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New GRIID Feature – Dissecting Green Capitalism

August 3, 2010

In recent years, those who embrace the so-called free market system have been presenting themselves as a “green” business or promoting a form of corporate sustainability. We have already written a fair amount that critiques this new development in Capitalism, but we thought it would be important to have a section to archive articles that dissect corporate sustainability.

Starting today, GRIID will be posting articles that either critique “Green Capitalism” in general, focus on the sustainability claims of a particular company or provide information about resources that are truly sustainable and not just a green label.

Corporate Profile – ALCOA

Every week MiBiz sends out an E-mail about companies in the area that are promoting themselves as practicing some sort of sustainability. One of the companies featured this week was Alcoa Howmet in Whitehall.

The article in MiBiz talks about the company’s “Make an Impact” project, which is a joint effort between Alcoa and the Pew Center for Global Climate Change. The whole point of the “Make an Impact” project is for Alcoa to get the employees to think about ways to personally save some money and reduce their carbon footprint.

The whole webpage is designed to look at what one can do at home, with transportation, shopping, in the yard, recycling and at work. However, none of the suggestions are really advocating the kind of serious shift that is necessary to avert global warming. In fact, this seems to be the approach to much of the co-called sustainability efforts that corporate America practices, where they promote personal responsibility instead of corporate behavior.

The MiBiz article sites Alcoa Howmet representative Amy Heisser who says, “It’s absolutely an Alcoa value to really be able to sustain where we live, work and play.” The business paper does say that the Alcoa company in Whitehall plans to reduce some of its landfill waste, but they also acknowledged that the company increased “the amount of metal it has melted by 48 percent from 2002 to 2006.” Herein lies one of the many fallacies of Green Capitalism. It promotes what they label sustainability, while at the same time promoting growth. And we have to always ask ourselves what kind of growth are we talking about?

In the case of Alcoa, it means the mining and production of aluminum. By it’s own admission, Alcoa expects aluminum consumption to double by 2020. So, what does that mean for the planet and what is the company’s track record to date as it relates to environmentally sustainable practices?

First, it should be mentioned that Alcoa uses coal-fired power plants at several of its facilities in the US and we know how much carbon is produced from coal burning. Second, Alcoa has been cited numerous times by the state and federal agencies for pollution violations at facilities all across the US. One example is at the Alcoa facility near Austin, Texas where the EPA found them guilty of violating the Clean Air Act. “One hundred and four thousand tons of emissions (calculated from Alcoa’s own estimates) were pouring annually from the plant; including 40,000 tons of smog-producing nitrogen dioxode and 60,000 tons of acid-rain-generating sulphur dioxide, as well as highly toxic metals such as mercury, copper, lead, and others, which eventually accumulated in Texas lakes and rivers.”

Third, Alcoa operates in many countries and also has a history of polluting communities and eco-systems around the world. CorpWatch cites examples in Australia where Alcoa has polluted and they cite an example in Suriname where the company forced thousands of people to relocate so that the company could construct a damn to generate electricity for their production facility. Damning of rivers is common where aluminum production occurs and Alcoa operates 228 facilities in 32 different countries.

Politically, Alcoa is very connected and active in efforts to limit policies to reduce global warming. The company is a member of the US Climate Action Partnership, a business consortium that has actively worked to fight against or limit legislative efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in this country. As an individual corporation, Alcoa has spent lots of money to influence Washington politics and according to Open Secrets has spent over $1 million this year already lobbying members of Congress.

So while the Muskegon Chamber of Commerce might be endorsing Alcoa Howmet’s education programs about reducing one’s carbon footprint, we should not be fooled about Alcoa’s role in polluting the planet and negatively affecting communities of people around the world.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Heather Brown permalink
    August 3, 2010 5:14 pm

    I don’t see TV much but I was in a hotel room recently when I saw this ad: and nearly puked.

  2. Jeff Smith permalink
    August 3, 2010 6:11 pm

    Heather, I know what you mean. We did a deconstruction of an ad by Dow that was part of the same series that included the ad you linked to.

    The unfortunate reality is that these ads campaigns are very effective.

  3. August 8, 2010 12:19 am

    Interesting post and good analysis. I agree with you that extracting companies “easily” violate a sustainability condition. (Have you read The Natural Step?) However, while they are around and still needed (biomimicry might give us some solutions in the future), its important that they play a part in employee green awareness, wouldn’t you agree? If not the first, certainly one of the main stakeholders that should participate in the company’s turn around. I do address a bit of biomimicry on my blog, suggesting how companies like alcoa might survive in a sustainable future. Feel free to take a look and comment.

  4. September 4, 2010 5:07 am

    Green Capitalism is Tylenol, not a cure. I think making regular towns more like ecovillages might be the cure.

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