A business-friendly, SUV-driving Lorax

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 is 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’ll moderate another on Tuesday afternoon in  San Francisco (more below, if you’d like to join us). 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 v. 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 the International House Pancakse (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 2nd (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. Below, more on the San Francisco event.

On Tuesday from 3 to 6 p.m., HP will sponsor a forum on “The Message of The Lorax for Today.” I’ll moderate and we’ll hear from Jeff Walters of HP, Chris Miller of Seventh Generation, Amy Smith of WWF and Etienne McManus-White of the Forest Stewarship Network. It’ll be held at the Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Fourth St., San Francisco. Extra bonus: A sneak preview of The Lorax after the dicussion! Seats are limited so please email me (marc.gunther@gmail.com) before showing up. I’m being paid by HP to moderate but my opinions expressed here (and everywhere else) are my own.

Comments

  1. Farron Levy says:

    Interesting, as always Marc; thanks. A minor note on IHOP – which, as it happens, my family uncharacteristically dropped into for breakfast this weekend.

    We were happily surprised to find that the home of chocolate chip pancakes and other sugar-filled and empty-carb concoctions has taken a turn since we last visited (years ago). The regular menu has a good number of healthy options, as many chains now have, but the kids menu notably uses the government’s new recommended health eating plate (MyPlate) to guide its offerings (e.g., fruit instead of fries, etc.).

    Sad that this is notable for a restaurant, but it is nevertheless worth noting. The state of what we put down our kids’ gullets – and its consequences – is pretty awful. It would be good to see more of such meaningful action.

  2. Love your headline, Marc – definitely caught my attention, as did the new 7th Generation packaging featuring the Lorax.

    I’d love to see more blog posts about the state of sustainable forestry – we seem to have overemphasized reliance on online communications (for most, powered by coal-fired plants and energy-intensive server farms) versus supporting the recycled paper industry.

    Re Farron’s comments about IHOP’s kids’ menus…take a look at the Kids LiveWell program – it’s a kids’ menu program based on the 2010 dietary guidelines. (Full disclosure: my firm is currently consulting for Kids LiveWell).

  3. Dan Pierce says:

    Having worked in the environmental industry with (mostly former) corporate despoilers of the planet for many years I have to agree with you that times sure have changed for the better. I am however saddened to see Dr Seuss’s fine work co-opted by Hollywood and others. A fine Seuss-like defense of this position (for which I can take no credit) entitled “Who Will Speak For The Lorax?” can be found at http://www.theandrewblog.net/?p=796

Trackbacks

  1. […] “In some ways The Lorax is still relevant today,” said moderator Marc Gunther, my former Fortune Magazine colleague and a long-time writer on corporate sustainability and social responsibility issues. (Marc received a fee from HP to moderate the panel. See his take on the Truffula kerfuffle here.) […]

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