Gas-Friendly to Gas-Free ?
GM's Attempt to Greenwash Its Image

Investigations Brief

Over the past year, General Motors has sought to promote its production and development of fuel-efficient vehicles. Its Gas-Friendly to Gas-Free campaign, launched in 2007, attempts to reframe GM as an environmentally responsible and progressive company. But despite GM's green rhetoric, the company remains a laggard in fuel economy and is still the leading producer of gas-guzzlers. GM also was the auto industries biggest lobbyist last year, working behind the scenes to stop Congress from increasing fuel economy standards.

The Campaign


Founded in 1908, General Motors (GM) is one of the biggest auto manufactures in the world, employing roughly 280,000 people in 35 countries, and producing over 9 million cars in 2007 [1]. In the 1990s, GM made record profits, thanks in large part to sales of gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks. More recently, the company has seen decreasing North American market share and profits as consumer interest in large SUVs and trucks drops off.

Campaign Details

In July 2007, GM used its best-selling Chevrolet line to launch a new Gas-Friendly to Gas-Free advertising campaign. The campaign highlights five ways Chevrolet is "greening" its fleet: increasing fuel efficiency; producing vehicle than can run on E85 ethanol; and developing hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fuel cells. Since the launch of the campaign, Chevy's website, commercials and print ads regularly contain green-friendly images (e.g. heart shaped leaves, sunflowers, and grassy fields) that suggest its support for the environment.

GM launched the campaign at the same time that Congress was debating increases to Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The ads supported the company's claim that it was already doing everything it could to improve fuel economy, thus additional federal mandates were not necessary [2],[3].

The Outcome

In terms of public perception, GM's messaging and tactics appears to be working. According to one study, 51 percent of respondents have a better opinion of GM now than they did a year ago. Of those, 35 percent cite GM's use of "green" technologies as the main reason.

On the policy front, GM was not able to stop Washington from increasing CAFE standards. It did, however, succeed in keeping the required increases smaller than what was initially introduced by Congress. It also managed to prevent the closing of a loophole that gives companies fuel economy credits for producing vehicles capable of running on ethanol, even if consumers instead fill those cars with regular gasoline.

Greenwash Revealed

Although it continues to lag behind other automakers, GM has started to design and produce vehicles with improved efficiency. This is certainly a positive development. But, what is misleading about GM's efforts is the extent to which the company has advertised the green technologies, while still engaging very heavily in production of gas-guzzling vehicles. What is worse, the company claimed to be a fuel solutions leader, while working behind the scenes to derail attempts to increase fuel economy standards.

Ad bluster

GM used its best selling brand and largest advertising budget - $750 million in 2006 - to promote a new green image [4],[5]. Yet, the technologies that GM advertises in its Gas-Friendly to Gas-Free ads remain mostly prospective. Super-efficient vehicles represent a small percentage of the 9.3 million cars GM produced in 2007. The company is only now introducing real hybrid vehicles, and its electric and fuel cell technologies are not yet production-ready.

In the ad below, GM states that that Chevrolet currently sells seven vehicles that get at least 30 miles per gallon (mpg) on the highway. Although accurate, the campaign fails to note that GM currently produces fifty-one other models that get less than 30 mpg, including thirty-five that get less than 20 mpg [6]. Currently, according to our analysis, no GM car leads its class in fuel economy and GM continues to be the leading producer of gas-guzzlers [7].

GM has made much of its support for E85 (ethanol) flex-fuel technology, putting it at the center of its green campaigns. But nowhere in its advertising does GM acknowledge that corn-based ethanol likely does not offer any significant climate benefit compared to petroleum and has a number of additional environmental concerns associated with its production [8]. GM does not acknowledge publicly that most of its E85-ready fleet is large SUVs and pickups, or that less than one percent of consumers buying these vehicles ultimately fuel them with ethanol [9].

This last point is particularly important because sales of these flex-fuel vehicles are what enabled GM to meet CAFE obligations in past years. Because of a loophole in the law, GM gets fuel economy credits for producing these vehicles, even though they do not usually run on ethanol. Without this loophole GM would have had to produce more efficient vehicles, or face more than $350 million in fines in previous years.

GM's new line of hybrids includes alternate versions of some of its worst gas-guzzlers: the Chevrolet Tahoe and GMC Yukon. These vehicles get only 22mpg at best, even with the hybrid technology. Last quarter GM sold only 655 hybrids, and nearly 800,000 non-hybrids [10], [11]. GM plans to put the technology in more SUVs and pick-ups in coming years, but has not announced plans for putting the technology in a compact car.

The jury remains out on whether GM will succeed in mass-producing the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid by 2010. At a Senate hearing last year, GM Vice President Beth Lowery said, "It will take several years to see if battery technology will occur that will let us bring [the Volt] to market." [12] And according to The Detroit News, the company faces a number of other technical challenges to large-scale production. Despite these hurdles, GM continues to promote the Volt and other future plug-ins heavily as the linchpin of its green strategy (see the Volt TV ad).

Another ad in the Fuel Solutions series promotes GM's Chevy Equinox hydrogen fuel cell concept car as "sustainable technology for a better environment." Yet to date, GM has put only 100 such cars on the road as a test fleet - and in all likelihood the cost of mass-producing these cars remains far too prohibitive (the ads note that the car is not available for purchase, but only in the fine print). In fact, company insiders have acknowledged that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles may not be ready for the mainstream market for many years [13].

Political Spin

At the same time that it was extolling its "green" credentials, GM also was working behind the scenes to undermine efforts to improve CAFE fuel economy standards.

GM sought to use its new "green" reputation to demonstrate that changes in existing CAFE standards were unnecessary. It argued that it and other automakers already were doing everything that they could to increase fuel economy and reduce emissions and that additional federal mandates would only cut into revenues and thus limit the funds available for innovation [14] [15]. As part of its campaign, GM brought its Chevy Volt concept car to Capitol Hill.

In an effort to stop increases to CAFE standards, GM spent $14.56 million on lobbying in 2007, more than any other automotive company or industry group - and significantly more than it had spent in any other recent year. It targeted Congress, as well as the White House, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Transportation [16].

GM also funds an industry lobby group, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM). Last summer, the group launched a misleading radio and print ad campaign in several Midwest states arguing that increased fuel economy standards would decrease the safety and functionality of automobiles. The radio ads (targeting soccer moms and pickup drivers) encouraged listeners to call or write their legislators to voice concern over proposed fuel economy increases.

GM's efforts also went beyond lobbying. The company, along with other automakers, filed lawsuits against states that attempted to limit vehicle carbon emissions. Although the courts have so far ruled against the auto companies, the Environmental Protection Agency has refused to grant states the permission they need to regulate CO2 emissions. Congress is currently looking into the EPA's decision.

Last year, GM joined the U.S. Climate Action Partnership (USCAP), a group of businesses and environmental groups that have come together to call on the federal government to require significant reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. GM's lawsuits against states trying to enact carbon caps are at odds with the mission of USCAP. In fact, USCAP has been criticized recently for the many discrepancies between its mission and the actions of its members in Washington.

Perhaps the most damning evidence of the distance between the company's green rhetoric and its actual thinking can be found in recent statements by one GM executive. In January 2008, Robert A. Lutz, GM's Vice Chairman for Global Product Development told reporters that hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius "make no economic sense" because their price will never come down [17]. He then went on to describe global warming as "a total crock...I'm a skeptic, not a denier...I'm motivated more by the desire to replace imported oil than by the CO2 [argument]."

More information on GM's greenwashing track record:
Source Watch
PR Watch

[1] General Motors
[2] Senate Testimony
[3] House Testimony
[4] Automotive News 2008 Market Data: North American Sales Auto News
[5] Crain Communications and The Ad Age Group. Advertising Age 2007 Marketers Profile Yearkbook Ad Age
[6] EPA's U.S. Environmentalp Protection Agency
[7] Automotive News 2008 Market Data: North American Sales Auto News
[8] The Washington Post
National Geographic
[9] National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
[10] Automotive News
[11] Automotive News
[12] Senate Testimonyf
[13] Wall Street Journal, "GM, Toyota Doubtful on Fuel Cells' Mass Use" March 5, 2008
[14] Senate Testimony
[15]House Testimony
[16] GM Lobby Record January - June 2007
GM Lobby Record July - December 2007

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