Corporate Eco-Offenders & You

In June of 2013, Truth-Out.org released its list of the 7 worst polluting companies in the world. Unsurprisingly, an energy company (Williams Energy, to be specific) nabbed the top spot. Other well-known culprits included Dow Chemical, General Electric, U.S. Steel, and the generally publicly obscure Koch Industries. These are companies that have been under scrutiny for a long time by environmental activists and the publication of such lists doesn’t do anything helpful for their PR channels. In addition to going into the details of some of the bigger offenders in recent years, we’ll also be taking a look at public response to such incidents and some tips on how you can keep your own business off of such lists.

Case Studies

General Electric: GE’s pollution of the Hudson River in New York first sparked controversy three decades ago, in the 1980’s. At the time, however, environmental movements were a much more niche cause, and not one as integrated into mainstream thinking as it is today. As a result, it’s taken this long for the company to finally suffer sanctions and imposed cleanup procedures from the EPA. Unfortunately, as is the case with many giant enterprises, GE holds a lot of clout and the EPA has been considering a loosening of sanctions, which may or may not affect how well the river is restored in the end.

U.S. Steel: Smelting and forming steel requires a lot of energy, and the coal burning plants of U.S. Steel have long been a top culprit for domestic environmental pollution. The damage goes (literally) deeper, as well, since mercury and other runoff from the company’s processes end up in ground water and nearby watersheds, making their pollution not only bad for the environment, but a direct potential risk to the health of those nearby. The company itself has long lobbied hard against any kind of environmental legislation.

Dow Chemical: Dow Chemical’s a company that many have heard of, but few know a lot about. This is largely due to the company’s government contracts and congressional lobbying power, which put its name in the middle of high profile cases from time to time, only to see them resolved quickly without much third party or publicly accessible investigation into the company itself. The Supreme Court has even granted the company what amounts to a free license to pollute, regardless of the consequences, in a 2011 case.

Response: In general, anti-pollution groups have responded with protests, lobbying groups of their own, and employing the collective outrage of the public and negative PR to force changes from companies. Some groups, like the Earth Liberation Front (ELF, for short) have gone to the other extreme in taking physical actions against companies, destroying property and in some cases costing business hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars – eliciting another tier of response on whether their actions are justified or not. Ironically, these groups themselves are sometimes labeled “eco-terrorists,” sharing the name with the polluting corporations they’re fighting.

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What You Can Do

In any event, the fight for and against the environment can get ugly. One thing is for certain, however, and that’s the fact that public opinion is now overwhelmingly in favor of businesses that conduct their operations ethically and in an eco-friendly way. With that in mind, here are a few quick tips for staying off the environmental “naughty list” in 2014:

  • Cut back. In most any operation, there are easy ways to cut back; think about where lights or heat are left on without need, if routes could be altered to cut down on fuel use and exhaust pollution, etc.
  • Make the swap to more energy-efficient appliances. This can be as simple as changing your light bulbs to fluorescent ones, or as complex as investing in new machinery that operates cleaner or can use more environmentally friendly fuels.
  • Start recycling. Businesses in general have been recycling more and more, but think about how you might also be able to use compost bins (in your break/lunch rooms, etc.) to further reduce your non-reusable waste.
  • Have a plan. Combine these tips and others into a cohesive plan for the coming year and beyond. Specifically committing to introducing a certain measure each month, or reaching a goal by a certain time, is more likely to inspire real action that just having a general idea of some things you’d like to do.
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