Trail of hot air

Are manufacturers' claims about sustainability just a load of greenwash?

It used to be easy to spot what environmentalists call 'greenwash' - unsupportable claims for the ecological friendliness of a product or service. But, as the accusations and counter-accusations fly, it's becoming increasingly difficult to separate green wheat from marketing chaff.

Greenwash was rife in the 1980s and 1990s, says Andrew Crane, professor of business ethics at York University in Toronto, Canada. During this period, growing concerns about climate change and environmental damage boosted the influence of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, WWF (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) determined to subject business's environmental claims to harsh scrutiny. When the mainstream press and TV latched on to the practice, business almost completely stopped making the unverifiable claims, Crane says.

This has changed in recent years, however, as the environment has shot to the top of the political agenda. In 2006, the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) received 117 complaints about environmental claims in 83 adverts. In 2007 it received 561 such complaints about 410 ads. Oil companies and airlines topped the list of ASA transgressors, but car manufacturers are well represented too.

Last year, for example, the ASA banned a newspaper advert from car maker Lexus (part of Toyota) over its claim that its petrol-electric hybrid sports utility vehicle, the RX-400h, made "environmental sense" when in fact its CO2 emissions, at 192g/km, weren't exactly low.

Emissions from personal transport - most of which is used for leisure and shopping - are a forbidding challenge. The UK's Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders says exhaust emissions have been falling for over a decade. But campaign group Transport & Environment (T&E) argues that the average improvement for all cars sold in the European Union in 2007 was just 1.7 per cent. In a recent T&E test, two VW Beetles made 60 years apart turned out to have the same fuel efficiency - 7.5 litres per 100km driven.

The European Automobile Manufacturers' Association had set itself a voluntary CO2 emissions target of 140g/km by 2008-09. With average new car emissions at 160g/km in 2006, car makers were "unlikely" to meet it, said the UK Treasury's review of low-carbon cars, written by Professor Julia King of Aston University. EU commissioner Stavros Dimas has now set an emissions limit of 120g/km by 2012. Far from supporting this effort, German car makers said the plan could destroy their industry.

Toyota and Honda gain a large PR benefit from making petrol-electric hybrid cars such as the Prius and Civic. But the same companies also make hybrids that use their batteries not only to cut fuel use but to boost engine power, too.

Planes, trains, cars and greenwash

The industry's defence is that it is simply meeting demand. But the demand is stimulated by their marketing. Instead of developing "a strong and rapidly growing market for low emissions cars", as King suggested they should, they appear determined to use their advertising budgets to sell 4x4s.

The same tendency is evident in air travel. It already accounts for 80 per cent of the greenhouse gas emissions from EU tourism-related transport, and is the fastest-growing source of EU emissions. Yet ads promote flying as a green option. Plane maker Airbus won a website's 'greenwash' award from pressure groups last year for its claim that, by "flying in an A380, you're personally creating less CO2 than you would do driving the average family car" (see Airbus failed to note that each passenger on a transatlantic return journey emits the equivalent of one year's average car use.

For aviation, as for so many other sectors, the shareholder-driven imperative to keep ramping up demand is the elephant in the room. "What we're seeing from the airline sector is a lot of red herrings," claims Dax Lovegrove, head of business and industry relations at WWF.

"We're seeing talk about biofuels [as an alternative fuel] that is not nearly here yet. We're hearing talk about more fuel-efficient planes. We're hearing talk about [carbon] offsetting. But the business model still relies on getting as many people travelling by air as possible. That's unsustainable."

If cars and aviation so far fall short of their stated goals, the rest of industry has a mixed record too. Alan McLenaghan is suspicious of assertions generally made in annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) statements that companies use energy from renewable sources.McLenaghan, the UK managing director of French glass maker St Gobain, points out that, given that only 4 per cent of the energy used in the UK is from renewable sources, "all the people who say they are using renewable energy can't possibly be using it".

Carbon Disclosure Project

The Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) is one way of tracking firms' real environmental performance. The CDP sends out detailed questionnaires to industrial and other companies each year on behalf of almost 400 investors holding nearly $60tr of assets.Consultancy KPMG describes the global CDP as "currently the best indicator available" of different sectors' readiness to combat climate change. A recent CDP report found that only one in 10 of the world's 500 largest companies disclosed their emissions forecasts.

Among the 500, some 43 firms are in manufacturing. Of these, just three made it to CDP's list of carbon disclosure 'leaders' - those companies most willing to disclose their emission performance and targets - compared with nine top disclosers among the 44 chemicals companies. Not all the company names are revealed.

In a survey last year, Canadian environment watchdog TerraChoice's researchers found that the 'earth friendly', 'organic', 'natural' and other green claims made for 1,017 of the 1,018 consumer products they examined in North American shops were 'illegitimate', according to the pressure group's criteria. These criteria, it says, refer to "widely accepted" environmental standards of bodies such as ISO, Ecologo and Greenseal.

The Fiji bottled water brand - which boasts that "every drop is green" - has also come under criticism. Water bottles consume seven times as much water in manufacture as they carry and must also be transported. Fiji transports its water, for example, 9,000km to reach the US. The company says it is cutting down its packaging, using more recyclable plastics and buying carbon offsets to reduce emissions elsewhere. As as result, it is aiming to become "carbon negative". This is laudable, but can drinking bottled water from the Fiji Islands be sustainable consumption in any sense?

TerraChoice says the consumer electronics sector has been making progress on becoming greener. But years of campaigning appear not to have reduced the industry's use of brominated flame retardants, cadmium, mercury, lead and other hazardous chemicals to acceptable levels. And, while the industry in Europe has been moving to lead-free solder since 2003, the use of leaded solder is routine in the US. UK factories making printed circuits for export to the States are still using leaded solder.

The electronics and other industries are also able to hide polluting practices 'offshore', at their outsourced or contracted-out manufacturing services in, for example, Asia. The New Economics Foundation says that China's greenhouse gas emissions are driven by Western demand and, per person, are a fraction of those in Europe and the US.

Industry often seems guilty of environmental doublethink. When energy group Npower surveyed companies in energy intensive sectors such as steel, chemicals, paper, cement and glass earlier this year, 88 per cent said they "supported" the UK government's commitment to CO2 reduction. But seven in ten thought the carbon reduction commitment (CRC) scheme - aimed at cutting emissions by 1.2 million tonnes a year by 2020 - would "make the UK uncompetitive", while two-thirds thought the CRC's costs "outweighed its benefits".

One approach to helping some energy intensive industrial sectors to become more sustainable is advocated by Dr Julian Allwood of the Sustainable Manufacturing Group at Cambridge University's Institute for Manufacturing. He promotes the widescale substitution of wood for concrete and steel, and the sale of concrete as blocks, not as liquid, with external reinforcement. So far, he says, the industry has rebuffed his suggestions.

ASA investigates green claims

Professor Crane of Toronto University identifies three approaches to assessing industry's environmental performance. One is to investigate specific claims, as the ASA does. Another is to measure a company's compliance with ethical or environmental guidelines or codes of practice. The third is to evaluate industry's overall environmental performance - by company, by sector, or overall - against an ideal. Crane doesn't think the third option is feasible. "It's got so many grey areas. You're not dealing with what the company is saying - you're dealing with what it is not saying," he insists.

One key obstacle to environmental improvement is the 'rebound effect' - the finding that, the more efficient cars or washing machines become, the more of them each household buys and uses, eliminating the original efficiency gains. Indeed, the conflict between greenwash and genuine action comes back to companies' need to compel their customers to increase consumption - even to buy a 'green' version of a product or service - when true eco-rectitude may mean consuming less.

Some major sectors, such as automotive and energy, don't rely inherently on fossil fuels. Cars can and do have electric motors, and power generators can be driven by nuclear power or by 'clean' coal with carbon capture and storage. The question is how serious these sectors really are about moving away from the fossil-fuel economy.

The oil sector could be accused of going in the opposite direction. Lovegrove, for example, cites Shell's withdrawal from the London Array windfarm project off the English coast and BP's hints that it might sell its alternative energy business, as worrying cases.

But the power sector is at least starting to go down the path of decarbonisation, says Lovegrove: "There is a lot to do, but in the power sector we have a diverse choice of energy fuels. We have coal, we have a plethora of different renewable energy that's around, we have gas, which is a less carbon-intensive fuel than oil or coal."

True, the European power industry is still focused on compliance - doing the minimum - rather than leading the way, according to Lovegrove. However, ScottishPower is investing in renewables, and Centrica is leading the way in helping customers reduce their energy consumption. Lovegrove would like these and other power suppliers to combine the two approaches.
He describes ways in which power suppliers could collaborate with other businesses to change their business models from selling cars or flights to selling mobility. WWF's 'Plugged In' report examined the electrification of cars. The organisation wants to help both the power generators and the car industry to bring this electrification about.

WWF is already working with "one or two" car companies on the development of sustainable vehicles. "In the long term [the companies] are actually looking at being a sustainable-mobility provider," he says. "That turns the model on its head, because they actually might get into non-car sales.

"They might work with us on car-sharing schemes or they might look at other forms of transport. It's quite exciting. It's a new vision of how a car company might look in 20 years' time."

The vision for sustainable aviation is that former airlines will transfer more people to overland transport. Air France, for example, is looking at whether it can run Eurostar.

"Short-haul travel could be replaced by a business model that would be more sustainable," Lovegrove says. WWF is approaching UK-based multinationals to persuade them to cut one international flight in five. If enough join, he says, there will be no need for airport expansion. However, he adds, "it's early days".

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