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Global Greening and Greenwashing: What some U.S. companies are doing to protect the planet

by Meghan


The U.S. Department of Energy reports 16 million tons of carbon dioxide is emitted into the atmosphere every 24 hours. Not surprisingly, the world’s CO2 reductions are about 25 percent behind 2012 targets, according to leading environmental news site Even less surprisingly, the Kyoto Protocol — a worldwide environmental treaty established in 1992 — called for a 5.2 percent decrease from 1990 emission levels by 2012; instead the levels rose 19 percent by 2007.

Americans are largely at fault. Alone we consume 26 percent of the world’s energy, although we make up just 5 percent of the population. Of course, this is because we are the largest economy in the world and provide about a quarter of the world’s GDP; but many U.S. companies still want to reduce our carbon footprint. They’re selling fuel-efficient cars, recyclable computers, and energy-conserving refrigerators and washing machines, as well as using solar energy and electric rather than fossil-fuel-powered equipment.

CNBC’s top ten list of Major Companies that take Going Green Seriously comprises reputable conglomerates that are eco-friendly in many ways. Below are some of the list’s most notable.

Continental Airlines
Over the past 10 years, Continental has spent $16 billion on fuel-efficient airplanes. According to CNBC, it even made its Houston location “75 percent more earth-friendly.” One of the city’s websites,, says Continental uses electric rather than fossil-fuel-powered equipment. The company is also committed to following the building standards outlined by the U.S. Green Building Council Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It has even converted more than 1,000 agents from the office to home to reduce driving to and from work.

Whole Foods
Berkeley’s location was the first major grocery store to use solar energy for all of its lighting. Many Whole Foods buildings have installed solar cells to augment power, and the company has bought renewable energy credits to offset 100 percent of its energy use. (Its natural and organic groceries are sustainable, too!)

Frito Lay (It’s not on CNBC’s list, but it should be.)
At the super-storehouse’s largest U.S. distribution center in Tucson, Ariz., plans to cook 100-percent sustainable potato chips are underway. In a few years, underneath the factory roof — of which a solar electric power system is already installed — the machines used to wash, slice, and cook the chips will be powered by renewable fuels, and the water will be recycled. With 37 Frito Lay plants in the U.S., the process is predicted to catch on — quickly.

General Electric
When GE’s bad rap of the 1960s and 1970s finally blew over (it legally dumped over a million pounds of hazardous chemicals into New York’s Hudson River), its CEO began urging for water filters, nuclear power, windmills, cleaner turbines and jet engines for its manufacturing plants and products. Many of GE’s appliances are now stamped with a government-backed Energy Star rating, and its Ecomagination campaign promotes environmental performance advantages in its products.

Hewlett Packard
The world-famous computer company promises to slash energy consumption by 20 percent before 2010. But for now, CNBC says HP audits suppliers to make sure they’re environmentally sound. The best and most solid promise: all HP computers are 100 percent recyclable.

Additionally, Dell is one of the companies following the example set by its competitor, Hewlett Packard. Dell’s "Plant a tree for me" plan allows people who buy new computers to purchase carbon offsetting: one-third of a tree is planted per machine for three years. Or customers can pay $99 to offset an average person’s carbon footprint for one year. The only problem? Dell buys its offsets from a little-known nonprofit — one that a 2008 New York Times article says might not be credible.

But many companies could be bluffing, and many claims could be false. Although a multitude of businesses work to offset their environmental affects, some simply capitalize on the trend and try to fool you into thinking they care about the planet. They develop major campaigns that could have you thinking, Wow, our earth is in good hands.

But going green takes more than a brilliant ad strategy. As smart consumers, we should be aware of greenwashing, the act of misleading individuals about the environmental benefits of a company or its products. For example, some business vow to buy carbon offsets to compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions. But the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA) says there are organizations that don’t uphold their marketing claims or instead turn to little-known non-profits to buy energy credits. A 2008 New York Times article says even the groups that manage the carbon offsets have doubts about whether companies uphold their promises.

Another example of greenwashing lies within the airline industry. While Continental lets you track your itinerary’s environmental impact and has researched numerous green alternatives for its aircrafts, a 2008 CNN article says most airlines (excluding Continental and a few others) offer empty promises. One of the biggest signs of greenwashing is vague claims, so look for specific plans (such as Frito Lay’s and Continental’s) and government-backed seals and approvals to be sure a company or product is environmentally safe.

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