Companies are spending time and money to trumpet their environmental records, but as Amanda Witherell discovers, sometimes claims of being green only serve to hide more damning evidence.
The advertisements seem to be everywhere. They wink like neon eyes from the sides of San Francisco's railcars, radiate a lime-colored glow from within bus stop kiosks, unfurl the green carpet of their messages along the flanks of local websites.The ad design is striking, the enticing color drawing tired eyes away from the gray cityscape or the flickering computer screen. Some of the statements are clear and confident: Green is a city with country air. Green is 4 wheels on the road versus 400. Let's green this city. Others seem a bit more cryptic and smack of typical ad copy that seeks not to introduce clarity but incite desire: Green is yellow. Green is blue. Green is sitting next to a perfect stranger.Really?A discerning eye can tease out the source of these ads, identified along the perimeter in script so thin it's easy to overlook: Pacific Gas and Electric, a 102-year-old $12-billion utility company. The company claims on its website that the ads are part of a partnership with the community, a sort of mutual encouragement for the city and the utility to strive to become the greenest in the nation."We're hoping people are saying ‘What is that?' ‘What does it mean?' and ‘What can I do?'" says Keely Wachs, the environmental communications manager for PG&E. We're seated at the Starbucks around the corner from the granite edifice of PG&E headquarters, but Wachs, sporting a blue windbreaker and sipping tea, looks like he jogged here from the REI a few blocks farther away. He declined to say what the company was paying its public relations firm, Venables Bell, for the campaign, but offered several other of its line items: $1.7 million to put solar panels on schools; $1 billion over three years for energy efficiency; $1 million for encouraging customers to neutralize their carbon use.Those sound like chummy, we're-all-in-this-together gestures, but PG&E has a sordid history of environmental degradation that casts suspicion on any attempts to seem environmentally friendly. The company has had a slow and litigious reaction to rectifying its past mistakes, from the poisoning of Hinkley, California's water, exposed by Erin Brockovich, to the battles in its hometown of San Francisco, where it delayed closing its coal-fired power plant, the largest single source of pollution in the Bay Area, for five years despite the protests of its neighbors who suffer from abnormally high rates of cancer and asthma."I'll admit I have trust issues with PG&E," says Marie Harrison, a Bayview, California resident who is an environmental justice coordinator with the activist group Greenaction, which fought PG&E for 11 years and ultimately succeeded in having the plant shuttered in April 2006. "I see all these ‘Let's green this city' signs, but what's the plan?"\n\n\n
|Over the last 30 years, as environmentalism has slowly shifted from fringe to fact of life, the definition of "green" has morphed into a hip, educated social identity, and a business PR model.|
|Sales progress is charted with stuffed animals hanging from a climbing wall. Employees volunteer in the community on company time. The Clif Bar fleet runs on 100 percent biodiesel, which wafts the scent of French fries from its tailpipes.|