People think green is great-until it puts them to some inconvenience. More...


I’ve always thought that a lot of the support for environmental initiatives is a mile wide and an inch deep. People think green is great-until it puts them to some inconvenience. 

Then you have situations like citizens of Spokane, Wash., sneaking over the border to Idaho to buy the phosphate-laden dishwasher detergents that are banned in their town. Or people dedicating Facebook pages to complain about the SunChips PLA bag. 

I’m sure you’re familiar with the controversy by now, but to recap: Frito-Lay rolled out the 100% polylactic acid (PLA) bag for SunChips this spring. It was by far the highest profile use of PLA to date, and Frito made the most of it, touting the bag’s compostable nature on the label and in print and TV ads. 

Then the backlash started. When handled, the bag makes noticeably more noise than an ordinary plastic bag. In an earlier time, this might have made it into some comedian’s standup routine. But we live in the age when complaints “go viral,” and before you know it, a Facebook page with the title “Sorry But I Can’t Hear You Over This SunChips Bag” had racked up tens of thousands of hits. Other Facebook pages sprang up, and before you knew it, there was coverage on TV and in the Wall Street Journal and other papers. 

Frito made an initial effort to resist the backlash by appealing to the better nature of consumers-which was, of course, the point of the new bag in the first place. They put signs on store shelves saying, “This is what change sounds like.” But the constant stream of negative publicity got to be too much, and the bags were gone by autumn for all but original-flavor SunChips. Interestingly, the backlash started its own backlash, with environmental-minded consumers chiding Frito for giving in too easily. 

However trivial this whole contretemps may seem, it’s a good example of the paradox at the heart of corporate social responsibility. Corporations exist to make money. Asking them to “get out in front” of a social issue at the risk of losing customers is asking corporate officers to go against their duties to shareholders. 

Of course, companies should be ready to shape the good impulses of consumers, regarding sustainability or anything else, into useful, executable strategies. But “shape” doesn’t mean “drag kicking and screaming.” Modern communications make the voices of consumers (some of them, anyway) louder and faster, but the obligation of businesses to listen has always been there. 

At the end of the day, they’re just giving us what we want. The fault, dear snacker, lies not in our SunChips, but in ourselves.