GM folds under pressure: greenwashing 2.0 and the aesthetic of authenticity

Written by Luke

Topics: Oil

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GreenwashingWe’ve been getting some good press lately about how GM’s public relations people decided to turn off some features on and hold a special forum in response to our supporters’ concerns about their environmental practices (they also killed some of the images we uploaded before they ever went live). GM poured untold resources into creating this site in part to improve their environmental image; our online supporters forced them to scale it back considerably inside of a month.

This sort of online marketing is a real priority for them. From the Detroit News:

Two dozen company executives conducted chats on the site last month, including GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner. “We give a lot of importance to Web sites,” Wagoner wrote. “In fact, we have shifted a significant amount of our marketing spend to digital marketing. We’re also devoting a lot of our communications resources to social media.”

GM has also routinely invited bloggers to company press events and to meet with top executives.

Clay Voorhes, an assistant professor of marketing at Michigan State University, said the effort by GM is “part of a new push for authenticity by companies.”

A recent article in the Globe and Mail (not online) seemed to buy into the idea that GM was really trying for “authenticity.” The reality, however, is that these companies are making a push for the appearance and aesthetic of authenticity, not for authenticity itself. When the latter rears its sometimes-ugly head, they back off. In another article from the Financial Times, a spokesman states that their goal is “credibility:”

GM set up the website only last month as a springboard for ideas on future automotive technologies. The site was immediately bombarded by the carmaker’s critics. Posts included pictures of protestors at the Detroit motor show calling on the industry to combat climate change and to create more environmentally friendly jobs.

“We want to get as many voices in this debate as possible,” a company spokesman said. He added that: “We can’t just pick the friendly questions if we want this to be a credible conversation.”

So here’s the question for GM’s greenwashing crew: can they allow enough public feedback to appear “credible” while still avoiding uncomfortable criticism from knowledgeable, organized environmentalists? Here’s a hint: it might require making real, substantive changes outside of the PR department.

9 Comments For This Post I'd Love to Hear Yours!

  1. Luke says:

    See also: PR Week.

  2. Toben says:

    Here’s that Globe and Mail url (just skip down about halfway):

  3. Congratulations on the “good press.” While you’re right that represents a significant investment by GM, the fact of the matter is that it is the centerpiece for our centennial celebration in 2008. Rather than celebrate our milestone by looking back at the great products and innovations we’ve brought to the world, we’re taking part in a conversation about the future of transportation – a future that includes ethanol, hybrids, the Chevy Volt and hydrogen fuel cells. These all represent “real, substantive changes” to the way we do business.

    It’s apparent at this point that you’re going to continue to question our motives, but we also want to make sure you’re a part of the conversations we’re having. To answer your question, I don’t think we’re “avoiding uncomfortable criticism from knowledgeable, organized environmentalists” in the least. To that end, we’d like to invite you to the next green chat on with Wes Bolsen, CMO and vice president of Coskata Inc. on Thursday, February 21 from 1-2 p.m. EST. Wes can answer your questions about Coskata’s game-changing process to create ethanol and its partnership with GM. To join the chat, visit and register with your e-mail address.

    Hopefully you can join us again and I’m sure we’ll hear from you soon.

    Christopher Barger
    Director, GM Global Communications Technology

  4. Luke says:

    While I’m sure everyone at RAN is happy to see nice concept cars and advancements in cellulosic ethanol production, we also remember that blocking the California EPA waiver was pretty game-changing, too.

  5. Jennifer Krill says:

    Christopher, thanks for the heads up, we look forward to joining your next chat. To that end, at RAN we do indeed believe that your effort to engage the general public, including customers and potential customers who are currently critics, is laudable.

    You’re right to say that we will continue to question your motives. Your company’s history gives us plenty of reason to. Let’s be clear, GM’s recent environmental track record is more about suing states and lobbying feds to get what it wants than it is about pushing forward truly ‘game-changing’ technology.

    Here are a few things GM can do to show that your motives are about real, substantive change:

    - Go to the California Air Resource Board and call for the regulators to increase the requirement for 25,000 zero-emissions vehicles (ZEVs) by 2014, and 50,000 ZEVs by 2017, the numbers you and your industry partners agreed to in 2003. Show us that GM ultimately wants to build these cars in volume, and at a price that regular customers can afford.

    - Go to the federal EPA and urge them to grant a waiver to California and any other state that wants to improve tailpipe emissions. Show the world that the future of transportation at GM means meeting the highest standards for GHG emissions and other pollution.

    - Go to Congress and announce that GM will forego any Flexible Fuel Vehicle (FFV) CAFE credits, because even though they allow GM reach up to 1.2mpg of its CAFE requirements by building E-85 ethanol vehicles, most GM customers seldom or never have access to E-85. Show the American public that GM doesn’t need to play the system in order to meet its obligations; GM can deliver better gas mileage and lower emissions through technology instead.

    Actions speak louder than words, Mr. Barger. We are impressed with the Chevy Volt as a concept, but we need to see cars on the road in order to believe that GM is committed to PHEVs. (And after the EV1 experience, I’m sure you can understand that even then we would have our doubts.) The website shows a commitment to great PR about the future of transportation – let’s figure out how we can get GM to work with us instead of against us to end America’s dependence on oil and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions.

  6. Michael Waldorf says:

    comment on what Luke said above:
    the problem is that they are “concept cars” and not actually on the road. If United States modeled Europe instead of trying to seperate and become better than a place where the economy/transportation/ and overall happiness is tripple that of the average american … in my opinion these gas guzzling one person driving their own escalade to work that seats 6 comfortably but will most likely only sit one selfish Pr$#@. should not be all over the road instead we should look towards the future… People often complain the price of gasoline. People dont often think about car-pooling/sharing/mass transit etc……

  7. Michael Waldorf says:

    response to 3. christopher-

    gm could design anything they want. if they wanted to make a car that seats 4 and get 10 mpg they would do it. if they want to design a suburban that sits 8 or whatever breaks down every 25,000 miles and isnt worth a pot to piss in they do it. The technology is out there but the auto makers dont want to change. What company wants to make a car that will never need a repair? if we went to the moon whatever years ago… its obvious we have the tech to design a car that is efficient and doesnt break down. the problem is that in our country we would rather have something bigger and better than what the neighbors have.

    all these changes if they were actually done would lay off more workers.. if we designed a car that was actually efficient we would not have needs for mechanics..and in turn put more hardworking individuals with nothing to do…

  8. Michael Waldorf says:

    my opinion of the article :

    GM why do they have to change? they can still sell cars to all the rich people who keep buying them so why should they change? besides that they are not really trying to provide to the next level of customers. GM and other motor co’s like Ford are starting to come around… Although i dont think i can see the day where the streets of america look remotely like the streets overseas. “Clay Voorhes, an assistant professor of marketing at Michigan State University, said the effort by GM is “part of a new push for authenticity by companies.” ” that sounds kind of humerous to me authentic companies? im not sure if the ceo of GM is a normal hard-working person I would be willing to bet he/she was born into a pile of money higher than mount everest and wouldnt even have to work if he/she didnt opt to. Now to say that they want to feel like an authentic company? I would say authtentic piece of garbage but… I still like the new corvette

  9. Japhet says:

    “not nice” comments? Uh…ok. So, we should avoid the playground and expect our lunch money to be stolen?

    Saddle up, GM. We aren’t talking about childish issues. We’re talking about the future of our world and natural world. Or maybe you skipped 4th period biology and missed the memo on global warming?

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