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The Triple Bottom Line and Sustainability?

March 30, 2010

This is the second article in a series that will investigate environmental issues for the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day.

As we mentioned in the first article in this series, there has been a significant shift around environmental issues, from challenging corporate polluters to green consumerism or green capitalism.

Green capitalism promotes the idea that the market will solve our environmental problems, since the market provides the only real incentive to make the necessary changes. This mentality has manifested itself in what many in the green capitalism sector call the Triple Bottom Line (TBL) – Profits, Planet and People.

The advocates of TBL believe that we can save the planet respect people and make a profit all at the same time. Thousands of companies promote themselves as practicing the TBL, even many of the Fortune 500 companies like Wal-Mart. The TBL philosophy is also what local business entitles promote, like the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum.

Business publications have also been promoting the TBL principles, like the paper that MiBiz puts out called TBL. The featured article for the most recent TBL is entitled, “Ford’s Sustainable Shift.”

The article provides an overview of what the Ford Motor Company has done in recent years to promote what they think is a more sustainable business practice. This all began by hiring someone to do public relations work and eventually someone who would develop a strategic plan on how to move the auto company in that direction.

The company sustainability person, John Viera, does acknowledge that climate change is real, but ultimately says that even if they build more energy efficient vehicles, “consumers are looking for affordability, not fuel economy.” So it seems that Ford is just responding to ”market demands.”

The most interesting comment from Viera was, “Electric vehicles are not part of our core strategy right now. The bottom line is if you want to have a significant impact on CO2, you need to do it with high volumes.” So, Ford’s solution to reducing carbon emissions is to sell more cars. This notion is affirmed later in the article when Viera says, “The biggest challenge is going to be in developing countries. Today, there are about 750 million vehicles in the world. By 2030, there will be 2 billion. If you think automotive is a dying industry, you’re misleading yourself.”

Nowhere in the article is there any concrete evidence that Ford will actually make any real changes to reducing carbon emissions globally. In fact, it appears that they will do just the opposite.

Even if the vehicles of the future use less fossil fuels or run completely off of renewable energy, it doesn’t take into account the amount of energy and natural resources used to make cars – metals, plastic, rubber, computer parts, etc. If Ford is projecting correctly that there will be 2 billion cars in the world by 2030 that would also mean more roads and parking space, which means more asphalt and concrete, which will cover more of the land.

Any discussion about the future of transportation and sustainability must look at the importance of mass transit for the majority of people, redesigning communities that promote more walking & bicycling, and less mobility. None of this is what the Ford Motor Company is advocating, so we have to seriously question their so-called commitment to sustainability.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    March 31, 2010 4:45 am

    “consumers are looking for affordability, not fuel economy.”

    This reminds me of the things I’ve read about how the Big Three resisted adding safety measures in cars in the 1960s and 70s…arguing that consumers would not like the price hikes involved for features like nonreflective dashboards and seatbelts. Every year the car industry would add between $700 and $1,000 worth of style-based changes to cars. During those same years, they were spending between 25 and 50 cents a year on safety improvements.

    Everything you’ve cited here seems to indicate that they are using the same arguments to justify not spending more on fuel efficiency and alternate fuels. “The consumer doesn’t want it.” The learning curve in the car industry is a flat line.

  2. March 31, 2010 1:34 pm

    Kate, they did talk about fuel efficiency in the article and what some of their goals are over the next 20 years, but none of their standards are adequate to meet the need to reduce the amount of carbon emissions necessary. I didn’t focus on the fuel efficiency issue mostly because it doesn’t seem like cars, no matter how fuel efficient they are can ever be sustainable.

  3. Kate Wheeler permalink
    March 31, 2010 6:29 pm

    Jeff, I think you were wise not to focus on the car companies’ plans for future fuel economy. They’ve been promising fuel economy for so long that their speeches on it are entirely canned and entirely hypocritical–it’s just like their talk about safety issues.

    First, in the 60s and 70s, they built those boat-like cars with the worst fuel efficiency in the world. It was only after the Japanese started besting them in sales in the 80s that they even thought about downsizing their cars…it was never for sustainability reasons, just bottom-line reasons.

    And of course, as soon as gas prices dropped in the 90s, US automakers started coming out with SUVs. Nine miles to the gallon at best.

    I know you’re right that cars of any kind will never achieve sustainability. But it will never even come close to happening when all we have is 40 years of empty promises from automakers who don’t take this issue seriously at all.

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