Why corporate environmental initiatives make good business sense.

Commentary about business and finance.
Sept. 14 2007 7:26 PM

The Greening of Hype

How solar panels generate more free publicity than clean electricity for businesses.

Westport Wash & Wax proudly bills itself as the only solar-powered carwash in the state of Connecticut. The proprietors, brothers Craig and Scott Tiefenthaler, have just covered the roof of their business with 18 panels. The total cost: $21,000, with the state's taxpayers footing 60 percent of the bill.

This sort of behavior drives economists and global-warming skeptics to distraction. Even with the massive government subsidy, it'll take seven years for the owners to recoup their investment. And on sunny days, the panels provide only enough juice to run the shop's refrigerators and lights. "To run my main motors, I'd need a city block of solar panels," says Craig.


At first blush, the carwash has all the hallmarks of a greenwash: a feel-good gesture that detracts attention from painful efforts that could really influence energy use. People who are serious about using less energy could skip the carwash altogether and bathe their vehicles with a hose and cold water. And if they're truly freaked out about global warming, perhaps they should drive their Porsche Cayenne SUVs less frequently.

But the Tiefenthalers, who have no advertising budget, have clearly made an economically rational choice. Within two weeks of installing the panels in August, the carwash was featured in the two local newspapers, a Web site covering Westport, and the cable-news channel that covers Fairfield County. The New York Times has called, too. "We regard it as an effective form of advertising because of the image we're trying to maintain and create," Craig says.

For companies large and small, going green is now a surefire way to cut through the clutter. A recent issue of the New York Times travel section included a brief article—complete with Web address—describing in loving detail the features of the Proximity Hotel, a green inn in Greensboro, N.C. Some hot hotels feature roofs with happening pool scenes. The Proximity's roof features solar panels and a vegetable garden.

The Wall Street Journal recently profiled Citigroup's efforts to save $100 million on energy costs. Among the measures: turning off escalators and a failed effort to crank up the heat in a Tampa office from 72 to 78. (It failed because sweltering employees revolted.) Citigroup is going through one of its periodic dark nights of the soul. The giant bank is on the hook for billions of loans to private-equity deals, and its stock sits at April 2000 levels. Were Citigroup to trumpet loudly its efforts to improve the bottom line by jacking up ATM fees, it would be pilloried. But when an unloved Fortune 500 company turns the office into a sweatbox, it is hailed as a planetary savior.

In the current zeitgeist, green companies that do what they're supposed to do—save money, raise profits—can earn valuable free air time that doubles as an objective third-party endorsement. And for an embattled company, going green is the ultimate conversation changer. Wal-Mart, the poster child for low wages, skimpy benefits, and unfashionable merchandise, has been lauded for its no-brainer efforts to increase the mileage of its mammoth truck fleet and its decision to offer more organic foods. Google, whose CEOs fly around the world in their own Boeing 767, is reaping a huge propaganda jolt from the 1.6-megawatt solar installation recently activated at its headquarters. (Double bonus: Google uses the system to charge plug-in hybrid cars!) In July, McDonald's earned a supersize portion of positive press when its U.K. unit announced it would convert 155 delivery trucks to run on biodiesel made from McNasty leftover french-fry grease.

The media love these stories, in part because advertisers—who are increasingly building their brand images by associating themselves with alternative energy—love the content. As a result, many companies might be better off dispensing with high-concept advertising altogether. (I don't get about half those Geico caveman ads, anyway.) Forget about the focus groups and the Gucci-wearing ad hipsters. Buy a few solar panels, offset some carbon and crank out some press releases—on recycled paper, naturally. Let word slip that your CEO lunches on organic salads and has started eating with his hands rather than using wasteful plastic utensils and paper plates. And if something really bad happens, like an accounting scandal, roll out the big guns: go carbon-neutral.

Patriotism used to be the last refuge of scoundrels. Now that refuge might be environmentalism. Imagine how much better off Britney Spears would be if she had shown up at the MTV Music Video Awards in a Prius, performed in a bustier laden with light-emitting diodes, and concluded by suggestively planting a tree to offset the emissions created during her disastrous show.

This article also appears in the Sept. 24, 2007, issue of Newsweek.



Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.