What Should You Focus On: Plastic Straws or Policy?

The last time I was in the US to visit family, my mom pulled a thin metal tube out of the car’s glove compartment as we approached a coffee shop’s drive-through window. Confused, I asked her what she had in her hand. I received an equally puzzled reply. “… it’s a metal straw. Don’t you have one? Plastic straws are bad for the environment.” 

I looked out the front window of the car at the line of idling vehicles waiting to pick up coffee ahead of us and felt frustration. Thanks to the way that government-subsidized oil has shaped the US’ development over the last century, the only way to move around much of the US is by car. Yet my mother feels genuinely guilty if she uses a plastic straw with her drink. 

So is her feeling of guilt justified? How about my feeling of frustration? 

If you look closer at these two emotions, they are quite revealing of different ideas about who holds responsibility in the fight against climate change. My mother’s personal commitment to reducing plastic consumption reflects a belief that individual action is essential to combating climate change, whereas my reaction reveals my belief that governments need to step up because individual action has limited impact. We both care a lot, but is there a right and wrong approach? 

What I’d like to do with this article is explore some ideas about the roles and responsibilities of three main players – organizations, governments, and individuals – in the hopes that it can help others who are mulling over similar questions and feelings. 

Organizations

Let’s start with organizations because at the beginning of my research, a statistic about organizations stopped me in my tracks. The statistic is that over 70% of the world’s historical greenhouse gas emissions come from only 100 investor and state-owned companies, and that over half of emissions since 1988 actually come from just 25 of those 100 companies! 

Could it be so simple? If the majority of emissions is coming from such a limited group of organizations, shouldn’t we just focus on organizations to solve this problem? 

To start answering this question, I have another story for you and I’ll leave my mom out of it this time. In March of this year, Danone’s CEO Emmanuel Faber was removed from his position by the organization’s board. Why did this happen? Many believe it was linked to his strategy that had the environment and climate change at its heart. The challenge with Faber’s strategy was that it required some of Danone’s limited resources to go towards environmental initiatives that take a long time to show results (e.g. soil health and biodiversity initiatives). 

Thus we find the dilemma at the heart of a corporation’s role in climate change action: short-term pressure from market dynamics vs. a long-term strategy for sustainability. You may be thinking that that is a false tradeoff because focusing on sustainability is the only way to ensure we even have a market in the future. I would be inclined to agree with you, however most companies do not include their “externalities” in their financials, meaning that organizations that release a lot of greenhouse gases are often not “feeling” the costs they incur on the environment. Given this, sustainability-focused strategies can leave an organization looking comparatively “weak” when held up against competitors that act with less concern for their externalities.

Despite this, organizations do have massive responsibility and power to impact climate change, and some organizations are stepping up. BlackRock is one of the world’s leading asset managers and the organization surprised many with its pledge in early 2020 to put sustainability at the core of how it invests the ~$8.7 trillion it has under management. In doing this, BlackRock is not only changing its own operations to have sustainability as a central strategy, but as one of the world’s preeminent investors it is also changing the pressure other organizations feel. BlackRock is still far from perfect, but the organization is sending strong signals that companies that are not considering sustainability are less likely to get BlackRock’s investment.

For organizations to make real change, sustainability must be a core strategic tenant instead of being relegated to a non-core CSR initiative. What this looks like in practice depends on the business model of the organization: sustainability for a tech company will look different than a sustainability-focused strategy for a chemical manufacturing plant. However, what both organizations need to do is be clear in communicating their sustainability strategy to consumers, investors, and employees in hopes of mitigating long term vs. short term misalignments. 

One more note on organizations before we move to our next player. It is easy to point the finger at the “top 100” or “top 25” greenhouse gas-emitting organizations that we looked at in that opening statistic, but I think it is important to recognize that these companies exist because there has been demand for their services and that demand is not gone. If all the oil majors stopped extraction tomorrow, we would be in for some trouble as our economies are still built around cheap oil. Organizational change cannot happen in isolation. 

Government

Let’s take a look at government next. Climate change is a global issue (a classic “tragedy of the commons”-type problem), and an interdisciplinary one, making it prime for governments to tackle it with policy solutions. As we saw in our look at organizations, financial markets have largely failed to self-regulate quickly or strongly enough to limit emissions from reaching dangerous levels. So how can governments help out?

What governments have is the power to make an organization’s externalities into real business costs. For example, carbon taxes on companies would mean that the costs of producing a product includes the price tag for the carbon released in its production. If we think back to the idea of a company being uncompetitive when putting resources towards sustainability strategies, the addition of a carbon tax can radically change that math; if competitors release far more carbon in producing their products, the introduction of a carbon tax could mean that the sale of those competitors’ products is no longer profitable. Climate policy is therefore an important mechanism for leveling the playing field by bringing to the forefront that climate change is an externality that organizations must account for. 

When looking more broadly at the government’s role in climate action, there are a few different dimensions to consider. The first is that climate-focused policies are made across several levels of government (e.g. local, state, national). The introduction of carbon taxes at scale would likely require national government approval and enforcement, whereas building out new bike lanes or public transportation routes is decided at a more local level. Both are important in impacting how our other players (organizations and individuals) conduct themselves. 

The second dimension to think about is how the government holds individuals or organizations accountable for policy. Accountability is usually described as being a “carrot” or a “stick”, meaning that actors are either encouraged to follow the policy with the promise of benefits (carrot), or with the promise of punishment if policy is not adhered to (stick). Oftentimes a policy change will start with incentives for early adopters, and shift more towards penalty enforcement to chase late adopters into compliance. 

Although there is much individual governments can do, there is also an interesting competition parallel to what we saw with organizations. Just as a company can be uncompetitive in the short term when focusing on sustainability, a government may affect the country’s economic competitiveness by enacting restrictive climate-change policies. Polluting nations can make significant economic gains as other nations restrict themselves, so we’re also seeing some clever collective government action. For example, the Paris Agreement is a legally binding agreement between several governments as a way to drive global action and to try to preserve some degree of level playing field. 

So to summarize, governments (or groups of governments) play an important role in climate change action as the bodies that can “shock the system”. Governments have the power to drive change that individual actors and corporations are unlikely to make on their own due to a lack of the right incentives and resources. With that, let’s take a look now at our last player.

The individual

In the corporate world I’ve come across a model designed to help people focus their limited amounts of time and energy. The model is made up of 3 concentric circles: the circles of control, influence, and concern. 

The idea of these circles is to illustrate that there is very little that we control, and that people often overfocus (and waste time) on things they can only be concerned about but not affect the outcome of. 

Think about it for yourself – what do you actually control? 

We typically land on the answer that the only thing we control is ourselves, and even that is questionable when you dive into the realm of unconscious bias or think about the complex systems in which you operate. Given that fact, the model encourages us to expand our circle of influence while reducing our circle of concern. If you’re concerned about something that you don’t control, can you try to influence it? 

I think about this model a lot when it comes to climate change because climate campaigns, companies, etc. often focus on taking action within your circle of control (for example choose the vegan meal or bring a metal straw to the coffee shop). That focus makes sense given that the things you control are the things you can most readily change; the circle of control is therefore the easiest to focus on when mobilizing climate action. However, there are several challenges with this focus on individual control in the climate change fight: 

  • The limited scope of a circle of control sets us up for feelings of frustration given the size and intractability of a global climate change problem; 
  • There are economic forces that limit the impact of individual action. A very simple example: my choice to not buy a seat on an airplane means that the airline may discount that ticket until it finds the price at which someone will buy it. My individual choice to not fly may very well tempt someone else into flying as supply and demand find their matching price point;  
  • Lastly, and I believe most importantly, the focus on the individual’s circle of control has contributed to a narrative that overemphasizes the importance of individual choice in what is a huge, global challenge. 

So what am I saying about the role of the individual? I think it is important to recognize that a lot of the climate change narrative focuses on things within your circle of control, which is inherently limited. The average US household emits less than 50 metric tons of greenhouse gas per year out of the approximately 33 BILLION released each year, and the average US household has far higher emissions than the average household in most other countries. All this to say that your individual or household choices account to a small drop in the carbon ocean. What I would therefore recommend is moving beyond your circle of control in order to prioritize and act on your circle of influence. 

The circle of influence is what connects individual action to governments and organisations. As an individual, you can influence policy and you can influence how organisations respond through your purchasing power. 

The challenge with influence is that focusing here makes your impact much less immediate or certain. As an example, voting for government officials is a key action for influencing climate policy, but many of us know the disappointment when the elected government doesn’t carry out our desired environmental agenda. The circle of influence thus feels messier than focusing on our circle of control. However I would challenge you to be resilient and embrace the messiness of influence because much more can be accomplished here. 

My other recommendation is to continue bringing your metal straw to coffee. Even when personal actions feel small, step into the mindset that your action is about setting cultural precedent which will grow, in time, into a more powerful influencing force. So keep doing things within your circle of control, but recognize that the greatest impact your individual choices have is in building a groundswell to influence cultural norms that governments and organizations react to. My individual choice to not buy a plane ticket is unlikely to keep that plane grounded, but it may in time influence others’ choices to the point that the airline can no longer fill the same number of flights. 

In conclusion

Climate change responsibility is a complicated puzzle with many actors and various circles of control, influence and concern. The trend of focusing on an individual’s controllable actions is understandable, but it contributes to unfair distortions in the narrative about how to tackle a global problem. The single largest contributors to the global climate change crisis are organizations. These organizations exist due to current and historical demand, and the way they have been incentivized has not changed rapidly enough to effectively deal with the current problem. This is where the government has a critical role to play as the actor that can force a reckoning with externalities. 

To bring this full circle, your role as an individual holds the most power when you focus on your circle of influence. You influence the government through voting and through taking action that slowly but surely changes the fabric of cultural discourse. Support the organization that focuses on sustainably producing metal straws, and bring that straw to your coffee shop: you are setting the groundwork for greater change. 


Anna Breu has long been fascinated with the unique challenge of creating action around climate change and sustainability, and she holds a degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology from Middlebury College (USA). Anna works as an Associate Director at BTS in London where she focuses on strategy execution and creating change momentum in organizations, skills she likes to use outside work in the context of environmental issues. Anna is particularly focused on the role of her home country – the US – plays on the international stage, and is passionate about the potential of circular economies.

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