Trapped Inside the Box: Corporate America’s Struggle to meet its Environmental and Social Responsibility

Twelve years ago, when PSI was getting off the ground, my personal vision was that government and industry representatives could have meaningful discussions about waste policy outside the legislative arena, and develop joint policies, regulations, and laws to protect human health and the environment. I was tired of the traditional unilateral government approach to pass laws over the fierce objections of industry. Collaboration, after all, can achieve far better results than forcing anyone to do anything.

Fast forward twelve years, to today. While there are many stellar individual examples of corporate leaders finding ways to reduce their product impacts, far more companies have chosen to thwart attempts at having an open conversation about their environmental and social responsibility. In an ironic twist of self-fulfilling prophesy, most companies that hate regulation and want smaller government only become “greener” through the threat of legislation.

In an ironic twist of self-fulfilling prophesy, most companies that hate regulation and want smaller government only become “greener” through the threat of legislation.

PSI works on about 18 product categories, and has invited manufacturers, retailers, and other businesses associated with every one of these products to discuss how to reduce their health and environmental impacts. The only industries to fully engage in these discussions are paint (through the American Coatings Association) and rechargeable batteries (through Call2Recycle).

The International Sleep Products Association would not bring any members to our two open national mattress dialogue meetings, refused to provide contact information, and would not discuss strategies to solve the problem.

The majority of U.S. consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies were invited to attend our three technical packaging calls that recently addressed both voluntary and regulated strategies to reduce, reuse, and recycle packaging and printed material, including non-EPR systems. Only a few participated, and they have not invited PSI to attend any of their discussions. The truth is that most CPG company representatives in the U.S. are so new to the issue of packaging waste and recycling that they do not know what to do. There are many in this field, including PSI, who have been working on these issues for years, and can provide insights and opportunities for productive discussion among all stakeholder groups. However, this can only happen if these companies do not close ranks and only discuss strategies among themselves.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association came to PSI five years ago seeking EPR legislation on mercury thermostats because they did not want to continue paying for the recycling of thermostats from free-riding companies not contributing to the industry-funded thermostat recycling program. After six months of multi-stakeholder negotiations and after all issues were negotiated, they walked away from the agreement and have since opposed all thermostat legislation except bills that codify their voluntary program.

No wonder why environmental groups have sharpened the saw against these companies. We have now come full circle to the point where PSI began – governments are left with little choice but to force legislation on industry, or accept whatever programs industry wants to do. That is truly a sad waste of all of our time and energy.

Yet the world turns, and PSI will react to this reality. We will continue to seek out corporate leaders, like those on our Advisory Council, at the American Coatings Association, and at Call2Recycle. And we will continue to support and strengthen voluntary programs as well, since many states will not support legislation under any circumstances. But the truth is that PSI is being forced into the same antagonistic fight in state legislatures that we wanted to avoid when we were created in 2000.

I had hoped that data, logic, discussion, and human interaction would breed relationships that would entice companies to transcend their natural inclination to maintain the status quo. We are now entering the fall, and many governments are getting ready for the 2013 battle in state legislatures across the U.S. …unless someone would rather talk…

Is anyone out there? Hello?

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