.
But inflated or false claims have become such a concern that
the Federal Trade Commission, which regulates advertising claims, began
a series of hearings in January into green marketing, concerned about
the "heightened potential for deception," said chairwoman Deborah Platt
A greenwashing controversy hit Oakland-based Clorox, maker of
its signature bleach and other cleaning products, in late 2007 and
Clorox acquired eco-friendly skincare company Burt’s Bees in
October 2007 and added a series of biodegradable household cleaners,
Green Works, to its products in January.
The move set off a firestorm in environmental circles, with
some calling it greenwashing and some applauding it, noting that the
Sierra Club approved the use of its logo on the labels.
Clorox is only one example. Local governments are not exempt from greenwashing concerns.
The city of Lafayette’s Web site says the Contra Costa town is committed to developing and implementing environmental programs.
But the Web site doesn’t mention that Lafayette’s new library,
currently under construction, doesn’t have Leadership in Energy and
Environmental Design certification, the national standard for
sustainable buildings. LEED buildings use less energy and cut carbon
emission by as much as 40 percent, according to the U.S. Green Building
The city council decided not to go for LEED certification
because "taxpayers’ money was better spent in other places," said
Steven Falk, Lafayette’s city manager. As to the cost of certification,
"I’ve heard different estimates, but it can go up to $300,000," Falk
According to the U.S. Green Building Council, the average LEED certification costs $2,000.
Falk said the library "will meet all the requirements for LEED
certification. That includes photovoltaic electricity generation,
on-site stormwater capture and low emission carpets.
"We decided to self-certify," Falk said.
"That’s like submitting your 10K to the Securities Exchange
Commission without having it audited," said Emma Stewart, director of
environmental research and development for San Francisco’s Business for
In October 2007, San Ramon-based Chevron launched a promotional
campaign, "The power of human energy," on network TV and national print
publications highlighting its commitment to the environment. The cost
was pegged at $15 million by Advertising Age.
Some critics interpreted the campaign as talking the talk but
not walking the walk by looking at the company’s track record in places
like Galveston, Texas.
"When Chevron announced its investment in Galveston Bay
Biodiesel, they did everything they could to get publicity. But when
they backed out, they said not a word, and it took a lawsuit by GBB to
get even the small public notice it did," said Judy Dugan, research
director for the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and
Consumer Rights, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group funded by personal
donations, foundation grants and legal fees.
The lawsuit accuses Chevron of failing to follow through on funding promises. Chevron denies the claims.
"The accusation regarding Galveston Bay Biodiesel is ridiculous
given that we have invested millions of dollars into the facility and
it is producing biodiesel," said Chevron spokesman Alex Yelland.
"We have spent more than $2 billion on renewable and emerging
energy and energy projects like the AC Transit hydrogen bus program —
the largest of its kind in North America — biofuels research with UC
Davis, and solar power projects with San Jose Unified School District
and Contra Costa Community College District. These are just a few
examples of the steps we are taking to develop new energy sources,"
Jaimie Levin, director of alternative fuels policy for AC
Transit, said, "We and Chevron as a team built a state-of-the-art
hydrogen station." The station, located at the public transit company’s
Seminary Avenue facility, has three hydrogen buses that have been in
operation for more than three years, he said.
"From our perspective, Chevron has been an extraordinarily
great partner," said Levin, who estimated that Chevron contributed "at
least $1.5 million" to the project.
"Most of the energy companies do want to say, ‘Look, we’re
trying to be part of the solution here,’" said Severin Borenstein,
director of UC Berkeley’s Energy Institute.
"All of them are doing real things. But I’m sure they’re also thinking about the PR effect, and that’s not surprising.
"What you worry about is when companies are blatantly misleading
and fine-tune or spin their actions in ways that aren’t really accurate
in order to give the public a stronger perception of them as green,"
Many Fortune 500 companies are stepping up to the plate on the
environmental front, said Yvon Chouinard, a widely revered
environmental business leader and founder of Ventura-based Patagonia
"Even Wal-Mart is cleaning up its act," Chouinard said in
January. The company sells compact fluorescent bulbs and has installed
a solar roof on one of its facilities.
Asked if these moves weren’t greenwashing, Chouinard replied,
"It’s a first step. Even if it’s because of greed, if it leads to
action, that’s fine."
Chouinard’s comments are backed up by the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency. The EPA in January said that 53 Fortune 500
companies are getting their power from renewable sources such as solar
and wind, surpassing goals set by the agency in December 2006.
Intel Corp. leads the nation with a purchase of 1.3 billion
kilowatt-hours per year, with PepsiCo coming in second, followed by
Wells Fargo & Co., Whole Foods Market, the Pepsi Bottling Group and
Johnson & Johnson.
Going truly green isn’t just the case on the national level,
either. Pamela Evans, coordinator of the Alameda County Green Business
Program, emphasized that many Bay Area businesses have gone to great
lengths to become legitimately green.
Evans’ group is part of the Bay Area Green Business Program, a
partnership of government, utilities and industry that has been
certifying local businesses on their environmental performance since
1997. Nine Bay Area counties participate in the program. The Green
Business Program has certified more than 1,000 businesses.
As an example, "Vetrazzo in Richmond makes countertops with
recycled glass," said Robin Bedell-Waite, green business coordinator
for Contra Costa County.
Vetrazzo is part of a cluster of green businesses in the former
Ford Assembly Building on Harbor Way off Interstate 580 including a
facility of San Jose-based international solar design and installation
firm Sun Power.
"All of our glass, 100 percent, is recycled," said James
Sheppard, the 25-employee company’s chief executive. "We get it from
sources including the curbside recycling program. You can say that last
night’s Chardonnay bottle might be your next counter-top. We use
150,000 gallons of water a month, and it’s all recycled," Sheppard
Instead of using sustainability to market his business, Sheppard said he uses his business to market sustainability.
"We market a story in every surface. ‘My counter-top is made
from glass salvaged from Skyy Vodka,’" said Sheppard. "It’s the
anti-greenwashing. Give them the real meat of what is in their
counter-top, and it connects them to the
"It’s part of broadcasting that you are green and being able to
back it up," Sheppard said. "People need quick, easy, obvious evidence
that they should trust what they are being told, and when they do, they
will reward you."
Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671 or j[email protected] – Check out her Energy Blog at www.ibabuzz.com/energy.