When US Corporations Go `Green' - Watch Out

IN the past few months we've witnessed an explosion of interest in environmentally sensitive goods and services. In stores we find a plethora of ``environmentally sensitive'' products - harmless to the environment, packaged in recyclable containers, and always biodegradable. Shell Oil Corporation now delivers ``clean'' gas to the pumps. McDonalds has issued a 10-page booklet, ``McDonalds and the Environment,'' spelling out a new-found sensitivity to environmental concerns - from ozone protection to recycling. The demand for environmentally friendly products - from industrial-grade cleanup equipment to disposable diapers - is a growing and lucrative new industry. ``The green bandwagon is rolling through corporate North America,'' says Ian McGregor-Brown in a recent issue of Ad Busters, ``[and it's] re-defining the relationship between profit and social responsibility.'' Minnesota Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III has referred to this selling of the environment as a phenomenon that ``could make the oat-bran craze look like a Sunday school picnic.''

Growing alongside this new industry, however, is mounting evidence that corporate marketing of the environment may be outstripping the deep-level commitment needed to alter the very way of doing business that created runaway environmental pollution in the first place.

Side by side with news about the latest biodegradable soap, recyclable styrofoam, or clean gas, are disturbing indications that industry-wide commitment to environmental cleanup may be little more than another frenzied flurry of profit-taking: ``Industry Wary of Clean Air Bill,'' reads the headline in the New York Times. ``Auto Makers Lobby Hard Against Stricter Fuel Rules,'' reports the Wall Street Journal. Industry spared no expense to lobby against strict guidelines in clean air bill, the Journal went on to report, adding that ``When the shellshock of this [bill] hits small businesses...there'll be a revolt.''

Further insight into corporate America was provided recently by the Mobil Oil Corporation, who had been challenged by environmental groups regarding claims they've been making about the biodegradability of their Hefty garbage bags. Even though the company freely admitted that in actuality the product would not help reduce solid waste in landfills, Mobil continued to market the bags as biodegradable because, as they put it, ``the consumer feels good about having a biodegradable product.''

Recently American Enviro Products, Inc., makers of Bunnies disposable diapers, was asked how it could claim its diapers were biodegradable when in fact only the plastic portion of the diaper, and not the wood pulp filling, quickly decomposed in landfills. Their advertising was not misleading, the company maintained, because they had meant ``only that the plastic back sheet and packaging, not the wood pulp, are biodegradable.''

Such double-talk and sometimes outright deception repeats itself daily. Name a corporation - Exxon, McDonalds, Mercedes Benz, AT&T, Alberto Culver, General Motors - and if you scratch through the veneer of current environmental sensitivity you're apt to find that right beneath the surface it's still business as usual.

Consider Exxon's recent response to a series of Exxon shareholder's proposals offered up under what are being called the Valdez Principles, a 10-point environmental agenda for corporations. After a string of environmental disasters including the Exxon Valdez, the lesser known New York harbor spill involving 14,000 barrels of crude, and the terrible pre-Christmas explosion of the Baton Rouge refinery, Exxon remains internally shaken but publicly unrepentant. Exxon opposed all 10 proposals on the grounds that ``they interfered with ordinary business and therefore weren't subject to shareholder action.''

``Today the future is in our hands,'' read an April 19th ad for ``Responsible Care,'' a vaguely worded environmental initiative endorsed by the Chemical Manufacturers Association, of which Exxon is a noteworthy member. ``Over 170 leading companies are saying `we're responsible,''' the ad went on: ``The legacy we leave for the next generation depends on action, not on words.''

Unfortunately, it appears that Exxon and other big corporate players are having a hard time putting their money where their mouth is in defining the moral high ground on what is ``responsible'' environmental action. The result: growing confusion, double-talk, and hyperbole, which of course in the business world is as old as the hoola hoop.

``For the corporation,'' commented business critic Carol Smith Monkman recently, ``the pursuit of happiness means power, wealth, and acquisition, not moral development.''

The lack of any real moral leadership in the financial community should be a reminder that unless consumer activists continue to apply heat to the environmental campaign, the current ``green revolution,'' 'a la Wall Street, may turn out to be little more than another sophisticated marketing gimmick.

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