Whoever coined the phrase "the grass is greener on the other side,"
you can bet your bottom dollar it wasn't someone looking across the
ocean to America.
Apart from the US, nearly all the developed world's countries have
approved a plan to implement the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty pledging to
reduce the production of greenhouse gases. The Clinton administration
helped negotiate the treaty, but the Bush administration refused to sign
it, and the Senate indicated that it would not ratify it. The US is the
world's biggest greenhouse emitter, and without its signature, the
document is, most say, next to worthless.
So consumers overseas now have a handy excuse to fall back on that
favorite stereotype: the corpulent American in a cowboy hat waddling to
his gas-guzzling SUV, laughing indulgently while his car's exhaust fumes
obliterate the ozone layer.
The corporate Kyoto debate
Steve Harris, General Motors' VP of communications, thinks there is a
misperception about American companies - domestically and from
"From an energy-usage standpoint, the US is seen as less efficient," he
complains, "but if they were more familiar with the various corporations
in the US, they would see a higher level of attainment here in terms of
Dean Tougas, a spokesman for Boeing (neutral on Kyoto, as the company
provides products and services to a number of the governments that are
party to the negotiations), concurs that a lot of corporate damage has
been done by the US staying out of the Kyoto agreement. "There is a
perception that businesses in general - and US businesses in particular
- are not doing anything about reducing greenhouse gases, and are
opposed to the Protocol. Many consumers think that there's a uniform
policy on the part of US companies to ignore this issue."
Though Boeing does not sell to consumers, it nonetheless recognizes the
importance of having a good reputation. To this end, it has even used
the controversy to its own advantage. "As the public has become more
aware of this and it's become a political issue too, the actions of
industry are being scrutinized. It gives us a chance to talk about the
things that normally the public wouldn't be aware of, but our customers
It would appear that whether or not a company supports the Protocol is
less important than the overall perception consumers have of it - which
seems to be shaped by the kind of products that are manufactured. BP
Amoco, for example, supports the treaty, but has received as much
criticism as the oil companies that don't - perhaps even more, as it the
company is an easy target for a hungry media.
Regardless, BP Amoco is actively pushing its support of the Protocol,
and its director of external affairs, Sarah Howell, explains, "We're
getting the message out through testimonies. We testified on our carbon
sequestration program in front of the Senate Committee of Energy and
Natural Resources just last week, and on our internal emissions trading
system in front of the Senate Committee of Commerce, Science and
Transportation last September."
These activities have gained favorable coverage, adds Howell. "We've
been interviewed by Air Daily, US News & World Report, NPR, Nature
magazine, Rolling Stone, and Gannett News Service on our position on
climate change, and what we are doing to address concerns surrounding
ExxonMobil's opposition to the Kyoto agreement has made it the target of
worldwide protests. Its message has shifted little from May's global
marketing campaign, timed to support Bush's decision: "Political goals
were set without a sober assessment of economic and technical realities
or public toleration of major lifestyle changes. This was reckless given
the central role played by energy in all economies," one ad read. Since,
the company's strategy has been to consistently point out the "serious
flaws" in the Protocol.
The media tends to repeat the oversimplified view that companies
supporting the Protocol are environmentally friendly, and those that
don't are not.
The logic is wobbly at best; that would be saying that the treaty itself
is flawless. And among other criticisms, many say that the bar has been
set too low, and is almost encouraging corporations to rest on their
Cleaning up without Kyoto
GM has made public its opposition to the treaty: "We support the concept
of increasing fuel efficiency," says David Barthmuss, General Motors'
manager of energy, environment, and sustainability communications, "but
we think there is a better way (than the Kyoto Protocol) to achieve
these ends. The treaty, when it was first drawn up, didn't involve, or
apply to, some of the leading polluters; and the thought was that too
much of the burden was placed on American businesses. Yes, we can make
terrific strides, but if they are not applied elsewhere, it won't do
GM's strategy is threefold: improving its products, improving its
plants, and entering into partnerships with environmental groups. Point
by point, for example, it is working on "removing the vehicle from the
debate," says Barthmuss, by removing 90% of pollutants from the internal
combustion engine and investing heavily in developing a hydrogen-based
GM is also cleaning up its manufacturing plants - in August, the company
will receive the Stockholm Water Prize for its efforts at cleaning its
water policy in Mexico. The company has also partnered with the Nature
Conservancy to preserve one of the world's most endangered ecosystems in
Brazil, a cause to which GM recently donated $10 million.
These efforts are broadcast - and have been since the mid-'90s - via a
sustainability report on all of GM's activities, now available
(In recent months, GM unveiled a "sustainability" Web site,
Among other media tactics, GM brought reporters from all over the world
to Mesa, AZ for the trial of its prototype hydrogen-fuelled known as the
HydroGen 1. "Normally we would have just done that on our own," says
But despite GM's measurable investment in attempting to minimize the
environmental impact its processes have, it is still a target of
criticism by many groups, which underlines the black-and-white view that
concordance is good, and opposition is bad. A former Greenpeace
executive in the UK launched a Web site last week, Families Against Bush
(www.fabclimate.org), which named and shamed those companies that
supported the rejection of the agreement, including GM, and suggested
alternative brands for the shopping basket: those that supported the
treaty. Some brands on the boycott list are Texaco (ExxonMobil), Twix
(M&M Mars), Wash & Go (Procter & Gamble), and Philadelphia (Kraft).
However, another auto company exec says, "There are so many groups
flying around that it's hard to see their messages and it's hard to take
them all seriously. The Kyoto Protocol is flawed, and the companies that
don't support it are still acting to ensure that they are as
environmentally responsible as they can be - over and above any
requirements set by any treaties."
Barthmuss agrees: "Whether or not you support the Protocol, you have to
be publicly accountable. We just prefer to act through deeds, not