A new disease has hit C-Suites over the last 10 years. Translated from the Latin: “sustainability stupidity.”
Corporations have been falling over themselves hiring young fresh-from-college staffers as sustainability officers to make sure the company appears to be doing all it can to help the environment. This helps companies fend off rabid environmental activists who organize boycotts, protests and other distractions to force a company’s hand. These sustainability teams are well-intentioned, but their science and actual benefit to the planet is suspect.
Alaska Airlines is the most recent example. The company announced that it would ditch plastic water bottles replacing them with boxed water cartons. The move was promoted as helping Alaska “offset its footprint.” Yet replacement cartons are worse for the planet than plastic water bottles.
Cartons are made of glued layers of plastic, paper and aluminum. They are difficult to recycle. Many recycling programs reject these water boxes. A study from the Danish Environmental Protection Agency found it is actually better for the environment to burn cartons, rather than attempt to recycle them. Additionally, cartons don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions over recycled bottles. And that’s according to a study funded by Tetra Pak, a carton manufacturer.
New Seasons Market has also taken a big gulp of the sustainability Kool-Aid. The Pacific Northwest grocer recently banned all single-use water containers — whether a plastic bottle, multilayered carton, glass bottle, or aluminum can — from its stores.
In this case, virtue signaling demands some contortionist attempts at sustainability when facing business realities. People want to buy purified water (tap water can be unreliable or contaminated), so the chain is still selling water in larger plastic containers.
It is also still selling carbonated water bottles, which use a thicker plastic than the discounted water bottle. A much easier and progressive solution is a corporate policy to encourage recycling of single-use bottles. Recycling instantly transforms any single-use bottle into multiple-uses, as well as creating waste reduction — the company’s reasoning behind the bottle ban.
Other companies have waded into virtue signaling with equally counterintuitive results. Saks Fifth Ave recently announced it was going to appease animal activists by banning the sale of natural fur. Formerly upscale Saks will be leaning into plastic-based synthetic fake fur. Unlike recyclable bottles, the synthetic fashion industry does have a serious polluting effect, estimated to leach 1 billion pounds of plastic into the ocean every year (synthetic clothes shed plastic microparticles when cleaned).
And then there’s Major League Baseball. While not a sustainability issue, their anti-Georgia stunt is a reminder of how easy it is to manipulate business leaders trying to surf a popular wave. The MLB felt that a recently passed Georgia voting law — which makes it easier to vote and harder to cheat— was racist. To address this perceived problem, the league moved its All-Star Game from Atlanta to Denver.
Pulling out of Atlanta harms many minority-owned and staffed businesses that would have benefitted from the tourism. Additionally, Colorado’s election laws are as strict — or even more strict — than laws recently passed by Georgia. In short, the MLB pulled millions of dollars of business out of Georgia to move to a predominantly White state in the name of fighting racism.
These bankrupt decisions that pass for good management are only a few examples of the fad where looking good beats doing good. A better road map for business requires more research and science based decision-making. And a lot less preemptive preening that defrauds the public.
• Richard Berman is president of Berman and Co. in Washington, D.C.