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Hippie Mousetraps


I’m annoyed by the relentless greenwashing of every product offered for sale. I don’t care if your factory is powered by unicorns. Tell me that your stuff is good and a good value. If your primary market advantage is that your workers don’t use very much soap, you should probably spend less time giving yourself virtue awards and improve your product.

Cutting short what might be a therapeutic rant, consider this perspective from an customer review of The Market for Virtue: The Potential And Limits of Corporate Social Responsibility:

For example, let's consider the post World War II history of business enterprise. Business and industry were widely respected fields in the United States through the 1950s. Indeed before the expansion of universities and governmental functions the majority of college students assumed that their futures would be somewhere in the business world, though they might major in English literature, French history, biology or engineering in college.

But in the 1960s a stigma developed on business, powerfully reflected in the movie, "The Graduate", starring Dustin Hoffman. Remember the heavy sarcasm conveyed by the businessman who, with intense terseness, offered his advice to Hoffman: "Let me just say one word to you - 'plastics'"?

In other words, business was portrayed as concerned with soulless materialism. Fashionable movements in the burgeoning universities pilloried clipped lawns and "mindless conformity" in bourgeois suburban communities.

A significant proportion of older business leaders had scientific and engineering backgrounds, or broad liberal arts interests. They included people like Edwin Land (Polaroid camera), Arnold Beckman (Beckman Instruments - laboratory equipment for physicochemical measurement) and Robert O. Anderson (chairman of Atlantic Richfield, chairman of Atlantic Richfield Oil Co., who was noted for discerning philanthropy like rescuing Harpers Magazine, founding the Aspen and Worldwatch institutes, the International Institute for Environment and Development in London and the John Muir Institute of the Environment in Davis, California.

Faced with an increasingly hostile and uncertain legal and political climate, the older product-oriented entrepreneurs were replaced by new kinds of business leaders. These tended to have legal and financial skills and the bottom line as the prime motivator. They had less loyalty to industries or individual companies. Robert Bradley has pointed out social environments heavily influenced by governmental regulations, mandates, and subsidies tend to give rise to firms specializing in "political capitalism" rather than "market capitalism". This type of firm seeks profit opportunities through knowledge of regulatory systems and influential contacts in high places. It doesn't produce technological innovation but buys technology when it needs it.

Although lefties decry the financial and corporate forms of rent-seeking (and the profit motive itself), the complaints are often overlooked when a company or industry makes stuff in a nice, “responsible” way.

The focus in either case is off the product and on the means of making and selling it. IT’s still rent-seeking. The goals of having a minimum “social” footprint and a persistently improving product are not mutually exclusive. It’s a matter of priorities and perception.

Eco-preneurs and their customers are poltical capitalists, exhibiting their version of mindless conformity where the type of packaging is more important that the goods inside.