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Profits and Sustainability: When the GR Press avoids the question

March 14, 2010

It’s hard these days not to turn on the TV or read a newspaper and come across a news story or an advertisement that proclaims the benefits of green products and green businesses.

These “Green” businesses often use terms like sustainability to present what they are doing for the public. However, a critical look at this issue has not been explored much in the commercial media world, thus making it difficult for people to judge how sustainable these green business practices really are.

A critical examination of corporate appropriation of the concept of sustainability is exactly what author Adrian Parr investigates in her recent book Hijacking Sustainability. “Parr argues that the more popular sustainable development becomes, the more commodified it becomes; the more mainstream culture embraces the sustainability movement’s concern over global warming and poverty, the more “sustainability culture” advances the profit-maximizing values of corporate capitalism.

We see this over and over again in local news coverage, where businesses make the claim that they are engaging in sustainable practices are not questioned in the news coverage.

For example, on Sunday, the Grand Rapids Press ran a story about a new solar panel grid that the Padnos Iron & Metals Co. have just installed in their Wyoming facility. The very first thing that Padnos President, Jeff Padnos says in the article is, “One of the first rules of sustainability is to make a profit.”

This underscores a fundamental flaw in the corporate sustainability movement, in that their primary motive for installing the solar panels is to make a profit. The article doesn’t talk about the environmentally sustainable benefits of such an undertaking, but how “State property tax breaks and tax credits for alternative energy projects also have a role in giving the panels an estimated payback of eight years.”

The article continues with an emphasis on how this will benefit businesses by stating, “Public policy favoring alternative energy helps manufacturers ramp up for the time when the market favors renewable sources.” So the market has to find renewable energy sources as beneficial in order for it to work? This question is not asked in the story, but presented merely as fact.

More importantly, the article states that Consumers Energy will be buying the excess electricity from Padnos, since State law requires it. Thus, Padnos will make a profit eventually on generating more electricity than they can use. Nowhere does the reporter question why the excess electricity cannot be turned over to the public in order to lower residential energy costs. This is another major flaw of the corporate sustainability movement in that even if renewable energy is created it is still confined to the free market system. Why not have energy that is generated in a renewable fashion be held in the public commons, the same way that parks, forests and rivers are? This would mean a radical shift in public policy, but would ultimately be more sustainable, since having energy generation in the public commons would mean that the public would have a say in how it is produced and consumed.

One last aspect of this Press article that should be explored is why the reporter did not even ask a question about the business practices of Padnos Iron & Metal Co. Is what Padnos does in and of itself sustainable? How much energy do they consume in the metals and iron recycling process? Does the company contribute to environmental contamination? Look at the picture included here of one of the Padnos facilities and ask yourself if there is no environmental contamination occurring. The Press reporter could have contacted the Michigan DEQ to find out if any of the Padnos facilities have committed State violation or are under review.

These are important questions, which journalists must pursue in order for the public to have as much information as possible before being able to determine whether or not businesses can be truly sustainable.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Doug Burkholder permalink
    March 15, 2010 3:03 am

    My understanding is that any excess power generated would be given as credit on account or put into the energy fund for people who can not afford their bills . I have gotten into alternative energy products
    and have found that the general public is not interested in saving the environment unless it changes their way of life directly . I recently went to the Home Show and they only thing there where Geo-thermo heating systems , no windmills ,no solar heating or photovoltaic’ systems , even though we have manufactures of all of these products in Michigan. Drive through East Grand Rapids where the well to do live , see any of these systems ? We could be a leader in the US with these systems . We have several multi-billionaires who are in Forbes top 200 wealthiest people in the world . Where are they investing?

  2. Jeff Smith permalink*
    March 15, 2010 1:09 pm

    Doug, I hear your point about the need to expand alternative energy production, but what I was primarily pointing out were 2 things: First, that this kind of energy should be held in the public trust, in the commons instead of a polluter like Consumers Energy, since they mostly produce electricity by burning coal, something which I have no say in and; Secondly, the companies like Padnos can put up solar panels, but is what they do as a business and how they do it environmentally sustainable.

    I would not what multi-billionares like DeVos investing in alternative energy (he is by the way, since Windquest just announced they are getting into alternative energy production), because when they invest in alternative energy it is primarily for making a profit, not for promoting sustainability.

  3. Y.B.Ordinary permalink
    March 16, 2010 4:25 am

    Jeff, I think maybe you are being a little too hard on Padnos. As a solid environmentalist, I am glad to see someone right here in W.MI recycling metal and materials, as long as they are not just a conduit for sending all our metal to China, of course. But recycling steel, for instance, uses only 5% of the energy of producing virgin steel. That’s massive in terms of greenhouse gasses and coal burned. Of course, it is incumbent on them to do their work without producing uncontrolled waste streams and pollution.

    Another thing: what I see as very positive about increased use of solar panels on businesses is that every large scale installation should cause the future price of solar to fall: as the panel producers begin to acheive economies of scale, the price should go down. I believe the true energy revolution in America will only happen when solar power becomes so cheap that everyone can put a 10KW power plant on their roof, and a safe energy storage device in their basement. That depends on the panel producers becoming more plentiful, and competing to fulfill our needs at reduced prices.

    I like your idea about excess electricity being held as a public common or publicly owned commodity, although I’m not sure how that could be physically accomplished. Perhaps it could be presented as the price to the business for all those government grants and public subsidies. (By the way, the city of Lansing has run their electricity as a public cooperative for over 100 years, delivering juice to the city and surrounding communities for a considerable percentage less than the Consumers monopoly. Unfortunately, they do it mostly with coal.)

    Finally, an interesting discussion on business and sustainability is happening across the green community right now, and I know you address the idea of greenwashing regularly, at least as to how it relates to media. You should check out, if you haven’t already, Dominique Browning’s Personal Nature column at the Environmental Defense Fund’s website (edf.org). I have to admit I’m personally torn when I hear enviros praising Walmart. But she makes a good point: if the final and total impact of a company’s action is positive, isn’t it a good thing, even if they aren’t perfect?

  4. Jeff Smith permalink*
    March 16, 2010 1:26 pm

    Craig, thanks for your comments as it always helps with clarifying points. First, what I was writing was primarily to raise questions that the Grand Rapids Press did not. We can not afford to have a news media environmental that just gives a free pass to any entity without asking fundamental questions about what they are doing and whether or not it is sustainable.

    The Press reporter should have asked basic questions about Padnos’ decision to invest in solar panels because that is what journalists are supposed to do. Instead they just reported this decision and the company’s reasons for doing it as fact. Remember, Padnos was quoted as saying that one of the first aspects of sustainability was to make a profit. That statement alone should have raised questions in the reporters mind about the relationship between profits and sustainability, but we never saw any indication of that in the story.

    You r point about Padnos buying solar panels may be good because when more solar panels are sold the price will come down, but that is often a myth within the “free market” system. What kind of tax breaks has Padnos received over the years and how much of a tax break did they receive to install these panels? The article says that there were tax breaks and tax credits, but we don’t know how much and that has to be figured in to the equation when looking at these things. Tax breaks and tax credits are essentially public subsidies to companies like Padnos, which means we underwrite them for making decisions that will help them make more profits. How is that sustainable?

    I am familiar with the discussion on profits and sustainability, which is why I referenced the book Hijacking Sustainability at the beginning of the article. I am also familiar with the argument that some enviros make about giving props to companies like Wal-Mart for making decisions to put in place some energy efficient practices in place or to sell yogurt from Stonyfield Farms as was pointed out in the documentary Food Inc. The problem with this analysis is that it is too narrow in scope and it never takes into consideration the very nature of companies like Wal-Mart.

    If we accept the premise that Wal-Mart can even be reformed then I think there is a problem. Wal-Mart’s very existence is the problem. This is a company that is all about volume, which means they want to sell as much as possible. But what do they sell? I would argue that most of what they sell are non-necessary items, most of which in the production and distribution of such products an incredible amount of environmental destruction is done…..not to mention the human suffering and sweatshop labor that most of the products these sell are made in. Think about the land that Wal-Mart stores occupy and the amount of blacktop, which is fossil fuel based, is used to cover a typical Wal-Mart parking lot. These are just a few aspects of why Wal-Mart can never be sustainable, unless of course they were dismantled. Now I know that people might say this is impossible, but I don’t think it is impossible at all. In fact, I think it is necessary if we are serious about having a future on this planet as human beings and this is why I am trying to raise questions about companies like Padnos, not so much because it is Padnos, but because we need to come to terms with whether or not capitalism can ever be sustainable.

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