Let’s face it; there are some companies and industries that we love to hate. Critics of sustainability and social responsibility, in particular, are quick to point out the high rates of returns for the so-called “sin” companies, those that produce products like cigarettes (a favorite example) and continue to thrive, despite overwhelming evidence that their products are unhealthy for people and the planet.
Then there is the vast grey area. Companies that produce bottled water receive criticism for the packaging and distribution of a life-sustaining commodity, processes that, people argue, needlessly waste resources. Certainly those in the developed world would do well to drink from their tap using reusable containers, but we cannot forget that 1.1 billion people or 18 percent of the world’s population, lack access to safe drinking water, according to the United Nations. That’s almost one out of every five people. Meanwhile those bottled water companies that we love to hate may offer the best way to provide these people with life-giving water free from bacteria, parasites, and animal (including human) waste.
Fast food companies are receiving criticism for everything, from the lack of nutritional value of their products to their packaging, their marketing to young people and their predominance in lower-income neighborhoods. While there certainly is a link between their products and obesity, it is important to remember that the World Health Organization estimates that one-third of the world is underfed and one-third is starving. In Haiti, where cookies made of dirt, salt, and vegetable shortening have become a regular staple, the same McDonald’s Value Meals we love to hate would be a blessing.
The same gun manufacturer that produces weapons that take away lives in crime-infested neighborhoods is also allowing hunters to provide sustenance for their families – often more humanely than more primitive hunting methods that often cause the animals pain and suffering, or even leave them injured and susceptible to disease. While we indulge ourselves in guilt for being on the top of the food chain, an estimated four million people will starve to death this year alone.
These examples are meant to be extreme but they lead to an important question that we must answer. Should we continue to shun companies that engage in (some) activities that we don’t like, even as they make real progress such as improving their packaging and distribution? In the alternative, should we offer the olive branch of positive reinforcement, even as we hope that these are merely preliminary efforts toward a more enlightened approach to providing value?
Are we blaming the sin but not the sinners?
Are we blaming companies for producing products that we find unseemly without accepting that market forces are rewarding their behavior? We recycle only one quarter of the millions of bottles we purchase, despite the availability and ease of doing so. Sales of “unhealthy” choices are unaffected when we insist that food companies share the nutritional content of their products. Warning labels on cigarettes explicitly detail the dangers and yet do not prevent countless of intelligent human beings – a disproportionate number of whom can ill afford the expense of the cigarettes, much less the medical care that often comes from smoking – from taking up the habit each year. Are we holding the companies unfairly accountable for providing goods and services that the market demands?
We must reward and recognize achievements as we move toward a sustainable global economy, remembering that improvements along the path are worthy of recognition because these are the best way to encourage the changes we wish to see. It is important that sustainability advocates recognize that what Catholic social tradition teaches us is vital – none is perfect, but forgiveness is available when one is truly repentant, requests absolution, and commits to and seeks always to be better.
Practical idealism is the only way to encourage those on the road to redemption.