No No No – Coffee Cups Are the Not the Consumer’s Problem to Solve.

Apr 8, 2019 12:35 PM ET
Blog

Recently an article was posted on LinkedIn with a title that read, “Coffee cup ban: Boston Tea Party’s sales fall by £250k”. The comment attached to the post was this:

“You can put all the bans in the world, but at the end of the day if consumer habits don’t change there won’t be a difference.”

Upon reflection, I have a couple of problems with both the article and how it was framed.

First, the title of the article and therefore its message is misleading.  With no additional information besides the title, it appears that the company is a victim of misguided government regulation. The secondary implication is that lazy customers are unwilling or unable to change their wasteful habits and without throwaway cups being provided, sales will suffer.

Second, neither the title nor the comment conveys that this was a self-imposed ban by a single company that is willing to live by its convictions. This is an important omission that can mislead readers who may not have read the full article. The comment implies that bans won’t work because at the core of the problem are consumers and their bad habits. This is an inaccurate characterization of the situation and the resulting conclusion is false – it’s more complicated.

For those who still haven’t read the article, let me explain. The owner of Boston Tea Party, Sam Roberts, was frustrated with coffee cup pollution and companies that are, “not dealing with the problem and putting their profits before the planet.” He was prepared to ban coffee cups and take the financial hit in an effort to be, “…a call to action to other companies.”

“Mr. Roberts knew that he would take a financial hit but he NEVER should have been put in this position.”

You have to hand it to Mr. Roberts, he and his company took a stand in a marketplace, within an economy, within a country, whose corporate controlled leadership pays lip service to reducing environmental harm and refuses to address systemic problems. It’s the same old story of corporate elites and billionaires touting their market based solutions mantra while ensuring that their wealth accumulating and inequality expanding status quo remains in place. (see my previous article about crony capitalism and sustainability)

Mr. Roberts knew that he would take a financial hit but he NEVER should have been put in this position.

 

The Debate on Government or Free Market Capitalism

It’s not uncommon for me to have conversations both on and offline about how to effect change when it comes to our habits around items such as coffee cups and all sorts of single use plastics.

Usually the person that I’m engaging with sees the consumer marketplace as the way to change corporate behaviour; “consumers have the power”, they say, “we need to stop our wasteful ways and companies will adapt”.

“Then you don’t have to think so much about your packaging and how to spin your social impact and shared value.”

They clearly have an ideological distaste for government “intrusion” into society, although they do concede that some government involvement is necessary. Their political slant is in favour of leaders who celebrate the marketplace for its effectiveness and efficiency while simultaneously denouncing how government is wasteful and inefficient. When it comes to solving social and environmental problems their instinct is to first look for market solutions; when the conversation moves toward the systemic flaws that create the problems in the first place, they are far less keen to engage. They are right on script when it comes to neoliberal thinking.

The irony is that a well funded government actually does quite well at looking after social and environmental challenges, and the best part is that you don’t have to twist yourself into a knot looking for a “scalable business case”. We just set the standards with a view on what will benefit society and how to fairly allocate the costs. Then you don’t have to think so much about your packaging and how to spin your social impact and shared value. You just conduct business and no one will have to take a financial hit for doing what should have been required by the government in the first place.

 

What is the government’s role?

Isn’t government supposed to set the ground rules for how business should operate? If no one can offer disposable cups then consumers will adapt…that’s how behaviour change works when a crisis, environmental or otherwise, looms over us.

Our government sets many guidelines on what we do: the age we can drive, drink, and vote; how fast we can drive; what drugs are legal; where we can dump our garbage…it’s a long list.

Why is single use waste an exception? Perhaps because it impacts the status quo of the corporate elite who are dead set against giving up any power or control over an economy that works best for them at the expense of the 99%. As I said in my previous article, about the risks of fake leadership when it comes to our global challenges, “Corporate Sustainability is nothing more than a proxy fight for corporate control run amok.”

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Brad

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