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The Weekender: Pennsylvania Plastic Resistance and the Role of Watchdogs

June 16, 2018

Image credit: Blue Lens


The Weekender features a longer form publication or multimedia production from a reputable source. We select articles or things to watch or listen to that discuss issues and opportunities we deem just off the radar for many business people, students, and faculty. We aim to expand the mind, broaden the heart, and sharpen the analysis. Have a great weekend.


This week....Pennsylvania's Plastic Resistance (Greenpeace)


My notes...toothless watchdogs

Nonprofit environmental organizations, once the hand-waving watchdogs of industry, the sailor on the bow pointing to the iceberg and sounding an alarm, are increasingly "partnering" with companies to advance mutual interests. Though I believe in the potential of such partnerships, I also recognize their complexities and the research suggesting mixed motives and dubious outcomes.


Though nonprofit-corporate partnerships are increasing, they don't always go as planned and moreover they have slowly pulled the teeth out of the mouths of the watchdogs. Many devout watchdogs still exist--Greenpeace and Sierra Club being leading examples with a full set of sharp teeth--and they serve an important purpose. Though sometimes derided by executives and scholars as not understanding the financial and economic realities of their urgent, impassioned calls for change, these groups serve as an important moral backstop to the incrementalism that characterizes most environmental and social impact efforts.  That is why I share something from Greenpeace about the local manifestation of a global movement against plastics:  to remind us of the important perspective and influence of these activist groups.

These groups serve an important moral backstop to the incrementalism that characterizes most environmental and social impact efforts. 

Companies report single digit reductions in greenhouse gas emissions or new supplier codes of conduct they claim will trickle down to benefit workers in the deep supply chain. These incremental steps are then celebrated in annual reports. Having worked on such changes in large organizations, I understand that even the smallest, inconsequential change is difficult.  Therefore, we need science and nonprofits to hold up a standard that says what is really needed to make a difference.  Companies will always be biased to see their progress as sufficient.


At Smeal we are committed to a focus on results, for the business and society. It's not just about good ideas or things that glitter in the moment. Unless the business is solving real problems; unless costs are reduced or profits increased; unless the Chesapeake Bay is cleaner; unless the atmospheric concentration of carbon decreases; unless products are actually safer and workers' rights are measurably's all just a game of words.


I believe the activist community, watchdog groups like Greenpeace, which makes us uncomfortable with their calls for greater change, never satisfied, that will play a key role in helping us avoid the iceberg ahead.