As I recently ran an Internet query on an energy-related issue, an ad reading “Ethanol mandates fuel hunger” popped up. It caught my interest since I’ve been following the discussion surrounding ethanol mandates for some time. The position of the group sponsoring the ad, SmarterFuelFuture.org, is that ethanol mandates are harming the environment, increasing hunger, and have the potential to hurt car engines.
What? Ethanol is supposed to be a sustainable solution!
To be honest, I wasn’t actually surprised by this campaign. These complaints have been heard since the introduction of ethanol-blended gasoline. What was surprising to me was the number and variety of the industries that have joined together in support of this cause. I expected petroleum industry sponsors, but I was surprised to see poultry, meat and dairy producers, along with boating, motorcycle and snow mobile manufacturers all collaborating to oppose the mandates.
This issue exemplifies what is possibly the biggest challenge sustainability advocates and communicators face: the lack of a perfect solution. I’ll exercise the arguments over ethanol as an example.
I’ve (personally) agreed that ethanol mandates are not a great idea for one simple reason: fuel efficiency. According to the EPA, E10, which is 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline, generates 96.7% of the energy of standard gasoline. But my own experiments (yes, this is what I do) with E10 vs. pure gasoline (when you could still get it) consistently showed a loss of mileage of more like 10% for my vehicle. So, my bottom-line takeaway has been that I’m using more gas and spending more money.
But the argument for ethanol is largely centered on air quality and reducing CO2 and other toxic emissions – which is important. But even the environmental benefits of ethanol are murky because it creates a sustainability quandary: air, land, water or food?
The Smarter Fuel Future group maintains that 5 million acres of wilderness have been lost to corn crops, further resulting in increased pollution in America’s waterways. And as protecting our water sources grows in importance among environmental concerns, we not only have to consider the pollution impact, but the amount of water it takes to grow these crops. Plus, they claim that ethanol’s share of corn production has reduced the availability of corn for food stocks (both for animals and humans), thereby increasing food prices.
The seemingly obvious solution lies in reduced reliance on gas (and ethanol) through the sale of more EVs (electric vehicles), right?
Maybe not. Most utilities still rely, primarily, upon coal-fired generation (and will, for some time). This greatly reduces the carbon footprint improvement EVs can provide in many markets. However, as the U.S. moves toward more electricity produced from natural gas and renewables, EVs will provide a definite contribution to improved air quality.
But wait! What about the holistic life cycle impact of hybrid and electric vehicles? Some say they’re really not better due to materials, manufacturing and (particularly) battery disposal impact. While a few studies, including one from Renault, support the notion that the life cycle assessment of electric vehicles is better than gas/diesel vehicles (worse during manufacturing, but far better over their serviceable lifetime), this issue is still hotly debated.
Does your head hurt yet? Many of our clients face these kinds of challenges. What do you do when there is no clear sustainable winner? What do you do when there is a downside for every “more sustainable” alternative?
You choose the best solution you can and communicate authentically. The worst possible reaction is to get stuck in a sustainability quagmire and not act at all. And acting without openly discussing your choices is more likely to shift you into a defensive posture.
The good news is that consumers don’t expect perfection; they expect effort and improvement. Most consumers “get” that there are few perfect solutions. We’ve watched them chase their tails in focus groups and second guess themselves on issues like this for years. Most get the “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situation that many companies are in because those who care often experience the same quandaries in their own household purchasing decisions.
Report your initiatives and acknowledge both the pros and cons of your actions clearly and transparently. While advocacy groups might never be completely mollified, you’ll help remove some fuel from their fire, and consumers will more likely believe and appreciate your efforts.