Friday, June 29, 2007

Corporate Social Responsibility

I was privileged to attend a conference on corporate social responsibility at Baruch College on Thursday. We heard from a number of corporations about what they are doing to be responsible in dealing with the environment or their workplace or with specific global problems like diabetes. My own contribution to the proceedings was a paper on "What Form of CSR Is Best for You?" in which I answer the question by looking at what happened in three companies - Tiffany, Gap Inc. and Chiquita - and three countries (Turkey, Italy and Pakistan).

The basic message of the paper is that CSR requires some kind of engine, some navigators and wheels on which to roll. It also operates within local economic and political constraints and that governments can affect the speed with which CSR is adopted. Turkey is faced with lower-cost competition and its government is not helping to solve the problem by weighting its tax mix toward payroll taxes rather than property taxes. Italy and, more recently, Pakistan have been encouraging local factories to become certified against SA8000 workplace standards by paying some of the costs of certification or giving certified factories preference in government procurement, or both.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Facts about Recycling in East Hampton

The well-known environmentalist Barry Commoner helped East Hampton, NY design its recycling center. Residents of the area bring their refuse to the center after buying a dumping permit from the Town of East Hampton. There they fling their glass bottles sorted by color into one area, plastic bottles into another, cans into yet another, paper goods in another and so on.

Unfortunately, the recycling center isn't as successful as was once hoped, because the market for recyclables is not as strong as expected. It's also tiresome chore for weekenders - the majority of the people who own houses in East Hampton - who come out to enjoy themselves. Many duck the chore by buying a weekly service from local carters, most of whom advertise "We recycle."

The belief that the local carters recycle all the refuse they pick up is one that those who use their services would like to cling to. The Town of East Hampton doesn't want to contradict this belief. I called the Highway Department about this and they referred me to Larry Penny, the Town's respected environmentalist. He referred me to the Sanitation Department, which has one person in the office who didn't know what to tell me, and referred me to the Better Business Bureau. I called the number - 212-533-6200, where I listened patiently to a long phone message saying basically that if I want service, I must first give them a valid credit card number and expect a charge of at least $5 to show up on my next bill. I thought of reporting this outrageous scam to the Better Business Bureau, for them to take action on. Then I realized, this was the BBB. Clearly, I had reached a dead end.

Then I called the Group for the South Fork and got a callback soon enough from Jeremy Samuelson, a newly hired Environmental Advocate who says that by coincidence he has just finished a report on recycling in the area that will appear in the Group's next newsletter. The refuse taken away by carters apparently bypasses East Hampton's model recycling center. Whether or not the individual homeowner separates the household trash, it is mushed together by the carters and brought to a commercial dump.

One of the biggest local carters is Winters Brothers on Fireplace Road. I asked them if there is any point to the customer's sorting refuse (as we have done for many years). The man who answered the phone said that the driver of the collection truck might put aside separated trash "at the side of the truck". The trucks pick up as much as they can hold and go direct to a dump or a sorting center. Winters Brothers goes all the way up-Island to Babylon, where recyclables that have enough of a market value are removed mechanically if possible (easy to do for metals) or by using "pickers" who look, for example, for plastic items that can be recycled. Just as "ore" is defined as a metal that can be taken out of the ground profitably, a "recyclable" is whatever can be removed cost-effectively from the waste stream.

Based on all this information, I asked both Larry Penny and Jeremy Samuelson what the individual can do. They both said that the only way people can be sure everything is recycled is by taking their own trash to the recycling center. Even then, not everything collected by the Town has a market, so it isn't all actually recycled. How much is recycled by their carters depends on the marketplace and their policies and practices.

Thought: Someone should find out which carters do the best job of recycling and tell the rest of us which ones rate highest. That could become a factor in homeowners' choice of carter. People might be willing to pay more if they knew that a carter was making a special effort to recycle as much trash as possible.