Sunday, December 12, 2010

Corporate environmentalism

So, I have a CVS card. (For non-US readers, CVS is a pharmacy/store.) CVS wants to give me $1 every 4 times I shop there using my own bags, since this saves plastic bags. But they won't record these transactions on my normal CVS card. They'll only give me the discount if I buy a new card that looks like a green leaf. So I can show how much I care about the environment with my superfluous piece of plastic.

In fact, I just checked that webpage to see if they mention the material of the leaf card. They say it's "made with corn-based material — an annually renewable resource." So they're trying to cue us to feel like using too much corn isn't an environmental problem because it's "annually renewable" — never mind how much energy is required to produce the corn. (Michael Pollan says that corn "is the SUV of plants. Growing it the way we do requires it to guzzle fuel in the form of fertilizer, about a quarter to a third of a gallon of petroleum for each bushel.")

This is what happens when corporations try to "go green." Corporations aren't content simply to help the environment out of the goodness of their hearts; they need to come up with a way to signal how green they are. Then, they have an ulterior motive to prioritize that signal, while downplaying any environmental costs.


Jason (the commenter) said...

Is it just corporations though? In the city where I live the parks are watered with reclaimed water. How do I know? There are signs (and not pretty ones) peppered everywhere saying so.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Oh, I definitely think a similar dynamic can exist with government policy. It's worth scrutinizing this kind of thing in both the private and public sectors. (As Thomas Sowell likes to point out, government is an entity with its own interests, which don't necessarily align with the "public interest.")

Corporate environmentalism might be distinctively bad in some ways, while government environmentalism might be distinctively bad in other ways. Corporate environmentalism is more tied to a desire to make a profit, and this could be bad, e.g. brilliantly executed green signaling might just encourage consumers to buy more stuff (with the same effect as the tobacco company that encourages people to smoke more by advertising "ultra light" cigarettes). But it could also be good, e.g. a business has a straightforward financial incentive not to waste paper.

Jason (the commenter) said...

Everybody has a straightforward financial incentive to not waste paper, but a government might not reduce paper usage because a few senators are from paper making states. With environmentalism they might tout the use of recycled paper as "the answer", even though no paper is best and non-recycled paper may be better for the environment in some respects.

Look at all the green cars. The only really green car is a bus, but the government gives all sorts of subsidies so people can produce and buy green cars. And consumers stand in line for them because of the "green" label. It's a farce the private and public sector unite in enabling.