Who’s to Blame: Should consumers or businesses take the lead on climate change + reducing waste?

Who’s to Blame: Should consumers or businesses take the lead on climate change + reducing waste?

This question is so loaded. I’ve heard both sides of this argument for years. And both sides do a terrific (maybe even rabid) job defending their position. Oil companies argue that if consumers wanted something different, they wouldn’t buy their (plastic!) products...but who can resist a cheap product that can easily be replaced if broken or damaged? We’ve been raised on plastics – cheap, ubiquitous, disposable. If it breaks, who cares!? We can buy a new one, we rationalize, because it’s just so cheap. Plastic has replaced high priced materials like wood, metal, even glass, and is so ubiquitous it’s even utilized in the cars we drive, the homes we build and the appliances we use. 

As a business owner, I know firsthand the daunting cost of raw materials and production, realizing very early on in this business that my compostable material costs anywhere from 500–600% more per pound than the cost of conventional, oil-based plastic. It would have been so much easier to take the cheaper route – which would have also been the faster route, as conventional, virgin plastic is readily available for purchase. But I had to compound (scientific term for putting together our raw materials the right way to create our unique blend of plant-based resins) the material in our beach toys by sourcing the raw ingredients first. That was expensive and time consuming, especially because this was all happening during the global supply chain breakdown in 2021/2022.

But, to take the cheaper route would have been to miss the point entirely. During my start-up journey, I realized how cost-efficient, and therefore enticing, lower-cost plastics can be. It costs a lot of money to make a product. It does make financial sense – however harmful it may be – that companies formed decades ago chose the lowest-cost material (plastics) to make their product and sell at the highest price. 

On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve heard cases made by impassioned friends and advocates that it’s the corporations! Corporations are the ones putting cheap plastic in front of consumers – if they would only stop providing, consumers would stop buying. In 2023, North America alone was responsible for 19% of production and 21% of global plastic consumption, with plastic production expected to increase by 300 billion dollars over the next ten years. As one example of this, Americans buy an average of 50 billion water bottles per year, a number that keeps rising. In other words, even though we know the damaging effects of fossil-derived plastics, the price point for consumers is just too good to pass up. 

But, did you know that petroleum, the base product for plastics, is highly subsidized? The fossil fuel industry – feedstock for plastics – receives around $20 billion in subsidies per year. And that money comes from us, the taxpayers. This means that consumers aren’t actually paying the true cost of plastics when we buy it at the store – but we do pay for it when we pay our taxes. If plastic reflected its true cost at checkout, would consumers make a different choice?

So, who’s to blame? I think, if forced to choose, I would agree that corporations know better and therefore should do better. 

But, now that I’ve been through it, I understand why choosing the lowest-priced material is the standard choice – if you want your business to have even a sliver of a chance to survive, you have to keep costs low.

Even knowing that, though, I still can’t support it. And maybe that makes me really bad at business.

But we live at a time where the answer to most any question we have resides at our fingertips. We can gauge the cost of carbon emissions on our planet, predict the global temperature increase if we do or do not curb carbon emissions; we can search for local composting stations or select an energy-efficient Uber. There is enormous power in this knowledge. And, because of the accessibility and availability of information, we, business owners, can’t turn a blind eye to what we’re using and how it affects the planet. Nor can we, consumers, assume that businesses have our best interest, or the planet’s, at heart. 

We cannot justify the cheap solve in lieu of the smart one. 

As a business owner during a crucial moment in time for our planet and its future – our future – I personally cannot justify selecting the lowest-cost material just to turn a profit. We don’t have the luxury (nor naïveté) anymore, as consumers or business owners, to ignore the consequences of our choices – both in what we’re using to make products and which kinds of products we’re buying.

So when I think about who’s to blame – or perhaps more aptly put, who shares the burden – I can only come to one conclusion:  it’s on all of us.

We need to be both discerning consumers and responsible business owners. We don’t have the luxury anymore to ignore what’s happening to our planet when it’s happening because of the choices we’ve all made. 

It’s do-or-die time, and at Rogue Wave, we choose do.