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Honk If You Love the Environment : Autos: Plant-a-tree campaigns launched by Jeep and Geo have some groups seeing red instead of green.

March 23, 1993|BRUCE HOROVITZ

There's just one thing the makers of Jeep and Geo want you to think about the next time you see a tree: them.

Eager to tap into the blossoming "green" movement, the two auto nameplates are cleverly turning tree planting into marketing fodder. With Earth Day less than a month away, this corporate "Trees R Us" attitude may have some tree-planting groups seeing green--but it has left other environmentalists seeing red.

"It's the ultimate green-wash," said Sherri L. Kimbell, U.S. transport campaign coordinator for Greenpeace. "You have two car makers who rank among the world's biggest polluters taking advantage of environmental groups in order to paint themselves green."

Geo, the General Motors division that makes some of America's most fuel-efficient cars, has been planting trees regionally for each car sold since 1989. Geo buyers are even sent snazzy kits containing lapel pins with the Geo tree logo, along with certificates from the U.S. Forest Service informing them that trees have been planted in their names.

Now, Jeep, a Chrysler division, is about to try to out-green Geo--at least in California. Beginning next month, Jeep will plant a tree for each car sold in the state. And it will send Jeep buyers personalized--and localized--tree-planting certificates that inform them that trees in their name have been planted in the Sequoia National Forest.

While the auto makers insist they are planting trees--and aligning with tree-planting groups--to help improve the environment, skeptics say the manufacturers are using tree planting as a way to project an image of environmental concern, even though they are actually big-time air polluters.

"Car makers all know how warm and fuzzy planting trees is," said Justin Lowe, managing editor of the Earth Island Institute Journal. "But it's a cosmetic means of addressing the problem."

In fact, to counteract the amount of carbon dioxide produced by a single Geo Metro, GM would have to plant 734 trees over the 10-year lifetime of each Geo, the group estimates.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970, hundreds of corporations have found ways to appeal to consumers by linking their products with the environment. Some firms have made bold efforts to improve their products, while others have spent more money on marketing their changes than on implementing them.

Environmentalists are particularly irked by these latest public relations bids by the auto makers. As a group, U.S. auto makers spent a combined $5.8 billion to advertise their products last year, according to Leading National Advertisers. But environmental groups complain that the big auto makers spent a fraction of that amount on genuine environmental improvements.

Clearly, cars and trucks are not environmentally friendly. Carbon dioxide emissions from cars and trucks account for nearly 14% of all carbon dioxide emissions worldwide, according to the World Resources Institute.

So upset is Greenpeace with recent attempts by car makers to project themselves as caring about the environment that the group has co-produced a public service TV spot--along with the Media Foundation of Canada--that tries to link car makers with environmental disaster.

The animated ad, which the group hopes to air in Los Angeles later this spring, depicts a junkyard of old cars that meld together as a dinosaur, then crumble into a heap. The ad's voice-over: "It's coming, the end of the automotive age."

Meanwhile, Geo and Jeep are out planting trees. Nissan (then known as Datsun) was the first car maker to try the gimmick, in a brief promotion two decades ago.

Geo has planted about 150,000 since 1989, and Jeep anticipates planting 40,000. Both firms have aligned with well-respected tree planting organizations: Geo with groups that include Los Angeles-based TreePeople, and Jeep with San Mateo, Calif.-based Plant-It 2000, which was founded by singer John Denver.

"People who buy Geos tend to be slightly more concerned about the environment," said Daniel L. Pearlman, president of the Los Angeles-based Pearlman Group, which created the tree-planting program for Geo. "When all things are equal, some people will lean toward purchasing a Geo because of this program."

Earlier this month, when Geo executives heard about Jeep's plans to plant trees, the company quickly ran newspaper ads in California--signed by 10 tree-planting groups--that touted the Geo program. "Here's something you rarely see," said the headline to the ad. "A message from concerned environmental groups supporting a corporation, not boycotting it."

Geo is strongly backed by TreePeople. "They didn't just write a check and walk away," said Andy Lipkiss, president of TreePeople. "While others are trying to cheaply cash in on the image, they went out and started supporting the movement at the grass-roots level."

When Jeep gets into the tree-planting business next month, it has scheduled events in Los Angeles to tie in to Earth Day.

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