We all remember the SunChips Episode of 2010. Frito-Lay introduced bio-degradable packaging for SunChips in March, and was surprised to see sales of the chips drop by 11% over the next six months. The reason: Consumers felt that the new bags were too noisy, prompting an onslaught of YouTube videos and Facebook groups bemoaning their high decibel levels. In October, Frito-Lay switched most of the SunChips brands back to quieter plastic packaging. Only last month -- a year after the initial launch -- did the company start reintroducing (very slowly) a new, quieter version of the biodegradable bag in some grocery stores.
In light of this "curious case of the cacophonous snack pack," I find that many people see sustainability as a version of a Faustian dilemma; they often knowingly make choices that have immediate personal benefits, but in the long run are disastrous for all of us. Their reasoning goes like this: "While I'd like to save the planet in the long-term, if it means that I have to give up my currently comfortable lifestyle in the short-term, I probably won't do it."
Lifestyle resistance to the wind energy industry -- a clean alternative to fossil fuels -- is another example of this dilemma. One New York Times article documents noise complaints from a number of communities across the U.S., Canada, Britain, and France. As one neighbor of a newly installed wind farm in Maine said, "... we are prisoners of sonic effluence." Other wind energy projects, such as the proposed turbines off the coast of Cape Cod and Hawaii, have been slowed or stopped by residents who do not want their view of the ocean disturbed.
Similarly, makers of all-electric cars are facing resistance from "range anxiety," or the fear of getting stuck somewhere when the batteries run out of juice. It stems from the hesitancy to give up that limitless freedom of gasoline-powered vehicles, despite the knowledge that electric cars will significantly reduce tailpipe emissions. To counter this anxiety in a somewhat ironic way, for a time Nissan considered giving its all-electric Leaf customers free access to gasoline-powered rentals whenever they needed them (essentially defeating the purpose of having an electric car).
The correlation between these examples is that they reinforce and even amplify the notion that sustainability requires a trade-off: In order to improve the environment, we'll have to sacrifice something (e.g., peace and quiet, view, freedom of travel, or inexpensive transportation). And while some people are willing to accept this trade-off, many others are not. As a result, the idea of sustainability -- which should be a perfectly sensible notion in a world of finite resources -- is often viewed with suspicion or skepticism.
To counter this resistance in the coming years, more companies may need to embrace what Cisco's Inder Sidhu calls "doing both." The idea is that instead of thinking about tradeoffs between equally good alternatives -- such as innovation vs. core business or discipline vs. flexibility -- to creatively try to achieve both. In other words, more companies should be acting like Frito-Lay. By developing a package that is compostable and quiet, they are working to save the environment while still delivering a quality product that will please consumers. For the wind industry this would mean developing silent and more attractive turbines; and for automobile manufacturers it will mean developing electric cars (or supporting infrastructures) that provide range as well as zero emissions.
I'll admit that this may be blindingly obvious. But if we're going to make progress with sustainability, we'll have to accept the fact that many people are like Faust -- they will sell their souls (or at least their planet) to the devil in order to maintain their current standard of living. Until we give them a better choice, and prove that sustainability doesn't require sacrifice, we'll be fighting an uphill battle -- and putting our snack packs in landfills instead of compost heaps.
What are your suggestions for overcoming sustainability's Faustian dilemma?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online
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