If you ask me, as the price of fossil fuels helps push sustainability into the mainstream, the eco crowd looks a lot like today's early adopters for tomorrow's mass market. That's why, a couple of weeks back, I wrote (here and here) about how companies could win over the eco-conscious (hint: by not making uninhabitable the planet that six billion of us call home).
I said that making a splash with the greenest product in a sector might win you sales but not loyal, long-lasting customers. Because unless your company demonstrates a true commitment to sustainability and makes the eco-worried fall in love, they will simply move on when the next company comes out with an even greener product.
Toyota has done me the favor of proving my point.
Seven years ago, when the car maker came out with its Prius hybrid, the Sierra Club invented an award for excellence in environmental design to give Toyota. Now, according to Newsweek, the head of Sierra's global warming project, Dan Becker, calls the company a "hypocrite" for siding with Detroit car makers in opposing higher fuel efficiency standards for cars. "It's embarrassing to have applauded Toyota for the Prius," says Becker, "and now have them acting so irresponsibly."
The environmental community has turned on Toyota. First, it quietly castigated the car maker for joining the Detroit Three in a lawsuit against California over legislation to reduce global-warming gases from cars by 30 percent within a decade, which would require cars to get up to 43 miles per gallon. Opposition increased when Toyota—in contrast to Honda and Nissan—sided with Detroit to try to block legislation currently before Congress to boost fuel economy for all new vehicles to 35mpg by 2020, up from 25mpg today.
That makes Toyota a traitor in the eyes of the environmental community, and what they have to say about car makers matters more and more as gas prices skyrocket.
Several environmental groups have launched a "How Green Is Toyota?" publicity blitz, which includes a letter-writing campaign they say has clogged the inbox of Toyota's top U.S. exec with more than 100,000 e-mails. In Detroit last month, eco-warriors stormed a Toyota dealership and draped it with a banner showing flag-wrapped coffins beside the slogan "Driving War and Warming." "Is Toyota really committed to being green, or are they just green scamming?" asks Rob Perks of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
And the funny thing is, for all the blacking of its own eye with environmentalists, Toyota looks like it hasn't even got what it wanted. Congressional negotiators have finally reached a deal energy legislation that would force American automakers to improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and light trucks by 40 percent to 35 miles per gallon on average by 2020. Notice I said good, not great, because what most environmentalists say we really need is at least 40 miles per gallon.
Which brings me back to my point about integrity, a true commitment to sustainability, and the loyalty of eco-conscious customers. Six months ago, if I thought of buying a car, I wouldn't have even bothered researching before getting myself a Prius. Now, suddenly, Nissan and Honda look pretty attractive.
Toyota blew it.
After all, who's better? The companies who don't stand in the way of nationwide fuel efficiency standards, or the company who produces one fuel efficient car and then fights for the privilege of producing more SUVs?