'Eco-Friendly' Car Club? Huh?


How's this for a self-contradictory idea: an "environmentally friendly" auto club.

The organization calling itself that is the Better World Club. Eco bloggers at Grist and Autobloggreen sing its praises, but the club's green credentials irk me.

You would think that it sends out hybrid tow trucks to provide roadside assistance or tows broken-down cars to solar-powered mechanics' garages. But those things are not much more than an eco-friendly car owner's tailpipe dream.

Instead of green business practices or services, which would be hard to produce in this circumstance, the club mostly relies on supporting green ideals to justify its moniker. It gives a portion of its revenue to environmentally friendly organizations and helps its members obtain carbon credits to offset the travel that, ironically, they can arrange through Better World.

Because auto clubs don't actually make their money from roadside assistance -- it's the loss leader that pulls members in so they'll use things like travel services -- it has relationships with a handful of eco-friendly hotels and car-rental agencies that specialize in alternative-fuel vehicles. The latter was probably a bigger deal when Better World opened for business in 2002, before you could easily rent a hybrid by walking into Hertz or Enterprise.

It does offer roadside assistance to bicyclists (cyclist membership is $40 a year or $18 as an add-on to an auto membership), which is novel and definitely eco-friendly.

But otherwise its pricing and services are pretty interchangeable with AAA's, as Better World itself points out. It offers roadside assistance, free maps, gas coupons and discounts with major car-rental companies and mainstream hotel chains like Marriott, Holiday Inn, Days Inn and Ramada.

If any old-line auto maker or consumer-products company tried to peddle the same, old offerings to the public while making some donations and other select environmental efforts that had nothing to do with their core business, they would be accused of green-washing and would be dressed down on the same eco-blogs that praise Better World.

The one positive thing Better World has done is draw attention to AAA's surprising and not entirely well-known position as a lobbyist at the federal and state levels. It claims it advocates for its members on issues ranging from highway paving to motor-vehicle safety.

But finding the main AAA Web site where it talks about these efforts, as opposed to regional chapters that provide most services, isn't easy. It's doesn't come up near the top of a Google search for AAA. Moreover, when you do find the Web site, the organization describes its stances in squishy, lobbyist language that obfuscates where it actually stands on environmental and other issues.

It argues that supporting wider highways and new roads is part of its pro-environment platform because it relieves congestion and thus smog. This would be an opportunistic definition of green if it were true. But it's becoming conventional wisdom that building more roads increases traffic volume and doesn't alleviate congestion.

One gets the overall sense, after reading AAA's stance on things like air pollution and road building, that it's more concerned with drivers' convenience than their well-being. An article from Harper's magazine suggests it advocates for certain policies because it always has done so, not because it's confirmed that they reflect members' points of view.

Better World, as the new kid on the block trying to take on the 500-pound gorilla that is AAA, has an incentive to make AAA look bad. (AAA has 50 million members to Better World's 25,000.) Too bad doing so is all too easy to do when it comes to public policy.

If its politics don't reflect yours, write to your local AAA chapter and the national public affairs office in Florida and say so. And consider rescinding your membership and switching to a competitor, such as AARP's or Allstate's auto clubs.

I don't want to trade one auto club's political activism for another. Rather than Better World sending a portion of its revenue on members' behalf to environmental organizations, I'd prefer if it would charge 1 percent less and let me decide for myself which groups and environmental actions I want to support.

There's no reason why help with a flat tire or a dead battery can't be just that. Why the ideological baggage? That is, there's no reason other than marketing.

If I feel the need to improve my environmental karma, I'll call the Sierra Club, not the auto club.

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