Environmentalism: just another commodity?

In the past few years, the nation has made great strides in its understanding and awareness of environmental issues. It seems even the staunchest of naysayers have defected to the tree-huggers' camp.

We've come a long way, for instance, from 2003 when Oklahoma Senator (and former chair of the Senate's key committee on the environment and public works) James Inhofe asserted that global warming is the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."

Instead, even the environmentally-intransigent Bush administration has acknowledged the issue, making gestures toward its resolution, as evidenced by its support of green legislation passed last December. The bill mandates such changes as the complete phaseout of the incandescent lightbulb by 2014 and a 40 percent increase in auto-fuel efficiency by 2020, among others.

So widespread is this environmental enlightenment that the commercial sector, too, has borne witness to an apparent renaissance of eco-consciousness. Increasingly, businesses are adopting advertising strategies with an environmentalist slant to keep their public image abreast of the trend. A notable example, Esurance, capitalizes on the green craze by using its cartoony commercials to boast of its sustainable business practices. Apparently other agencies build giant robots that eat trees, but Esurance employs a sexy, hybrid-loving insurance agent to blow them up. Who knew insurance was so glamorous and violent?

I took a look at the Esurance Web site to see exactly what they're doing to save the world, and was disappointed by what I saw. Apparently, her name is Erin Esurance - alliterated, but not very original - and she has her own blog. But moreover, the company saved a grand total of "649 trees in 2006 alone," based on its own estimates. Wow. There are like 649 trees in my backyard. Esurance's efforts are nothing short of half-assed, based on my own estimates.

The hollowness of the green-marketing trend is made even more painfully evident by the recent ad campaigns of a group called Americans for Balanced Energy Choices (ABEC), backed by the coal industry. The commercials range from simply an extension cord plugged into a lump of coal (what they call, "the fuel that powers our way of life") to an uplifting montage, complete with sweeping musical score and breathtaking nature imagery. They posit coal and petroleum as the wave of the future, remind viewers that 50 percent of their energy comes from coal and assure them that "technology can take us to clean." Whatever that means.

While inspiring at first glance, these messages are cheapened a bit when you consider that ABEC has been one of the loudest voices of opposition to green legislation.

The inconvenient truth is that many of the changes a lot of companies seem to be making for the benefit of the environment amount to little more than changes to their image. With all the warm, fuzzy feelings floating around, it's important not to forget that, by appearing to "go green," a lot of companies are simply adopting a new tactic to get more of yours.

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