Are some hybrids just greenwashed?

By: Jamie Page Deaton

Image Gallery: Hybrid Cars With carmakers more interested than ever in promoting fuel-efficient hybrid cars, it's important to look beyond the label. See more hybrid car pictures.
Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images

Ah, nothing like going green -- and with so many green products on the market, it's easy. You can sweep out all of your toxic cleaning products for Earth-friendly ones and then…oops. The new products may be Earth-friendly, but they have more packaging than your old cleaning supplies. OK then, on to the grocery store, where there's organic asparagus, so you know no pesticides were used. Perfectly green, right? Right, except for the fact that the asparagus was flown in from New Zealand, and while it's green, transporting it to the U.S. definitely wasn't; that long flight spewed tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.

Some companies are more interested in making green than actually being green. Since more people are concerned with the environment, those companies are starting to greenwash their products to make them more attractive to shoppers with environmental concerns. What's greenwashing? It's an attempt to manipulate data or information so that a product or action looks more environmentally friendly than it actually is. While every choice we make has some environmental trade-offs, greenwashing is a willful misrepresentation with the goal of gaining the public's goodwill or increasing a company's profits.


A lot of companies engage in greenwashing, and carmakers are no exception. With gas prices on everyone's minds, people are looking for clean, fuel-efficient cars to go easy on the environment and their wallets. Automakers know this and, faced with dismal sales, want to capitalize on it. In order to do that, they exaggerate how environmentally friendly some of their cars are and outright cover up some of the damage so-called clean cars actually do to the Earth. As hybrid cars gain popularity, they've become fertile ground for all sorts of greenwashing. The most common types of greenwashing used on hybrid cars are "hidden trade-offs" and "lesser of two evils." We'll cover what those mean in more detail later.

Keep reading to find out which hybrid cars are truly green, and which ones just come in shades of green.


Greenwashing a Hybrid

Some large hybrids, like this truck, might get better mileage than their conventional counterparts, but they aren't more efficient than small traditional cars.
Some large hybrids, like this truck, might get better mileage than their conventional counterparts, but they aren't more efficient than small traditional cars.
Bryan Mitchell/Getty Images

By now, a lot of people are beginning to understand how our cars negatively impact the environment. That's why more and more people are turning to hybrids. In the U.S. market today, a hybrid refers to a gas-electric hybrid. These cars use a gasoline engine but also have a small electric motor. The electric motor allows the gas engine to switch off when the car is traveling at slow speeds or is stopped, saving a lot of gas and cutting emissions.

That's what most people think of when they think of a hybrid. However, automakers can use the electric motors in different ways -- like to help aid performance. Also, the electric components of a gas-electric hybrid (the motor, extra batteries) can add a couple of hundred pounds to the car's weight. That means that the gas engine, if it isn't tuned properly, can actually be made less efficient in a hybrid because it has extra weight to haul around. One example of a hybrid that falls into this category is the Lexus LS600h, which uses a V8 engine and has been tuned for performance and luxury, not for the environment.


Other types of hybrids may be greenwashed simply because they don't make a lot of sense as a hybrid. Hybrid trucks and SUVs offer some fuel and emissions savings over their conventional counterparts, but their gas mileage still isn't great. However, because the SUV has a hybrid badge, people may be encouraged to buy it rather than trading down to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. This type of greenwashing is called "the lesser of two evils." Performance and SUV/truck hybrids are marginally better for the environment than their conventional counterparts but aren't all that green themselves. The unfortunate consequence of this type of greenwashing is that it often masks the best solution: simply driving less.

Then there's the dirty secret of every single hybrid on the road: their batteries. While the ability to run on batteries is what makes hybrids green in the first place, some hybrid batteries are toxic, difficult to dispose of and bad for the environment. This is an example of "hidden trade-off" greenwashing: By doing something good for the environment, like buying a hybrid, people may be doing something bad at the same time. In this case, it's increasing the number of toxic batteries that are made.

Don't give up on hybrids just yet. While hybrids aren't perfect, the grass isn't greener on the other side of the fence. Read on to see why some hybrids aren't greenwashed.


Fuel Economy: Doesn't Every Little Bit Help?

The Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid slightly improves the fuel efficiency of its conventional counterpart.
The Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid slightly improves the fuel efficiency of its conventional counterpart.
Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

While it's true that some car companies engage in greenwashing for their hybrid models, it's also true that most hybrids tend to be better for the environment than their gas-only competitors. Take a large hybrid like the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid. It gets five more miles per gallon in the city than the regular Tahoe, and three more miles per gallon on the highway. It's not a great improvement, especially when you consider that the gas-only Honda Fit gets 13 more miles per gallon in the city and 15 more on the highway (and sits almost as many people as the standard Tahoe). Still, if a buyer really needs the space and capabilities of the Tahoe, buying the hybrid can save 4,033 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per year, and every little bit helps [source: HybridCars].

The other side of greenwashing is that people are getting wise to it. When consumers realize what companies are up to, they can force businesses to change their practices. That's what is happening with hybrid batteries. While the batteries in most hybrids are toxic and difficult to dispose of, they're engineered to last as long as the car does. Some companies like Toyota even offer a bounty for the batteries. Toyota pays $200 for each hybrid battery that's returned, and the company makes sure it's disposed of properly. At the same time, automakers are racing to create cleaner, longer lasting batteries that won't be dangerous to dispose of.


So, yes: Some hybrids are just greenwashed. But that doesn't mean that hybrids aren't a viable part of the effort to clean the environment. If you're looking for a hybrid and want to avoid greenwashing, do the research. Compare the car's emissions to other hybrids and gas-only cars. Talk to people who own the hybrid you're considering to see if they get the kind of gas mileage the car company claims the hybrid can get. Finally, find out what kind of batteries are in the hybrid, and how they're disposed of.

To learn more about greenwashing and hybrids, look over the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • Automobile Magazine. "2007 Lexus LS600h Review."
  • "Hybrid Battery Toxicity." April 8, 2006.
  • "FAQs"
  • Wiesenfelder, Joe. "2008 Lexus LS 600h." May 1, 2006.
  • U.S. News Rankings and Reviews. "2008 Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid Review."
  • U.S. News Rankings and Reviews. "2008 Lexus LS 600h Review."