Safety vs. Green Consumerism

OK, this is entirely hypothetical, though I imagine there are real choices to be made that fit this same pattern.

If you had to choose between safety and reduced environmental impact, which would you choose? What if the safety involved is the safety of your children?

This question, though entirely hypothetical, came to mind as I read the following story about a new “green” method for making rubber for tires, to replace the old petroleum-intensive method:

Goodyear, Genencor Partner on True Green Tire Project

Researchers at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. and Genencor are working to create “renewable feedstocks” that would replace petroleum in tires, effectively resulting in a completely “green” tire. And that could happen within five years, they said.

The new tires will be an advance toward greener, more sustainable transportation in a quite literal sense, according to Dr. Joseph McAuliffe, who reported on the technology. The process can use sugars derived from sugar cane, corn, corn cobs, switchgrass or other biomass to produce the ingredient, a biochemical called isoprene, derived from renewable raw materials….

Now, to be perfectly clear, I’m not at all suggesting that there’s anything second-rate about this new “green” rubber. I’m sure they’re working hard to make this new product just as tough and durable and suitable-for-making-tires as regular petroleum-based rubber. But it is of course an obvious question. Rubber quality matters a lot for tires, and so any new form of rubber is going to have to prove that it can perform in prolonged use under harsh conditions.

So, let’s take this new technology and ask a hypothetical question. If “green” tires were to hit the market, and if they a) really were substantially more environmentally friendly but b) were only “nearly” as safe (say, 98% as safe) as old-fashioned rubber tires, would you buy them? Should you?

8 comments so far

  1. Andrew on

    I’ve never commented on your blog before Chris, but after a couple glasses of wine, I figured I’d play along. This is a great topic. As a professional in the environmental field, I prefer asking discrete choices as opposed to open ended. As for your question…98% seems pretty reasonable to accept the environmental choice…but I am not clear on what % of “un-safety” I would accept….especially for a child. I’d likely side stronger on the safety side as opposed to the environmental side. But I suppose that is not a surprise. I think most people, when push comes to shove, will choose self preservation. Better to ask about fish….after the success of The Cove and Sharkwater….is it ethical to eat any fish (mabye I should keep drinking wine…)

  2. Dr Dave Webb, UWA, Associate Professor of Business Ethics on

    First, why must this example be presented as a dichotomy between safety vs the environment? To me, this type of thinking, the thinking that sets up false dichotomies, is the sort of thinking that stifles the search for innovative solutions. These come not by focussing on potential dichotomies. but rather, by seeking out new possibilities. A more useful question would read: What do we need to do to produce a tire that meets our desires for both personal safety and environmental sustainability? In this respect Goodyear and Genencor are to be congratulated for their willingness to explore this question.

    Second, 98% as safe as old-fashioned rubber tires – would and should you buy them? – How useful are these questions in seeking out solutions to such issues of concern? Yes, we could have an entertaining discussion, but how would this assist address the issue of concern?

    Third, most accidents I suspect are not due to any fault in the material used in the construction of the tire but rather, the result of mindless driving. How often to we see examples of mindless driving on our roads? So, if we want to protect our kids, don’t ask ‘what if the rubber on my tire is only 98% safe, would and should I buy them?’ but rather ask, what if I were to drive with 100% attention to the task, the road and its conditions would I and my kids be safer?

  3. Chris MacDonald on


    Thanks for the comment, but it’s not at all a false dichotomy.

    It would be a false dichotomy if the choice was an illusory one, if it were somehow possible to eat your cake AND have it, too. In terms of my example, it would be a false dichotomy if consumers just don’t have to choose one tire characteristic over the other.

    But note that — as I emphasized in the blog entry — it’s a hypothetical example. It’s a thought experiment. So I get to set the terms. That’s how thought experiments work. And my thought experiment is not at all an unrealistic one. It’s not as if we never have to make trade-offs in choosing between products. Yes, of course, we’d prefer a tire that’s both maximally safe and maximally “green”. Companies should aim for that. But it could very, very easily happen that a product hits the market that isn’t quite there yet, and so environmentally-minded consumers would be faced with a choice. We should avoid false dichotomies in terms of goals (so, yes, ideally we want safety & environmental protection), but that’s not to say we should stick our heads in the sand and pretend that there can never be hard choices. By posing this hypothetical question, I’m encouraging people to explore their own values and commitments by considering how (or whether) they would trade certain values off against others.

    Finally, of course driving habits matter. But — speaking of false dichotomies — they don’t matter to the exclusion of questions of product safety.


  4. Jane Garthson on

    Great question. First, cars can be made safer – look at the range of safety test results (I drive a Subaru for a reason – one saved my life in a crash the police and onlookers thought would have been fatal). They couldn’t believe I got out of the car and walked. A slight difference in tires can be more than compensated for.

    Second, most of the cases when that 2% would matter are in winter driving. This green tire choice might finally get me to buy winter tires.

    Third, most accidents come from driver error or distraction, not from a mechanical source. We can educate drivers better.

    So, yes, at 2% difference, I think I’d buy. At 10%, I’d have to think a lot harder and probably wouldn’t.

  5. FaerieDevilish on

    I agree with Jane – I’d switch to the green if it were 2%, but also think that the more interesting thought experiments are the ones in which we talk of bigger percentages. Also, for example – I think I would consider buying even the green tires that are 90% as safe as regular ones because I wouldn’t use said car often, it doesn’t snow where I live and I wouldn’t go out in the times of the day when life-threatening accidents are most likely to happen. I would even recommend others who want to do the environmentally right thing to do so. However, somebody who relies entirely on a car for transport in the snowy north of the US, and who may spend several hours inside the car each day, is in a different position.

    Also, how does public transport play into this? Should the State be held accountable if the tires of choice for public buses were these not-so-safe, green ones and an accident in which several people died could be proven to have happened because of that?

    I hope I am not deviating too much from the intention you had when you posted this, but I’m sorry if I did.

    Mariel GM

  6. Chris MacDonald on

    Mariel & Jane:

    Thanks — I’m glad you took up the issue of the % difference.

    As a starting point, I chose a small % difference on purpose, to keep the example realistic. I suspect that tire companies wouldn’t even try to sell tires that weren’t very nearly as safe as “normal” tires. But I agree that it’s also useful to keep increasing the % difference to figure out at what point you would opt for the safer product.


  7. Dave on

    Chris, before I sign out for a few days I’d like to wish you and all readers a very happy and healthy Easter. Now back to the blog posting:

    Chris, I find it useful to adopt a different questioning lens to such apparent value trade-offs i.e., must I really trade-off one value here against another or can I come up with an alternative solution that allows me to keep both in tact? Same question applies whether one wears the hat of consumer or as in this case perhaps that of R&D manager.

    Among others, I like to use such ‘defusing’ techniques in the classroom moving the conversation to an exploration of innovative ethical alternatives.

    Chris, I am not in any sense saying that trade-offs don’t exist but my experience is that they are often accepted in the classroom and workplace all too readily without further investigation.

    That said, my apologies for straying from your initial intent. Cheers for now – Dave

  8. Mike Polischuk on

    Hi Chris,
    first of all I would like to thank you for your clear and enlightening writing. Ethics as a subject deserves to be taken out of the classroom and brought into the public discourse.

    Now to the point of you post: a tires company doesn’t sell tires, it sells safety. One buys Goodyear tires instead of cheap Chinese ones for one reason only – because they are deemed to be safer. So while being thought of as a ‘green’ company is a nice benefit, no tires company in its sane mind would trade its safety reputation for green credentials.

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