Smoke and Rear View Mirrors: Behind AAA's Green Curtain


Recently we told readers about Better World Car Club, a greener alternative to the highway lobbying AAA. Seems like AAA is feeling the sting of recent criticism, including its position against closing the bridges into DC on inauguration day.

A friend sent a recent AAA newsletter along all about going green. Who knew they cared? Let’s take a look behind the green curtain and see if there’s any substance there.

In the first section about green travel, AAA says:

“To help support Earth Day, AAA offers affordable adventures to eco-friendly destinations that embrace nature and minimize impact to the natural surroundings. At the forefront of ‘green’ thinking, Costa Rica provides an unparalleled outdoor experience with its rich biodiversity and breathtaking vistas. Using the beautiful all-inclusive Paradisus Playa Conchal resort as home base, travelers can explore the area’s scenic beauty – Arenal Volcano, Tabacon Springs, Palo Verde and Vida Aventura National Parks. Be sure to visit exotic local wildlife at the Las Pumas Rescue Shelter. Let us help make your next trip memorable and responsible.”

Check out this photo of the Paradisus Playa Conchal resort. I don’t know about you, but I think this place has a mighty big footprint. Also, nowhere on the site does it say they are making any environmental efforts at all. I fail to see what is green about getting in an airplane, staying in a place like this, and visiting nature preserves.

Next up – The “Green Cruise”:

AAA says, “Green thinking travelers have more options. Notably, cruise lines are becoming more eco-friendly. Holland America, in particular, is leading the way. The well-known cruise line’s fleet comprises ships that are not only elegant 5-star accommodations, but also are environmentally sound. In fact, in 2008 Holland America was awarded ‘Most Eco-Friendly Cruise Line’ by Porthole Magazine and ‘Best Cruise or Ferry Operator’ by Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards. Definitely, a voyage worth taking.”

I did a little research on Holland America. I found out that it won the award for unveiling a $1.5 million emissions system designed to reduce air pollution by using seawater to “scrub” smokestack emissions. In addition, Holland America is employing a new hybrid power system combining traditional diesel-electric and newer gas-turbine engines in its new Vista Class fleet. Making a few efforts toward greening is important, but I’d hardly call cruise ships “environmentally sound.” This site documents environmental violations by cruise ships, and, from the data here, it doesn’t look like Holland America stacks up any better against any of the others when it comes to air quality and waste water violations.

Both of these vacation options illustrate a central problem with greenwashing: some things just aren’t green no matter how hard their marketers may try to make it so. The kind of luxury and indulgence that requires the use millions of gallons of water, millions of gallons of jet or ship fuel, produces thousands of pounds of food and human waste, includes luxury dining and the high carbon excess that entails, and results in intensified human impact on pristine natural areas isn’t green. I don’t want to be a killjoy or deprive people of their vacations, but just don’t call them green.

The newsletter goes onto give tips on saving fuel, money and the environment (although that last one seems like an afterthought). Whatever the motive, I can get behind them, and just to prove I’m not just out to pick on AAA, I’ll  list them here:

– Consolidate errand trips to cut down on driving time and miles

– Slow down. The faster your vehicle travels, the more fuel it burns.

– Avoid quick starts and stops. This wastes fuel, adds vehicle wear, and increases odds of a crash.

– Lighten your load. Heavier vehicles use more fuel, so remove extra cargo you don’t need.

– Watch for low fuel prices, but don’t go too far out of your way to save a few cents.

This is all to illustrate that it’s good to not only look behind the green curtain, but also to recognize that some things cannot be made green. Greener? Yes. But green, no way.

Image: WTL

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.