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LEGO and the Building Blocks of Environmental Salvation

photograph of children playing with LEGOs in the grass

Last month, the LEGO Group unveiled its first prototype recycled plastic brick. The brick — made from discarded water bottles — is the result of three years of work by a 150-strong team of material scientists and engineers attempting to make the world’s most valuable toy brand more sustainable. But how should we receive such news? Are companies that adopt positive environmental practices deserving of moral praise? Or are they merely doing what they should have always done?

LEGO’s announcement is only the latest in a line of promising environmental developments for the brand: Its new, recycled bricks join its plant-based polyethelene bricks that first hit shelves in 2020. Together, LEGO plans to use these bricks to ensure that all of its elements are produced from sustainable materials by 2030. In addition, LEGO has announced that it aims to send zero waste to landfills by 2025. The company is on track to this goal, with 91% of their waste (including 100% of all plastic waste) being recycled in 2020. The previous year, LEGO also became balanced by renewable energy – with the energy output from their investments in renewables being greater than the total energy used in LEGO factories, offices, and stores.

And the LEGO Group is by no means the only corporation debuting positive environmental policies. In January 2020, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson announced the company’s new sustainability commitment. Central to this commitment is an aspiration to become resource positive: storing more carbon than they emit, eliminating waste, and providing more clean freshwater than they use. In concrete terms, this has seen Starbucks set three preliminary targets for 2030:

  1. A 50% reduction in carbon emissions in their direct and supply chain.
  2. 50% of their water withdrawal for direct operations and coffee production will be conserved or replenished with a focus on communities and basins with high water risk.
  3. A 50% reduction in waste sent to landfill from stores and manufacturing, driven by a broader shift towards a circular economy.

A cynical eye may see these declarations as a simple exercise in public relations. And we’re right to be wary. Many corporations engage in ‘greenwashing’ – that is, spending a great deal of time and money on marketing themselves as environmentally friendly, while doing little to minimize their actual environmental impact. Chevron went to great lengths to proclaim their environmental conscientiousness in their 1980s “People Do” campaign – all while the company violated the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and spilled oil into wildlife refuges. More recently, Amazon has announced its plans to have 100,000 electric delivery vehicles on the road by 2030. But Amazon remains silent on how these vehicles will be charged. With more than 60% of USA’s electricity generation still being derived from fossil fuels, there’s every chance that the impact of these electric vehicles is overstated.

Nevertheless, there is a very real sense in which the commitments of large, multi-national corporations may play a pivotal role in addressing climate change. With a disappointing outcome at the latest COP conference, and many countries already failing to meet their own emissions reduction pledges, there is a strong incentive for “sub-national actors” to take up the slack. Ordinarily, we think of these actors being state governments and cities – that is, political communities. Large corporations, however, hold significant sway over consumer behavior and consumption, and may be just as important in avoiding catastrophic climate change.

But are the environmental policies of corporations like the LEGO Group and Starbucks deserving of moral praise? To answer this question, we have to make a distinction between when a particular action is merely morally good, and when it is morally obligatory. Suppose, for example, that I live on a busy road, and elect to go out to the curb and spend the remainder of my day helping elderly pedestrians cross an otherwise harrowing intersection. Clearly, it would be morally good of me to do this. It’s a kind, thoughtful gesture that minimizes the risk of harm to these pedestrians. But there’s certainly no moral obligation for me to spend my afternoon doing this. To say that there was such an obligation would be to say that it’s morally wrong of me to spend my afternoon doing something else (like writing this article). This, it seems, goes too far. Contrast this with a case in which I clearly do have an obligation to do something: say, for example, feeding my cat. In that case, I would be doing something wrong if I failed to act (thereby causing my poor feline companion to go hungry).

Note something interesting, however: Where a moral obligation exists, we seem less inclined to praise an individual for their actions. While I may deserve moral praise for helping elderly pedestrians cross the road, I don’t deserve similar praise for feeding my cat. I’m simply doing what I’m supposed to do.

This distinction between morally good and morally obligatory actions can be helpful in deciding how we should respond to corporations like LEGO and Starbucks. The question we need to ask ourselves is: do these companies already have a moral obligation to take positive environmental action? Our answer will depend on how we think we should assign responsibility for things like climate action. Here, some of the same principles I discussed in a previous article can be of use. We might, for example, think that responsibility should fall on those who have directly contributed to the climate crisis (the Polluter Pays Principle), or who have benefited from those same activities (the Beneficiary Pays Principle). These principles would certainly place a moral obligation on corporations like LEGO and Starbucks. But even this may not be required. Unlike states (who are mired in internal and external politics) and individuals (who may have insufficient resources at their disposal), corporations have an enormous amount of freedom and financial resources to engage in positive environmental action. This alone may be sufficient to place a special obligation on them to do the right thing (what is often referred to as the Ability to Pay Principle).

With more than 30,000 stores worldwide, and an almost 40% share of the U.S. coffee market, there is no denying that what a corporation like Starbucks does, matters. Even small policies – like offering a discount for drinks served in reusable cups – can have a significant positive environmental impact. And while such action does serve a marketing purpose – lifting the value of their brand in the public eye – it may also play a vital role in our global efforts to avert catastrophic climate change. Whether or not such actions are deserving of moral praise is another question entirely, however. If there already exists a moral obligation on these companies to act in such ways, then praise is undeserved. Instead, companies like LEGO and Starbucks are merely doing what they always should have done.

Sephora and Diversity Training

photograph of exterior of Sephora outlet

If you were trying to buy cosmetics from retailer Sephora on the morning of June 5th then you may have found yourself mildly inconvenienced: retail locations across the US were shut down for an hour between 10 and 11 a.m. for employee diversity training, something that had been planned, according to the company, for months beforehand. That the shutdown had been planned for so long came as a surprise, as many had assumed that Sephora had decided to implement diversity training as a response to an incident involving musician SZA earlier in April. At that time, a Sephora employee called security on SZA, apparently to make sure that she wasn’t stealing, an action that seems clear was motivated by racial bias. Sephora apologized for the incident on Twitter, with the diversity training coming soon afterwards, although officially the timing is merely coincidental.

If this all sounds familiar, well that’s probably because you’ve heard it before. About a year ago, Starbucks closed their stores for half a day for mandatory diversity training after a similar incident: an employee in a Philadelphia location called the police because two black men were in their store, sitting and talking to one another. And if incidents of people calling the police on black men and women for completely innocuous activities in general sounds familiar, that’s also because you’ve probably been hearing about them a lot lately: perhaps an incident in which a Yale student called the cops on a fellow student napping in the library rings a bell, or maybe you’re reminded of one of the many, many recent incidents of “___-ing while black” (you can fill in that blank with pretty much any mundane activity).

With these kinds of incidents occurring frequently, we might think that diversity training of the kind implemented by Sephora and Starbucks would be a good thing. Nevertheless, we might still have reason to be concerned about Sephora’s actions in this case.

First, we might naturally be skeptical as to whether Sephora really cares about diversity training, or is simply trying to do damage control. The fact that the mandatory training came soon after a publicly embarrassing incident for the company, combined with the fact that the training was only an hour long, seems to indicate that they are not taking their responsibilities terribly seriously.

We might think, though, that any diversity training is better than none at all, and that Sephora is doing the right thing in attempting to make some things better, even if they could do more. Many news outlets reporting on the incident, however, point to research on the effectiveness of diversity training appearing to be somewhat conflicted: for example, one frequently-cited study reported that while diversity training programs are now extremely common in companies in the US, they do not generally result in greater diversity within the company itself, and warn that mandatory diversity training can induce resentment in employees, which could actually make biases worse. On the other hand another series of studies report that taking certain measures in diversity training such as “perspective-taking” (namely “the process of mentally walking in someone else’s shoes”) and “goal setting” (which involves having employees “set specific, measurable, and challenging (yet attainable) goals related to diversity in the workplace”) can result in concrete improvements, with employees “displaying more support and engaging in less mistreatment towards marginalized minorities.”

There are a couple of lessons we can take away from this, and at least one that we should not. Let’s start with the lesson we should not draw from this, which is that diversity training is, on the whole, a waste of time, or that it does more harm than good because it always breeds resentment from employees. If we are considering what responsibility Sephora has to account for the actions of their employee, then we should not take the mere fact that there is disagreement in scientific studies about the efficacy of diversity training to say that Sephora is not required to take strides to provide its employees with such training. Indeed, it seems that an obvious way to rectify their past mistake and attempt to prevent such mistakes from happening again in the future is to provide employees with the relevant diversity training.

What we should take away is that, like most things, diversity training will only be effective if it is done conscientiously and in a way that is informed by data and evidence. Furthermore, the problems that diversity training is meant to address cannot be solved in as little time as an hour, or half a day: effective diversity training will likely take time and effort, which is not something that can all be accomplished between 10 and 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.

How, then, should we think of the actions of Sephora in this case? Have they done what they ought to have done in response to the SZA incident? While apologizing and implementing diversity training seems like the right way to respond, it is hard to see how one could in good faith really believe that a single hour of diversity training could accomplish the goal of preventing such incidents from occurring in the future. It seems, then, that not only could Sephora have done more, but that they really should have known that what they were doing was not good enough.

Sip Carefully: Plastic Straws and the Individualization of Responsibility

Photograph of two iced Starbucks drinks with a wrapped straw in between them

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

In 2015 a video of a sea turtle took the internet by storm and set into action the public outrage over pollution caused by plastic straws. Since then, videos and articles including facts about plastic waste in the world’s oceans have been circulating the internet, and plastic pollution has been the topic of more than a few TED Talks. Many anti-plastic advocates made moral appeals to consumers to cut down on their straw usage, and these appeals have steadily grown into an anti-straw environmental movement. On July 9th, coffee mogul Starbucks announced they would be phasing out plastic straws in their cafes nationwide, eliminating plastic straws completely by 2020. However, it did not take long for the blowback to come. New videos and articles began circling social media, this time depicting people with disabilities explaining how the plastic straw ban in businesses, and cities like Seattle and San Francisco makes them feel unwelcome. Is banning plastic straws, like Starbucks did, really an ethical environmental choice? Should the responsibility be on companies or consumers to reduce plastic usage? And do appeals to morality through social media campaigns and public outrage truly effectuate positive change? Continue reading “Sip Carefully: Plastic Straws and the Individualization of Responsibility”

Who is Welcome at Starbucks?

Image of the Starbucks logo

Most Starbucks customers have spent a good number of non-paying hours in Starbucks stores—waiting for a friend, writing a paper or grading one, staying warm, or just chilling. And most regular customers will admit to an occasional purchase-free visit to the store just for the purpose of using the bathroom. But when two black men in Philadelphia went to a store in Rittenhouse Square for a business meeting and asked for the bathroom key, having ordered nothing first, it was only two minutes before an employee called 911. The police showed up minutes later, handcuffed the two and put them in a squad car. Only after nine hours at police headquarters, with Starbucks declining to press trespassing charges, were they released.

Continue reading “Who is Welcome at Starbucks?”