Archive for the ‘efficiency’ Category

Food Labels that Matter

Product labels are important, both practically and ethically. Reading the label is a key way to make sure the thing you’re buying meets your needs. Labels on products can help inform consumers about what they’re buying, reducing what economists call information asymmetries between buyer and seller. Where substantial information asymmetries exist, voluntary exchanges can fail to live up to the promise of mutual benefit, and society as a whole suffers from the resulting reduction in market efficiency.

Of course, not everything that could be said about a product could possibly be crammed onto a product’s label, so generally the information provided consists of what the maker of the product really wants to brag about, what consumers insist on knowing, and anything beyond that that regulators have seen fit to insist upon.

So precisely what gets labeled, and what form the labelling takes, matters a lot. Now while the moral significance of labels in general is not disputed, just what should be included on labels is hotly debated.

Take, for instance, the question of whether a food product has been genetically modified (GM). Or, more precisely, whether the ancestor of the organism from which a food product was derived was genetically modified by means of a particular set of laboratory procedures. It’s important to be precise, here, because there is virtually nothing that we eat today that hasn’t been ‘genetically modified’ by humans in some loose sense.

If you thought the question of GM labelling had gone away with the demise of California’s Proposition 37 this past November, think again. Washington State is apparently about to hold a vote on the issue, and there are reports that the anti-GM faction has been energized by the battle in California, and perhaps even galvanized by the massive sums of money that ‘big food’ and ‘big ag’ apparently spent to help defeat Prop 37. But as I’ve argued before, the demand for mandatory labelling of GM foods is misguided: the broad scientific consensus is that there’s no reason to worry about GM foods. Making such labelling mandatory, just because some people want to know if their food’s genes have been tweaked in certain ways, would be unjust.

Contrast this with the stunning report recently released by the ocean conservation group, Oceana. Nevermind subtle genetic modifications. Oceana found that a very high proportion of the fish sold in American retail outlets isn’t even from the species indicated on the label. So consumers are buying “snapper” that isn’t really snapper, and “tuna” that isn’t really tuna. Here, consumers are being lied to. Information isn’t just being omitted; the information being given is actually a lie, and so consumers are being cheated.

If the food companies of the world are going to expend money and effort to provide consumers with information, it’s pretty clear which kind of issue they should expend it on.

Storms, Global Warming, and Corporate Citizenship

Humans are (very likely) changing the earth’s climate. And changes in climate are (very likely) making storms worse. And worse storms are (definitely) a bad thing. Granted, it’s hard — in fact, foolish — to try to draw a straight line between any individual’s or even any corporation’s behaviour and the Frankenstorm that just slammed New York and surrounding areas, but the fact remains that the devastation that storm wrought was not the effect of a mere freak of nature. As Businessweek bluntly put it, “it’s global warming, stupid.”

But what matters more than the cause of global warming is what we can do about it. In particular, what can business do about it?

Large-scale problems tend to require large-scale solutions, and so there’s a natural tendency to leave such issues to government. This is so for two reasons. First is simple scope: you driving a hybrid car or switching to CFL bulbs just isn’t going to accomplish much. Second is the nature of collective action problems: each of us benefits from a wasteful, energy-intensive lifestyle, and it seems narrowly rational to let other people (or other companies) bear the costs of doing things differently. But the fact that it’s tempting, or even narrowly rational, to let others bear the burden, or to wait for government to act, doesn’t make it the right thing, or even the minimally decent thing, to do.

So what can businesses do — what is it possible for them to do — in response to a trend in global warming that is clearly posing increased risks?

To begin, of course, they can work to avoid making things worse, by avoiding burning carbon and adding to the load of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This means looking at relatively small, obvious stuff like seeking energy efficiencies in their operations, promoting telecommuting, reduce air travel, and so on. Luckily, most such efforts are relatively painless, since they tend to reduce costs at the same time. Sometimes mere laziness or a focus on “how we’ve always don’t things” gets in the way of making such win-win changes. Don’t be lazy. Innovate. Share best practices with your suppliers, with other companies in your sector, and if you’re a B2B company, with your customers.

The second thing that businesses can do is to work with, rather than against, government efforts at making things better. In particular, it is a fundamental obligation of corporate citizenship not to block government action aimed at effective action at slowing climate change, and in particular action aimed at dealing effectively with the effects of climate change. If, for example, a government wants to pass rules forcing businesses to pay the full cost of their energy usage, or rules that impose industry-wide energy efficiency rules, business should welcome rather than oppose such changes. Energy inefficiencies impose costs on other people, and hence count as the kind of externalities that go against the fundamental principles of a market economy.

It’s also worth noting that asking what business can do is not quite the same as asking what your business, or any particular business, can do. Business organizations and trade associations abound, and there’s plenty they can do to a) help members share best practices and b) foster industry-wide standards that can help businesses live up to their social obligations while at the same time maintaining a level playing field.

Finally, business can do the things that business is supposed to be good at: efficient management, synergistic use of a range of kinds of human capital, and innovation. That stuff isn’t just a good recipe for commercial success. It’s an absolute obligation. And innovation is clearly the key among those three aptitudes. Efficiency — tightening our belts — will only get us so far. We desperately need a whole slew of truly brilliant new ideas for products, services, and productive processes over the next decade if we are to meet the collective challenge posed by changes in our environment. And it’s foolish to expect government to provide those ideas. It’s time for business to step up to the plate. There can be no better way to manifest a commitment to corporate citizenship than to be the kind of corporate citizen that sees a business model in trying to help us all cope with global warming.

Needed: A High-Efficiency Oil Company

A Nimitz-class aircraft carrier is a hellishly complex piece of machinery. Picture a boat the length of three football fields, carrying several dozen heavily-armed aircraft into a war zone. It’s a boat with a crew of 3,200 plus an additional 2,400 involved in flying, maintaining, and launching aircraft. Oh, and it’s powered by a pair of Westinghouse A4W nuclear reactors.

As it happens, the US Navy has 10 such carriers. And on these unimaginably complex machines, errors of any significance are practically unknown. Time after time, F/A-18 Super Hornets laden with missiles are literally catapulted from the flight deck, sent out on missions, and then land again on the carrier’s super-short runway. And failure is practically unknown. This requires amazing skill on the part of pilots, but it also requires an incredible team effort, and a system built to include multiple redundant safeguards. The safety record of nuclear aircraft carriers is so good that they are now a standard example of highly-efficient, low-failure, complex systems, the kind that other complex systems should aspire to become. They are systems in which failure is simply not an option, and smart design makes sure it just doesn’t happen.

Next, let’s look at another complex system, namely an oil company and its network of pipelines. Let’s look in particular at one Canadian company, namely Enbridge. Enbridge’s pipeline system, as far as I can tell, is significantly more prone to failure than an aircraft carrier. Just under a year ago, I wrote about a leak in an Enbridge pipeline running past the tiny northern Canadian town of Wrigley. That was a small leak, but one that raised serious concerns for the local native community that eked out its living from the now-polluted land. That leak involved maybe a thousand barrels of oil. But just a year earlier, an Enbridge pipeline running through southwest Michigan spilled 20,000 barrels into a creek leading to the Kalamazoo River. And now, this past Friday, another significant leak was reported. This time, the company’s “Line 14″ spilled about a thousand barrels of crude into a field in Wisconsin. And this is just to name a few of the company’s pipelines over the last decade.

Of course, there’s no special reason to pick on Enbridge. Other companies in the oil exploration and refining industry have spotty records, too. BP is perhaps the most dramatic example that comes to mind. It was the company behind the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, and the subsequent spill that devastated a big chunk of the Gulf coast.

There’s little doubt that, for the foreseeable future, oil companies like Enbridge and BP are a practical necessity. Like it or not, our economy depends on them. They are as necessary to our economy as an aircraft carrier is to the US’s naval supremacy. But the fact that those companies are so essential is precisely the thing that dictates that they must do better. They must seek the kind of never-fail efficiency exemplified by carriers like the USS Harry S. Truman and the USS Abraham Lincoln.

There are of course important differences between an aircraft carrier and a system of pipelines. For one thing, an aircraft carrier exists in a single place, under the watchful eye of a single Commanding Officer; a pipeline can stretch for thousands of unobserved miles, necessarily subject to only infrequent inspection. For another thing, various corporate motives summed up very imprecisely by the term “the profit motive” mean that there will always be temptations for oil companies to cut corners. But the example is there, and the body of knowledge is there. Oil companies can, and must, do better.

The Right Amount of Waste

A recent story in the NY Times provides some encouraging anecdotes about companies that are moving to take greater responsibility for recycling. Companies like Starbucks and Coca-Cola, for instance, are finding new — and in some cases profitable — ways to take responsibility for the waste that their product packaging generally becomes. More recycling generally means less waste, less energy used, and less pollution.

Waste and pollution are business-ethics topics about which there is some room for agreement between the moralist and the economist. The moralist points out that it’s unfair to make innocent bystanders suffer the ill effects of your factory’s pollution. The economist points out that market inefficiency can result when costs, financial or otherwise, are not internalized (i.e., when costs are instead imposed on innocent third parties).

But an economically-savvy point of view must also recognize that there is in fact a socially-efficient level of waste and pollution, and that that level is not zero. Waste and pollution could only be driven to zero by shutting down industry (of all kinds) altogether, and that would have disastrous effects. In other words, we would have to sacrifice things we care about, like the ability to raise world-wide standards of living, in order to reduce pollution and waste to zero.

Consider this analogy: economists likewise sometimes argue, rightly I think, that there is an efficient level of crime. The methods by which crime could be driven to zero are both enormously invasive and enormously costly. It is not efficient — not a good use of resources — to drive crime to zero, even if we think it technically possible.

So waste and pollution, we might say, are always bad, but not always wrong. They are features of a system the overall productivity of which is an enormous boon to humankind. It would be crazy to say that gains in productivity must be sought at any cost, but it is likewise crazy to value anything else (e.g., the environment) so highly that it drowns out all considerations of efficiency.

Now none of this tells us about whether particular efforts at waste reduction or pollution abatement are good or bad. But it helps frame the issue. What we’re looking for is the right level of pollution and waste, and that level is not zero. It is also likely to shift over time, as affluence grows and technology evolves, and as companies like Coke and Starbucks and a thousand anonymous start-ups find new ways to make environmental protection efficient, in the broadest, most ethically-significant sense of the word.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,627 other followers

%d bloggers like this: