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Snack Chips and Lessons in Environmental Consciousness

How can those in positions of business leadership and policymaking influence environmental change in consumer habits?

I've been watching an interesting and instructive drama unfold these last several months involving, of all things, snack chips. The controversy swirled around Frito-Lay's new 100% compostable packaging for its SunChips. Countless news outlets picked up the story, including Stephen Colbert, who spoofed the bag on the Colbert Report (or the clip viewable in Canada).

Here's what happened. Frito-Lay spent four years developing its new SunChips biodegradable packaging, only to discontinue it this October after months of depressed sales and complaints that the bag was too noisy. Americans, it seems, enjoy their chips loud and crunchy, but not their packaging, prompting Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones to quip: "Seriously? The company is bagging the bag because American couch potatoes can't hear their TVs over the sound of their chip sack?"

Admittedly, the SunChips packaging is quite noisy. As reported in the Wall Street Journal, one consumer, a United States Air Force pilot, claimed that the bag was louder than his jet cockpit. His assertion may be justified. As reported later by the same publication, the packaging registered a whopping 95 decibels, more than a lawnmower or coffee grinder, and high enough that the European Union would require ear-protection in a workplace setting.

Acknowledging its earsplitting dilemma, Frito-Lay tried to assuage consumer complaints. The company placed creative in-store advertising appealing to the greater good: "Yes, the bag is loud, that's what change sounds like." Its altruistic efforts, though, fell on "deaf" American ears. In more environmentally-conscious Canada, as chronicled by Fast Company, Frito-Lay chose not to discontinue its packaging but, rather, to have some fun with the complaints by offering free earplugs with every bag of chips.

This story may seem comical, but the implications are serious. The old SunChips bag takes 100 years to degrade; the new packaging, by contrast, fully decomposes in 14 weeks when put in an active compost pile. The choice of packaging clearly has long-term repercussions.

When it comes to environmental change, Americans are notoriously slow to respond. One need only point to the relative indifference toward compact fluorescent bulbs, low-flush toilets, and low-flow shower heads in U.S. markets. Yet, finding ways to help green products and packaging gain greater consumer acceptance is imperative for a sustainable future.

Accordingly, Frito-Lay is not the only consumer product company recently to venture into green packaging and product reformulations, only to see its efforts spurned by consumers. As reported by the New York Times, Proctor & Gamble recently changed its Cascade dish detergent line by reducing the amount of phosphates, which cause algae growth in lakes and rivers and deprive fish and plant life of oxygen. American consumers responded with irritation, complaining that the low-phosphate product didn't get their dishes clean.

GreenBiz.com recently ran another story on P&G, which also reformulated its Pampers Swaddlers and Cruisers diapers by making them 20% thinner, resulting in a 12% solid waste reduction for this product in landfills. Consumers eschewed these efforts in similar fashion, charging that the new diapers caused rashes. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is now investigating and class-action lawsuits have been filed by consumers. Maybe the diapers do have some problems, but are class-action lawsuits warranted? What's next? Suing Frito-Lay for noise pollution?

When searching for ways to change consumer response to eco-friendly products, three broad approaches seem to emerge. The first appeals to deeper aspirations and the belief that consumers want to align with companies that have an environment-friendly mission and a broad commitment to society. Some customers do make decisions based on such values, but the percentage of consumers in the U.S. who fall into this category is still small, albeit growing.

The second approach argues that eco-friendly products and packaging will only gain wide acceptance when they provide higher quality and lower cost than less environmentally-safe alternatives. Eric Felten in the Wall Street Journal makes this point by referring to history: "Market-friendly economists have long pointed to the introduction of kerosene, gas-lighting and then electric bulbs as putting an end to whale oil for lighting." It wasn't until there were cheaper and better product alternatives that whaling started to fall out of vogue. Similarly, Felten argues, pollution in rivers from nineteenth-century coal factories was only reduced when it was discovered that the discharge could be broken down into a purple dye and sold on the open market; coal-tar became too valuable to dump into water systems.

Stephanie Simon, in a recent Wall Street Journal report called "The Secrets to Turning Consumers Green," advocates for the third approach, asserting that consumers change most readily when confronted by strong social forces, such as peer pressure and guilt. Case in point: the 2010 five-cent tax imposed in Washington, D.C. on disposable paper or plastic bags handed out by retailers. In the first two quarters of this year, as reported by the district's Office of Tax and Revenue, retail outlets that typically use 68 million disposable bags per quarter cut their number to 11 and 13 million, respectively. Some data indicates that it is not the marginal cost of the bag that changes consumer behaviour but the social stigma of asking for one in public.

Studies in the U.S., Asia, and Europe support such findings and affirm that appealing to social norms might be the most powerful force in changing environmental consciousness. Two oft-cited American academic studies from 2008 demonstrate this phenomenon. The first studied the effect of placards in hotel room bathrooms that encouraged guests to reuse their towels. One sign said "Help Save the Environment," while encouraging "Respect for Nature." The second sign read: "Join Your Fellow Guests in Helping Save the Environment" and further noted that almost 75% of all guests staying in the hotel participated in the program. The results were telling; the guests who viewed the second placard were 25% more likely to reuse their towels than their counterparts.

The second study involved public-service messages that were hung on middle-class neighbourhood doorknobs in San Marcos, California. The messages touted the environmental benefit of fan usage versus air conditioning and gave one of four reasons for choosing fans: (1) Households could save on average $54 per month; (2) Residents could prevent the release of 262 pounds of greenhouse gasses per month; (3) It was the socially responsible thing to do; and (4) 77% of their neighbours were already doing so. Metre readings demonstrated that the fourth message was by far the most effective in reducing energy consumption.

Care for the environment is fundamental to honouring God and taking seriously the biblical command to exercise dominion over creation through careful and responsible stewardship (Genesis 1:26-28). This passage is an important starting place for all Christians in forming and living out a theology of creation. But those in positions of business leadership and policymaking need to find ways to influence positive change in others.

Introducing change in a social context that has demonstrated openness is vital, a principle Frito-Lay may have missed. Additionally, appealing to a deeper sense of the common good, creating eco-friendly products that are of high quality and low cost, and utilizing social pressure are all strategies that can work. Some of these approaches may be more congruent with the ideals of Scripture, but a case can be made for each, given our theological realities this side of a restored, perfect world. Drawing on shared grace and the image of God stamped upon each human being, conversations about the greater good and service to others can take on deep significance. Similarly, while appeals to product attributes that make life easier and cost less may reinforce human self-interest, environment-friendly innovations and cost reductions do contribute to a flourishing society. Finally, an appeal to socially-approved behaviours draws on our hard-wired need to be in right relationship with others that dates back to our origins in the Garden of Eden and creation by a Triune, relational God.

Help us spread the word:
John Terrill John Terrill
John Terrill is the Director for the Center for Integrity in Business (CIB) at Seattle Pacific University. ... read more »

Posted in Business.

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