This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.
The successful development of sustainable transport solutions requires that environmental problems and their causes are recognised, that sufficient funding is provided to solve these problems and that solutions are then adopted and widely implemented. However public relations strategies and techniques can interfere with these requirements and therefore impede the development and implementation of these solutions. Public relations strategies are often used to hide or downplay environmental problems such as global warming, to confuse the cause of the problems and downplay the problems caused by motor vehicles, and to provide perceptual rather than real solutions to environmental problems. They encourage a minimal response and avoid the paradigm changes necessary for transport innovations.
Keywords: transport sustainability, public relations, motor vehicles, sports utility vehicles, global warming, fuel efficiency
Each year more than a million people are killed each year in road accidents and around 8 million are seriously injured. Motor vehicle accidents are the second highest cause of death for children and people up to 29 years of age, and the third highest cause for people up to 44 years of age. Yet we tend to overlook the carnage because the private motor car offers a convenient, relatively quick way of travelling.
But the time saved by cars in cities tends to be exaggerated because of growing traffic congestion. The average speed of cars in the heart of major cities is now less than that of horse-drawn vehicles at the turn of the century. In the USA, car drivers spend an average of about two years of their lives in traffic jams. Traffic congestion also contributes to energy wastage, stress and lost worker productivity. Decades ago, Ivan Illich made the following memorable claim:
The typical American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly instalments. He works to pay for petrol, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour.
Since he wrote that traffic delays in the use have more than doubled and motorists today consume 5.7 billion gallons of petrol per year just idling on the roads, and up to 93 hours per year (in Los Angeles).
In addition to the deaths from motor vehicle accidents there are an equally staggering number that can be attributed to the pollution from motor vehicles. Various studies have shown that motor vehicles contribute to levels of mercury in the air. In addition they emit nitrogen oxides, hydrocarbons, lead, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide. Diesel fumes from trucks are not only carcinogenic but contribute to particulate pollution as does road dust.
Some people are particularly vulnerable—elderly people, children and people with respiratory problems such as asthma. Smog and particulate pollution, for example, has been found to damage lung growth in children giving them life-long health problems and in some cases leading to premature death. It is estimated that some 400,000 people die each year from traffic induced air pollution and millions are exposed to levels of pollution from motor vehicles that are above those considered safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO). In Australia around 1800 people are killed each year in road accidents but an estimated 1200 are killed by the pollution that motor vehicle caused. And even though technological change and measures such as unleaded petrol may reduce the emissions per motor vehicle, the numbers of vehicles are expected to double in 30 years to reach well over a billion in 2030.
Paul Wachtel in his book The Poverty of Affluence argued that 'In return for the freedom, independence and spontaneity, and excitement that cars are felt to give us' we ignore the enormous price in deaths and injuries—'as many casualties each year as we sustained in the entire Vietnam War'—in air pollution and in blighting the urban landscape that cars bring. And in reality the experience many of us have of the car as we commute to and from work is far from the freedom and excitement that the car promises, but more often a stressful, tiring, frustrating experience. Yet we maintain our illusions about the car in the face of all the evidence to the contrary.
Modern cities have been shaped to cater for cars, rather than people, and this has made them less congenial places to live in. Freeways encourage more traffic, disrupt neighbourhoods and displace people from their homes. Roads and car parks take up huge amounts of space and land. In cities like Los Angeles, they take up two-thirds of the total land area. Worldwide, the average space in cities taken up by roads and parking is more than one-third. Noise is another problem associated with traffic which diminishes the quality of life for millions of people and adds to stress levels.
These costs and the terrible toll taken by motor vehicles in human lives, health and well being as well as the environmental damage caused are well known but little is done about them because of the huge vested interests involved in the continued production and growth of motor vehicle ownership and use. There is a whole industry that promotes and exaggerates the benefits of the motor car and downplays its disadvantages so that we can all live in denial. Very few resources are applied, on the other hand, to communicating the costs of motor vehicles and promoting and investing in alternatives.
Public transport has in fact been actively opposed by automobile interests in various countries, including Australia. In the USA in the 1930s and 1940s, successful and popular light-rail systems such as trams were bought up and destroyed by companies such as General Motors, Firestone Tyre and Standard Oil. As a result, the number of people using public transport dropped dramatically.
The courts found the three companies guilty of conspiracy to eliminate about 90 per cent of the country's light-rail system, but the damage had already been done. The corporate executive officers responsible were fined $1 each and each company paid a fine of $5,000. General Motors alone had made $25 million in additional bus and car sales by the time the case was tried.
In Sydney, an efficient tram system was demolished because trams held up traffic and car drivers did not like them. The president of the NRMA gained key roles on transport advisory committees in the 1930s and consistently recommended the phasing out of trams. According to Alan Kennedy, removing the trams did nothing to meet the aim of faster moving traffic. 'Traffic in the CBD now moves more slowly than trams did and calling that progress is merely a contradiction of terms'. Melbourne's tram system, which survived such moves, is now almost universally seen as an asset.
Oil companies also have a vested interest in the continued dependence of transport on petrol. A Mobil oil advertisement defended cars:
Today, cars are being targeted by some as an environmental concern. Perhaps we should ask ourselves, 'Where would we be without them?' And, 'Can we do without them?' The answers are probably, 'Not very far,' and 'Not very likely.' The combined economic contribution of the automotive industry and the ancillary industries that support it are mind-boggling: trillions of dollars in sales, billions in profits and millions of jobs.... As to their environmental record, today's cars with today's fuels are hardly the threat some portray them to be.
The forces that are today ranged against the more fundamental changes that independent experts say are necessary to solve the car problem go beyond the might and power of vested interest groups. They go to the very core of our culture. Earlier attempts in California to restrict car use were unsuccessful. One commentator has said that 'in California the automobile has replaced the six gun as the one liberty government wasn't going to take away'. The authorities there are trying again now.
Our systems of housing and transportation are often premised on private cars and small families. Those who prefer public transport are often severely inconvenienced or do not have a realistic choice about whether or not to buy and use a car. While billions are spent on new freeways, public transport and rail services are being cut back because they are said to be uneconomical. In Australia this has included cutting country rail services and rationalising urban services by putting on fewer trains with more carriages and cutting out some of the stops on some services.
According to Patrick McCully, writing in The Ecologist,
The reason that the USA is the most polluting nation in the world has little to do with a lack of energy efficient technologies or renewable methods of producing electricity: it has a lot to do with the size of the country's oil, coal and automobile industries and the influence they have on the political establishment. In the UK, the public transport system is expensive, unreliable and infrequent, not because the government cannot afford to improve it or does not know how, but because the vested interests behind public transport have negligible power compared to the influential road and car lobbies.
Yet now the very industries that have most to gain from the expanded use of the motor vehicles are presuming to tell use how to deal with the problems they create. A 2004 report prepared on behalf of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), Mobility 2030, has admitted that 'the way contemporary society moves people and goods is not sustainable indefinitely'. It found that, if present trends continue:
The report was written by the experts from twelve companies: eight major car companies (General Motors, Toyota, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Honda, Nissan, Renault and Volkswagen); two major oil companies (Shell and BP); the Michelin tyre company; and Norsk Hydro ASA which supplies car makers.
The goals in the report cannot be criticised:
But not only do these car, oil and tyre companies claim that 'few if any' such goals 'can be fully realised by 2030' but their recommendations for achieving these goals involve the purchase of more cars over time, not less. They recommend technological fixes for motor vehicles and more roads, rather then expansion of public transport or changes to land-use planning that might reduce motor vehicle travel.
They argue that emissions of conventional pollutants will be reduced as the existing fleet is progressively renewed, new technologies are developed to control emissions, two-stroke engines are replaced 'by more economical, cleaner four-stroke engines', new fuels developed and adopted such as unleaded petrol. As far as greenhouse gases go, 'Only the successful development and general adoption of a number of advanced technologies – about which much remains to be learned – will achieve this goal.' And even then governments and individuals would have to be committed to buying the new vehicles. Win-win for the motor vehicle industry – more sales of cars!
Reducing vehicle-related injuries and deaths would require driver education, law enforcement and 'improvements in crash avoidance technologies'. Nothing here about building safer cars nor recognition that some cars, such as SUVs are more likely to cause injuries to others. Similarly they recommend that noise be reduced with noise barriers and 'greater use of improved road surface materials'. No responsibility taken by vehicle manufacturers here.
Traffic congestion, according to the Mobility 2030 report, cannot be eliminated but can be mitigated with more roads as well as the use of telematics and pricing structures to make more efficient use of existing roads. The idea that more roads merely encourages more car use is not mentioned, but this is obviously what the report authors desire. They argue that mobility divides, that is the gap between those who have easy access to mobility and those who have poor access, inhibit economic growth and therefore governments should build more roads and encourage the production of cheaper motor vehicles:
Narrowing mobility divides in these ways might increase transport-related GHG's. But the report argues that this is not sufficient reason to deny the inhabitants of the world's poorest regions the mobility opportunities that will encourage economic development.
And of course it is the poor that these multinational corporations are really concerned about! They only really concede a place for public transport, which many poor and disadvantaged people rely on for mobility, in high-density urban areas.
The genuine commitment of these companies to the goals they espouse can be further questioned when we consider their actions rather than their words. Many have a recent history of denying vehicle related problems such as global warming; opposing regulatory measures such as fuel economy standards; and continuing to produce more polluting and more dangerous vehicles despite their rhetoric about caring for the environment.
Such powerful interests are not going to readily allow any reduction in car use. In fact, even relatively small changes such as those advocated in Mobility 2030 such as increased fuel efficiency, have been resisted by the industry in the past.
Motor vehicle manufacturers have long waged a campaign against proposed regulations aimed at enforcing greater fuel efficiency in new cars. The Unions of Concerned Scientists claims that the car companies have the technology to improve their fuel economy of passenger cars but have instead prioritised increasing size and power. This is because there are higher profits to be made on large, powerful cars than on small, more fuel-efficient cars.
Barry Commoner quotes a former General Motors executive as having said 'when we should have been planning switches to smaller, more fuel-efficient lighter cars in the late 1960s in response to growing demand in the marketplace, GM management refused because we make more money on big cars'. Consumer demand does not always get its way if profits are at stake. Commoner argues that the car industry has always been unwilling to build cars small enough to be powered by low-compression engines which could solve some pollution problems.
The Coalition for Vehicle Choice was established in 1991 by the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers of America with a $500,000 grant and the help of public relations firm E. Bruce Harrison, to fight standards for fuel consumption in new cars. Its members include a variety of automobile manufacturers associations, motorists associations, and business groups. It has received funds from car manufacturers including Ford, GM and Chrysler, contributors to the Mobility 2030 report.
The Coalition claims that, to achieve the required fuel efficiency, car makers would have to build cars smaller and lighter and that such cars would be less safe. Such claims are disputed, however. Others that are not funded by the motor vehicle industry, such as the Center for Auto Safety, claim that small, light cars can be made safer through design and the use of seat belts and air bags.
In its efforts to make the case that fuel efficient cars are unsafe, the Coalition used crash-test footage in an advertising campaign: 'Only much later did it emerge that crash dummies in the small car had actually fared surprisingly well; the small car's crumple zones had crumpled as designed, absorbing much of the force of the impact instead of transferring it to the small car's passenger compartments.'
When the amendments to the Clean Air Act were being debated in 1990, Jack Bonner of Bonner & Associates, a leading PR specialist, managed to get some large citizen's groups, who had no financial interest in the matter, to lobby against amendments which would have required car manufacturers to make their cars more fuel efficient. Bonner is a specialist at providing grassroots support for his clients such as the Association of International Auto Manufacturers as well as Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.
Bonner's firm, working on behalf of the automobile industry, persuaded these citizen groups that the legislation would have meant that large vehicles would not be manufactured. 'Bonner's fee, which he coyly described as somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million, was for scouring six states for potential grassroots voices, coaching them on the 'facts' of the issue, paying for the phone calls and plane fares to Washington and hiring the hall for a joint press conference.'
Other front groups were also formed to oppose fuel efficiency standards. The group Nevadans for Fair Fuel Economy Standards was formed by car manufacturers who wanted to put pressure on a Nevadan Senator to oppose the 1990 Federal fuel-economy bill. It employed consultants to get members by writing to 'Nevadans who owned taxis, recreational vehicles, pickup trucks, and other gas guzzlers' telling them the new bill would make running their vehicles very expensive. The letters did not mention that the group was a car industry front group and some, who had acted on the letters felt deceived when they later found out.
When a bill was introduced into US Congress in 2002 proposing fuel efficiency standards be improved, General Motors (GM) vice president, Guy Briggs, stated that none of GM's pickups, vans or sports utility vehicles (SUVs) would be able to meet them and it would be better to encourage alternative fuels and car engines, such as hybrid electric or fuel cell vehicles, with tax incentives paid to consumers who buy them.
In 1990 the California Air Resources Board ruled that 10 percent of new cars in 2004 would have to be non-polluting – this would have amounted to some 100,000 cars, particularly electric vehicles. However quota has been fought and eroded by car makers every since and in 2003 the regulation was revised to require cleaner gas-burning vehicles instead, with tens of thousands of gas-electric hybrids and 250 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2008 and 2500 by 2011. Even this watered down requirement is likely to be challenged by car makers like Ford which says it would find it difficult to meet the quotas for fuel cell vehicles.
Various studies have been done to show that tightened vehicle fuel efficiency standards would create jobs and save money whilst also reducing emissions. The most recent by Bezdek and Wendling found that in the US hundreds of thousands of jobs would be created, GDP would be increased, and each year drivers would save billions of dollars, oil consumption would be reduced by billions of gallons and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced by around a hundred million tons.
The products of oil companies and motor vehicle manufacturers make a significant contribution to greenhouse gases and therefore global warming. The group, Environmental Defense, estimates that cars and light trucks contribute 25% of carbon dioxide emissions in the US. Vehicles made by three largest car manufacturers—GM, Ford and Daimler Chrysler—contribute 73% of the emissions whilst comprising 68.9% of the vehicles, a higher emissions output per vehicle than other manufacturers.
These car manufacturers, like the oil companies, are opposed to the Kyoto protocol arguing that it would be meaningless unless developing countries agree to meet emissions targets. However, it should be noted that the emissions from cars and light trucks alone in the US exceed the total emissions of whole countries like India. The motor vehicles produced by Ford alone are responsible for more than 1 percent of all man-made carbon dioxide emissions in the world, by its own admission. As the largest car maker, General Motors vehicles produce the most carbon emissions (1.65 percent of the world's total output).
Yet the response of car makers to a Californian plan to require greenhouse gas emissions from cars to be reduced by 25 percent by 2012 and 34 percent by 2016 and for SUVs to be reduced by 18 and then 25 percent, was to threaten to sue the government to stop it going ahead with it. This is even though the cost of meeting these measures is only around $300 per vehicle for the first phase and $600-$955 for the second phase. Even so, the reduction in greenhouse gases that would result if the car makers complied would be overwhelmed by the increasing numbers of cars on the road, if present trends continue.
The reason that politicians have not been responsive to people's concerns about global warming in countries like the US and Australia is because of the success of industry lobbying and the confusion corporate-funded scientists, front-groups and think tanks are deliberately spreading. As Ross Gelbspan stated in Harper's Magazine the 'confusion is intentional, expensively gift wrapped by the energy industries.' It is in this way that corporate influence goes far beyond the millions of dollars in campaign donations made by the fossil fuel industry to politicians and political parties.
Various front groups - or so-called Astroturf (synthetic grassroots) groups - have been formed by big oil, coal and car companies to oppose measures to prevent global warming. They include the Global Climate Information Project which was formed just before the 1997 Kyoto meeting and spent millions on newspaper and television advertising aimed at scaring the public about what an agreement at Kyoto might mean in terms of increased prices. The Coalition for Vehicle Choice also ran advertisements in the lead up to Kyoto.
In the negotiating sessions leading up to the Kyoto Conference, industry representatives made up most of the observers. Industry representatives did not represent their firms at these meetings but rather corporate bodies or front groups such as the Global Climate Coalition and the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association.
The Global Climate Coalition (GCC), originally a coalition of 50 US trade associations and private companies representing oil, gas, coal, automobile and chemical companies and trade associations, put together with the help of public relations giant Burson-Marsteller, spent millions of dollars in its campaign to persuade the public and governments that global warming was not a real threat. On its home page the Global Climate Coalition said its concern was with the 'potentially enormous impact that improper resolution [of global climate issues] may have on our industrial base, our customers and their lifestyles and the national economy.'
GCC's activities began receiving unwanted publicity in 1997 and corporations began leaving it because of the adverse impact on their own reputations. First to leave was Dupont, then in 1997 BP. Royal Dutch/Shell soon followed in 1998, then others including Ford in 1999, Daimler-Chrysler and General Motors in 2000. By March 2000, so many companies had left the GCC because of its poor reputation and the increasing evidence of global warming that the GCC had to restructure itself to be a coalition of trade associations that individual companies can't join. The GCC has also softened its own public stance, arguing for voluntary measures to reduce emissions rather than disputing the need for measures.
Other industry front groups continue. The Greening Earth Society was established in the US in April 1998 by the Western Fuels Association to convince people that 'using fossil fuels to enable our economic activity is as natural as breathing'. Another recent addition to the campaign has been the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which according to CLEAR, the Washington-based Clearinghouse on Environmental Advocacy and Research, seems to have a strong working relationship with both the Western Fuels Association and the Greening Earth Society.
The SUV Owners of America (SUVOA) is said to be a front group for car manufacturers. It was purchased from its original founder in 2002 and converted into a non-profit group with a Washington lobbyists making up its governing board. It is run by a PR firm, Strat@comm whose clients include GM, DaimlerChrysler and Ford as well as two major automobile trade associations. SUVOA is funded by individual donations and banner ads on its web site for SUVs.
SUVOA has been running a series of ads opposing California's proposed regulations for greenhouse gas emissions for cars. Currently over 80% of Californians say they are in favour of the proposed regulations but these ads are attempting to generate grassroots opposition to the regulations by arguing that they will mean that people will have to drive smaller cars, which are more dangerous.
In 1997 when BP left the Global Climate Coalition, CEO John Browne argued that it was time to act to prevent greenhouse warming rather than continue to debate whether it would occur or not, becoming the first multinational, apart from reinsurance companies to do so. For his stance on climate change, Browne and BP earned the reputation of being environmentally progressive in an industry that largely refused to accept that global warming was likely to occur.
In 1998 BP announced a target of 10% reduction in its own greenhouse emissions from 1990 levels by 2010 by applying new technologies, using energy more efficiently and eliminating flaring. BP does not, however, count the emissions from the use of its products (oil and gas) in this target, which is of course by far the major contribution to global warming that BP is responsible for.
However, in Australia, BP has joined with other industry leaders, including Rio Tinto and Alcoa, to lobby the government not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol unless the US does so first. The industry leaders also urged the government to guarantee that no jobs will be lost to greenhouse reduction measures (interesting given the massive job losses that resulted from BP's acquisitions) and to seek the most 'liberal' rules for meeting targets which include the use of carbon sinks. It argued that Australia should not introduce an emissions trading scheme before an international one was introduced.
Browne is also opposed to an energy tax. He has opposed a European directive requiring the use of low sulphur content in fuels. He is also opposed to any dramatic or fast action to reduce emissions. It is better, he argues, to take a step-by-step approach that balances the 'needs of development and environmental protection'. He argues the timetable of change should be 'compatible with capital stock turnover in the energy sector and the wider economy' and constrained by 'the magnitude and age of existing energy infrastructure.'
Most importantly, BP remains committed to ever increasing production and usage of oil and gas. Although Browne sees that in the future renewable energy will make up a greater share of the market in future he is adamant that, that would not be 'instead of oil and gas; it is additional. He told The Oil Daily that 'The world needs oil and gas in growing volumes. But the people of the world have to be convinced that their needs can be met without destructive consequences.'
Browne says that BP promotes progressive environmental policy, not because it is the right thing to do, but because surveys show that is what BP's staff and customers want: 'You need the will and the minds of the people inside a company to achieve anything.' In March 1999 BP launched its 'Plug in the Sun' program based on its investment in solar energy and the installation of solar panels on 200 petrol stations around the world. In its advertisements it said, 'We can fill you up by sunshine' as if this would distract people from noticing it was still petrol they were putting in their cars.
For this program it was awarded a Greenwash award by Corporate Watch which stated that 'the company hopes that by spending just .01% of its portfolio on solar as it explores for more oil and sells more gasoline, it can convince itself and others of its own slogan: BP knows, BP cares, BP is our leader.' Corporate Watch noted that even if this level of investment was increased ten times, as promised by BP, it would still be less than 2 percent of what BP spends on oil. BP's investment of $45 million in purchasing the solar firm Solarex needs to be compared to $400 million just for Stamp duty on its purchase of the oil company ARCO and $100 million for lawyers and advisers fees for the purchase. It was also less than a quarter of what BP spent on rebranding itself as bp, beyond petroleum.
In a similar satiric vein, Greenpeace USA gave BP CEO, John Browne, an award for 'Best Impression of an Environmentalist' for his 'portrayal of BP Amoco as a leader in solar energy' while running a company 'with far greater investment in dirty fossil fuels that are causing global warming.' Greenpeace noted that BP planned to spend $5 billion over the next five years on exploring for and producing oil in Alaska even though the planet could 'not afford to burn 75% of the fossil fuels we've already discovered, if we are to avert catastrophic global warming'. It noted that for every $16 that BP was spending on solar energy in 1998 it spent $10,000 on oil exploration and development.
Similarly Shell promotes its token efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions as evidence of its green credentials. Like BP it was originally a member of the Global Climate Coalition. However in an advertisement in the Financial Times in 2000 headlined 'Cloud the Issue or Clean the Air' it said it had decided that 'action needs to be taken now' and that it was committed to meeting agreed Kyoto targets for greenhouse emission standards. However this does not mean it will reduce sales of petrol. Rather it is talking about its own use of fossil fuels not the fossil fuels it sells
which 'alone accounts for more carbon dioxin that most countries in the world'.
In other ads Shell makes much of its commitment to renewable energy but, according to Kenny Bruno from CorpWatch, 'Shell spends a miniscule 0.6% of its annual investments on renewables'.
Shell is currently the subject of a US$1.5 billion claim by the Nigerian parliament for the pollution its operations have caused in Nigeria, which is a major source of Shell's oil.
Motor vehicle advertisers are careful to promote the environmental soundness of the products they are selling. Advertisers targeting 'would-be green' motorists do not suggest that people do not buy cars or drive less. In 1993 Saab advertised:
Our cars actually clean the air. Amazing but true. An independent test found that when a standard Saab was driven in London's traffic, hyrdocarbon and nitrogen oxide levels in the car's exhaust were found to be lower, remarkably, than in the surrounding air. In other words, our car's engine removed these pollutants from the environment!
Mobil's Earth Day 1996 advertisement proclaimed how much better the American environment was and how the oil industry had played a role in those improvements, without mentioning that the improvements were largely as a result of reluctantly complying with legislation. In another ad Mobil deplored the move towards legally binding international greenhouse emission standards arguing that 'such an approach is likely to cause severe economic dislocations' and is premature.
Recently Honda launched a campaign that involved giving car buyers a certificate dedicating enough trees to them to enable them to have 'guilt-free' driving for three months. The trees, planted by Honda, are supposed to soak up their carbon emissions and consumers can pay to have their guilt free motoring extended beyond three months (at '8 for 3 months). Honda's environmental manager, Faye Burton, said 'We wanted to give our dealer network something innovative to offer their customers as an alternative to the standard bunch of flowers'.
Ford, which also makes Volvo, Mazda and Range Rover cars, is the second largest car manufacturers after GM . It is very keen to promote itself as an environmentally responsible company. In 1996 it advertised in Popular Science 'Bluer sky, greener grass, cleaner air. These are the elements in the vehicles we're developing at FORD MOTOR COMPANY.' (see below).
The ad claimed that the car body pictured was made from 100% recyclable aluminium and recycled plastics: 'It's all part of our continuing effort to build ENVIRONMENTALLY RESPONSIBLE cars that combine even better fuel economy and HIGH RECYCLABILITY. We believe this visionary thinking'.' The difference between recyclability and the reality of whether it would actually be recycled was glossed over, as was the huge amounts of energy required to create aluminium in the first place and the other environmental problems associated with car use.
In 2000 Ford sponsored Time Magazine's Earth Day Edition (April-May 2000) on 'Heroes for the Planet'. It was littered with double page Ford advertisements boasting of Ford's environmental achievements and according to one commentator made the magazine look like a car sales brochure. Like Saab, Ford claimed in one advertisement 'A car so environmentally friendly it helps clean up after the one in front'.
Bill Ford Jr became the darling of the large environmental groups after the Ford Motor Company Fund directed millions of dollars to environmental groups included $5 million to the Audubon Society (the largest it had ever received) and $25 million to Conservation International.
Yet in the real world, Ford is having trouble reconciling its environmental image with its desire for profits. In April, whilst Time Earth Day edition was still on the newsstands, Ford agreed to pay fines of over a million dollars after the US EPA claimed that Ford had violated clean air laws at three of its plants in Detroit. CorpWatch, which awarded Ford with the Earthday Greenwash award, said that Ford had one of the worst environmental records of all the car makers and noted that Ford had announced that it was going to spend as much money on its environmental image as it had on launching a new model car.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, at the time Ford's cars had the highest average carbon emissions of any car maker and its average fuel efficiency was also worst. The carbon dioxide emissions from Ford cars had increased by 7.4 percent in the previous decade (more than most other car manufacturers) despite well founded concerns about global warming during that time.
In 2004 Ford launched another environmental marketing campaign entitled 'The Greening of the Blue oval' based on its forthcoming petrol-electric hybrid SUV, the Escape Hybrid, due for release in 2005. It claims the vehicle will achieve 35 mpg but Ford will continue producing all its fuel inefficient SUVs, meaning its average fuel economy will remain at a very low 18.8 mpg, the lowest of all US car manufacturers according to the EPA.
Bill Ford Jr. had 'personally lobbied Congress against raising national fuel mileage standards', promising to achieve fuel efficiency voluntarily. He has also opposed the Californian plan to allow cars that can achieve 45mpg to use car pool lanes, even without passengers. Because only Toyota and Honda hybrids can meet this standard, Ford Jr has likened the proposal to a 'Buy Japanese' campaign in a letter he wrote to Governor Schwarzenegger urging him to veto the proposal. He argues that the proposal will put Ford workers and stockholders at a competitive disadvantage. Supporters of the proposal point out that any car company can produce a hybrid to meet the standard and this proposal will give them an incentive to do so.
'According to Global Exchange and the Rainforest Action Network, Ford already has the technological capacity to improve its fleet-wide fuel economy to 40 mpg' but refuses to implement it. One of the worst of Ford's vehicles, its F-150 trucks, will be manufactured at its new 'green' Dearborn Truck Plant, which has a natural storm-water management system, waste reduction processes and the worlds largest plant-filled living roof. (Similarly Toyota has won environmental awards for its Indiana manufacturing plant, which it advertises to improve its green credentials, yet that plant manufacturers its SUVs and pick-up trucks.)
In Norway Ford invested in a Norweigan made electric car, supposedly for export to the US and Britain and then, when it and other car makers managed to defeat in the courts a Californian measure (mentioned above) to introduce minimum quotas for 'clean' cars, it abandoned the idea and set about destroying more than 400 of them, despite waiting lists for the car in Norway and an offer to buy them from the Norweigan distributor.
Ford admitted in its first 'corporate citizenship report' that its SUVs emitted more pollution and greenhouse gases than regular cars and were more likely to kill other motorists. They also consume more fuel. Yet it still opposes stricter emission standards for SUVs and opposes the Kyoto protocol.
The real problem for Ford is that it gets the bulk of its profits from the sale of these vehicles and so is unwilling to stop producing and promoting them, despite its desire to be seen as environmentally responsible. Clearly, for many companies, any potential gain in shareholder value from being seen as environmentally responsible pales into insignificance when compared to the loss that would be suffered from stopping production of environmentally damaging goods. In such cases, corporations focus on relatively minor changes in the production process rather than the product.
Increasing sales of SUVs (four wheel drives) has caused the average fuel efficiency of the American car fleet to decline rather than improve over the past two decades. US legislation requires passenger cars produced by each car company to average 27.5 miles/gallon (mpg) but SUVs only have to average 20.7 mpg. In 2003 new SUVs averaged 17.8 mpg under test conditions, which in the real world is likely to translate to 14 mpg.
The very companies that have produced fuel efficient hybrid petrol-electric cars such as the Prius are also ramping up production of SUVs. The major Japanese car makers are all producing SUVs of various sizes for the American market. And the sales of these SUVs are far greater than the sales of the more environmentally friendly hybrids. Between 1999 and 2003 Toyota, Honda and Nissan sold 471,000 new model SUVs in the US whilst the Toyota and Honda only sold 35,000 hybrids.
Daimler Chrysler, which produces Smart cars in Europe which can get 60 mpg are introducing Smart SUVs (called the Formore) into the US in 2006 but not its tiny fuel efficient smart cars.
While they get green reputations by producing a few green cars they make their big profits by producing large numbers of 'gas guzzling' SUVs. In fact Toyota's carbon emissions grew faster than other car manufacturers during the 1990s (by 72 percent) because of its production of increasing numbers of SUVs and despite its production of the Prius.
SUVs are more dangerous to drive and more dangerous to the drivers of other cars, cyclists and pedestrians. The New York Times reported that drivers and passengers of SUVs 'were nearly 11 percent more likely to die in an accident than people in cars' because of the tendency of SUVs to roll over in an accident. They have this tendency because they are so high off the ground. SUVs are also dangerous to others on the roads because they have such high sturdy front ends which, particularly when they hit the side of another car, crush more vulnerable parts of the car than the reinforced doors. This design feature has caused some extra 1000 deaths in 1998 and this was expected to increase as the numbers of SUVs on the roads increased. There are now over 20 million SUVs in use.
Even more deaths are caused by the extra weight of the SUVs which means that when an SUV hits a smaller car, the smaller car comes off worse than if it had been hit by a lighter car. Ditto for pedestrians and cyclists. SUVs are nearly three times as likely to kill the drivers of the cars they collide with than normal cars. 'Government researchers have found that a behemoth like the four-ton Chevy Tahoe kills 122 people for every 1 million models on the road; by comparison, the Honda Accord only kills 21.' SUV drivers also tend to be more aggressive in their driving and take less caution in poor weather conditions. SUVs have single-handedly arrested the decline in US highway fatalities over recent years.
SUVs not only contribute more greenhouse gases per vehicle, as covered above, but have been blamed for increasing dust storms because of their escalating use in desert regions. The scars from the SUV tracks can be seen from the air, indiscriminately criss-crossing the surface of the deserts and causing red dust to travel around the globe. These dust storms are not only injurious to human health but also degrade coral reefs and may contribute to climate change.
In July 2000 Ford promised that it would reduce the emissions from its SUVs by 25% by 2005 and that it would produce a gas-electricity hybrid vehicle by 2003. For this it earned further praise from environmental groups. General Motors and DaimlerChrysler followed suit with the same promise and as a result the proposed government standards, which would have increased the required average fuel economy for light trucks from 20.7 mpg to 36 by 2015, were dropped.
However in 2003 Ford reneged on its promises and General Motors and DaimlerChrysler followed suit. By 2004 the emissions from its SUVs had not improved. When over thirty environmental groups ran advertisements headlined 'Bill Ford Jr or Pinocchio' Don't buy his environmental rhetoric. Don't buy his cars', Ford responded with a lawyer's letter to cease and desist.
Car companies have attempted to shift responsibility to consumers who 'demand' such vehicles and blame the consumer for the explosion in SUV production. They say they are just giving the consumer what they want. And it is true that sales of SUVs are still increasing in 2004 despite safety concerns and poor fuel efficiency at a time when petrol prices are higher than ever. (Sales of SUVs and pickup trucks currently account for 48% of new motor vehicle sales in the US and 20% in Australia.)
Such blame shifting is ingenuous of course, given the role of advertising in shaping what the consumer wants. Motor vehicle companies spend up to $100 million to persuade people to buy each new 4WD model. Between 1990 and 2001, car manufacturers and dealers spent around $9 billion advertising SUVs and annual expenditure on advertising escalated during the 1990s faster than the growth of SUV sales, from $172.5 million in 1990 to $1.5 billion in 2000. This means that SUVs are one of 'the most heavily advertised products' in America.
The fact that this need for SUVs is manufactured is shown by how little they are used as anything more than suburban cars. Between 1 percent and 10 percent of SUV owners use them off road and only one in six used them more than once a year for towing. The car manufactures know this. Ford's top SUV marketing manager, J.C. Collins, says: 'SUVs are about image, its about who that customer is and who that customer wants to be.'
And that image is created by the car advertisers and marketers. SUV advertisements tend to picture the vehicles in natural environments, promising the car as a means to get people to far away places. GM's ad for the Saturn is particularly ironic in this respect because it shows its SUV on an arctic ice floe and ice floes are especially vulnerable to melting as a result of global warming caused by SUV emissions.
Most people claim they have an SUV because it is safer, especially for the kids. This idea of safety is largely a result of the successful campaigns of car manufacturers detailed above to equate size with safety. However safety is often an excuse for less noble motivations, also fostered by marketers. Market researchers have found that the people who were buying SUVs tended to be 'insecure and vain', lacked confidence in their driving skills, and were 'apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbours or communities'. The advertisements pandered to these insecurities and vanities and SUVs are designed and marketed for their aggressiveness so that buyers can feel that they have a car that can go anywhere and no one and nothing can get in their way.
The car companies compete with each other to produce bigger and more powerful (and more petrol consuming) models. Ford's Excursion vehicle is seven feet high and 19 feet long, is 'able to seat a softball team' and won't fit in most garages. It gets about 10 mpg although it only achieved 3.7 mpg in test drive in the city for Harpers Magazine. GM has gone even further than the SUV in producing the Hummer or Humvee, a civilian version of the military vehicle used in the Gulf War. Its Hummer H2, sold over 16,000 in its first five months in 2002 and, despite a price tag of over US$49,000, prospective buyers had to go on a waiting list. It was advertised as 'something you can drive around town'. Some advertisements especially targeted women: 'Threaten men in a whole new way' and in fact over 30% of buyers were women.
Not to be outdone, DaimlerChrysler brought out its own super-SUV in 2001, a version of a German military vehicle that looks 'more like a freighter than a family car'. It is almost 3 metres high and 6 meters long—making the Hummer look small—and requires a three step ladder to board. It is sold under the Mercedes-Benz brand:
the Unimog was being pitched to wealthy suburbanites who would appreciate feeling macho while also enjoying the plush leather seats, mood lighting, 1,000-watt stereo, and other luxuries. And its $84,000 price tag certainly would set you apart from the riff-raff.
However when the company received a barrage of criticism for the vehicle – the Sierra Club called it the 'Daimler-saurus Wrecks' – it stepped back from its marketing and claimed it was selling it as a truck for business purposes. Nevertheless DaimlerChrysler still markets it today as an 'extreme offroader'.
In 2002, after Ford paid $51.5 million in an out of court settlement in a case concerning hundreds of deaths from Ford Explorer rollover accidents, Ford agreed to modify its advertisements. These advertisements had sometimes shown SUVs driving recklessly fast round corners and up mountain passes and tended to give the impression that SUVs could be handled in the same way as cars.
Shortly afterwards, other SUV manufacturers were also warned in a letter signed by the Attorney Generals of 40 states and territories that, because SUVs were three times more likely to roll over than cars, their advertisements should not blur the distinction between SUVs and passenger cars, and that consumers should be warned that weight and distribution of cargo were critical to safety and that high-speed manoeuvres, whilst possible, were not safe.
In the meantime the real demand for fuel efficient hybrid vehicles goes unmet. The six month waiting list for Toyota's Prius means that second hand models are selling on eBay for thousands of dollars above the list price for new vehicles.
The successful development of sustainable transport solutions requires that environmental problems and their causes are recognised, that sufficient funding is provided to solve these problems and that solutions are then adopted and widely implemented. However, because effective solutions necessarily mean less private car use and less petrol consumption, powerful vested interests line up to ensure that problems are obscured and effective solutions not implemented.
Governments and environmental groups are increasingly looking to business to solve environmental problems and achieve sustainable development. Businesses have long recognised that an image of social responsibility is good for public relations and that this, in turn, is good for business. Reputation management has therefore become an important part of doing business. Many people now believe that corporations will act responsibly, if only for their own reputational reasons. But this just might be wishful thinking.
Policy-makers cannot be sure that the reputational and legal pressures on corporations are sufficient to get them to behave responsibly nor that responsible corporate behaviour is enough to achieve sustainable development. We cannot rely on private interests to behave sustainably nor trust their recommendations as to what should be done to achieve sustainable outcomes. When it comes to sustainable transport, only government planning and regulation can foster the paradigm changes that are necessary.
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 Ibid. , p. 28.
 Ibid. , Executive Summary, p. 6.
 WBCSD. 'Mobility 2030: Meeting the Challenges to Sustainability, Executive Summary.' World Business Council for Sustainable Development. July 2004a, p. 6.
 Ibid. , pp. 7-8.
 Ibid. , p. 8.
 Ibid. , p. 9.
 Ibid. , p. 9.
 Ibid. , p. 10.
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 Mark Megalli and Andy Friedman. Masks of Deception: Corporate Front Groups in America. Essential Information. 1991, pp. 70-73; Barbara Ruben. 'Root Rot.' Environmental Action Spring, 1992, p.29; Andrew Rowell. Green Backlash: Global Subversion of the Environment Movement. London and New York: Routledge. 1996, p. 84.
 Bob Burton and Sheldon Rampton. 'Thinking Globally, Acting Vocally: The International Conspiracy to Overheat the Earth.' PR Watch 4 (4), 1997, p. 5.
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 Keith Bradsher. High and Mighty: SUVs - the World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way. New York: PublicAffairs. 2002, p. 67.
 William Greider. 'Grassroots Organizing, PR-Style: Democracy for Hire.' PR Watch 1 (1), 1993, p. 24.
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 Kenny Bruno. 'Summer Greenwash Award: BP Amoco's 'Plug in the Sun' Program.' Corporate Watch. July Accessed on 12 September 1999. http://www.igc.org/trac/greenwash/bp.html.
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 Danny Hakim. 'Cloaked in Green, but Guzzling Gas.' New York Times. 19 April, 2003
 Gregg Easterbrook. 'Right of Way'' Daily Express. 16 August, 2004
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 Ibid. , p. 188.
 Stephanie Mencimer. 'Bumper Mentality.' Alternet 20 December, 2002
 Agence France-Presse. 'Scientist Blames 4wd Craze for Choking the World with Dust.' Sydney Morning Herald. 21-22 August, 2004; Paul Brown. '4x4s Replace Desert Camel and Whip up a Worldwide Dust Storm.' The Guardian. 20 August, 2004
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 Bluewater Network. 'Environmentalists Target Ford for Broken SUV Pledge.'
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 Hakim. 'Cloaked in Green.' op.cit.; Pianin. op.cit.
 Hakim. 'Safety Gap Grows Wider between S.U.V.'S and Cars.' op.cit.
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 Ibid. , p. 112.
 Ibid. , p. 113.
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 Bradsher. , op.cit., p. 101.
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