The United States needs to drastically change its current patterns of consumption in order to lessen its impact on the environment, Chairman and CEO of S.C. Johnson H. Fisk Johnson ’79 said yesterday at a lecture in Statler Auditorium.
Johnson returned to Ithaca as the 28th Hatfield Fellow in Economic Education, the highest distinction Cornell offers for corporate leaders. One of the many in his family to attend the University, Johnson earned a handful of degrees from Cornell over the course of his ten years at Cornell: a B.A. in chemistry and physics, a MEng in engineering physics, an M.S. in physics, and MBA in marketing and finance, and a Ph.D. in applied physics.
In the opening of his address, Johnson drew upon an Albert Einstein quote to illustrate the close link between people and the environment: “If honey bees disappeared off the globe, man would only have four years left.”
Johnson expressed major concern, not just over the decline of “bees,” but to the toll that the “human swarm” of 7 billion people has taken on the natural world and the problem of irresponsible consumption.
Johnson –– whose message on consumption carries particular weight since S.C. Johnson is responsible for many household products such as Windex, Glade and Ziplock –– made an important distinction between people who consume to meet their basic needs and others who consume for convenience or to bolster self esteem.
“As one society consumes to live, another lives to consume,” Johnson said. He also pointed out that it would take two planets to sustain a world population that consumed like the average American.
Johnson said that he found responses to this problem, especially by the government, to be severely inadequate and was sharply critical of the “incremental approach” being taken. He emphasized the need for governmental leadership as the free market does not capture the environmental cost in the price of goods.
S.C. Johnson suffered decreasing market shares for their decision to remove chlorine from saran wrap, Johnson said. “There are only so many decisions you can make like that before you go out of business,” he added.
Despite his company’s efforts to be more resource efficient, using renewable energy to power some of their factories, Johnson said that “it is not enough.”
“We need disruptive progress, we need disruptive leadership from all sectors … sustainability issues must be a greater consideration in the way we all operate,” he said.
In addition to the necessity of government leadership, Johnson advocated that the solution would engage everyone from companies to consumers. “Businesses have to engage and enable the consumers … people have to take a greater role in acting on these issues personally and encourage their government.”
Focusing on the American public, Johnson drew attention to a survey comparing how high countries rank sustainability as a priority and noted that the US ranked last, coming in behind countries like Iraq and Palestine. “We need a change in consumer mindset,” he said.
Johnson elicited laughs from the audience by tossing toilet paper into the crowd as one example of how consumers neglect environmental considerations. According to Johnson, Americans prefer softer toilet papers like Charmin; however, the texture is obtained by using fibers from old trees. While the fibers in recycled toilet paper may be courser, Johnson pointed out that the difference could also mean saving a Canadian boreal forest.
Johnson called upon more companies to help consumers better understand the environmental impacts of their decisions. Although the future for the world’s resources looks grim, companies like S.C. Johnson, Hewlett-Packard and Nike have adopted a ‘green list’ system that would fully disclose all the chemicals in their products, he said. Other companies like Tesco also provide information on the carbon foot-print of their products, which further encourages consumers to take environmental considerations to account.
In his concluding remarks, Johnson emphasized the need for ‘disruptive’ action to counter the current social norms. “We need to change the culture of consumption in this country … greater consumption does not equal greater well being.” He also pointed to the ability for America to be a model for developing countries in how to live greener rather than more materialistic. Johnson received a standing ovation by the audience.
Following the event, Anne Vitullo ’77, a University Council member visiting Ithaca from San Francisco, said: “What I found most interesting is that there were some products they weren’t producing because it was hurting the environment. I wish more companies would do things like that.”
“It’s great that such a large audience showed up for such an important message,” said Robert Bland ’80, director of Cornell’s Office of Environmental Compliance and Sustainability. Bland said he was particularly struck by Johnson’s message on disruption.
“We need to disrupt the mainstream way of doing things,” Bland said, adding that “it’s not comfortable, it’s not easy and there’s a lot of resistance to change.” He noted that Johnson’s address came at an appropriate time since the University Climate Action Plan would be voted on by the Board of Trustees this Friday. Even after approval, the CAP will still require constant reinforcement, community support and creativity in financing, for the concepts to become a reality and bring ‘disruptive change’ Bland said.