Taking the ‘sustainability’ challenge

Oct. 17, 2016: “PepsiCo Inc. today announced an ambitious global sustainability agenda designed to foster business growth in a way that … creat(es) a healthier relationship between people and food … contribute(s) to a more sustainable global food system and help(s) make local communities more prosperous.”

Here are the company PepsiCo’s “flagship” products:

Soft drinks, more than $35 billion a year: Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Diet Mountain Dew, Mist Twst, Pepsi Zero Sugar. Other beverages, $15 billion: Gatorade, Tropicana, Aquafina. Convenience food, about $25 billion: Lays, Doritos, Cheetos, Ruffles, Tostitos, Fritos. 

Not long ago, I attended a talk by PepsiCo’s global head of sustainability. She was an accomplished professional with a huge resume. She talked about PepsiCo’s many environmental initiatives in energy and water use, their efforts to promote recycling, use of lightweight packaging, and more. She was a knowledgeable and engaging speaker.

But those PepsiCo products are defined by their ingredients: sugar, chemical sweeteners, fat, salt, caffeine. They contribute to heart disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes. They are all, to a greater or lesser extent, addictive.

Which is to say, with very few exceptions, PepsiCo’s contribution to “a healthier relationship between people and food” consists of selling us food and drink that not only do us no good, but are demonstrably bad for us. A huge step we could all take toward “a healthier relationship between people and food” would be never to eat or drink a PepsiCo product again.

That fact didn’t come up in the talk I heard.

It’s also hard to miss the fact that PepsiCo’s flagship products are sold in single-serve disposable packages. I’ve eaten lots of Doritos, and I don’t remember ever having the opportunity to recycle the bag. I’ve gone on my share of road trips, and I don’t remember having the opportunity to recycle a Pepsi bottle or can at a gas station or convenience store.

I appreciate the fact that plastics are lightweight packaging, and that Pepsi’s beverage containers are recyclable where recycling programs exist. But the most effective way to get plastic bottles and aluminum cans out of the trash and roadside litter and into recycling bins is the bottle bill, and PepsiCo is unwavering in its opposition to any and every bottle bill.

That fact didn’t come up in the talk I heard.

What is PepsiCo’s true message when their products are sold in packaging that pollutes the environment, and they oppose the most effective means to change that situation? What’s the point of promoting their commitment to energy conservation when they’re content to see millions of plastic bottles and bags — pure, highly refined petroleum — dumped onto landfills and roadsides?

These questions didn’t come up in the talk I heard.

Of course, it’s not just PepsiCo products. It’s thousands of companies and tens of thousands of products that we eat, drink and use every day. Our economic system is based on consumption, and our culture embodies that system through and through.

Sustainability means making thoughtful and informed choices about what we eat, drink and use to support our daily lives. Unfortunately, many, if not most of those choices, would tend to put large, powerful corporations out of business. They will fight to keep that from happening. They owe that fight to their shareholders.

So they’ll keep pushing products we don’t need, foods that make us sick, “must-have” colors and styles, “new” shades of lipstick and scents of cologne, and they’ll keep working to convince us to buy the latest iPhone and high-def TV. And they’ll put a gloss of “sustainability” over them, reducing energy and water use and hyping “zero waste” factories.

In the end, you can’t be serious about sustainability if the foundation of your business consists of products that people don’t need or don’t need more of, that make people sick, that are packaged and promoted in ways that damage the environment. 

So yes, reduce energy and water use, reduce factory waste, put up solar panels. Call it being more efficient. Call it being economical. Call it common sense. Just don’t call it being sustainable. Because it’s not. 

Mark Lennon lives in New London.

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