Pocket More Green With ‘Green’ Hype

Newsweek_jpegOriginally posted Sept. 24, 2007
by Daniel Gross at Newsweek

Westport Wash & Wax proudly bills itself as the only solar-powered
carwash in the state of Connecticut. The proprietors, brothers Craig
and Scott Tiefenthaler, have just covered the roof of their business
with 18 panels. The total cost: $21,000, with the state’s taxpayers
footing 60 percent of the bill.

This sort of behavior drives economists and global-warming skeptics to
distraction. Even with the massive government subsidy, it’ll take seven
years for the owners to recoup their investment. And on sunny days, the
panels provide only enough juice to run the shop’s refrigerators and
lights. "To run my main motors, I’d need a city block of solar panels,"
says Craig.

At first blush, the carwash has all the
hallmarks of a greenwash: a feel-good gesture that detracts attention
from painful efforts that could really influence energy use. People who
are serious about using less energy could skip the carwash altogether
and bathe their vehicles with a hose and cold water. And if they’re
truly freaked out about global warming, perhaps they should drive their
Porsche Cayenne SUVs less frequently.

But
the Tiefenthalers, who have no advertising budget, have clearly made an
economically rational choice. Within two weeks of installing the panels
in August, the carwash was featured in the two local newspapers, a Web
site covering Westport and the cable-news channel that covers Fairfield
County. The New York Times has called, too. "We regard it as an
effective form of advertising because of the image we’re trying to
maintain and create," Craig says.

For
companies large and small, going green is now a surefire way to cut
through the clutter. A recent issue of the New York Times travel
section included a brief article—complete with Web address—describing
in loving detail the features of the Proximity Hotel, a green inn in
Greensboro, N.C. Some hot hotels feature roofs with happening pool
scenes. The Proximity’s roof features solar panels and a vegetable
garden.

The Wall Street Journal recently profiled Citigroup’s efforts to save
$100 million on energy costs. Among the measures: turning off
escalators and a failed effort to crank up the heat in a Tampa office
from 72 to 78. (It failed because sweltering employees revolted.)
Citigroup is going through one of its periodic dark nights of the soul.
The giant bank is on the hook for billions of loans to private-equity
deals, and its stock sits at April 2000 levels. Were Citigroup to
trumpet loudly its efforts to improve the bottom line by jacking up ATM
fees, it would be pilloried. But when an unloved Fortune 500 company
turns the office into a sweatbox, it is hailed as a planetary savior.

In the current Zeitgeist, green companies that
do what they’re supposed to do—save money, raise profits—can earn
valuable free air time that doubles as an objective third-party
endorsement. And for an embattled company, going green is the ultimate
conversation changer. Wal-Mart, the poster child for low wages, skimpy
benefits and unfashionable merchandise, has been lauded for its
no-brainer efforts to increase the mileage of its mammoth truck fleet
and its decision to offer more organic foods. Google, whose CEOs fly
around the world in their own Boeing 767, is reaping a huge propaganda
jolt from the 1.6-megawatt solar installation recently activated at its
headquarters. (Double bonus: Google uses the system to charge plug-in
hybrid cars!) In July, McDonald’s earned a supersize portion of
positive press when its U.K. unit announced it would convert 155
delivery trucks to run on biodiesel made from McNasty leftover
french-fry grease.

The
media love these stories, in part because advertisers—who are
increasingly building their brand images by associating themselves with
alternative energy—love the content. As a result, many companies might
be better off dispensing with high-concept advertising altogether. (I
don’t get about half those Geico caveman ads anyway.) Forget about the
focus groups and the Gucci-wearing ad hipsters. Buy a few solar panels,
offset some carbon and crank out some press releases—on recycled paper,
naturally. Let word slip that your CEO lunches on organic salads, and
has started eating with his hands rather than using wasteful plastic
utensils and paper plates. And if something really bad happens, like an
accounting scandal, roll out the big guns: go carbon-neutral.

Patriotism
used to be the last refuge of scoundrels. Now that refuge might be
environmentalism. Imagine how much better off Britney Spears would be
if she had shown up at the MTV Music Video Awards in a Prius, performed
in a bustier laden with light-emitting diodes and concluded by
suggestively planting a tree to offset the emissions created during her
disastrous show.

© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.  |   Subscribe to Newsweek

No Responses to “Pocket More Green With ‘Green’ Hype”

  1. The green hype is everywhere and more so in trasportation industry people have started to take it seriously. Hope everyone gets the idea going

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