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I just wanted to give you a heads up that you'll soon be seeing some press
where Eco-Cycle is supporting the efforts of NatureWorks LLC (NW), the
makers of the compostable PLA pellet (polylactic acid) from corn and
operators of the largest "bioplastic" production facility in America. I
know some folks are concerned about use of GMO feed-corn in the production
of the PLA (as am I). As a recycler and MRF operator, I am also concerned
about the challenges of recovering the PLA bottles from the existing
petro-plastic bottle recycling system. But here's the bottom-line: in my
experience working with the folks at NatureWorks over the last year or so,
they are also concerned about these issues if their customers are concerned.
Eco-Cycle has been buying their products since the late 90's to stage our
public Zero Waste events, and my guess is that many of you also buy their
The real reason I'm writing this is to ask you all, and your networks, to
give the bioplastics industry some time to develop before we criticize them
too heavily. The conversion away from petro-plastics is a long journey, and
we'll need big companies to invest large dollars to keep moving the ball
forward. NatureWorks did that, and now they need our help. and when I say
"our" I mean anyone in the environmental community that supports this
journey. The trick in all this is that to really change the world, all
forms of protest and collaboration are needed. GRRN has done awesome work
protesting Coke and Dell practices, and that sort of confrontational brand
hijacking is a very powerful organizing approach. But sometimes
collaboration is needed, especially when the other side appears legitimate
in their actions and their need for assistance.
The piece below is interesting (not great), and says that we need to be more
supportive of Big Corporate Small Steps. Well, maybe. but in the case of
NW, they took a big step in building that Nebraska PLA production facility
($300 million, or something like that). Their product isn't perfect, but
I'm convinced it's a good step toward a carbohydrate economy.
The Sustainable MBA
by Matthew Smith
Environmental Activism's Missed Opportunity
Wal-Mart has begun to take its first tentative steps toward sustainability:
In a recent shareholder meeting, CEO Lee Scott discussed plans for
increasing organic food sales, experimenting with renewable energy and
recycled building materials, enforcing ethical sourcing policies, and
further refining their already hyper-efficient operations.
What stuns me is not this remarkable move by the world's largest
corporation, but the reaction from the activist community. Rather than
celebrate important victories on the long road to a sustainable society,
environmental and social activists typically denigrate these first hesitant
steps as greenwashing.
Paul Blank, campaign director for the Wake-Up Wal-Mart Campaign reacted that
same day by saying, "The fact is that Wal-Mart is as concerned about doing
the right thing as tobacco companies are concerned about the health of
It's not my intent to defend Wal-Mart. I'm concerned about its impact on
society, and feel strongly the company must reinvent many of its practices.
What worries me is the broader trend in the sustainability movement to
criticize rather than praise a company's first efforts towards corporate and
social responsibility. We've seen this happen with companies like Ford,
General Motors, BP, and ChevronTexaco, who The Green Life listed among the
worst <http://www.thegreenlife.org/dontbefooled.html> greenwashers in the
A pattern seems to be emerging: Top management attempts to move their
company toward a more sustainable future. They began a few projects oriented
toward sustainability, and developed advertising campaigns to create public
awareness around their shifts in strategy. Activists responded negatively,
pointing out how little had changed other than the company's marketing
While the activists may have a point as far as appearances go, there is
likely more going on behind the scenes. It takes years for multinational
companies to turn in a new direction, and it's unrealistic to expect
wholesale changes at such an early stage. These advertising campaigns are
signs of an attitudinal shift and, I hope, a commitment toward a sustainable
While CEOs can develop advertising campaigns with minimal support, becoming
sustainable requires engaging the whole company. Another purpose the ads
serve, whether intentionally or not, is to shift internal opinion, and help
employees imagine a new future for the company. Without employee support any
effort at change will meet resistance at every turn.
Even when the intent is not pure, seeds are being sown at every level, and
there is always a chance that those seeds may take root. (As Hunter Lovins,
co-author of <http://www.natcap.org/sitepages/pid5.php> Natural Capitalism
has said to me, "Hypocrisy is the first step to real change.") When
criticism is received at this early point in transition, it has the
potential to stall a company's efforts by creating doubt both internally and
externally. At this most critical juncture, it's important that all
stakeholders believe the company has the ability to change.
This is not to say that these small early efforts are enough, or that we
shouldn't hold the company to a higher standard. But I think the first
tentative steps on the path to sustainability are some of the most critical.
Successful first steps will teach companies to walk -- hopefully later to
run. And run they must if we are to have any impact on the climate changes
we've already set in motion.
Activists could have a greater impact by recognizing these early steps for
what they are, and respond with support to create an atmosphere of trust and
shared background. Then, with a relationship in place, they can engage in a
dialog with the company that focuses on solutions rather than problems. What
I'm suggesting is that civil society can achieve more by partnering with
business than it can by criticizing it.
Unfortunately, there seems to be something about human nature that inclines
us to see the problems over the possibilities. Companies beginning a
transition to sustainability should prepare for this, and forge ahead with
their plans regardless.
One tactic that will reduce this interference is to radically increase
transparency. Organizations beginning a transition to sustainability,
especially after years of traditional business practices, cannot expect to
clean all the skeletons from their closets immediately. Companies that
understand their own failings, and are transparent about the changes they
wish to make, will leave no fodder from which a naysayer might build a case
When a company starts down the road to sustainability they are opening the
door to a new paradigm. Should we invite them in to have a meaningful
conversation, or should we slam the door in their face, telling them to come
back another day with a better plan?
Independent business consultant and author Matthew Smith
<mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org> is an MBA Candidate (2007) in the
Sustainable Management program at Presidio School of Management. He is the
former vice president of product marketing at Liquid Audio, and has more
than ten year's experience introducing new products at Sony Electronics
Inc., including the VAIO Personal Computer product line.
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