A parade of industries are hopping on the environmental bandwagon by concocting a "greeny," an award for strides in sustainability by one of their own.
Greenies -- like the one awarded for
bottled water -- are about as meaningful as, let's say, an Oscar for the smallest Hollywood ego.
After all, how noteworthy is it to be the greenest company in a decidedly ungreen sector?
The latest of these awards came when the
LA Auto Show and the
Green Car Journal
announced five nominees for Green Car of the Year. The judges enlisted give the award environmental cred. They include representatives of the
Sierra Club, the
Worldwatch Institute, the
Ocean Futures Society and the
World Resources Institute.
Still, I'm skeptical about its value. "Newness" was a big factor in picking the nominees, as was "the impact that a vehicle and its environmentally positive technologies are likely to have in the marketplace." Ron Cogan, editor and publisher of the
Green Car Journal
, says judges also looked for cars that boost the standards for environmental performance.
Those criteria seem awfully squishy, and the judges were even softer in applying them.
Most troubling about this wishy-washy award is the prospect of auto makers using it to make their company overall, and certain cars in particular, seem more environmentally beneficial than they really are. It provides a chance to blur the line between recognizing imperfect but valuable innovation and more corporate
I'm disappointed in the outside judges -- none of them environmental pushovers -- for not holding out for more concrete progress and innovation when they cast their votes. It would have enabled the winner and the runners up to be more genuine than those red-carpet-tripping celebs when they declare that it's an honor just to be nominated.
All the nominees were hybrids -- a no-brainer in terms of public appeal and not as meaningful as car makers want you to believe when it comes to measuring a car's relative
The judges, moreover, recognized the value of hybrid technology last year, when they gave the award to the Camry hybrid from
and the year before when they gave their inaugural award to the Mercury Mariner hybrid SUV from
Aside from the Chevy Tahoe, which puts a more sophisticated iteration of the hybrid motor into a passenger auto for the first time -- car geeks can read all about it on
Edmunds Inside Line -- none of these other cars appear to be breaking any new technological ground or raising the bar for hybrid performance.
One nominee, the Altima hybrid from
gets the best combined-city-and-highway miles-per-gallon of the bunch, according to the
EPA, but in its class it's a distant No. 2 to the Prius (to be fair, almost everything that's a decent size is still a distant second to the Prius). And its combined miles-per-gallon is equal to the Camry hybrid. So if it won, the judges would be rewarding Nissan for holding the line, not pushing it.
The group names the Mazda Tribute for being that company's first hybrid, but it's using technology that partial owner Ford has already put in other vehicles. The Chevrolet Malibu hybrid and Saturn Aura hybrid, both from
, round out the nominees and both are respectable greenwise. The Aura, introduced in 2007, is Saturn's first hybrid car and the Malibu is Chevy's first hybrid sedan, which was significant to the judges, Cogan says. But Prius sales in the U.S. took off several years ago and hybrid sales were up 49% in June from a year earlier, according to the
Green Car Congress. Having a hybrid in your lineup in 2008 doesn't signal innovation nearly as much as the lack of one indicates stodgy thinking.
The award organizers point out that with the Malibu and Aura, GM is making hybrid technology affordable for the mass market (their MSRPs are about $23,000 and $20,000, respectively). It is good that GM is broadening access to the hybrid's green benefits. But that's what consumer companies do with popular new technologies.
It isn't edge-pushing innovation.
So why aren't any other green auto innovations represented among the nominees? Cogan says it's just the way the chips fell this year.
I would say that green car of the year is the greenest car made for that model year. And the best measures of what makes a car green include how many miles to the gallon it gets, or how many pounds of CO2 and other greenhouse gases it generates, perhaps weighed against the performance you get in exchange.
These five cars aren't bad when it comes to those things. They just aren't standouts.
Eileen P. Gunn writes about the business of life and is the author of "Your Career Is An Extreme Sport." You can learn more about her at
her Web site.