Sunday, September 16, 2007

Greenwashing / Shell Oil / Lush Cosmetics (NUDITY!)

The news today is that the Northwest Passage is being laid bare for the first time since 1100 A.D. or so, which reminds me:

It's amazing how environmentally-friendly companies in the Netherlands have become lately. After the success of "An Inconvenient Truth," it was as if they had all been converted to Greenianity overnight. And they're not afraid to boast about it, either no matter what kind of business it is that they're in. KLM, TNT Post, Akzo Nobel, Unilever...

Here's the chain of events, as I see it:

1) Paid "trendwatchers" report back to the ad agencies that hired 'em: 'Green is in this year.'

2) After a few all-night brainstorming sessions, the advertising guys get out there and pitch the idea that, with a little airbrushing, say, EADS NV (Airbus) can *also* have an environmentally friendly image.

3) The idea falls on fertile ground, because one of their cigar-chewing executives has recently stumbled across a story in the Wall Street Journal in which his company's major rival is mentioned favorably for doing "sustainability" reporting, and sustainable companies outperform their peers on the stock market.

Next thing you know, they're out there like a bad vaudeville act, some fat sweaty guy tap-dancing with a cane and singing the "O-la-la-la" backup vocals to Joni Mitchell: "Don't it always go to show / you don't know what you've got till it's gone / they paved paradise to put up a parking lot."

Which brings me to my main topic: Royal Dutch Shell PLC, based in the Netherlands, spends a lot of money advertising itself as an environmentally concerned corporation.

Now, there are two ways of looking at a company like Shell doing this (assuming you believe, as I do, that industrial nations need oil companies like Shell to maintain our current standard of living while we transition away from an oil-based economy).

The first says: Let Shell not embarrass itself or insult our intelligence by pretending in any way shape or form to be "green." We will solve our environmental problems by other means (taxes, emission caps, cap-and-trading systems, research, cleaner technologies, etc.) In the meanwhile, let Shell be the Leviathan it was shaped to be by our free-market system: as efficient and profitable as it can, extracting oil as savagely as the laws of each land in which it operates will allow, and selling it for all the market will bear.

And then there are others (like me) who think the alternative energy projects undertaken by Shell have meaning, and they have the right to advertise about them. For instance, they recently built the first major windmill farm off the Dutch coast in the North Sea.

I view this as a reasonable way for Shell to show that it is not blind to the issues surrounding global warming. The project cost $250 million to build, and Shell is hoping that with massive government subsidies, it can recover that much in sales (NOT profits!) over its 20-year life cycle. Meanwhile, the company made more than $8 billion in profits in the second quarter of this year alone.

So, at a total cost of 1 percent of annual profits (one hundredth of a percent of sales) the North Sea project essentially falls under Shell's advertising budget. But the world needs to get going on this kind of project and I'd rather see Shell messing around in the ocean with a $250 million at stake than either the government or some kind of 'startup' company or NGO.

However, Shell is certainly not above a little pure silliness now and again. They were recently ordered by the Dutch Reclame Code Commissie (the country's advertising watchdog) to stop broadcasting a commercial wherein flowers are seen growing out of a smoke-stack. An inspiring image, the Commissie found, but misleading, given that Shell only recycles a tiny amount of the pollutants it produces _ and the commercial appeared to suggest it recycled them all.

Oh, so what about the nudity promised in the headline?

Click "more" to find out!

(BEWARE! 18 and older only! Prude people read no further!)

I knew you'd be reading this.

Lush, a cosmetics company on Amsterdam's Kalverstraat, used these buttocks as an advertising stunt on Thursday, to show how green and sexy the company is. You see the connection, of course.

(Eyes glaze over).

Huh? Oh yeah, the idea is that Lush uses less packaging materials than its competitors. And that all the packaging it does use comes from recycled materials.

Or so they say.

Could it be that this is just a crass ploy to cash in on the green rage?

How much did they pay their employees to participate in this humiliation?

Or did they 'volunteer'?

And could it be that I'm just trying to cash in on their crassness in order to increase traffic to this blog?

Come back again (and again) to find out...

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