Change from Top-Down to Bottom-Up. We need both, don’t let corporate shame of personal responsibility distract from their impacts.

So far, in my Environmental Realist Blog Series, I’ve focused on how we as individuals impact our environment. From driving and flying, to what we eat, to how disposably we live. If you’ve kept up, however, you’ll have seen the caveat I concluded two of these posts with. The time has come to explore that caveat and better understand the other piece of the puzzle:

  • The role that companies and manufacturers play in sustainability
  • The responsibility they have historically shifted from themselves to the end-user

In preparing for this post, I came across many articles that dive into this idea. The idea that manufacturers have historically shifted the blame for pollution, recycling, and climate change onto us in an attempt to avoid meaningful action. It’s not a new idea, and if it’s of interest to you, I suggest digging into it further! But for this post, I’d like to focus not on the fact that it happened but on how it affects the events industry specifically and some possible solutions. First, some perspective shifts that I think could reframe how we understand our environmental impacts.

Materiality and Life Cycle Calculations

Historically, when material use data is collected in the events industry, it’s centered around shipping and disposal. The focus is on how the material got to the venue and what happens after it’s used. This kind of analysis can be helpful to target waste diversion practices in the future better and reduce shipping distances. Still, it misses a big part of the puzzle: the origin of the material. Without this piece, it’s easy to address all future changes through the lens of downstream improvements. In other words, 100% of the mitigation and impact is in the hands of the consumer.

A more thorough analysis would include all aspects of the life cycle of a material.By calculating the environmental impact not just of end use shipping and disposal, but of the raw material excavation, shipping, and manufacturing phases, we can better address the true impact of these products.

We can better address the true impact of these products. Let’s take the example of the carbon footprint (DEFRA, 2020) of 100 t-shirts:

  • Origin (production, manufacturing, and shipping before production): 312 kg CO2e (94%)
  • Shipping to Destination (500 km by air): 15 kg CO2e (4%)
  • Disposal – Recycled – 0.3 kg CO2e, Landfilled – 6.4 kg CO2e (2%)

The old way of understanding the environmental footprint of t-shirts just took the 2nd and 3rd sources into account. But this neglects what ends up being 94% of total emissions! By understanding only the downstream impacts, the possible solutions are limited to:

  1. Sourcing the t-shirts from a closer location and
  2. trying to find a local recycler that will accept the leftover shirts

Including the upstream impacts, however, can lead to a better understanding of where the bulk of the effect originates and help focus mitigation strategies in higher impact areas such as how a company operates (use of a more sustainable and/or recycled-content material) and the benefit of reduction and reuse.

Can you see how just the way we measure our impacts can affect what and who we see as the source? Let’s look at another measurement.

Waste Calculations

The Role that Companies Play in Sustainability - Waste Calculation

When I say “waste diversion,” what do you think of? Perhaps it’s a new term for you, but if not, you likely think of recycling and maybe composting as a way of diverting waste from the landfill. Businesses, hotels, and conference centers all use their “% waste diversion” as the gold standard and often use an improvement in this number over time in their sustainability commitments. It’s simple to measure and understand, and enhancements are straightforward and easy to conceive of. You can ask: what waste item can we find a recyclable replacement for and BAM! higher diversion rate.

The issue with this measurement is that it focuses only on disposal. As discussed above, this narrow view of sustainability measurement shifts the focus to the end-user (us!) and off of the waste producer. It plays right into their hands! So how do we improve it?

I would suggest broadening our calculation to include waste reduction, use of rental materials, and reuse (in that order of preference) to our waste measurements. If the priority is placed on waste reduction instead of waste diversion, we won’t just replace something with something else; we’ll look at ways to disincentivize overproduction. The emphasis must be moved further upstream, from the use/disposal phase to the purchasing/planning phase. Let’s look at two possible designs for an event build:

Event #1 – Build A Event #1 – Build B
Landfill – 500 kg Landfill – 500 kg
Recycling – 7,500 kg Recycling – 1,500 kg
Compost – 1,200 kg Compost – 1,200 kg
Total Waste – 9,200 kg Total Waste – 3,200 kg
Waste Reduction – 0 kg Waste Reduction – 6,000 kg
Diversion Rate – 95% Diversion Rate – 84%

Build A and B are the same except for the amount of recycled material and total waste.

Build A

In Build A, 6,000 kg of cement was used and recycled. The cement manufacturer had to produce and ship the cement (emitting ≈791 kg CO2e) and then transport it to a recycling facility where it is crushed and downcycled (emitting ≈6 kg CO2e).

Build B

In Build B, the design was tweaked to use less and save 6,000 kg of cement.

Which Build Is Better?

Build A is better at a 95% diversion rate by traditional waste measurements, but the life cycle environmental footprint is much greater. By broadening our definition of “waste” and “material use,” the measurement can more realistically include the real impact of that waste, from excavation to disposal.

Side Note

I understand that the suggested actions in the first and second sections still originate from the bottom, but I hope it’s clear that a change in our thinking can ultimately affect change from the top-down. How we talk about and measure consumption affects the way we seek to improve our actions. By acting on the entire life of the materials we use and practices we promote, companies will need to think differently about producing these materials. Which brings us to the only feasible way to understand change.

Aligning Incentives

The Role that Companies Play in Sustainability - Aligning Incentives

I’m always curious about how things end up the way that they are. Why is so much of what we buy destined to break? Why do people insist on buying a bottle of water when it’s often identical to tap water? Why does every plastic item have the recycling symbol on it when they’re rarely recyclable?

The answer to all of these questions and more often boils down to one overarching idea: where are the incentives?

A Company’s Perspective

As a company producing materials, my profits come from consumers purchasing my product. The more products I sell, the more money I make. The only expenses on my accounting sheets are for production and sales. Realistically, the use and disposal of whatever I sell isn’t on my radar because it doesn’t matter to me financially. I want more repeat buyers who need a replacement because it breaks or a new, improved product is available. It is not the company’s concern about how the product is disposed of in the end.

Single-use Service Ware

Let’s look at this through the lens of single-use disposable service ware at an event. The company producing this product must love it! They have developed a product that people use once, throw away, and need to order again. A catering company might like the ease from their end (no washing required) but must purchase and keep boxes and boxes on hand to compensate for demand. And the venue has likely gotten used to the overflowing garbage cans around mealtime and the increased cost from the landfill operator…Perfect!…but not really. Anything missing from this equation?

The answer is yes: what about the pollution and waste caused by the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of this abundance of plastic? Who is bearing the responsibility for that? This is what’s known as an externality…and in this case, a negative externality:

Negative externality – the cost that a third party suffers as a consequence of an economic transaction.

Who Pays the Consequence?

In the example above, the third party suffering the consequence is us, and some more than others. We breathe the pollution that is released into the air during manufacturing. Our waterways and fisheries are contaminated with plastic. And we disproportionately subject poor communities and communities of color to these risks. The company goes on making and selling products internalizing none of the negative consequences.

So why not use reusable service ware?

After all, it’s cheaper in the long run, better for the environment, and provides a better experience. Without aligning incentives to externalities, there’s no motivation to add that line to the company ledger. Thankfully governments have started to consider this imbalance, introducing legislation that could begin to address this issue.

Environmental Legislation

The Role that Companies Play in Sustainability - Legislation

For the first time in the US, lawmakers are introducing legislation to hold producers responsible for their products’ environmental impacts. Legislation in effect outside the US, in five Canadian provinces and many EU countries, has now begun to be considered by nine states. Most center around the same idea, but there are a few worth mentioning specifically:

Maine – “Extended Producer Responsibility Program”

Legislation Summary: This week, two bills were submitted which, if passed, would create a first in the nation recycling reform program to address Maine’s $16 million/yr. packaging material management program (≈30% of the waste produced). There are two possible solutions:

  1. 1541 – empowers EPA to measure, require, and collect reimbursement costs for non-recyclable materials
  2. 1471 – allows producers to measure and pay for recycling infrastructure improvements

Producers support the second option, which should be obvious given the incentives outlined above. If they can continue to focus our attention downstream, they won’t have to address how much they produce.

Current Status: manufacturers are lobbying state representative in favor of 1471

Federal Initiatives – “Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act”

Legislation Summary: this bill is a kind of “catch-all” that was seen more as a statement of intent than a realistic legislative initiative. Among other things, the bill would develop a national “bottle bill” to incentivize can/bottle return, require producers and sellers of food service and plastic packaging to pay for waste collection, pause the creation of any new plastic producing plants, and mandate a standardized labeling system for recycling and compost bins.

Current Status: introduced and died on the House floor in 2020 with no bipartisan support.

Final Thoughts

The result of selective measuring, misaligned incentives, and lobbying for “creative” legislation is this: companies can continue to place blame solely on our individual actions when imbedded in our total impact is the impact they are levying on our behalf. Simply put: we can’t physically shrink our footprint down enough to stop global issues like waste pollution and climate change if we let companies crank it back up off-screen.

To be an environmental realist isn’t just meeting people where they are and making changes in our own behavior, but it’s being realistic about the changes that must come from the top-down. The only way to make meaningful progress is to make companies feel their impacts financially, whether through consumer choices, legislation, or a combination of the two. We must be sympathetic to the place we are in and where we must go. Being realistic about the scale of the problems we face and matching that with equally aggressive solutions.

Of course, there’s enough blame to go around from companies, or governments, to our neighbors, to ourselves. But I prefer not to blame; I like to empower people and companies to change at every level. It must be my Midwest Upbringing and Optimism  😀