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Dealing with Consumer and Environmental Issues


Larry Lev
Article revised February 1996

KEYWORDS: environmentalism, coalition-building, values, interdependence


In a world of growing interdependence, no group or business can ignore its surroundings and act as if in isolation. Many agriculturalists have been reluctant to accept this, perhaps because they suspect that their views and values differ markedly from those held by their fellow citizens. Still, the reality is that the rest of society provides the market for the products that agriculturalists produce and the legal and social environment within which they must operate.

Therefore, it is necessary first to understand what these views and values are and second consider alternative plans of action for dealing with them. As a step toward better understanding, try to predict how a cross section of Americans answered these two questions taken from a much longer 1992 Roper Organization survey on public attitudes toward the environment. The survey responses are indicated below each question.

"At the present time, do you think environmental protection laws and regulations have gone too far or not far enough or have struck about the right balance?"

  1. Gone too far __%
  2. Not far enough __%
  3. Struck about the right balance __%

    Don't know 8%

    [Responses: 1. 11%; 2. 48%; 3. 33%]

"Sometimes there is conflict between economic growth and preserving nature. Here is a list of different views about these two things -- economic growth on the one hand, and preserving nature on the other. Would you please tell me which one comes closest to your own opinion."

  1. Preserving nature, even at the expense of __% economic growth
  2. Balance, but preserving nature more important __%
  3. Balance, but economic growth more important __%
  4. Economic growth, even at the expense of nature __%

    Don't know 6%

    [Responses: 1. 14%; 2. 53%; 3. 25%; 4. 3%]

How did you do? More importantly what implications (and plans for action) should you draw from the actual survey results? SC Johnson & Son Inc. (a household products manufacturer) commissioned the study so let's first consider what they concluded. Their president introduced the results by asserting, "...the survey as a whole is an environmental report card which continues to say we are not working up to our potential.....for SC Johnson it means working harder to reach maximum eco-efficiency in our operations."

This certainly is not the only approach he could have taken. For example, he could have declared, "We at SC Johnson regret that our fellow citizens are so misguided and poorly informed. We will work with other concerned businesses to re- educate the public toward a better understanding of environmental issues." Given this type of situation, how does a business choose the appropriate response(s)?

To begin to address this question, let's change direction and consider a useful little book by Edward de Bono titled "Six Action Shoes". De Bono (who wrote the entire book on a plane trip from London to New Zealand) argues that all business leaders must possess a broad set of different action approaches to deal with the range of issues and situations they will be forced to face. De Bono uses different types of shoes to represent these different action styles. Among those he lists are authoritarian purple riding boots, information-gathering grey sneakers, and empathetic and compassionate pink slippers. The point he stresses is that each shoe/approach only works well in certain circumstances -- the purple riding boots do a lousy job when the job calls for a pink slipper approach and vice-versa.

How many of us consciously collect (and, as with shoes, break in) a broad range of approaches to the problems we face? Read any agricultural newsletter or commodity group mission statement these days and you find a relentless and single-minded call to action. Restated in terms of shoes, I read this as a call to "get out of your bedroom slippers, into some steel-toed boots, and do some damage (before they do it to us)". While those boots certainly are the right footwear for certain purposes, they also have their limitations. Would other alternatives sometimes be more appropriate?

Let's look at how two other industries have responded to environmental challenges to their operating practices. In 1988, the McDonald's Corporation found itself under relentless attack by certain environmental groups for the mounds of rubbish produced in its restaurants. The packaging that produced most of the rubbish represented the very essence of the fast food industry so this was not an easy issue for them to handle. As reported in a Economist magazine article (August 29, 1992), though companies in other industries might consider ignoring complaints from environmental groups or fighting it out with them, neither of these strategies were serious options for McDonald's. The corporation had too much to lose.

McDonald's first tried to develop its own environmental policy. With limited expertise in the area of environmental management, the corporation made a series of ill-advised decisions and this effort failed. In desperation, McDonald's turned to their critics, environmental groups, for help. One group, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) decided that a cooperative effort with McDonald's was worth the risk to its own credibility with the public. The EDF offered expertise and sensitivity that McDonald's simply lacked and McDonald's provided the resources, business expertise, and influence with consumers that the EDF lacked. The results, which were played out over a number of years included a dramatic move away from a failed recycling program for polystyrene shells to a quilted paper wrap that used fewer resources and took up one-tenth the space when disposed (and many other similar changes). More importantly both McDonald's and the EDF gained a new appreciation of how to think about environmental issues. Each side in this partnership had taken the opportunity to break in a new pair of shoes.

In a similar example of cooperation, in 1989 the Amoco Corp and the EPA launched a unique joint venture to better understand and reduce sources of pollution in an Amoco oil refinery (Wall Street Journal, March 29, 1993). The results were impressive -- working together the two groups discovered how Amoco could achieve greater pollution reduction for $11 million than it currently obtained for $41 million expenditures under existing regulations (does this sound familiar?). Once again the requirement was to work together and share insights so as to focus on the true problem areas (instead of having one size fits all regulations). This approach has unfortunately remained a pilot solution that the EPA has not expanded to other companies. But maybe in the future ......

Some comparable examples can be cited for agriculture. In western Oregon, a broad coalition of urban and agricultural interests directly confronted the controversy surrounding pesticide use in commercial agriculture and were successful in jointly planning and executing the management of agricultural lands that are a part of the Minto-Brown Island Park. The Oregon Watershed Improvement Coalition has brought together similar broad coalitions to work together on riparian zone management in rangeland environments in Oregon.

These are, however, the exceptions rather the rule. Steel-toed boots (and bedroom slippers) remain the footwear of choice for those in agriculture. Having other alternatives available (and broken in) would provide a means to better meet the diverse current and future challenges faced by agriculturalists.

Larry Lev is a member of the Western Extension Marketing Committee and an Extension economist at Oregon State University.


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