How to Tell Greenwashing from Real Corporate Responsibility

It's a little late for Mardi Gras, but let me tell you about another masquerade.

We all know that the environment has become fashionable. The environmental movement -- despite what its detractors might say -- is going through one of its most vibrant periods. Seventy percent of Americans declare themselves environmentalists. Seventy-one percent of Latinos living in the Southwest believe preserving the wilderness is not only a family value but a religious one as well. In California, 91 percent of Latinos believe it's possible to protect the environment at the same time that we build a robust economy.

This national consensus has become a powerful magnet for Corporate America, which in recent years has tried to establish an environmental harmony with consumers by offering products and services that allegedly respect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the land we cultivate.

But all too often, this harmony becomes corrupted by a green veil with which apparent altruistic intentions hide the fact that, after all, both environmentalism and money share the same color. This marketing trick is known as "greenwashing."

ExxonMobil -- the world's richest corporation and the one that interferes the most in the fight against global warming by investing tens of millions of dollars in denying it -- counters its critics by alleging that it funds the Global Warming and Energy Project. This initiative focuses on how to confront global warming emissions once they have been released into the atmosphere. But what ExxonMobil won't tell us is that the applications of that research could take up to a decade to become available. Nor will it tell us whether it has made any commitments to adopt any of those applications.

Chevron, the oil giant, in October launched its flashy "Human Energy" campaign to promote its green credentials. But at the same time it promised bluer skies, Chevron also attacked the viability of solar and wind energies -- the cleanest ones in existence -- by calling them "too futuristic." No wonder a corporation so firmly anchored in a past of fossil fuels is so afraid of the future.

In 2005, General Electric (GE) -- the ninth largest corporation in the world -- launched its "Ecomagination" campaign to announce its environmental commitment to confront challenges such as the need for clean, efficient sources of energy and reducing emissions. Two years later, GE's environmental credentials still need greening, as the corporation continues selling parts to coal-fired power plants -- the largest source of global warming gases -- and investing in oil-and-gas exploration.

Southern Co., the power utility that operates six of the country's dirtiest plants, insists that it invests "billions of dollars" in cleaning its toxic and global warming emissions. Yet according to the Environmental Integrity Project, Southern Co. owns the three plants that emit the most carbon dioxide in the entire U.S. Two of them rate as the second and third that release the most mercury in the country. And five more rate among the ones releasing the most nitrogen-oxide. More than a green veil, what Southern holds is a suffocating rag.

On the other hand, there are countless examples of corporate responsibility that demonstrate a real commitment to protecting the environment and fighting global warming. In fact, according to the latest GreenBiz.com annual report, 2007 was a record year for the increase of green initiatives by the country's corporations.

For instance, Google is building the largest solar-power facility ever built on any corporate campus in the U.S. This huge solar-panel project will generate 1.6 megawatts, enough to power 1,000 homes, and will allow Google to save 30 percent of its current power use.

Nike has committed itself to becoming a climate-neutral company by 2012. Green Mountain Power Co. has reached the point where only 2 percent of its generated power comes from carbon-dioxide producing sources. Target is phasing out products containing polyvinyl chloride, a potentially harmful compound. Frito-Lay announced that by 2010 its chip production would rely on recycled water and renewable energy.

But all these examples of corporate responsibility, as timid as they may seem, run the risk of being overlooked by consumers if other companies continue to hide their greed behind a green veil.

Let's all put an end to this masquerade.

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