NEW YORK - Toyota, the world's largest automaker, is facing the wrath of U.S. green groups and corporate watchdogs for its constant opposition to legislative proposals aimed at increasing fuel efficiency standards in California and other states.
"Toyota could be a real dark-horse contender in this year's Corporate Hall of Shame," said Kelle Louaillier, executive director of Corporate Accountability International (CAI), an independent consumer rights group based in Boston.
The "Hall of Shame" refers to the group's annual campaign, which includes a web-based poll that names and shames companies that run afoul of U.S. environmental laws and labour standards.
Though consumers are free to vote for any corporate player they think is the worst abuser, CAI is urging them to consider Toyota and seven other major multinationals as the "best candidates" to be included in this year's "Hall of Shame".
"Toyota is a corporation that is spending billions of dollars to put a green veneer on their cars even as its lobbyists claim that its engineers don't know how to meet increased efficiency standards," Louaillier told IPS.
"Toyota has been making a lot of money and having a lot of fun at the expense of consumers," she said. "The Hall of Shame is a way for consumers to have a little fun at the expense of Toyota."
Toyota began to draw fire from major environmental groups last summer when it started using aggressive lobbying tactics to kill the federal energy bill that now requires automakers to stop selling gas-guzzling vehicles by 2020.
For its part, the Japanese firm appears to be trying hard to foster the image of an environmentally conscientious company that cares about the issue of global warming and the risks associated with increased carbon emissions.
Last fall, Toyota launched a series of green television advertisements, worth millions of dollars. On its website, the company says it has taken "a comprehensive approach to energy and global warming issues by promoting measures to reduce CO2 emissions both in the development and design stages as well as during production and logistics."
But critics like Louaillier and others see stark contradictions between the company's projected image and its practical actions.
"It has opposed 'clean cars' legislation in multiple states," said Louaillier. "It's a member of two major auto trade associations, which are suing to stop California's new law to reduce global warming pollution."
Those entities are the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers. They are continuing to lobby against legislative measures requiring increased fuel efficiency.
Toyota's opposition to the proposed 35-miles-per-gallon standard, according to critics, has left many of its loyal, green-minded customers feeling surprised and betrayed. Meanwhile, competitors like Nissan support the new standards.
So far more than 10,000 people have cast their votes, including some who see Toyota as one of the worst corporations, CAI's Sara Joseph told IPS. Last year the group's website was accessed by nearly 20,000 voters.
Toyota spent nearly 3.1 billion dollars worldwide in 2006 and about 2.0 billion dollars in the U.S. marketing its products and overall image. Toyota and its trade associations also spent at least 7.7 million dollars lobbying lawmakers, according to the Washington-based Centre for Responsive Politics.
Toyota is currently locked in a pitched battle with the General Motors to be the number one automaker in the world. Last year, both companies sold over eight million cars. Toyota sold more than one million fuel-saving hybrid vehicles worldwide and accounted for 78 percent of hybrid sales in the United States.
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Toyota is now the world's largest automaker in terms of net worth, revenue and profits, says CAI, adding that, while the company has built its green image around the well-known Prius, "hybrid sales tell only a small part of their story." Toyota's reliance on the 14-mile-per-gallon (mpg) Tundra pickup truck and other so-called "gas guzzlers" has held the company's fleet-wide fuel efficiency down to levels below what they were several decades ago.
The group's nominees for its annual "Corporate Hall of Shame" elections also include other big corporate names like Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Countrywide, Mattel, Nestle, Blackwater, Wal-Mart, and Wendy's.
Louaillier describes the "Hall of Shame" vote as an effective way to hold corporations accountable for major abuses of the public interest and to call politicians to task.
In addition to Toyota, all the corporations named by CAI are accused of influencing elected officials, undermining democratic decision-making, and endangering the environment and public health. Global warming, war profiteering, and predatory lending figure prominently in the polls.
The group expects record turnout this election season before polls close on Jul. 4. It said more than 20,000 took part in its polls last year, which named ExxonMobil, Haliburton, and Wal-Mart as the worst abusers in the corporate world.
CAI named ADM as one of the worst corporations this year because the agribusiness giant is running massive operations in Indonesia's peatlands to create palm plantations. Scientists say that due to the unique chemical makeup of Indonesia's peat forests, clearing them is adding significantly to the threat of global warming.
A report released by the environmental group Greenpeace International last year said massive deforestation in Indonesia is responsible for 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions every year, which is about 4.0 percent of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions.
Researchers say Indonesia has already lost about 50 percent of its peatlands and, as a result, it has become the world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only China and the United States.
In considering consumer rights violations, CAI points to Countrywide Financial Corporation as the worst lender in the country. It says the nation's top lender relies heavily on "predatory" mortgages for profiteering, with much of the lending directed to elderly and non-English-speaking borrowers.
Countrywide's actions, according to CAI, have forced nearly a quarter of borrowers into default, at the same time its CEO earned a 120-million-dollar salary. Countrywide services about 17 percent of all mortgages in the United States.
Citing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings, the group points out that Countrywide CEO Angelo R. Mozilo made 13 million dollars in a single month last summer even as the company's financial situation worsened. Mozilo reportedly reaped about $150 million during 2007 by exercising his stock options and selling off his own Countrywide shares.
CAI said it nominated private security firm Blackwater Worldwide as a potential candidate for entry into the Hall of Shame for killing unarmed civilians in Iraq and using its ties to the George W. Bush administration to secure lucrative contracts in that war-torn country;
The group has criticised Mattel Corporation for producing lead-contaminated children's toys, and lobbying against bans on other toxic chemicals. It has charged Nestle Corporation with massive abuse of labour rights around the world, including the exploitation of children.
On the question of public health safety, the group has raised serious concerns about the way the fast-food giant Wendy's International is doing business. CAI researchers hold that the company's refusal to meet nutrition labeling regulations is adding to the growing childhood obesity and diabetes epidemics.
Wendy's is the third largest burger chain in the world after McDonald's and Burger King. Wendy's CEO Kerrii B. Anderson pulls in a 2.62-million-dollar annual salary.
"We believe all of the nominees deserve this infamous dishonour," said CAI executive director Kelle Louaillier, "But we look forward to seeing which corporations voters select as the worst of the worst."
© 2008 Inter Press Service