Lana Pollack, executive director of the Michigan Environmental Council, likes William Clay Ford Jr. so much that she says she did a little jig on the sidewalk in front of the Ford Motor Co. headquarters after they met to exchange views.
"He's a real mensch," said Pollack, a former state legislator from Ann Arbor. "He not only cares a great deal about the environment but he's very knowledgeable. This is not a fashion statement with him. It's a reflection of his deepest values. So I expect good things from him. I wish him well."
Her praise was echoed Tuesday by other state and national environmental leaders. Many see him as the kind of chief executive officer who could lead not only his industry but other multinational corporations into a new era of sustainability.
His commitment to the environment will be tested in adding the job of chief executive officer to his role as chairman, though.
"It is easier to espouse those positions when you aren't making the day-to-day decisions," said Efraim Levy, an auto analyst with Standard & Poor's in New York. "I think he'll still be an advocate for more green products, but I also think he'll tone down some of his stances when faced with the complexities of the marketplace."
"To me, my environmental ethic is an easy fit here," Ford said at a news conference Tuesday. "The way I view environmental leadership in this company is really one of technological application. It doesn't mean we'll do extraneous things outside our core focus, but rather introducing technology into our core business that allows us to maintain or improve on environmental expectations."
Those environmentalists who know Ford personally tend to give him high marks. Several leading thinkers on environmental issues who have not had one-on-one contact with Ford criticized him as not doing enough to curb emissions from his company's less fuel-efficient sport-utility vehicles.
For years, Ford has been making headlines with his proclamations on environmental topics. He also has been committing his own time and money to local environmental causes while pushing for change at the automaker.
In a keynote speech to a Greenpeace convention in London a year ago, Ford said that companies will not survive unless they can produce goods in a way that will sustain the planet's resources.
Ford also turned some heads around Detroit by predicting that the days of the internal combustion engine are numbered.
"Fuel cells, which run on hydrogen, a renewable resource, have zero emissions," he said. "Longer term, I believe that fuel cells will finally end the 100-year reign of the internal combustion engine. . . . Fuel cells could be the predominant power source in 25 years."
While Ford has won over some mainstream environmentalists, he still has skeptics.
Jane Holtz Kay, author of "Asphalt Nation," which looks at America's dependency on cars, dismisses Ford's forays into environmentalism as insignificant.
"He's a car guy," Kay said Tuesday. "He may actually believe that he's trying to become more ecologically sound and worker friendly, but it's basically greenwash. It comes off to me as a series of hypocritical gestures. He's a power broker for a polluting machine. I think he could do much more in the way of mass transportation."
The social justice organization CorpWatch bestowed its Greenwash Award on the automaker in April 2000 for launching a huge public relations campaign called "Heroes for the Planet" while the average fuel efficiency of the company's fleet was getting worse due to increasing sales of SUVs.
Still, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute gives the new chief executive high marks for trying.
"I like and admire him," said Lovins, a well-known auto industry critic. "He's a leader in an industry that too often is run by managers. Both the company and the country need that kind of leadership now."
Lovins described Ford as "head of the pack" among auto executives and "one of the top half-dozen corporate leaders in the country who want to make their companies green both ways," doing well by the environment while earning money.
Dan Becker of the Sierra Club's Washington office points out that Japanese automakers were the first to reach the U.S. market with cars that can switch between the use of gasoline and the use of cleaner-burning fuel cells. Ford and the other U.S. automakers are still developing their hybrid cars.
"So now the Japanese are seizing the high-tech mantle," Becker said. "If Ford is seen as a company that doesn't use modern technology, where does that leave them?
"He's not a protest-in-the-streets environmentalist. He's a hike-in-the-woods environmentalist. It will be interesting to see if an enlightened CEO can make the company more environmentally responsive," said Becker, who was invited to lunch by Ford about six months ago.
The company has made major strides in recent years toward reducing pollution from its plants worldwide and increasing the use of recyclable materials. But Becker and other environmentalists say that the company's largest impact on the environment comes not from the manufacturing process but from the carbon dioxide that Ford vehicles emit.
Numerous scientists believe that increasing carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere is leading to climate change.
In perhaps his most important acknowledgement of environmental concerns, Ford admitted in May 2000 that the vehicles emblazoned with his family name contribute to climate change. Earlier this year, he issued an environmental audit of his company that spelled out its contribution to climate change. Worldwide, about a third of all carbon dioxide emissions come from vehicles.
Ford also has pulled his company out of an industry consortium that had been lobbying against efforts to curb carbon dioxide emissions. In addition, he has pledged to significantly increase the fuel efficiency of his company's SUVs beyond government requirements.
Ford has lent his name and his political clout to efforts to restore the Detroit River, preserve pockets of nature throughout the state and build a network of trails and other natural corridors in southeast Michigan.
In addition, Ford is rebuilding his company's historic Rouge Plant with the intention of making it into a showpiece of environmental sensitivity.
Through the Ford Motor Company Fund, the chief executive has helped steer millions of dollars to environmental organizations in recent years. Last February, the fund contributed $5 million to the Audubon Society, the largest contribution in the society's history. The fund also made a 5-year, $25-million gift to Conservation International for the creation of a Center for Environmental Leadership.
Ford, an avid outdoorsman, occasionally has run afoul of his rural neighbors. In the early 1990s he and his sister sued the state in an effort to limit access to the Sturgeon River near the family's 2,000-acre retreat in northern Michigan. The agency compromised by moving a path. More recently, neighbors of a Colorado development partly owned by Ford have criticized him for failing to keep the land undeveloped.
Contact EMILIA ASKARI at 248-586-2606 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writers Alejandro Bodipo-Memba and Jeffrey McCracken contributed to this report.
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