Few sectors have jumped on the green marketing bandwagon faster than the world's IT companies, but in their rush to associate themselves with the environmental business zeitgeist have some of the largest names in software opened themselves up to charges of environmental hypocrisy?
That certainly seems to be the case at Microsoft, which last week took a break from talking up the green credentials of Vista and helping to promote the Live Earth concerts to launch a PR stunt that will see the company offer free taxis to Londoners.
Under the scheme, Microsoft has had 20 London taxis branded with Office 2007 livery and said that anyone hopping into the cabs between 7:30am and 9:30am can get a trial of the new software and a ride within zones one and two of the capital for free.
Attempting to explain the rather tenuous link between Microsoft Office and free taxis Darren Strange, UK product manager for Microsoft Office 2007, claimed that "as the weather gets hotter and the tube more unbearable, we are helping London's workers have a better day by laying on free cabs to keep them fresh in body and mind. Office 2007 is all about helping workers do their job better and, by allowing them to get a free taxi to work, we hope this will help them too."
That's right free taxis. Not free Tube travel, not free bicycles, not even free bio-fuel powered taxis, just good old-fashioned gas guzzling London cabs – for free.
Obviously someone within Microsoft's marketing department thought (or more likely didn’t think) that despite the company having recently pledged its support for the Live Earth concerts it was still a good idea for it to not only start paying for people's cabs in one of the most congested cities in the world but also start slagging off its public transport network.
A spokesman for Microsoft admitted that at no stage had an environmental impact assessment of the publicity campaign been undertaken, although he did add that it was thought none was necessary as the cabs would have been on the roads anyway.
Valid as this point maybe it has not stopped some commentators from branding the campaign as further evidence of Microsoft's environmental irresponsibility.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic Microsoft's arch rival Google also found itself under fire today for its failure to divulge details about the power consumption of one of its new datacentres.
Writing at The Register, Ashlee Vance argued that while the search giant was happy to rejig its logo to show its support for World Earth Day it was less happy to inform people about its own contributions to global warming, or, as Vance puts it, its "possible penguin killing".
According to Vance, Google has recently purchased 800 acres of land in Oklahoma, and while the company has not confirmed what the land will be used for a new datacentre looks a safe prediction. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, depending on your level of cynicism, the move was announced just days after the state's Governor signed a new law giving the largest corporate energy users the right to keep power consumption figures secret.
Vance argues that secrecy over energy consumption is becoming something of a habit for Google, noting how when asked about the energy and water consumption of a new datacentre in South Carolina Google's head of strategic development Rhett Weiss claimed that "we're in a highly competitive industry and, frankly, one or two little pieces of information like that in the hands of our competitors can do us considerable damage. So we can't discuss it."
It is not quite the transparent, environmentally responsible answer you'd expect from a company that has made a huge amount of marketing collateral from its free bikes for staff, its subsidies for employees wanting to buy green cars, and its pledge to never be "evil".
As Vance observes: "No such company can with a straight face claim that its energy consumption is a proprietary secret in this day and age (I doubt a rival could do much with the energy info anyway without knowing more details about a given data centre). Our most demanding energy eaters should disclose their toll on the environment."
It would be easy to paint Microsoft and Google's PR snafus as another example of corporate greenwashing, of large global companies trying to associate themselves with environmental good causes while refusing to make the changes required to back up their marketing rhetoric. But, for me, these embarrassing incidents look more like classic cases of internal communication breakdown.
What these two episodes illustrate - besides the ability of journalists to slam any company that departs from environmental best practices - is the damage that can be done when green thinking is not embedded at all levels of an organisation's marketing department.
Both Microsoft and Google have made pretty good progress in developing greener business models and while they both still have a long way to go they are not amongst the worst environmental offenders in the IT sector. However, these recent instances prove that while green strategies have been launched they remain stand alone initiatives rather than an entrenched part of the corporate culture.
Were green thinking properly embedded within Microsoft's marketing department it would be inconceivable that anyone could suggest a publicity campaign that supported cars and criticised public transport without someone else pointing out that this was a daft idea, in complete opposition to the prevailing public opinion, and in direct contradiction with the company's high profile green business campaigns.
Equally, if Google were taking a truly holistic approach to its environmental strategy it would have realised that hiding behind disingenuous arguments about corporate confidentiality in an attempt to evade questions on its environmental impact only undermines the good work it has done to establish itself as a leader in the adoption of green business practices.
What Microsoft and Google have shown is that as well as getting attacked for deliberate green washing firms will also increasingly face criticism if just one small part of their marketing and communications strategy falls out of synch with environmental best practices.
As such marketing execs right across the business need to assess how all their campaigns and communications fit into the company's overall green strategy before they give them the green light. Those that continue to fail to take this simple precaution will soon find themselves clearing their desks and looking for one of those Microsoft branded taxis to give them a free lift to the dole office.
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