Norway outlaws “green” cars

greencar.jpg

The government of Norway recently banned the use of the phrases clean, green, and environmentally friendly from all car ads. This, as some have noted, is kind of funny. It also strikes me as weirdly wrongheaded.

The rationale for the ban is simple. All cars pollute, even fuel-efficient cars, so calling a car green is a bit of a stretch. It’s like referring to filtered cigarettes as healthy. Norwegian government-type person Bente Oeverli explains, “Cars cannot do anything good for the environment except less damage than others.”

But let’s put our carbon offsetting hat on for a second (yes, the one with the tassles), and recall that all emissions are equivalent. The U.S. puts out a certain amount of auto emissions every year. All other things being equal, if you introduce a new vehicle with better fuel efficiency, emissions will drop below this baseline. We can even put some hard numbers around this: a recent study suggested that plug-in hybrids have the potential to erase about half a billion tons of U.S. emissions by 2050.

Now imagine that I invent a whizzy gizmo that clamps onto people’s tailpipes and is also capable of erasing half a billion tons of emissions by 2050. Further imagine that this gizmo is almost free. Why free? Because I’m assuming that plug-in hybrids will eventually be cost-competitive with conventional cars, meaning they effectively won’t carry any price premium for their environmental attributes.

“Green” is a pretty nebulous term, but I think it’s safe to assume that my whizzy gizmo would be considered one of the most awesomely green inventions to come around in a long time. So why not the plug-in hybrid?

Now, I’m not naïve enough to think that manufacturers are applying the term green to only the cleanest, least environmentally harmful cars. And a big part of me would like to see the word rescued from abuse. Green is one of the most nebulous clichés in Marketingland.

But it’s precisely that overuse that exempts the term from accusations of marketing fraud. We’re all suitably jaded by now to know to be skeptical. If Budweiser can claim that Bud Lite tastes great, surely Toyota can call a Prius green. As great legal mind Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “Fraud is a crime; B.S. is what makes the world go round.”*

* I totally made this quote up. But he would have said this if he had thought of it.

Photo available under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Meltwater.

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  1. Anonymous - September 12, 2007

    I work in advertising and the problem is that clients want to jump on the green bandwagon because they think that the word carries weight with consumers. So they find any tiny thing about their product that could be called green, and they force us to tout it. It’s a sick business, I know. But until there is some sort of check and balance for the term green, it will be applied to anything that could marginally be considered green and dilute the power of the word.

  2. Anonymous - September 12, 2007

    I beleive your point is that some things are marginaly less harmful than others, and that advertising should be free to promote these difference.
    Do you doubt that the lable ‘green’ applied to anything might create a misunderstanding? I see that Toyota has had a good deal of success along these lines, forcing many millions tons of nickel inot the environment, for an a yet un-assessed impact. Could this have been mitigated if discussed?
    I also not your Ad- ‘ditch your car, sign up for flex car’
    Does terra pass have a relationship of some sort that bears disclosure?

  3. Chad - September 12, 2007

    These kind of free-speech restrictions are one of the many ways environmentalists and liberals keep shooting themselves in the foot. The bar for banning speech should be set very, very high. This ain’t even on the ground floor. A term such as “green” is far too nebulous to be fradulent in most cases, and in any case, most people are smart enough to understand that it can mean both “good for the environment” and “less bad for the evironment than the alternatives”. Indeed, in 95% or more of cases, it is used in the latter context. There is nothing unusual about describing a car as “green”.

  4. Tom Arnold - September 12, 2007

    Anon:
    Yep, you can get a TerraPass with you FlexCar membership:
    http://www.terrapass.com/blog/posts/2007/06/flexcar-teams-up-with-terrapass-to-reduce-carbon-emissions.html
    Also, a wide variety of studies show net benefits from Hybrids, even when accounting for battery impacts.

  5. Brian - September 12, 2007

    Adam Stein’s humorous piece on “Green Cars Banned” is a welcome editorial. The dialogue on enviromental affairs needs an excuse for meaningless, incremental improvements, if only to make significant solutions appear stronger.
    “Green” is indeed a nebulous term, and so are the phrases “carbon footprint” and “compassionate conservative.” I suppose that Mr. Stein’s point that a greener car is better than a less green car is made as best he can make it. But there is a mile of difference between any kind of car and no car at all. (Remember the three R’s of recycling begin with REDUCE!)
    Promoting cars as green to consumers encourages the debate to stay within the realm of the comfortable and relieves us all of real change to halt our collective destuction of natural systems that sustain us.
    What’s next, permitting partially organic food products to be labeled “organic” Oh, wait, that’s already been done!

  6. Steve - September 12, 2007

    The guys in Norway are correct.

    Sure a bit has been done to reduce consumption of fuel. How do you suppose we get rid of the battery toxins, the dangerous chemicals including the asbestos, metal and ceramic composites used in radiator hoses, fan belts, clutch pads, brakes and yes tires. Sure…better mileage is cool. But what about the tires and brakes of new cars. A regular tire and brake still throws pollution wears at about 90 mgs/km EACH. In green terms thats about 720 mgs/mile or 7200 mgs per mile. By the way that’s about the same as a smoker sends from either end of his cigarette in a whole year.

    Own a pickup, minivan, SUV, camper, large truck and those tires numbers are driven up at a rapid rate.

    It takes 25 gallons of petroleum to make a tire for a an 18 wheeler, 18 if it’s a retread. But as it wears 25 pounds of highly toxic dust flies into the air from each tire. the average truck driver will use 3 sets of tires a year. The average Mustang driver will replace his oversize tires and brakes at least once every year or two. Thats rubber, asbestos, and every other toxic chemical known to man flying into your air, park and playgrounds, yard, home, lake, river, stream, eventually it is in your clothes, into your mouth and into your body. Even on the hormone laden corn you are trying to use for fuel.

    By the way. If a single tree can produce 40 pounds of hydro carbons in 2-3 months during the heat of the summer, what do you think millions of acres of hormone driven corn will be doing to the air in the heat of summer, or the factories tearing that mush up. Why all of a sudden do they have to use the corn, why can’t they just use the green stuff and sell the actual yellow stuff to consumers like they have for hundreds of years. Let’s not forget the increase in trucks and tractors to get the stuff to market

    There’s nothing green or greener about modifying the the type of exhaust emission from a car when it’s still producing about 7 liters per 1000 miles. If you really think it’s better or safer lock yourself into a garage with the engine running. Enjoy

    Now this little article will probably never be posted because it shed some truth on vehicle pollution, it already triggered the site’s spam god who still thinks that 100 or so pounds of tire and brake waste floating in your water per year is less harmful than the 7-10,000 mgs of water soluble products a smoker produces in a year.
    Lite-em-up
    [Ed. — Our spam filter doesn’t think anything at all. It’s not sentient, unfortunately, which is probably why it does such an atrocious job.]

  7. Anonymous - September 12, 2007

    I think this ban represents a victory for the oil lobby. It is going against the spirit of the word “green” which I interpret to mean it’s at least better for the environment. So, environmentalists are not allowed to speak. Only, oil people can speak? Where’s the justice in that?

  8. Chris - September 12, 2007

    For once I disagree with TP – Mr. Oeverli is correct in that any vehicle will necessarily result in carbon output (not least of which is the carbon resulting from the production of the vehicle). Yes, some cars are responsible for less CO2 than others, but what makes the current baseline more valid than a much lower one? Is the concept of ‘green’ so fluid and relative to encompass any improvement, no matter how small?
    Consumers are adopting the ‘green’ mantle in droves, making it easy to keep consuming under the guise that they’re doing something good – when in reality, if you’re discarding a still-useful, but non-green good for a new green one, you may actually be doing more harm than good (by front-loading the emissions generated by the production of new consumables).
    I say “hear, hear” to Norway. We should consider doing the same here in the US.

  9. Anonymous - September 12, 2007

    Regarding the “restrictions” on free speech: In the US, “free” speach has always been subject to time, place, and manner restrictions (no yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre). To me it seems that the Norwegian law merely restricts the manner in which advertisers can discuss the vehicles benefits.
    Many restrictions currently in place dictate what can and cannot be said while advertising a product. More simply, one cannot falsely advertise the attributes of a product (such as a car that is “good” for the environment). Nothing that I read serves to bar an ad from claiming that a car has lower emissions than a certain segment of the car market, or that a car’s emissions have been reduced by x% compared to the previous model. Personally I do not see how this is much of a stretch from the restrictions placed on American advertisements.

  10. 2Wheels - September 12, 2007

    I believe more truth in advertising would be to tout a product as “greener” rather than “green” if green is a direction to head on a continuum, rather than a destination that a human being, or a product like a car, may expect to fully arrive at in our own lifetimes. The notion of ecological footprint says we will always have one, as long as we are living– the goal being to tread more lightly on the planet as long as we are here. So that there may be enough resources to go around for all, now and in the future. Maybe the Norwegian advertisers will be allowed to say “greener” (if students from the Evergreen State College may be able to permit that).

    The verb would therefore be “greening” which, in my understanding of the common usage is almost synonymous with the “greened up” products. We must continue to recognize and push for more advances in this direction, just as the Prius in its second generation gained some extra MPG. We aren’t at green nirvana yet by any means.

    I have to wonder if plug-in hybrids are such a massive step forward from a carbon standpoint since in my state of Ohio, 89 percent of the grid electricity comes from coal and the rest is “nukular”. Presently no Renewable Portfolio Standard exists here as a backstop and no grid-based options to buy other than green tags from other states. My only option, if I can afford it someday, is to buy my own solar panels for a grid-tied setup. But how would that charge my car up at night? I guess net metering could enable shifts in my supply and demand over the course of a day. The whole task seems rather daunting to me even with a technical background.

    I have been bike commuting the past two years except in winter when I take a bus (the fleet now runs on biodiesel, kewl…). My household also owns two hybrids which we use for 85 percent of our annual auto miles. For the past few years, I have found Terrapass to be my best option to reduce the footprint (in carbon terms at the margin, at least) not only of auto usage but also our home utility energy and air travel emissions this year.

  11. Aaron A. - September 12, 2007

    Chad (#3) & Anon (#7):
    Here in America, we have restrictions on what advertisers can say too. Terms like “low fat” are strictly defined and regulated, and any inappropriate use of those phrases can result in fines or federal prosecution. While this doesn’t preclude the use of other meaningless marketing-speak like “fresh” or “sensible choices,” it does set some standard for what companies can claim about their products.

    The Norwegian government is just establishing a baseline for product claims; if advertisers can’t turn “green” into a diluted one-word copout like they have in America, they’ll have to make factual claims like “40 km/L” or “already meets government emissions standards for 2015.” If there’s an actual feature of their product that they can point to as being environmentally friendly, they can use that claim in their ads. But they can’t just say “buy our stuff ‘cuz we’re green,” based solely on the fact that none of their employees has personally killed a baby seal with a tennis racquet (Anon #1 knows what I’m talking about).

    Anon #7, nobody’s restricting the ability of environmentalists to speak. If you reread the article, you’ll see that this law restricts what car companies can say in their advertisements. I’d only call that a victory for industry insofar as it discourages Norwegians from reading up on their next car and making their own decisions.

  12. Adam Stein - September 12, 2007

    Hi all,
    Good comments. I actually think this is a pretty interesting and tricky topic. Since some have wondered what my exact stance is on this, I’ll lay it out briefly in a less tongue-in-cheek way:
    1) I don’t think at present it makes sense to limit use of the word “green” in advertisements, because I don’t think the word has a coherent enough meaning to be attached to any specific claim that could be called fraudulent.
    2) Additionally, an across-the-board ban on the word seems extreme. Some cars can make claims to being green that are at least as credible as other products billed as green.
    Now to expand on both of those points a bit:
    To the first point, there is a massive gray area here. Obviously, we’d like to prevent advertisers from making overtly fraudulent claims about their products. But there are wide range of descriptive terms that don’t lend themselves to precise definition. If McDonald’s wanted to start advertising Big Macs as health food because they contain protein, I suspect they’d run afoul of some regulations. But as Aaron notes, it gets mighty tricky when you get to other terms such as “fresh” or “quality” or even “nutritious.” I imagine the government has hammered out some tortured consensus with the industry on the use of these terms, but given that no such consensus exists around the term green, I just can’t see enacting a ban.
    To the second point, I wasn’t really arguing in my post that plug-in hybrids have actually earned the designation “green”; rather I was arguing that plug-in manufacturers could certainly advance a very logical, non-silly case as to why they should be able to call themselves green. Of course, other people can advance all sorts of good reasons why they’re wrong, but this isn’t good enough to justify a ban, in my estimation. The whole thing falls under the category of honest disagreement rather than fraudulent claim.
    And that’s my armchair lawyering for the day. I reserve the right to change these opinions as soon as someone points out stupid they are.

  13. Anonymous - September 12, 2007

    ADAM,
    I’m old enough to be very very skeptical about schemes like the ‘offsets’ now being touted everywhere. A friend (an academic, successful, rich) drives a Prius… and he’s increased his driving because the car is ‘green’ and he can afford to buy the offsets. I tell him… these outfits (like yours, Adam) should show us the money… open your books… let potential clients see how many dollars actually buy offsets and how many buy neat things and holidays for Adam and crew. Until that happens, no offsets for me.

  14. Tom Arnold - September 12, 2007

    Anon:
    We do open our books, to a qualified auditor to make sure that we demonstrate that we have fulfilled our obligations to customers. And we publish that report right here on our website.
    Its sad that your friend is driving more, but our recent survey showed quite a different picture — that TerraPass members are deeply committed to low carbon living, and that TerraPass is just one step along the way.
    As for Adam, I can one vouch that he works like a dog and is not known for vacations. But, TerraPass is a voluntary thing, so if you don’t want to do it, no one is forcing you to.

  15. MNWalleye - September 14, 2007

    Kind of ironic that Norway’s socialist economy depends on a reliable source of oil revenue. Also kind of ironic that Norway known for it’s cross country ski culture is also heavily dependent on oil for the construction of skis, poles, boots and the multitude of ski wax. Maybe an image of an oil platform on the Norwegian flag would be appropriate.
    Evidence is now mounting that bio-fuels may not be the lifesaver we have been looking for after all. Ah but politically correct decisions are not always the same environmental sound decisions; http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18551000/
    But heck, what do I know? I’m just a bike rider

  16. Hannah - September 18, 2007

    I’d like to weigh in on the evolution of the term “green” in this context and how happy I am to be seeing it make a comeback. Even as few as four years ago, calling something “green” in politics was a lot like killing an idea. “Green” as a descriptor was construed as far too fruity (liberal really), to be viable or sustainable; two excellent words that helped bring green back. Slowly, green has been stealing back its appeal as a connotation of sound environmental principles and hip living. As a movement goes, it helps to have green in vogue as much as it helps to have sound science support your arguments if you want to reach a broader audience. Yes, we know, like Kermit, it’s not easy to BE green, hence the argument about what that actually means, but, the more this word gets bandied about, the better chance we all have of achieving the underlying goals behind its overly liberal application. Eventually, like organic, it would be good to define what this entails on advertisements — but for now, bring on the green!

  17. alvinwriter - September 19, 2007

    Banning the use of the word “green” will only result in the use of other terms that deliver the same meaning. That’s what advertising does. It creates franchise benefits or images to products that would otherwise not get any attention. This can also be done visually by associating “green” imagery to a product or service.
    U.S. court dismisses global warming suit against automakers: http://www.thenewsroom.com/details/737724?c_id=wom-bc-ar
    – Alvin from TheScienceDesk at the Voxant NewsRoom

  18. Marty - February 15, 2008

    Steve, comment 6, is a genius.
    I love those correlations!