Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

It’s easier to buy a better world than make one
William Clay Ford Jr., chairman of Ford Motor Co., loves to refer to his great-grandfather Henry, in whose footsteps he claims to trod. Yet if you listen closely, you can hear the whine of the automotive patriarch spinning like a turbine in his grave.
Forget what the old anti-Semite would say about his offspring winning the National Human Relations Award from the American Jewish Committee last year. How would the man who brought us the assembly line react to his baby-boomer descendant’s recent admission, in a Corporate Citizenship Report, that SUVs, engine of the company’s profits, were environmental disasters that gobbled fossil fuels, spewed emissions and threatened the lives of drivers in smaller cars?
The confession left Detroit aghast and a little confused. In the last few years, people have gotten used to Bill’s tree-hugging rhetoric, as he proclaimed Ford’s intention to become the most environmentally conscious company in the world.
But it was easy to dismiss it as PR blather, for even as the chairman was giving interviews, Ford Motor was introducing the Deathstar of SUVs, the Excursion: four tons of leather-lined, gas-sucking truck that is unsafe at any speed, especially if you’re in the sedan that happens to collide with it. Now comes this crackpot admission, like the TV tell-all of a tobacco executive with a bad conscience, appalling to an industry that has spent millions in Washington ensuring that SUV trucks are exempt from the emission standards demanded of cars.
It’s not that the Ford report tells us anything we don’t already know. If cars are identity products, badges that tell the world who the buyer is, then drivers of SUVs should wear a badge that says, “I am a pig.” Nor was Ford announcing it would stop making SUVs.
The problem a corporate leader doing the “vision thing” faces is that you can’t have a stronger conscience than your customers. Anyone who has followed the amazing saga of the SUV, which now accounts for 20 percent of Ford’s sales, knows that American consumers’ worries over natural resources are trumped by a driver’s seat perched above the rabble in their sedans. Plus, each of these babies add more than $15,000 to the bottom line.
Despite evidence of his company’s own sales figures, Ford claims corporations must become socially responsible because consumers demand it. But do they? They tell pollsters and focus-group moderators the environment is a cause close to their hearts. Yet history tells us they don’t put their money where their mouth is. Packaged-goods marketers know consumers won’t pay more for green products. Not even a California law mandating no-emission vehicles could induce customers to buy socially responsible electric cars.
So where do Americans put their money? Into the SUV that mortifies Bill Ford, of course. You’ll find it parked inside the oversized garage attached to the natural resource-gobbling McMansion with its vast square-footage, vaulted ceilings and multiple bathrooms. In their choice of shelter and transport, Americans speak volumes about their level of environmental concern.
If they are demanding anything, consumers want to be relieved of the contradiction between their actions and their professed beliefs. Corporate do-goodism, of which Ford is a visible advocate, is designed to answer that need.
Today, by merely reaching for your credit card, you can contribute to a charity, promote indigenous economies, sustain tropical rain forests, help cleanse the planet. We are eager to contribute to the welfare of the planet, provided it doesn’t require us to make do with less.
In one sense, Bill Ford is right. Consumers are demanding corporations become more socially responsible; that way, consumers don’t have to. Ford’s pledge to provide “personal mobility with no social or environmental trade-offs” is the proverbial “you can have it all” offer no consumer can refuse. Hybrid cars coming to market in the next few years, he promises, will do for our planet what we won’t do ourselves. Instead, he says, we can consume our way to environmental responsibility.
Cars may be identity products, but consumers don’t buy such products to express who they are. They buy them to express who they aren’t, but wish to be. “Socially responsible” consumables are an answer to the prayer of those whose actions show how irresponsible they are. “A better world is the ultimate must-have product feature,” Ford says. And it’s so much easier to buy a better world than make one for ourselves. K