When corporate 'greening' chafes environmentalists

Green bloggers can be a nitpicky bunch, but their hats are off to Wal-Mart's new eco-friendly initiatives.

When retail king Wal-Mart Stores started rolling out one pro-sustainability initiative after another, environmental bloggers and pundits were at first stunned.

"We've all been talking about it," said Lloyd Alter, a Toronto-based sustainable architect and developer who blogs at the environmental news and lifestyle blog Treehugger.

"It's what I call the 'October Surprise.' A year ago in October, when (Wal-Mart CEO) Lee Scott made that announcement of things that he was going to do, I was really skeptical, and I continue in some ways to be skeptical. Yet I'm constantly surprised and impressed when nearly every week another new (environmental) initiative comes up," Alter said.

Indeed, Wal-Mart has been planning a range of new programs, from renewable-energy campaigns to sustainable-electronics awareness promotions. And the most surprising part, for environmental bloggers like Alter, is that Wal-Mart seems to be for real.

These days, after all, it's not enough for environmentalists to be critical of antienvironmental corporate practices. With green technology a bigger buzzword than ever, plenty of corporations that don't have particularly "green" histories have been promoting a more environmentally progressive image.

Over the past few years, a new pejorative has entered the lexicon of environmental blogger slang: "greenwashing." The term is used in reference to advertising and marketing campaigns that the bloggers believe deceptively promote eco-friendly policies or products by companies and organizations that are engaging in practices that aren't particularly "green." And with the rapidly escalating interest in sustainable technology, references to "greenwashing" are being spotted more and more these days on blogs like Treehugger and Inhabitat.

The most common targets are, not surprisingly, energy companies and auto manufacturers. Alter says he first began using the term about two years ago.

"I was particularly upset about a campaign that Ford Motor Company was having for a new hybrid car (the Ford Escape), and I thought, 'Here's a company that's got one decent green product, and they're putting it in all their advertising and wrapping their whole campaign around it. It's not even that green a car. They just put a hybrid engine into an SUV,'" he said.

When image and reality conflict
Alter also criticized General Electric's , which has been developing lightbulbs, when some environmentalists allege that GE should be cutting production of incandescent bulbs altogether and focusing entirely on fluorescent bulbs.

Even Toyota, the auto manufacturer that has arguably been the most successful in cultivating an eco-friendly image with the runaway success of its Prius hybrid car, can't seem to escape greenwashing accusations from environmental pundits.

Marc Alt, president of consulting firm Marc Alt & Partners, which specializes in environmentally focused corporate strategies, criticized Toyota for continuing to produce vehicles that get low gas mileage while the Prius gives it a "green" profile. The iconic little hybrid has a "halo effect," Alt said, giving the whole company an eco-savvy image, when in reality it "kind of hides the effect that they're putting out one of the biggest pickup trucks on the market"--the gigantic Toyota Tundra.

"A lot of companies are taking small steps" toward environmental sustainability, Lloyd Alter observed, "and their marketing departments are turning them into huge steps."

Clearly, environmental specialists are a nitpicky crowd. Which is why it's particularly noticeable that Wal-Mart, an unequivocal emblem of 21st-century middle America for both flattering and not-so-flattering reasons, is earning their seal of approval as a major corporation that's putting out legitimate green initiatives.

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