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Putting Boundaries on Selling Stuff

I was asked recently about my “theory of change” in the light of ever-increasing power of corporations that put profits ahead of sustainability of people and the planet. I agree that concentration of corporate power, combined with weakening civic power, is part of what’s driving unsustainable production and consumption. My theory of change is that governments are essential to controlling corporate power and that government is strengthened by civic rather than consumer action. That’s one reason why UPSTREAM [formerly Product Policy Institute] focuses on policy solutions.

What excites me about the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policy approach is that it is a way to get governments doing what they do best – regulating and playing referee – and corporations doing what they do best – innovating solutions to problems. I think local governments got off track by getting in the business of picking up after wasteful corporations. That was fine a century ago when there was a local public health hazard, but now the health hazard is more of a global threat from the scale of throughput of energy and materials. It’s hard to be an effective regulator when you’re also a service provider. And it’s doubly problematic when you are short-circuiting feedback to the parties making disposable and toxic products.

I see EPR as high leverage because it puts boundaries on the essential thing that most industries exist to do, , directly and indirectly: sell more Stuff. (“Indirectly” includes, for example, corporations strip-mining for metals that are made into products that are transported to stores and ultimately bought by consumers.) And when you look at all the energy embodied in Stuff (44% of global US greenhouse gas emissions impacts), getting a handle on the flow of goods and materials gets at the heart of some pretty big problems.
EPR policies put conditions at the highest leverage point in the production-consumption system: the point of sale.  It puts conditions on the parties that design Stuff: If you want to sell your goods in this jurisdiction they must meet performance standards in the public interest.  Government may determine it is in the public interest that products are designed for source reduction, reuse and recycling; that products don’t become waste when consumers are done with them; that they don’t do irreparable harm to the planet.  Companies then innovate and compete to meet the standards.  Corporate accountability framed this way passes the in-law test: it’s reasonable and fair.
I understand that establishing corporate accountability for the impacts of manufactured Stuff is just one piece of a big puzzle. But it is an underappreciated strategy that has potential for transformative change far beyond recycling.
Garbage on beach image via epsos/flickr. Reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0 license.


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