Promises, Promises

April 22, 2021

What if everyone only got credit for things they've actually done?

I am right now in the middle of an article, for our June issue, about closed-loop PET recycling. When you write about that, you find yourself paying attention to the promises that companies make – and the ones they’ve broken.

Coca-Cola, for instance, pledges to use at least 50% recycled content in its packaging by 2050; PepsiCo, 33% by 2025. Coca-Cola, however, had to back off a 1990 promise to use 25% recycled plastic in at least some bottles. PepsiCo had promised a 50% recycling rate for soft drink bottles overall by 2018; it currently stands at about 28% for PET containers overall.

Companies make pledges all the time, of course, regarding many things besides recycling. They promise to cut down on sugar, to encourage sustainable agriculture, to treat animals more humanely, to use only electric power from windmills, and who knows what else.

All these things are desirable. But it strikes me that “pledges,” whether they’re kept or not, are really just a form of borrowing. Companies make them because they want credit for doing something worthwhile before they actually do anything. And, unlike with actual borrowing, if they end up not meeting their self-imposed "obligations," there’s no one and nothing to pay back.

Just once, I’d like to see a press release like this:

Company Takes Credit for Good Things No One Knew It Was Doing

April 22, 2021 (BUSINESSWIRE) – ModestCo has announced that over the last 10 years, it has phased in 100% recycled packaging, reformulated all its products to be completely healthy, and rescued an entire Third World nation from poverty, all due to policies it has been pursuing without anyone’s knowledge.

The benefits are the results of “Let’s Be the Good Guys,” an internal memo ModestCo circulated in 2011. It directed ModestCo employees to work on salubrious goals without speaking about them to anyone except the beneficiaries.

“We thought about announcing all this stuff in 2011,” said ModestCo CEO Bea Frank. “But we decided that claiming credit for something you haven’t done yet is kind of stupid.”

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