Green Rankings 2009: Greenwashing Corporate Reputations

Over the summer, I stayed at four hotels in the United States: big resort, rustic refuge, boutique city inn, cheap college motel. They were all owned by different companies, but they had one thing in common: A little card on the bathroom counter telling me that the establishment was very concerned about the environment, and pleading with me to do my part to help them save the earth by hanging up my wet towels and using them again the next day. Two of the hotels also placed a card next to the bed informing me that housekeeping would not change the sheets unless I (selfishly, it was strongly implied) left the card on the pillow.

It is true that keeping all those towels clean requires an enormous amount of electricity and water and soap and bleach, and that cutting down on the number of loads of laundry would be more eco-friendly than my insisting on a new towel each day. But am I a heartless cynic for doubting that a collective environmental angst has seized the hospitality industry?

Here is an alternative explanation: All that water, soap, and electricity costs a lot of money and eats into the hotel's profits. A little card on the counter telling customers that they won't get new towels because the hotel doesn't want to pay for laundry wouldn't go over very well. But by couching it as a green crusade, the hotels actually get credit for providing less service to their customers, while pocketing the difference.

Industry groups that advise hotels on becoming more environmentally friendly tend to stress the money they'll save just as much as the benefits to the planet. "Why should hotels be green?" asks the Green Hotels Association's Web site. "Haven't you heard? Being green goes directly to your bottom line." The site explains that by getting guests to recycle towels and linens, hotels can save 5 percent on utility bills. Testimonials from the group's members show that those guilt-inducing cards really work. "Some days, housekeeping staffers, who usually clean 15 rooms a day, don't change a single bed," said one satisfied hotel owner, who estimates that "70 percent of people staying more than one night participate in the program." Another member reports that far fewer guests ask for new towels.

So let's review: We give up a nice luxury to save the hotel money; the hotel congratulates itself on being green for peer pressuring us into giving up the luxury under the pretext of environmental consciousness; the hotel keeps the money. Nice work.

Am I making too much of this? After all, even if profit is the motive, the net result is a reduction in the hotel's "carbon footprint," as the vogue expression goes. But here's what gets me: the hotels I stayed in this summer didn't seem all that interested in being green when it came to other things. The lobby of the big resort was decadently air conditioned to meat locker temperatures. All day long, that frosty air rushed out the vast double doors, which were left flung open in the July heat. The resort also had a fleet of big, gas guzzling vans idling at the curb to transport guests around the grounds. The drivers didn't wait for the vehicles to fill up before pulling away; often they would chauffeur one person in a 16 passenger vehicle that would be lucky to get 6 miles per gallon. I'd have felt a lot less skeptical about those save-the-planet towel cards if they had read, "We want to replace our vans with earth friendlier natural gas models. But they're expensive, and we don't want to raise room rates. Please consider re-using your towels and we'll put all the money we save on laundering toward more fuel efficient vehicles."

Hotels are not the only offenders in this kind of petty green fakery. Environmentalism is "in" at the moment, and corporations feel great pressure to prove their credentials. But it's not easy being green. Some companies, like those at the top of NEWSWEEK's 2009 Green Rankings, have embraced conservation for real. They build headquarters with solar panels and rainwater collection systems; they think of the environmental impact of every aspect of their businesses and actually change the way they do things to reduce waste. But this is labor intensive, often expensive, and takes commitment. Faced with that, many corporations take a different approach: They don't do much of anything to change the way they do business, but make a big show of their dedication to Mother Earth.

It's usually easy to spot these companies: They make their customers do the work, and then take the credit. In the name of saving the planet, my cable TV operator keeps asking for permission to stop sending paper statements in the mail each month. Instead, I'm supposed to check my statement online. The real reason, of course, is that doing so would save them paper, printing and postage. This is a perfectly legitimate reason for them to want me to switch. But when they pretend that it's all about the environment, it just makes me hate my cable company even more than I already do. Despite this, I would still consider switching to online statements if they would agree to use the money they save to hire cable TV repairmen who know how to repair cable TV.

A vast new lexicon has appeared to meet the needs of green pretenders and their anxious customers. At my local Whole Foods I can buy "eco-approved" goods and beauty products that are "obsessively natural." Please find the person who can tell me what either of those things mean. It reminds me of the time I was having dinner in a "certified organic" restaurant in Washington, D.C. Someone at my table asked the waitress (who, the menu proudly declared, wore a uniform made of hemp) what cut of beef was used in that night's special. "I can't say for sure what kind of steak it is," the waitress solemnly answered, "but I can assure you it was raised in a stress-free environment."

Sometimes a good ad campaign does a better job of enhancing a company's green reputation than going through the expense and hassle of adopting actual environmentally sound practices. Billboards in Washington implore me to join the cause. "I will unplug stuff more," reads one. Another says, "I will at least consider buying a hybrid." These ads are the work of Chevron, the giant oil company, whose "Will You Join Us?" ads try to convince people that saving the planet is at the top of their list. You might think that if Chevron was really worried about problems like global warming, they would spend some of those p.r. dollars lobbying Congress to adopt stricter gas mileage requirements for automobiles. They do not do this. Instead, I'm apparently supposed to praise them as environmental heroes because they tell me to unplug my toaster and think about getting a Prius.

Yet ad campaigns like these work. Chevron lands at No. 371 out of 500 companies on NEWSWEEK's green rankings. But it claims the No. 62 spot when it comes to green reputation thanks in part to those pretty, polished ads. Green marketing has also helped former enviro villains like Wal-Mart appear kinder and gentler in recent years. To be fair, the retailing giant has done more than redesign its logo. The company, which ranks 59th on NEWSWEEK's list, has embraced a series of in-house green initiatives and is demanding its suppliers do the same. The result: Wal-Mart scores first place in our reputation survey.

Given the power of positive marketing, it's easy to see why those little towel cards are so popular—enough so that there are now a multitude of companies that market them to hotels, along with all manner of products intended to make customers feel good about themselves while helping the hotels feel good about their bank balances. My favorite is an eco-friendly bar of soap offered to hotels by a company named Green Natura. It has a hole in the middle, eliminating all those wasteful little nubs of soap that hotels wind up tossing after guests check out, and which pile up in landfills nationwide, threatening the very future of the planet.

I suppose it is time that I step up and do my part. On behalf of the planet I will gratefully accept my stubby soap doughnut. I will dutifully sleep on day-old sheets. But please, for the love of all that is good and right, keep the towels coming.