Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

Tax me, baby!

Tax me, baby!
Email to a friend Comments (13)

This is an open blog post to Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada. Steve, I want you to sit down for a moment. I have a little request, and I think you’re going to get excited. Okay, truth be told you could even pass-out. Take a seat and get comfortable; you don’t hear this kind of thing every day and I want you to be prepared. I want you to raise taxes.

Steve, sorry… I’m getting ahead of myself. This is so rude of me. Let me step back a moment and give you some background…

We’re making a mess of things

In parks, we’re told to carry out everything we take in. In life, however, we’re willing to bring in all kinds of crap with little worry of consequence. As a result, we’re really screwing up this planet for future generations. I’m willing to accept my responsibility for this. Just like you, I have a bit of a hankering for nice things.

The reality is that I just can’t control myself. I find a nice new suit, and all my self-control goes out the window. I see that bottle of fine imported scotch, and I think more about the taste than any negative impact caused by shipping these bottles across the Atlantic. Sometimes it’s easier to just give in to my impulses, regardless of how damaging they are.

I’m a bad person. My consumption is out of control, and I want you to help me go on a consumption diet. What do you think? Can you lend a hand?

One really has to want to change

Given that I have no self-control (like many others out there) I want you to step in and make it easier for all of us. First of all, plastic bags. These things really have become a scourge, haven’t they? Listen, we could do a few things. One, we could just ban them, like they did in California. Heck, there’s even a Facebook page for Vancouverites dedicated to this cause.

Alternatively, (and I know this is the part you’ll like) we could add a tax to all plastic bags. I hear that in Ireland they did this, and within a year, bag consumption went down by over 90%. I know what you’re thinking…that really is a lot!

The third option, which I agree may be overly Pavlovian in nature, is a big electrical shock. Sure, this is a bit of a blunt approach, but could you imagine how much better we’d be at remembering to bring cloth bags to the store if the alternative included electrocution?

Up the food chain

You know Roger’s Chocolates? They make really wonderful treats, but they are wrapped in enough plastic to make Michael Jackson envious. Really, it’s just plain hideous. But what am I to do about all of that? You know, I did write them a letter asking them to package more sustainably, but they didn’t seem that interested in my comments.

But again, this is where we differ. After all, you’re pretty well known across this country. If you were to speak-up, companies would probably pay a lot of attention. Now, I know you’re pretty careful about upsetting all of those big businesses, and who wouldn’t be, but again, I want to woo you with the notion of taxes. (I know how that word gets you excited.)

The truth is that these companies are building their wealth at the expense of our environment. Wouldn’t it be fair to hold them more accountable? Now, I’m not talking about anything over-the-top here, but what if we just asked them to pack out what they pack in? (See my clever reference back to that analogy at the beginning of my letter? Yup, I’m pretty good with that sort of thing.)

What if you said to every manufacturer that they had to cover the cost of disposing of any products they create? So, when a car reaches the end of its life-cycle, the manufacturer would be required to reclaim the car, disassemble it and recycle it. Can you imagine how much more environmentally friendly they would become if they had to be accountable for what they create?

Those who didn’t comply? You’ve got it! We can tax them! See, it’s a “win-win”!

End note

Perhaps the above seems a little cheeky, and I apologize for that. The point I’m trying to make is that we all find it difficult to make positive long-term change because it seems difficult to quantify, no matter how logical it is. On the other hand, short-term pain can really help to change our behaviour for the better.

You see, I’m a designer, and I work with a lot of companies. The reality is that most are just looking for ways to do business better. The tough part for them is that it’s simply too easy to not worry about the planet. It’s often simpler and less expensive to make a mess than it is to make good, sustainable stuff.

So, forgive my attempt at humour, and please do take my suggestion to heart. All of us need to start feeling the pain of our bad decisions. We can’t just leave this mess for future generations. Honestly, none of us would feel good about that.

Yours sincerely,

Eric Karjaluoto

Follow @karj to hear about these posts first.

Comments & Trackbacks

  1. JamieO says:

    Stumbled the post, great ideas! Your remarks window is mega-tiny (4 characters wide) in Firefox. Not sure if it's just a me thing, but can't see anything I type so won't say much more.

  2. JamieO says:

    Hrmmm, the post window issue went away after post was submitted. The ideas you present sound great on the surface, but don't you think the companies would find some loophole to pass that cost on to the consumer through "recycling fees" or a more PC way to say it. And if shipping your scotch to you causes negative environmental impact, isn't shipping it back to them going to do double damage?

    I hope I'm just seeing the glass half empty right now. Your post makes good fodder for discussion.

  3. Steven Clark says:

    Eric, have you read Cradle to Cradle yet?

    I did a book review on it last month, its worth getting hold of a copy (excuse the shameless link to my own site but it has some video links in the article that show McDonough talking about all this stuff)

    Basically they believe this is a design problem and we've got to start designing things with a cradle to cradle lifecycle instead of a cradle to death one. They work with companies and governments to develop systems where waste is food for either the technical systems or biological systems. Something like making your pie wrapper biodegradable and putting a native seed in there which sows when you throw your stuff away.

    Anyway a good book if you get the chance.

    I recently had a meeting at the major hospital cardio unit here for a project and someone said that our generations - the 20th century - will probably be the most priveliged and indulged in all of history before or in the future. Why? Because we're running out of all that stuff and have polluted etc... radical change will very soon become something the current generations are going to have to work on out of necessity.

    Look at China. OK we outshipped our production there but now they are running low on water and resources. That's why we shipped that business on. The yellow river doesnt' reach the sea at some times of the year now.

    In just over 40 years we will have no edible fish species left in the oceans. At the moment bees are mass disappearing (our canaries so to speak) and they pollinate 1/3 of our fruits and grains. Water resources are depleting, oil is rapidly declining (we're in the second half of stocks while India and China are mechanising). The tide is coming in sooner rather than later we're now told so there goes coastal real estate.

    Add to all that there was maybe a billion and a half people in the early 1900's (a guess) and now 7 billion. That in 2010 I think its expected to be 10 billion. Sorry for the long rant but this is one of the issues that gets me going.

    So I don't think plastic bags or recycling is the issue anymore. Someone once said as individuals we are the smartest animal on the planet but as a group we're always the dumbest! In the next 20 years we get to figure all of this out because we have to.

    It was very interesting to see what the Cradle to Cradle guys had been up to, they explain the issues and how we ended up producing the way we are historically. Then how to affect change by design.

    I think you'll like it. Sorry for the long ranty comment :)

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  5. Ben Reimers says:

    JamieO is pretty much right: any money it costs them to become "sustainable" will just be passed on to the consumer anyway, as would any taxes. Which is pretty much why business will only appear to be "sustainable" -- they can charge more, and therefore make more money, by advertising the fact that they're "Green" to people who want to feel good about the decisions they make. But most companies only really care about the bottom line ... and by that I mean THEIR bottom line.

    But it kinda misses the point: if you want to be kind to the environment, you have to consume less of everything, not consume more "Green" product.

  6. Hi Steven,

    Yes, I too am a fan of Cradle to Cradle--it's an excellent book! I think that it's the book that really connected things for me. It was exciting to find such a systemic proposition to address the problem we face.

    As for plastic bags, I reference these to illustrate just how slow we are to move. You'd think that with all of the talk of climate change in the media these days, at very least we'd have curbed our dependence on items such as these. Instead, most shop keepers look at me with a perplexed expression when I tell them that I'd rather carry the item in my hands than collect another bag. Why is this taking so long?

    Jamie, I understand your argument regarding the need to simply reduce our consumption, instead of trying to be "more green". I wholeheartedly agree. At the same time, this isn't as easy as one might hope.

    I recently read an article in the Economist (I can't quite remember its title), in which the reporter made note of a new site, which helps people meet their goals. They do so by charging people if they don’t meet their own voluntarily elected, pre-defined goals. Allow me to clarify.

    The founders cited research that illustrated how difficult it is for people to reconcile their long-term goals with their short-term appetites. The reason for this was found to be not related to a lack of understanding; a smoker for example fully understood that his habit might kill him. Instead, it related to the challenge in seeing that issue as important as his immediate desire, given what I might best describe as our short attention span.

    So, while I agree that we have to create systems that reduce our waste (as we're trying to do at, and also become less consumption-focused. I also think that we have to build in mechanisms that make it less pleasurable to consume in the short-term.

    As of late, I've found myself frustrated by the lack of choices that I have as a buyer of goods. Increasingly I'm looking at the things I buy as a burden. While at one time I just wanted something shiny and new, now I find a conflict between that and the eventual requirement to dispose of this purchase.

    I wrote this article, as I believe that taxation is often a punitive device, and I can't see any better place for it than this.

    Just think of how powerful this obstacle could prove if we applied it just to trash. Could we start to charge people for the amount of garbage they create? For example, each bag we leave at the curb could cost us $20. In my mind this could prove a powerful personal motivator to limit one's generation of waste. And this moves upstream. We'd start demanding that manufacturers generated better options, smarter packaging, and better recycling programs.

    It's a complex problem, and I believe we have to attack it from as many angles as possible.



  7. Bridget says:

    Hello Eric,

    First of all, I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for putting out some very articulate essays, it has certainly helped me personally as a young designer.

    Now for my shameless plug...
    We, Kaleidoscope, a product design consultancy based in Cincinnati, OH (with offices in New York, & Detroit.) Have been working on a project we call the Greener Grass. Please check out our blog, based on your essay above I think you'll dig it. Comments are encouraged!


  8. What about the stupid plastic packaging on every small electronic item? You know, the kind that is impossible to open!

    Great post!

  9. Stephen McNally says:

    The plastic bag levy (22c per bag, not so much a tax) here in Ireland has been immensely successful. The retailers aren't suffering either and quickly began selling 'bags for life', generally cheap cloth or canvas bags, that they sell at a tidy profit and that their customers can use again the next time.

  10. Lukas says:

    Very nice approaches, Eric. I agree to about 100%.
    1 thing to JamieO:

    "The ideas you present sound great on the surface, but don't you think the companies would find some loophole to pass that cost on to the consumer through "recycling fees" or a more PC way to say it."

    It seems to me like your thought is not finished yet and so I'd like to continue the thing:
    The point is to make companies (lets stay on car-producers) produce more environment-friendly cars. Imaginating they have to have to pay for the disposing and try to get the costs to the customer: What do you think where the cars would be bought? At "Pete's" where you have to pay the "disposing-fee" and the cars are not environment-friendly OR at "Maxx's" where the costs of recycling are much lower and as a reason of this you even help your environment?
    Just thought this should not be forgotten.

    Ah yeah, and please forgive me if my english is not so good - I'm from Austria.

  11. scottyo says:

    Last year, a tiny town in Northern Manitoba decided to outlaw plastic shopping bags all together. See:

    Where our family shops, at a local Co-Operative, we have to pay a fee if we forget our re-usable cloth bags.

    A couple of small places trying to make change. Which in the long run is how everything changes.

    For the bigger picture, I think high energy prices will eventually force everyone (consumers and producers) to rethink where they buy there "stuff" and where they come from.

    This whole Globalization concept is better utilized when the transfer of ideas are the only thing shipped. A good idea in one part of the world can be implemented in another part of the world using local resources and people as much as possible.

    We just have to think more critically about our lives and look beyond things just being business. I also think that we need to look deeply into indingenous perspectives beyond the colloquial tranquil native that is one with nature. There are solutions beyond that generalization. When societies have learned to live with the land rather than on it for thousands of years and ours has almost decimated it in less than 200, that is saying something about us, capitalism and about how disconnected we are from realizing how unique life is out here on this speck of dust.

    It's time for another Renaissance and think one is starting.


  12. JayN says:

    Just one point, design should be positive, can we try and stay clear of approaches which rely on banning, taxing and regulating things?

    We should look to design solutions that are environmentally friendly but BETTER than existing ones, that way genuine demand can be stimulated, individuals can make positive choices all without punitive tax or legislative coersion. We don't have to go back to the stone age, just pay attention to the consequences and design with longevity, environmental impact and as ever purpose in mind.

    Just imagine, through good design you could lead a whole industry to better environmental performance and they'd do it willingly, at their own expense, to maintain market share and stay competitive.

  13. Hi JayN,

    Why not do both? :-)



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