We've just bitten the bullet and bought a new family car. Having three kids needing car seats/boosters limited our options massively – few 5 seaters have enough space across the back seat, so, after much head-scratching, we settled on a Ford S-Max 7 seater (above).
Despite being a much bigger beast, the S-Max has slightly lower CO2 emissions per km than our old VW Golf (138 g/km compared to 143 g/km). That salved our carbon consciences somewhat (along with the fact our annual mileage is low and much of what we do do offsets flying).
One option we didn't consider was a spacious SUV – for obvious reasons.
Hold on. For 'obvious reasons'? What are those?
Er, that SUVs destroy the planet with their gas-guzzling and their carbon-belching?
Do they? A Nissan X-Trail SUV emits 129-138 g CO2/km depending on whether you go 2WD or 4WD. The lower end of that is not far off the average for the UK and better than our S-Max.
If I'm honest, I didn't check whether the received wisdom on SUVs was correct until it was too late. If I'm really, really honest, the more powerful motive was that I didn't want to be seen to be driving an SUV no matter what.
Over the summer, I've been reading Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman's brilliant treatise on decision making. The central premise is that we generally make decisions on intuition based on previous experience, rather than careful, objective analysis. And, it seems, the 'SUV = evil' meme was more deeply embedded in my mind than I'd ever realised.
I'll be musing more on Kahneman over the next few weeks, but, in short, every sustainability practitioner should read it.
Yesterday I opened my Sunday supplement to find a double page ad featuring these two quite incredible looking BMW electric cars. "Wow!" I thought, until I noticed they were both concept cars. Digging a bit deeper, I found that BMW hope to have a production version ready by 2013.
Hmmm. Is this greenwash I asked myself (and Twitter)? Is it within the rules of green marketing to show a work in progress in such a prominent way? After all, the project could be quietly shelved before it comes to fruition, but the reader would be left with the impression that BMW is "doing something green".
But the bigger issue is the difference is whether promises count, as opposed to results. As I explain in The Green Executive, the green business battle line has moved past promises, commitments and speeches to delivery, results and installations. It is no surprise that Toyota has topped Interbrand's Top 50 Green Brands 2011 - they've had the iconic Prius hybrid on the road since 1997, not floating around in concept land.
As that battle line inches forward, what used to be regarded as good green performance is now seen as old hat. And it is not what you intend to do that matters, but what you have done.
Well, Greenpeace have done it again. Having successfully targeted Apple back in 2007 - forcing a rare about turn by Mr Jobs - they're now gunning for VW with this well crafted Star Wars spoof. VW are being targeted for having the worst emissions record amongst Europe's major motor manufacturers.
Where Greenpeace excel in these campaigns is the wit and craftsmanship that go into the content - note perfect to go viral in the social media age. VW have a real problem on their hands here - no matter what their plans for future vehicles are, the evidence speaks for itself. They now have three options - put on the tin hat and hope that it goes away, come out fighting or defuse the situation by acknowledging the problem and pledging to change their ways. Jobs tried the second one, but ended up taking the third.
I would strongly advise that anyone in this situation takes the "it's a fair cop" option first - turn a problem into a driver for improvement. Check out what Lexus managed after being criticised by the Advertising Standards Agency.
Saw this Audi ad yesterday and thought it was all wrong from a green marketing point of view - click on it to see it in all its glory.
This just isn't a compelling message - the car is small and the CO2 is very large. Does "13% less" really motivate the man in the street to act? How does the fact that 3 out of the 5 main 'words' in the ad are 'scientific' (CO2, 129g/km, 13%) captivate potential buyers? Very weak, in my opinion.
If we compare this with the Fiat ad that I snapped a few weeks ago (below), the difference is quite noticeable - setting aside the more dramatic early morning lighting. This campaign associates green with fun, not just 'less'. The bold typography and colours reinforce the fun and the car is centre stage. Simple, but effective.
I've been doing some research into the current stage of the hydrogen economy for Innovation Scout. Back in the late 90s and early 00s, hydrogen was the fuel of future - and on Teesside, where I was working in that period, it was held up as the saviour of the chemical industry. In fact, any project that might get in the way of the march of hydrogen was simply brushed aside (including one of mine, but I'm not bitter. Well, not much).
But then what? Some major motor manufacturers brought forward concept cars and there were a number of fuel cell systems installed in buildings and road signs. But not much more has progressed as technical and economic issues have hindered the commercialisation of the technology. President Obama's Energy Secretary Steven Chu pulled the plug on hydrogen research and everybody seems to be focussed on the electric vehicle. Honda alone seems to have stuck with the hydrogen model with its FCX Clarity model (lauded by the Top Gear petrolheads) and there the open-source Riversimple hydrogen car was launched this summer. The latter will be leased in cities where the hydrogen infrastructure is provided by industrial gas giant BOC.
So there may be life in hydrogen yet, the only question is, with huge distribution networks required for both, can it compete with the upsurge in interest in electric vehicles? Looks like a classic battle along the lines of Betamax/VHS and, like that videotape war, it will probably won on entrepreneurial ability rather than technical prowess.
BTW, if you are interested in the current state of affairs in the electric car industry, check out this interesting BBC Radio 4 programme which includes an interview with Shai Agassi who is launching a distributed network of charging points and automatic battery exchanges.
Of all the industries in trouble, the car industry seems closer to the edge of the cliff than any other. Yet the Geneva Car Show had almost every major motor manufacturer showing off their latest green options. From the new Prius hybrid to Peugeot's diesel hybrid to GM's new electric vehicle (oh, the irony) to VW's Eco-motion options, it is very clear that they see green as a route to survival.
There are a number of image benefits for the car companies:
- to be seen to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem - to be seen to be part of the future rather than a relic of the past - to try and corner new and future markets however small they are at present - to tap into the 'new frugality' public feeling that has come with the recession - to sweeten the pill of Government intervention by demonstrating 'societal' benefits
But whatever the motives, there is a clear message that 'green' won't only survive the economic crisis, but it may even be a lifeboat for this and, by extension, many other business sectors.