Peter Senge is the kind of guy that you would expect to speak a slightly different language than the rest of us. Dr. Senge is the “Director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management.” But behind that lofty title is a self described “idealistic pragmatist” with a pretty simple formula for living and acting more sustainably. It only requires asking two questions as a consumer:
- Where does it come from?
- Where does it go?
Whether diamonds, bananas, plastic grocery bags, or gasoline, routinely asking these two questions would lead to much more thoughtful and planet friendly consumption. Not asking these questions, of course, leads to the opposite – conflict, human rights abuse, oceans full of plastic, tar balls on our shores, and a changing climate. These days, responsible companies often ask at least one of these two questions, if for no other reason then for risk management purposes.
When consumers ask these questions, however, it can force the companies they do business with to take a much harder look at both sourcing and product design. You can make a difference simply by asking them everyday, and acting accordingly.
But you might be surprised at how often you won’t know the answer. Those blue jeans you’re wearing, the phone in your pocket, the carpet under your feet, the shampoo you used this morning, the candy bar calling out to you from the snack machine…do you really know where they come from and how they are made? Is consuming the product responsible? Can you responsibly dispose of the packaging (or the product itself) when you are through with it? Unfortunately, while the questions are simple, the answers are often much more complicated.
Dr. Senge is working with Starbucks, which uses several billion paper cups a year, on how to improve the sustainability of this artificial mountain of beverage containers, so I had a chance to hear him speak at the recent Sustainable Brands Conference in Monterey. A small but vocal set of Starbucks watchers and consumers have been asking these two questions about Starbucks – and particularly about their cups – for some time. Dr. Senge pointed out that even something as simple as a planet friendly paper coffee cup requires thinking about the entire system, involving multiple stakeholders.
Both Dr. Senge and his Starbucks counter parts explained that simply using recycled content does not necessarily mean that a product will be recycled, and compostable material does not help if the municipal waste stream is not set up for composting. Thinking holistically about how to change the system is a lot more work, especially if your corporate footprint is as large as Starbucks. They have even held summits to work towards a solution.
I’ve worked with Starbucks (on farmer and sustainability issues), and have found them to be fairly progressive, responsible, and sincere about there sustainability commitment. But not everyone shares this view. One rather assertive session attendee in Monterey challenged Starbucks on why they don’t simply encourage customers to use mugs. She seemed surprised with the response that they have done so for some time, and in fact give a 10 cent discount to mug users. With only 1% taking advantage of this program, I guess the next question is whether consumers are not asking where those cups go now, don’t care, or just think that it’s Starbucks’ problem to fix.
A recent study conducted by the Natural Marketing Institute found that while two-thirds of consumers are concerned about the environment, their purchasing decisions are motivated primarily by price, not eco-benefits. So the research hints that maybe it’s not a gap in asking the questions, but in what we do with the answers. And Starbucks’ results with refillable mugs indicates that some behavioral change won’t come cheap. As an occasional paper cup reprobate, I am inclined to agree. The implications for climate change action and other sustainability issues are a bit dire.
Note: Also checkout Suzi Parrasch’s recent post on the betacup challenge, a competition to help come up with creative answers to the cup issue.
And follow ClimatePath on facebook. Because every footprint counts.
Photo copyright: CC License - Flickr User cyanocorax.