The word on the street was that the auto industry was dead on its feet not so long ago, but I am not so sure that this is true. My brother has worked with the big automakers most of his career – he returned from Detroit last week saying that the old buzz is back. In the short term at least, the health of the auto industry has always been linked to the health of the economy and this should be good news. But increasing car sales is not always received as positive by the sustainability community.
If you stand back from Big Auto’s marketing messages over recent years, it’s clear how the world has changed. Before the financial crisis, it was business as usual and above-the-line advertising was focused on pushing high performance vehicles and heavy SUVs. Before 2009, respecting the environment remained the preserve of the tree huggers in San Francisco, flaunting their Toyota Prius in a ‘cloud of smug’ (for those of you who watched South Park). But those days are over.
Although gas prices in North America remain far lower than in Europe, the recent price hikes, combined with the faltering economy, have changed American attitudes to fuel economy. We are witnessing a sea change in their attitude to responsible consumption – at least as far as cars are concerned. Although each of the automakers has its own story, the recent announcement by Chevrolet this week is particularly significant. Chevy has launched its new Ecologic concept at the DC Auto show. Later this year, a new Ecologic label will start appearing in new Chevrolet cars sold in North America. The labels describe attributes of the vehicle and its factory of origin that demonstrate Chevrolet’s commitment to reducing the environmental impact of the vehicle from manufacturing to end-of-life. I am particularly proud of this development as Chevrolet chose Two Tomorrows as its third-party auditor for the claims on the product labels. This work has been led by our team in North America.
I was recently talking to a petrol-head friend about ecolabelling of cars and how to draw meaningful comparisons between different modes of transport. We had the inevitable conversation about comparing apples with oranges. He asked me why there was no credible government scheme to promote lifecycle based ecolabels to help draw those comparisons. Of course there are many such labels available around the world and I asked him whether he had heard of the EU Ecolabel scheme. I wasn’t surprised to hear that he had not. Few consumers are aware of the scheme and the flower logo it uses on products to signify relatively low environmental impact. There are many reasons why consumers don’t know about it – and the failure to support and promote the scheme properly over the last 20 years is another story. There are many product categories involved, from shampoos to mattresses. I worked on the development of the criteria for one of the first categories to be approved (soil improvers and growing media) in the early 90s.
But there are no criteria agreed for cars.
Perhaps developments led from within the auto industry are the way ahead and it is too big an ask to get consensus over the all the various criteria that describe a car’s lifecycle. Ecologic is a great initiative led from North America, and it is good to know that Chevrolet prioritised independent assurance of its claims from the outset. They are leading the way, but in my experience the industry will be quick to follow – so maybe consensus over ecolabel criteria will emerge from bottom up. Bring it on.