The big green game

Nevada critics say being green requires more than just a surface paint job

Toyota, whose local dealer is Reno Toyota, has developed an environment-friendly reputation because of its high-mileage cars and trucks and its corporate support for green groups.

Toyota, whose local dealer is Reno Toyota, has developed an environment-friendly reputation because of its high-mileage cars and trucks and its corporate support for green groups.

Photo By David Robert

General Motors, Ford and Chrysler have some unusual company in their effort to quash stricter fuel economy standards in Congress—Toyota.

Toyota allied itself with other car manufacturers in opposing legislation supported by both of Nevada’s senators that would require strict new fuel efficiency standards and cut in half oil imports from Persian Gulf nations.

“It’s insane,” said Richard Bryan of Nevada, who as a U.S. senator broke his pick trying to get higher fuel efficiency standards enacted in the 1990s. “Absolutely insane. I mean, I don’t know why they would join with the crowd that has been resisting fuel-efficient standards for decades.”

Toyota has long cultivated an image as a green-friendly car maker. Its website contains language like this: “At Toyota, we operate under a global earth charter that promotes environmental responsibility throughout our entire company. We are leading the way in lowering emissions and improving fuel economy in gasoline powered vehicles. Not only did we create the world’s first mass-produced gas/electric hybrid car, but we are also at the forefront of developing tomorrow’s fuel cell vehicles.

“But our commitment to preserving the environment doesn’t stop with our vehicles. For instance, two of our manufacturing plants have been designated as zero landfill producing operations. And our ‘green’ complex in California has one of the largest commercial solar panel systems in North America and conserves more than 11 million gallons of drinking water annually through special pipelines that supply recycled water for cooling and landscaping. In addition, as part of our dedication to environmental preservation, we have developed strong partnerships with organizations like the National Arbor Day Foundation and the National Environmental Education & Training Foundation.”

Dan Geary, Nevada spokesperson for the Nevada Environmental Trust, responds that more than image making is required to be green.

“Toyota’s marketing department understands that their customer base holds the company’s position as a ‘green company’ in high esteem, and this reputation affects their customers’ decisions to purchase Toyota vehicles such as the Prius, which is rated at a combined city/highway mileage … of 46 mpg,” Geary said. “One wonders what their current and potential customers concerned about the environment and our dependence on foreign oil would think if they knew that Toyota’s ‘commitment to the environment’ is little more than greenwashing.”

A London newspaper reports that Toyota has been hit with thousands of protesting email messages as word has spread that the company has been supporting less ambitious legislation setting a 32 miles-per-gallon requirement on vehicles by 2022 instead of the 35 mpg requirement by 2020 envisioned by the measure supported by Harry Reid and John Ensign of Nevada. The stricter version would also require increasing fuel efficiency by 4 percent every year for 10 years after 2020. The measure, House Resolution 6, passed the Senate over the industry’s objection.

It’s not easy being green, Toyota said in response. The company issued a statement: “For the first time, the industry has actually come together for a fuel economy increase, and everyone is pulling together in the same direction. Toyota is working very hard behind the scenes to achieve the best standards possible, not only for the whole industry but to meet the energy and environmental goals that we all share.”

The proposal at issue is already weaker than legislation considered earlier this year. In June, the Senate was debating fuel economy standards of 52 miles per gallon (sponsored by Reid) and 36 mpg for cars and 30 mpg for light trucks (sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Christopher Bond of Missouri).

On Oct. 3, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote, “Now why would Toyota, which has used the Prius to brand itself as the greenest car company, pull such a stunt? Is it because Toyota wants to slow down innovation in Detroit on more energy efficient vehicles, which Toyota already dominates, while also keeping mileage room to build giant pickup trucks, like the Toyota Tundra, at the gas-guzzler end of the U.S. market?”

Toyota vice president Irv Miller responded to Friedman on his blog ( “The question is fair, but overlooks a more obvious question for a business in the fiercely competitive automotive market. To use a metaphor from track and field, why would a competitor leading the field not want to put them at an even greater disadvantage by raising the high-jump bar as high as it could go? After all, if indeed Toyota has a head start in fuel-efficient technologies such as hybrids, advanced gasoline powertrains, plug-in hybrids and other high-mpg vehicles, why wouldn’t it want to make others work even harder to catch up? The answer is simple: It’s because there’s a point at which the bar is set too high for all competitors.”

The U.S.'s big three auto companies have been losing market share to Toyota, a shift attributed partly to Toyota’s green image. Toyota is near to overtaking General Motors in sales. To build its environmental image in 2004, it dropped its slogan “Get the feeling” in favor of “Moving forward” and “Lead the way.”

But the National Resources Defense Council argues that Toyota is trying to undercut higher gas efficiency standards in order to extend its sales advantage in big pickups, including Tundra’s 15 mpg/city and 19/mpg highway. Lobbyists for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers have called the stricter standards—which Toyota has already met—"unattainable,” a term picked up and used widely by the industry’s allies.

That prompted environmentalists to ask how something Toyota has already attained could be unattainable. An NRDC statement said, “Why is Toyota, a company that can make a car that gets 55 miles per gallon today, fighting a 35 mpg standard?”

On Sept. 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s annual fuel efficiency rankings put Honda and Toyota first and second for their 2007 vehicle lineups—an average of 22.9 mpg for Honda, 22.8 for Toyota.

In an Ipsos Reid survey conducted earlier this year, 7 in 10 respondents agreed that when companies call a product ‘green,’ it is usually just a ‘marketing tactic.’

Bryan said that in the 1990s, the industry succeeded in winning United Auto Workers support for opposing higher fuel efficiency on grounds that it would cost jobs, but after defeating fuel efficiency legislation, the industry continued losing jobs. That was shortsighted of the union, Bryan said—if the legislation had passed, it would have created new jobs because of the new technology required to meet the new standards.