I get it. If industry has caused such a large part of the plastic problem, how can we expect – or even trust it – to be part of the solution? But I believe that if we are to finally reach a global deal on plastic pollution that actually ends plastic pollution, we need to give companies and investors a seat at the table, because public policies are most effective when they are shaped with all stakeholders.
To be honest, ideas like this used to laugh me out of the business school classroom. One side of the class would say, “The role of business is to make money, not improve society,” and the other side of the class would say, “Once the government passes a law, corporations simply have to line up, So why bother?” The idea that companies not only have a positive contribution to make, but are also key players has never made me friends on either side of the room.
But what if the industry believed that taking action to reverse decades of externalities was actually good for their business in the long run? What if they were made to keep these guidelines to create a level playing field?
This is the opportunity we have before us with the Global Plastics Agreement. For the first time, more than 150 countries are negotiating a global deal to end plastic pollution. We must not waste the moment. To maximize the effectiveness of any deal, we need the private sector involved in the solution. Why? Time and time again, we’ve seen that we can’t rely solely on government regulation to get us there.
Case in point: U.S. attempts to regulate cleaner air are fraught with complications and frustrated ambitions. In 1970, the US government enacted the Clean Air Act (CAA), a landmark law that empowered the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate air pollution, particularly things like acid rain and toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants. Fast forward more than 30 years, to 2003, and the Bush administration enacted the Clear Skies Initiative, which almost overnight changed how the CAA was implemented and limited the EPA’s ability to enforce the law. This was such a shock and so contrary to the spirit of the CAA that the EPA’s Chief Enforcement Officer (the guy responsible for enforcing the law) resigned in protest. (Full disclosure: Eric Schaeffer, the EPA’s top cop at the time, became one of my first clients as well as an inspiration and mentor to me.) Most recently, last year the US Supreme Court further ruled the EPA’s ability to reduce air pollution by ruling that it cannot regulate carbon emissions.
So it’s taken more than a generation, but what was once seen as a tremendous victory for environmental policy is now just a shadow of its potential. We’ve seen the same thing in other supposedly settled political battles like abortion and gun control.
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this is that impermanence of government. And it’s an uncomfortable truth for political advocates in the US and around the world. I started my career in Washington, DC because I believed it was politics the Key solution path for the problems that were important to me. However, I left Washington years later and entered the private sector because I realized that politics alone is not enough. Ultimately, if the industry gets carried away with regulation, regulation will not have the desired result. Industry will always act in its own best interest and if politics is seen as contrary to that interest, it will not back down until it finally prevails, as we have seen in so many of these cases. We can’t afford that with plastic pollution.