Toyota is No Friend of the Earth, Say Greens

Last week I praised Toyota’s environmental efforts but a new and sharply critical ad campaign is making me reconsider.
Even as Toyota continues its advertising campaign to promote its Hybrid Synergy Drive technology with the “what if…” series, criticism comes from the green group Bluewater Network, a division of Friends of the Earth. “Is Toyota a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?” they ask in a series of new ads.
The folks at Bluewater Network point out Toyota’s environmental policies are inconsistent. Toyota is using the eco-friendly angle to promote hybrids while suing to overturn California’s new regulations to reduce smog and global warming pollution from automobiles. Toyota is also opposing efforts in Congress to significantly raise the federal CAFE fuel mileage standards.
Danielle Fugere, Director of Climate Change at Bluewater Network is quoted as saying “[Toyota is] fighting against significantly increasing U.S. fuel mileage standards and suing to stop the states from cutting emissions.” Fugere points out “How can they claim to be an environmental leader while undermining the very laws that would protect the planet? Toyota needs to figure out what they stand for, because they can’t have it both ways.”
He states “We think that misleads the public who believe hybrid technology comes with a fuel efficiency increase,” Fugere said. “Toyota is not fulfilling its promise.”
“Is this the same company that brought us the hybrid Prius, claiming to be an environmental leader?” the ad asks. I agree that Toyota could be doing more. Toyota is staying true to form by backing proven technology rather than gambling on something speculative and unproven like electrical vehicles or hydrogen. How does Toyota perform on fuel economy? According to an EPA report cited in this Detroit Free Press article the Toyota fleet’s average fuel economy was 30 MPG 1985 and 27.5 MPG in 2005.
In the same article Nancy Hubbell, a Toyota spokeswoman said “Toyota’s line of vehicles has definitely changed, but that’s based on consumer preferences.” Fair enough. Hubbell verifies that Toyota is part of the coalition opposing the California emissions standard, but that Toyota is only doing so because they want these laws to be passed by the federal government. That either sounds like typical Japanese long-term thinking or cynical American PR spin.
It appears that Toyota will surpass GM in 2006-2007 and become the number one producer and seller of automobiles on earth. With this type of achievement comes some responsibility, if you believe in Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).
Toyota makes a good showing of taking their CSR seriously, but if these Friends of the Earth are to be believed, Toyota is not focusing their environmental efforts on where they could have the biggest impact – the fuel economy of their automobiles. With the output of 9.2 million expected in the year ending March 2007, making even a 5% improvement across their entire fleet would have a greater impact than promoting hybrids. Why not do both?
What’s more disappointing is that if hybrid technology succeeds and Toyota continues to dominate, this will likely slow the development of alternative non-fossil fuels such as solar, bio-fuels, and hydrogen.
The comedian Al Franken was on television last night promoting his new book. One of his suggestions for the future of America was an ‘Apollo Program’ for alternative energy. While I don’t agree with all of his politics, this seems like an infinitely better idea than our President’s challenge to return to the moon by 2015 or to send a man to Mars. With the way our politicians are behaving lately, we’re liable to spend taxpayer money on building a bridge to Mars.