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Mercedes-Benz, Greenwashing, and the Boy that Cried Wolf

| Friday October 2nd, 2009 | 1 Comment

Mercedes-Benz was recently busted for greenwashing of sorts: advertising the carbon emissions data of its new E-class saloon series in misleading terms. As punishment, Mercedes is not allowed to show the misleading advertisement in its current form. The incident is more than unfortunate, I believe, since its implications for green business could be manifold – ranging from delays in the greening of the auto industry to a sort of “boy that cried wolf” effect among consumers. The episode also has me wondering: do we take greenwashing seriously enough?

According to a report by businessgreen.com, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), a UK-based advertising watchdog, busted Mercedes for advertising the E-class series’ CO2 emissions as being 139 g/km. In reality, the series’ emissions depend on a number of factors, including whether the car has a manual or automatic gearbox, and whether it runs on diesel fuel. Even when a consumer chooses the most fuel-efficient of these options, only two of the 24 available specifications boast 139 g/km.

(Coincidentally, Mercedes is not alone in its predicament. The ASA also busted Lexus, Fiat, and Saab in the past 18 months for false advertising-type violations regarding environmental claims. These carmakers’ punishments were also relatively mild.)

If the primary punishment for falsely advertising a car’s emissions is banning the advert, what does a car firm really have to lose in running misleading ads? Maybe, by running half-truth ads, the auto company can attract a few more consumers before being busted. Even if the firm reveals the full story on the sales floor, it’s still finished half the sales battle. Or maybe few consumers will find out about the busts, allowing carmakers to keep their “going green” image intact. With slaps-on-the-wrist being the standard punishment for misleading green advertising (among carmakers), will green watchdogging become like a game of bop the weasel? Or worse, will consumers who are aware of and bothered by such antics lose their passion for supporting the sustainability movement?

At least with falsely-advertised medications, for example, the risk to consumers is clear, the stance of the government well-defined, and the punishment fear-inspiring. When will greenwashing be given due attention? I would argue that the danger it poses to the economy and the sustainability movement is significant.

I understand that greening any industry that isn’t already green will involve a number of hurdles, and it won’t be an easy road. But really – whether through stricter governmental or inter-industry controls or other means, shouldn’t the bar be set higher?

What do you think?


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  • William J. Broderick

    Seems like MB was punished for not having enough footnotes? 2 of 24 meeting that spec is better than 0/24.