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The Gunther Report

Did The Lorax sell out?

<p>In advance of his new film with Universal Pictures, The Lorax is promoting environmentally friendly sponsors such as HP, Seventh Generation and Whole Foods. He&#39;s also advertising a Mazda SUV.</p>

Forty years after Dr. Seuss wrote the classic children’s book The Lorax, about a creature who "speaks for the trees" and the greedy industrialist who ignores his warnings, things sure have changed.

Some change has been for the better: Many, if not most, corporations are no longer the evil despoilers of the planet. To the contrary, these days they are often “greener” than consumers, and allied with environmental groups.

Some has been for the worse: While Dr. Seuss, to the best of my recollection, resisted commercialization of his characters, now even the anti-industrial Lorax is for sale.

I’ve got The Lorax on my mind because, as you’ve probably heard, Universal Studios this week will release a 3-D animated movie based on the book, with the voice of Danny DeVito as The Lorax. (I haven’t seen the movie yet, but it looks great.) I moderated a panel last week in Washington for HP, one of about 70 companies, nonprofits and government agencies selected as sponsors for the movie, and I moderated another on Tuesday afternoon in  San Francisco. That got me thinking about how dramatically business has evolved in the last four decades -- although obviously there’s much more to be done.

To refresh your memory about the  book: A fable about the dangers posed by industrial society to nature, it pits an evil entrepreneur known as the Once-ler ("Oh! Baby! Oh! How my business did grow!") against the Lorax ("I speak for the trees") whose pleas on behalf of the beautiful Truffula Trees go unheeded, with devastating results. Such black-and-white conflicts come along every once in a while -- think Massey Energy vs. Greenpeace -- but not as often as they once did.

Usually things are more complicated. The panel in DC last week featured executives from HP, Seventh Generation (another sponsor), WWF and the Forest Stewardship Council, all of whom agreed that we’re messing with the earth in unsustainable ways that need to stop. But they are working together to attack some unsustainable practices.

For example, HP, WWF and the FSC are all trying to persuade more companies and consumers to buy FSC-certified paper to protect today’s equivalent of Truffula Trees. Only about 10% of the world’s forests are certified as sustainable in any way, Etienne McManus-Smith of FSC told me. If all forests were certified, and people used either certified or recycled paper, that would go a long way towards preventing deforestation (although more would have to be done to protect forests from ranching and agriculture). The point is, big companies like HP (as well as Office Depot, Staples and others) are aligned with enviros on this issue. The laggards, it turns out, are customers who buy cheap paper, without regard to its provenance.

As part of the Lorax sponsorship, HP is trying to promote environmentally friendly behavior among customers. The company has created a "Print Like the Lorax" website encouraging people to use FSC-approved paper, to print on both sides, to buy energy-saving printers and recycle their cartridges. Here again, though, customers haven’t come along. HP used to include a free, postage-paid mail-back-your-cartridge envelope with every print cartridge but stopped doing so because most people threw them away and they wound up in landfills, according to Jeff Walters, who leads the sustainability efforts at HP’s huge printing unit.

Seventh Generation, for its part, has pioneered environmentally friendly cleaning products,and it has set standards for transparency when it comes to ingredient disclosure. But Chris Miller, who leads the company’s sustainability work -- he joined after a stint as a climate campaigner at Greenpeace -- says the entire green cleaning category represents less than 10% of cleaning products. Maybe putting the Lorax on the package of Seventh Generation products will broaden their appeal. We’ll see.

Other sponsors of the movie have strong environmental cred, among them the EPA, Whole Foods Markets, Stonyfield Farms’s YoKids brand in the US. (Here’s a list.)

Then there’s IHOP (huh?) and the sponsor that’s drawing the most negative flack, Mazda, which calls itself "the first and only carmaker to receive the honor of the Truffula Tree Seal of Approval." The company has created a TV spot showing the 2013 Mazda CX-5 small crossover SUV travelling through the "Truffula Valley."

This is curious, to say the least. The Chevy Volt or the Nissan Leaf? Sure. The Toyota Prius? Of course. But Mazda’s SUV, which admittedly is a small SUV, is likely to get a not-very-impressive EPA mileage rating of "27 to 29 mpg depending on model," according to this favorable review in Green Car Reports. Does that really merit the Truffula Tree Seal of Approval? It’s certainly not the kind of incremental progress we need to get us out of the climate mess we’re in.

For companies that are taking sustainability seriously to get the credit they deserve, it’s important to try to make distinctions between leaders and followers. HP, for instance, ranked second (behind IBM) on Newsweek’s annual list of green companies. By contrast, IHOP’s environmental program is about as vague and unimpressive as they get. I’d say Toyota, Ford, Nissan and Honda have all done more for the environment than Mazda.

Here’s a look at the Mazda ad. I wonder what Dr. Seuss would think.

Photo courtesy of ~db~ via a Flickr Creative Commons license.

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