Not too long ago I was on a panel with GM’s VP of Environment, and I was reminded of how very old school most big corporations are when it comes to discussing their environmental programs. In GM’s case, listening to this VP, it was as if GM was God’s great gift to the environment, and always has been.

In fact, despite admirable efforts to retool the company around the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt, GM has been nothing of the sort. Actually, it’s been a death star for green, between its crappy, huge vehicles, and its gruesome and nauseating national greenwashing campaign touting, among other non-things, flex fuel vehicles (which have been around for years and are kinda meaningless from a climate standpoint), and “green” SUV’s that get 14 mpg, less than a Model T, or the Volt, which you can’t buy.  

At the same time, GM has opposed gas taxes, increased fuel economy standards (until recently) and climate legislation. (Now, to the company’s credit, it’s part of USCAP and supports climate action.)  The company also consistently fought off shareholder resolutions on climate change, and as a result recently earned the title of “climate laggard” by some NGOs.

Here’s my question. GM is moving in a good direction. So, instead of defending the company at every turn, why wouldn’t the GM VP have said something like this: “Look, GM is a very old, very big company. We have not been admirable on environmental issues. But we’re trying to change–and I submit the Chevy Volt and USCAP as two examples. We have a long way to go, and turning this big ship is hard.”  

There is absolutely nothing to lose through this position, which represents nothing more than an honest take on things. Instead, GM and many other corporations won’t acknowledge any past, or present, transgressions. Instead, in GM’s case, the company points to the consumer and says, “We’re only supplying what the customer wants.”

Uh…noooooooo. As Tom Friedman points out, by opposing gas taxes, GM helped create conditions whereby Americans would lean towards big gas guzzlers. And at every turn, there seems to be stock unwillingness to admit any cracks in the company’s green armor. But why not? It doesn’t hurt a business to say, “We screwed up.” In fact, it radically increases credibility.

Conclusion: businesses have nothing to lose by being brutally honest about their environmental successes and failures. So leave the PR people at home and tell the frickin’ truth.