prius & the overselling of green

I have always hypothesized, and have not been alone in it, that the reason the Prius has sold so much better than similarly fuel efficient hybrid offerings from other manufacturers like Honda is because it looks so unique. It immediately shows the owner off as anti-SUV, environmentally friendly and, to quote Martin Amis, comfortably left wing.

Because really, what’s the point of a hybrid unless everyone else can see that it’s one?

If it’s unclear at first glance, how can everyone tell just how much you love the earth?

[Full disclosure: I love the Earth. I am certifiably an Earth lover. If I could make sweet, sweet love to the Earth, I would. I would jump up on Oprah’s couch and yell about how much I love the Earth. And, I don’t drive to work…and didn’t even when I lived in car-friendly Minneapolis so proof, pudding, etc and so on.]

Hybrid cars, with the Prius leading the way, are a triumph of branding and PR and proof of the effectiveness of good marketing.

At the most basic level, if one understands “being green” to be holistically environmentally conscious to the point of taking every step to minimize ones impact on the earth, then buying a new car is the least green thing that a person can do…because for a marginal (depending on how often you drive, your climate, your vehicle, etc) saving on carbon emissions you have done all of the damage to the earth that goes into the mining and refining of the raw materials, powering and working the factories, transporting and marketing that goes into building that new car.

Buying a new hybrid in the vast majority of circumstances is not green. Driving your current car an extra few years is.

But as advertisers we’re in the business of selling things, so scratch that last thought…we want people to buy new crap. Yet still, there are environmental arguments against a hybrid. Ethanol-powered hybrids don’t make sense because ethanol creates more pollution and wastes more energy in its creation than regular gasoline so, even though it burns cleaner in a car, the overall environmental impact is greater with ethanol. As for hybrid electrics, if you have to recharge its battery, you have to do so either from a gas engine in your car or by plugging into the largely-coal powered electric grid. Oh, and what is going to happen to the acid-heavy battery once it’s done its five years of service?

You’re better off just buying a fuel efficient Honda and driving it for fifteen years if you really want to care for the earth.

That’s boring though, and advertisers can’t stand for that…so they keep pushing them even though pragmatically a hybrid doesn’t really make sense. The Prius, for example, costs $3,700 more than a similarly sized gas-driven Toyota and takes 3 ½ years of consistent driving to pay back the investment in fuel savings and break even with the gas-driven car (the swanky new Lexus LS600h will take 102 years to break even with a gas-driven car). And yet there are waiting lists to get into one.

And here I thought that our economy was staggering on the brink of recession.

I don’t have anything against hybrid cars or those who choose to buy them…like any purchase decision, it’s a personal one driven by strangely emotional and irrational reasons that I am unlikely to understand. And what do I care anyway?

Our country is so affluent that anyone in America can pretty much afford anything (just not everything).

Whether it’s the construction workers I saw buying $10,000 of golf clubs every year because that was their passion or the AE who works here and has three cars because he loves SCCA racing and spends all of his money on it or my own passions that I – probably unwisely – blow my money on, it’s easy to indulge in what you love if you’re willing to make a trade-off for it.

And if showing off your green credentials through a car purchase is your thing, more power to you.

(It sure beats people who want to show off the size of their package by buying a Porsche.)

The concern though is how easy it is to poke holes in the preening greenies who make that decision…and the legions of Americans who are following along in those influencers’ footsteps. If the decision to go hybrid doesn’t pay out economically and the facts start to come out about what really is green, will there be a backlash?

Green is being oversold, but lots of things have been…and even if it is oversold it’s hard to argue with the desire to be good to the environment (though one can certainly argue about the appropriate steps to take, and one should call out the green-in-name-onlys who only take steps that advertise their oh so serious concern for Mother Earth).

The question is whether or not people will care that hybrids aren’t the panacea they have been sold to be…and if they do, when the tide will turn.


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