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Can The Market Save The Planet?

In the wake of that lengthy and informative New York Times Magazine piece on market- and investment-oriented approaches to energy action and climate change, Newsweek has run two articles on a trend: captalistic incentives toward environmentalism. The first profiles a pure, free-market tit-for-tat venture, in which the tat is environmental responsiblity. East coast entrepreneurs will pay for your garbage so that you--helpless, lazy, yet still effete enough to drink fancy coffee--can buy a latte (seriously, the article is titled "Saving the World for a Latte"):

The brainchild of two high-school science partners, RecycleBank hopes to be serving 1 million U.S. homes by the end of 2009. The logo on those bins—a piggy bank with a garbage can stuck to its rump—gets at the company's simple proposition: What if you could be rewarded for recycling? The answer: soaring recycling rates in the East Coast markets where the company has rolled out. Wilmington, Del., has seen its recycling rate jump from 3 percent to 32 percent since RecycleBank arrived a year ago. In Everett, where the program launched citywide in July, the average household now recycles the equivalent of 830 pounds a year, up tenfold since the program launched. "The recycling buzz is out there," says Everett Mayor Carlo DeMaria. "It's fun filling that thing up to the top."

Sure. The second incursion of green hosannas into the business world involves the electronics industry:

A new report by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) found that the industry's top performers managed to reduce electricity use 5% to 25% per $1 million in revenue over the past three or four years. Other companies within the industry are managing to reduce their carbon emissions per million dollars of revenue or by cutting emissions outright. And the best are doing even more — the $56 billion computer maker Dell announced in August that it had gone fully "carbon neutral," which is about as green as you can get. "We look at environmental responsibility holistically," says Tod Arbogast, Dell's director of sustainability. "The material we place in our products, how we make them, has an impact from the beginning to the end of its life span" — and even beyond that.

Leave alone the fact that in Japan, for example, seven years of heavy regulation have produced a situation wherein 50 percent of waste is recycled, and only 16 percent sent out to landfills (compared with 30 percent and 70 percent in the US). The RecycleBank model is apparently profitable (why, one founder recently left RecycleBank to "start up two other green ventures"). And, as with the New York school where at-risk students are paid to learn, there do seem to be real gains being made with this approach. But presumably, in the long term--or should RecycleBank fold--one cleanly exits the free-market paradigm that got the program started in the first place. Individuals will see the moral importance of recycling and take it upon themselves to sort their trash. Or will they?

Similarly, it seems absurd to document tree-hugging from companies whose products--think printer cartridges, or those console-less Nintendo games sitting around my house--facilitate the clearcutting of trees and consistent alienation from the outdoors (respectively). But this isn't a retread of the detergent manufacturer's conundrum (a better product equals less profit): As the article points out, improvements in efficiency and reduction in energy consumption buy consumer goodwill, and happen to save certain IT companies money. So it's nice to see big multinationals (Finnish Nokia is the best) take the lead on less harmful design--but again, have they really made a long term impact on consumer behavior?

It's cool that perceived demand for green works is bubbling up to the private sector. After all, there's a huge advantage to first movers when it comes to scaleable solutions to our energy crisis. And self-flagellation among oil companies in particular (spurred by the needling of groups like Greenpeace, which has for years tracked the sustainability quotient of manufacturing) is a testament to the spread of green messaging--and makes it harder to be mad at anyone. These examples do, however, dance along the knife-edge of greenwashing (do trendy new "directors of sustainability" report to development, legal or marketing?) And, however streamlined the private action in either case, these profiles represent definitionally limited responses to a widespread abdication of responsibilty among individuals and among state and local governments. Why not charge more (by volume) to remove garbage? Why not have a production tax credit for meeting basic levels of efficiency or renewability when making electronics? Our problems are so daunting, I don't know that the piecemeal deserves a parade.

--Dayo Olopade