Paul Holmes 21 Jun 2018 // 7:43AM GMT
If you’re ashamed of your lobbying campaign, it’s probably because you’re doing something shameful.
So when I saw the headline on a recent news story at Public Affairs News (congratulations on the scoop)—“UK plastics industry picks Portland for secret lobbying offensive”—I naturally assumed the worst.
After all, the plastics industry is facing a good deal of criticism these days. The world is producing 300 million tons of plastic a year, and about half of that is used once and then thrown away. Scientists predict that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than there are fish. Whales have been washed up in Norway and Spain choked by plastic shopping bags. And according to the Ocean Conservancy, plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and 100% of sea turtle species.
And so we have seen campaigns targeting plastic carrier bags, plastic packaging, and now plastic straws, most of which are used for a few seconds—but will remain in the environment for longer than any of us will live.
As a result, the UK government pledged £61.4 million in public funds—after the outcry that followed revelations in the BBC television documentary Blue Planet II—to help researchers investigate the scientific, economic and social implications of marine plastics; curb plastic pollution from developing countries; and improve waste management at a national and a city level.
Europe, meanwhile, is planning to ban plastic cutlery, straws, cotton buds, and seven other items that make up 70% of all litter in EU waters and on EU beaches. Plastics Europe, which represents manufacturers, says it supports the "overarching objective" of the regulatory push, but said there must be more resources dedicated to “waste management.”
Which raises an interesting issue, to wit: where should those resources come from?
The obvious answer is that those resources should come from the companies that manufacture and use plastic packaging—and from the consumers who use those products. The idea that the people who make a mess should be responsible for clearing it up is a fairly simple moral principal: one that many parents teach to their children during infancy.
But it has always been a principal that corporations around the world have been reluctant to embrace. Indeed, volumes have been written on the topic of “externalities”—those consequences of industrial or commercial activity that affect other parties but are not generally reflected in market prices.
So while it would have been nice to see Plastics Europe follow up a call for more resources to be dedicated to waste management with the phrase “just tell us how much you’d like,” I don’t suppose any of us was expecting anything like that.
In fact, those responsible for the plastics crisis have even resisted the imposition of a “deposit and return” proposal, which would ask consumers to pay a few extra pennies for plastic-packaged products—money they would get back if the containers were returned for recycling. (Consumers, it appears, are more sanguine about the idea: one survey found that 78% of consumers supported deposit and return.)
So for a skeptic like me, there were plenty of reasons to mistrust the plastics industry before the revelation about this “secret” lobbying campaign.
Here’s a simple and obvious truism: if an industry or a company plans to lobby for something that is in the public interest, that benefits society, in a way that is ethical and above board, it should be seeking as much attention for its efforts as it can get. After all, the more people know about it, the more likely they are to lend their voices in support.
This is at the heart of what I would call the public relations approach to lobbying or public affairs. It involves building a broad coalition of interests, including employees, consumers, and ordinary citizens—even environmental groups and other advocacy organizations—who share your values and see the benefits of your solutions.
The corollary of this—equally obvious—is that if you are lobbying for a solution that is contrary to the public interest, that you know will inflict harm on society (or the environment), you want to do so without attracting any attention at all. That way, you can minimize the opposition.
Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the plastics industry is planning to step forward with a plan that includes the industry making sacrifices in order to play a responsible role in cleaning up the mess it has created. Portland—a reputable firm with strong credentials—is working on the campaign, so maybe it will be a constructive effort, with meaningful and measurable action on the part of the industry.
But deep down, I think the chances of a “secret” lobbying campaign also being ethical and honest are approximately zero.