The Green Police

Audi's satirical Super Bowl commercial featured an electric car-driving Green Police force busting citizens for eco-violations. What green crimes led to arrest? Using plastic shopping bags and drinking from Styrofoam cups, among others. In-the-know business people and environmental activists realize that it's not just a joke. In fact, the plastic industry's American Chemical Council immediately launched a Web site to defend the impugned eco-rectitude of plastics.

In all seriousness, the ad captures a very real and ongoing struggle to define what exactly sustainability means for industry. It's widely recognized that "sustainability" is a term that can mean different things to everyone and every business. That's on purpose. Sustainability was an idea developed in the 1980s by diplomats that needed to get environmental and economic ministers to agree. So, sustainable development was defined as "development that meets needs of today's generations without jeopardizing ability of the future generations to meet there needs." Like mom and apple pie, we can all agree to it. But the definition doesn't say anything about what a "sustainable" television, sofa bed or car looks like. For that, we need to define what sustainability means for each specific industry and product class.

It's called "operationalizing sustainability" by the experts and it's a heroic task. Governments first tried in the 1990s by creating eco-labels like the Nordic Swan or Germany's Blue Angel. But they recoiled when they confronted the nearly endless criteria that had to be compared. Was a product that used less energy better then one that used less water? How would you compare CO2 emissions with human rights violations? Clearly, it was - and still is - a daunting task and one that governments basically put aside.

But the need has not gone away. Environmental NGOs, industry associations, governments and even Walmart with its Sustainability Index are involved in this largely below-the-radar contest to set the green standards that tell business and consumers what constitutes an eco-violation.

Which brings us back to Audi's commercial. It was a clever effort to define a "sustainable car." For decades, diesel cars in the U.S. have had reputations as polluters, conjuring images of black smoke billowing from the stacks of freight trucks on the highway. But Audi and other European manufactures are working to change the U.S. attitude and mindset toward diesels. In fact, modern diesel engines are much cleaner today and, in some cases, more fuel efficient than their gas powered brethren. Audi's ad ends with the green police inspecting a line of cars waiting at an eco-check point. An officer approaches the Audi. It is a TDI, meaning it has a clean and efficient turbo diesel engine. With an admiring smile, the green police wave it through.

While we won't see the Green Police on the streets anytime soon, we can expect more public sparing around what constitutes green-products and businesses. The battle to operationalize sustainability has just begun. As Audi's expensive Super Bowl message shows, the stakes are rising.