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General Motors and Toyota Square Off Over Sustainability

By Jack Rosebro

Defining Sustainability: Part 8 of 8

General Motors headquarters, Renaissance Center, Detroit.

Much has been made of the recent woes of General Motors, which has at times resembled a reversed reflection of the recently soaring success of Toyota, heir-apparent to GM’s long-standing title as the largest automaker in the world.

Despite their differences, however, both corporations share a common responsibility: among the most influential decisions that both must make in coming years will be how they choose to tackle the economic and environmental problem of sustainable growth.

Toyota headquarters, Toyota City Japan

Manufacturing companies regularly find themselves on the hot seat as regards their sustainability strategies—few environmentalists think to ask Microsoft, by comparison, if it plans to become a sustainable corporation—and no sector of manufacturing comes under fire more regularly than the automakers.

Not surprisingly, General Motors and Toyota have responded in kind, using their muscle as only the world’s largest corporations can.

Toyota’s solar array in Torrance, California, producing more than half a megawatt of power.

Ambitious programs are the norm rather than the exception. For example, GM now utilizes more landfill gas than any other corporation in the US (earlier post), while Toyota has installed one of the nation’s largest commercial solar arrays—536 kW—on one of its buildings in Torrance, California.

The list of achievements, as one can imagine, is long and admirable: innovative green buildings, aggressive recycling and end-of-vehicle-life schemes, and billions of collective dollars invested in hydrogen fuel-cell research.

Yet despite such measures, and notwithstanding in particular Toyota’s phenomenal success with hybrids, the products of both companies collectively produce more greenhouse gases each year than in the previous year.

General Motors’ fleet fuel economy and corresponding CO2 output.

The greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions achieved by Toyota hybrids, in particular, were no match for increases in overall product GHG production triggered by rising sales, particularly of its light trucks and SUVs. And with its overall fleet fuel economy essentially flat, the only way that General Motors can markedly reduce overall GHG production of its vehicles is to, well, sell less vehicles.

Although both corporations have repeatedly stated their commitment to reducing the greenhouse gas production of their products, both GM and Toyota also oppose regulation of GHG production under California’s greenhouse gas law.

Neither Toyota nor General Motors produces a sustainability report. In its Corporate Responsibility Report, General Motors defines sustainability along the lines of the triple bottom line of economics, environment, and social concerns, occasionally referred to as “people, profit, and planet.”

Toyota’s Environmental Report, as does that of Honda (earlier post), studiously avoids defining sustainability, and that may be a good thing: given that many automakers toss the word around and fashion it to suit their needs, perhaps it is prudent to wait until the term actually means something.

Cover of Toyota environmental report, displaying the logo of The Natural Step.

However, Toyota somewhat perplexingly garnished their 2004 European Environmental Report with the logo of The Natural Step, a NGO that works to implement its science- and systems-based sustainability framework; however, the report made no mention of The Natural Step (TNS) or even of sustainability.

Toyota does, however, take a crack at “sustainable mobility,” borrowing the definition developed by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD), of which Toyota is a member:

The ability to meet the needs of society to move freely, gain access, communicate, trade and establish relationships without sacrificing other essential human or ecological values today or in the future.

Such a definition is somewhat of a riff off the oft-quoted 1987 Bruntland definition of sustainability (development that satisfies the needs of the present generation without endangering the needs of future generations) with added references to mobility. It’s an interesting—albeit vague—starting point, but just how does Toyota intend to achieve the goal, as it were, of sustainable mobility?

The answer to that question, according to Toyota’s 2005 Environmental Report, is that the company “is striving to achieve this objective by addressing the two visions of ‘Zeronize’ and ‘Maximize’ simultaneously.

‘Zeronize’ symbolizes continual efforts to reduce the negative effects of ‘traffic accidents,’ ‘traffic congestion,’ and ‘environmental impact,’ while ‘Maximize’ symbolizes efforts towards the ‘enrichment of the heart’ to the fullest extent through the fun, excitement and comfort that people seek in automobiles.

Keeping perhaps a little bit closer to Earth, a Toyota engineer took the time to outline the problems facing his industry during a recent presentation at an advanced-technology conference. He asked the audience to envision a world in which all forms of transportation were emissions-free. Given the growth of our species, the engineer pointed out, the consumption of natural resources needed to produce and provide personal transportation would still—and likely will—be staggering.

If, for example, seven million Chinese buy cars next year, then we'll need to pave over enough land to make seven million parking spaces.

Toyota engineers are not alone in admitting the overall non-sustainable business as usual approach. Recently, GM’s Tim Vail, who oversees business development for the company’s fuel cell activities, remarked:

It really breaks down to sustainability. Only 12 percent of the world’s population have a vehicle now, but we are seeing a big change in that in other parts of the world, like China.

We are all for people buying more cars, but from an environmental and petroleum perspective, we cannot sustain this level of growth without doing something.

(Picture of Chinese soldier with GM HyWire concept car)
Culture clash: a Chinese soldier eyes GM’s HyWire fuel cell concept car.

Such sentiments are sorely tempered by the news that General Motors became China’s number one automaker last month. China itself is on track to overtake the US as the largest consumer of vehicles in the world by 2020. And what do its citizens want from a personal vehicle?

The top three priorities are fuel economy, fuel economy, fuel economy.

—Raymond Bierzynski, president of GM’s joint-venture design firm in Shanghai

Not one to be caught off guard, Toyota is planning a range of low-cost vehicles aimed at China as well as India and Brazil. Tokuichi Uranishi, who heads Toyota’s operations outside Japan, recently told The Sunday Times of London that the company had initiated a “serious project” toward that goal, possibly sold under a separate brand name.

It appears that China will be needing those seven million parking spaces after all.

Next week: Looking back, looking forward – where do we go from here?


Rafael Seidl

Isn't it a little unreasonable to in effect demand that automakers strive toward a state in which their own maufacturing operations plus the operation of their products is GHG neutral?

Surely it is up to consumers to not just approve of but actually go out and purchase fuel-efficient models. If that spells the end of big SUVs and the high wages for hourly workers and retirees they support, that's the market at work.

Also, it is up to voters and the governments they elect to pursue energy policies based on renewable sources, e.g. biomass. Transportation will always consume exergy, that's just basic physics. The diffrence is where it comes from.


If not unreasonable, it is certainly unrealistic to expect auto companies to support alternatives which would lead to their own demise. However, it it not unreasonable to suggest to auto companies that they should not take states like California to court to avoid mandates with respect to the reduction of GHG.

Yes, to insist that automakers be GHG neutral is like insistinn that dogs quit smelling each other's butts. That's what they do.

Corporations, by the nature of economics and the way that corporate charters are established, will value profit above all else. But it is up to us through our government to change the rules of the game so that profits do not lead to the destruction of the planet.

With the way that China is going, all the fuel efficient or alternative vehicles in the world will not be enough to avoid catastrophe. We all seem to be under the illusion that technology will save us.

joseph Padula

GM arrests their customers who want a car that has the potential to be Non polluting, the EV-1. But first they try to ruin the credit of people who lease the cars when they turn them in for having too many miles or scratches. Then they crush them. What they forgot is the people who worked in the EV-1 system would be laid off and would talk about a demand GM denied when testifing to the state of California, CARB.

If you have, or get solar panels, live in the Pacific NW, or live in a deregulated state, you can get 100% of your electricly from Solar, Hydro or Wind. NO carbon.
You recharge your electric car with it.
If you are on a normal grid, every year the grid gets cleaner as plants improve and your car gets cleaner automaticly.
Do your ICE's improve every year you own them Rafael?
Do people go to the dealer to get the 2.2 upgrade to the cat. converter going from a ULEV to a SULEV?
DO PZEV-AT cars put out any CO2?
I am all for PZEV-AT cars, I think right now Most of them should be, not just a few in California.

Ron Fischer

In the current mode "better" to consumers and automakers means larger, luxurious or higher performance. For automakers, these qualities motivate aspirational (and irrational) buying behavior that allows for large profitability.

So there are two options: one: change the "market" so that GHG social costs are factored into production, purchase and operating costs (politically impossible) or two: find some (rationally impossible) way to associate larger, luxurious and higher performance with lower GHG emissions.

Lance Funston

I think the brushstroke zen circle shown is probably not intended to be the Natural Step logo. In fact is an ancient Japanese symbol for wholeness in zen brush art. If anything, the Natural Step borrowed from the Japanese.


Carbon dioxide (GHG main component)is not a pollutant, but rather food source for plants on Earth surface and ocean deep. Carbon dioxide from transportational sector constitutes about 0.5% of global carbon input cycle from all (95% non-human) sources.


GM's concern about sustainability is expressed in the architectural design of its corporate headquarters which looks like a giant metal hand flipping the bird.

GM's corporate charter should be revoked, its executive directors and upper level management charged with crimes against humanity. GM directors know that the conversion to fuel cell cars is a hoax. They know that the Plug-in Hybrid offers invaluable advantages but are actively thwarting its development, regardless of the consequences. GM's real motto is Exploitation.


What's good for GM, is bad for the world.

babu tanveer

toyoa should produce a mini hiace van in petrol model so that the people who cannot afford fuel and the bigger van can afford a mini hiace van with two rows of built in seats ,and cd systems and built in cng cylinders ,it can become a huge sucess in a country like PAKISTAN,,,,,,

babu tanveer

mitsubishi pajero mini ia a fantastic product of mitsubishi songapore .and it had a great success in Pakistan and china has produced some auto products to pakistan ,like changan motors and karakuram motors and some of the models . but if toyota takes a one step ahead and like singapore produces some of the toyota models in mini sizes ,it can flurish and can wonder the auto market in china and in pakistan and all over the world ,
toyota china can produce,hiace mini , parado mini , hilux mini pickup,hilux surf mini ........
these are the models which are in use in large nu;mbers .........................


i love toyota and i will like it to be our family series for live


i love toyota and i will like it to be our family series for live

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