Green Supercars: A Greenwashing Oxymoron
Recently, Time magazine wondered what, exactly, is the point of high-powered “green” sports cars?
I can answer that in one word: greenwashing. People want powerful sports cars but also want to feel good about themselves and how well they’re doing in environmentalism. That’s the short answer.
As noted here on Green & Clean last year, people demonstrate a high degree of willingness to purchase green products. Green products come with a “conscience” tax; as a rule they’re more expensive than non-green products for comparable returns.
So, of course, companies want their products to appear green, even if they’re not actually greening their production, procedures or products. I wasn’t around during World War II (despite the fact that my children are convinced I’ve been around since the Pleistocene), but I imagine companies during the war rushed to be seen as war-effort supporters in any way possible and wrapped themselves in the flag — much like how some companies are greenwashing today. It’s what their customers will favor and pay a bit more to support.
One example is water bottler Poland Spring, a unit of Nestle that in 2008 introduced the “Eco-Shape bottle,” so called because it used 30 percent less plastic and 30 percent less paper for the label than its old bottles.
Most environmentalists weren’t fooled, realizing that marketing a plastic bottle with less plastic as being “eco-friendly” is sort of like a thief calling himself “victim-friendly” by stealing 30 percent less. That’s greenwashing in a nutshell.
It’s one thing to greenwash plastic bottles, but it’s another thing to try to pass a car off as eco-friendly. In April, Huffington Post’s Sharon Silke Carty observed correctly that there are few things more harmful to the environment than cars. She noted that automobiles are not quite as bad as they used to be — no more leaded gasoline in them, for one thing, and they have catalytic converters scrubbing exhaust. But still, nothing can make a car actually be eco-friendly; all that can be done is to make it a bit less harmful to the environment.
Carty nailed the auto industry’s greenwashing pretty accurately, quoting marketing whiz Graeme Newell, “The ad industry has stepped up to make you feel better about the things that are not green by making them feel green.”
Props to Carty for posting the one car ad that was truly offensive to green sensibilities: Mazda’s ad tying in with The Lorax movie. As she wrote, environmentalists consider the Dr. Seuss character to be holy and had conniptions seeing a car billed as being truffula-tree friendly.
People involved with cars are always looking for a green angle. Corrine Blumsky, located here in New Zealand, the nerve center for all things green, wrote in 2010 about how the national government got involved in ferreting out greenwashers. Kiwis take environmentalism as seriously as the French take wine.
Blumsky wrote about a Wellington, New Zealand, taxi company was being investigated and, in fact, charged by the country’s Commerce Commission for publishing false and misleading information on its website about its Going Green campaign.
As Blumsky explained, the company claimed that its liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) cars reduce carbon dioxide pollution by up to 25 percent, and that the Nissan Maxima — a car model in its fleet — had a “3.5-liter V6 petrol engine with CVT transmission that is 20 percent more fuel efficient than traditional automatic transmissions.”
All of this sounded great. Only, though, as it turns out, the company couldn’t substantiate the claims. “Given that these claims could not be supported, the company agreed to change its claims,” Blumsky noted, adding that the taxi company “was also advised to change its compliance processes to ensure future representations were accurate.”
In New Zealand, non-compliance is not a light slap on the wrist. Blumsky wrote that claims found to breach the Fair Trading Act could mean a fine of up to $60,000 for an offending individual and $200,000 for a company.
But even that chicanery pales in comparison to the claim being made for the Ferrari F70 supercar that it is, in some way, shape or form, an eco-friendly beast. As Businessweek noted, the $850,000 Ferrari F70 hybrid will use the experimental HY-KERS engine — a 920-horsepower engine that features improved fuel efficiency. The F70 is billed as the most powerful and expensive car that the legendary automaker has ever produced.
Businessweek called the F70 one of the new “green supercars,” and as Time rightfully remarked, odds are that if you’re shelling out just south of a million bucks for a car, you most likely couldn’t care less about fuel economy or marginally lower emissions. No one can imagine an F70 owner saying, “But honey, what really swings it for me is that the F70 is more fuel efficient than the Prius.”
Hybrid cars are considered by many to be merely a subtler form of greenwashing. Sure, they use less gas, but they do use electricity, which, in the United States, is produced largely from coal and not some magical and clean Electricity Fairy. We have seen studies showing that they’re actually harder on the environment than comparable traditional cars, due in no small part to the specialized components needed for their batteries. And their sticker prices are certainly higher.
Beyond fashionably liberal entertainers, athletes, socialites, corporate titans and rich playboys, who want to sacrifice not a whit of their self-indulgences but want to greenwash their images, we have absolutely no clue who would buy the Ferrari F70.
Let’s face it: Time is right. Nobody who buys these cars could possibly care about fuel efficiency or the environment, which is most likely why they’re so anxious to appear to do so. They have this vague disquiet that there’s something wrong with being rich enough to afford expensive exotic cars, so if they buy eco-friendly ones, that’s good because, as the saying goes, it could be worse.
And they’re right. It could be.
I am not sniping at anybody for buying an upper-six-figure car. Walk into a Ferrari dealership, plunk down your Amex Centurion and loudly demand the fastest, most powerful car in the showroom. But asking for the most eco-friendly Ferrari is tweaking the gods of public opinion; you’re not doing a whit of good for the environment.