Modern environmentalism was started by the book Silent Spring, which was published in 1962. This was eight years before the first Earth Day – we had lead in our paint and asbestos siding on our houses. Municipal recycling was decades away at this point, and West Virginian coal miners with black lung disease had not earned the right to compensation. Los Angeles air was so full of smog that ozone levels in the city were five times higher than today’s maximum legal level of exposure in any workplace environment.
Fifty-six years later, companies broadcast their environmental stewardship through fancy public relations campaigns. Three quarters of US citizens believe companies have a role to play in climate change. That has led to some unthinkable changes. Hewlett Packard reports its annual greenhouse emissions and Coca-Cola details its environmental work each year in its annual Sustainability Report. And the worst polluters? Their actions can haunt them for decades.
People’s focus on environmental pollution was slow to grow, but that growth was inevitable. Will social pollution follow a similar path?
Social pollution is the idea that bad corporate behavior creates negative external social effects. It’s detailed in the book Dying for a Paycheck by Jeffrey Pfeffer, an organizational psychologist at Stanford.
According to Pfeffer’s theory, companies pollute society primarily through the stress they impose on their workforce. Just like environmental pollution, some socially pollutive behaviors are legally prohibited (such as sexual harassment or forced unpaid work) while others aren’t (such as maximizing part-time workers or demanding long hours from salaried employees). Unrestricted social pollution is common among companies because it reduces their costs, allowing them to compete for lowest price in the marketplace. The savings are kept as earnings by corporations, but the costs are borne by society. This is called a negative externality, and it’s a common concept in economics, where it’s generally taught through the example of environmental pollution. For now.
Pfeffer has said he wants this book to be the Silent Spring of workplace health. Its release comes at an opportune time for him. The #meToo movement has brought one particular type of social pollution to the forefront, and has convinced customers and employees alike that they should base their support of a company on its social pollution record.
There are signs that customer, employee and government attention to social pollution more broadly may also expand. Amazon recently raised its minimum wage to $15, partially in response to growing political pressure on the company to improve its worker conditions. Teachers in multiple states across the nation walked out of their classrooms to protest their legislatures’ treatment of both teachers and the children they taught.
To be sure, if social pollution becomes a common framework through which companies are evaluated, it won’t be instantaneous. Much like environmental stewardship, it will start slowly before growing in response to constant pressure. It will happen in fits and starts, likely spiking in response to the most egregious examples of social pollution – the black lung and oil spill equivalents of worker quality-of-life disasters.
But if and when it does become a commonly used framework, the companies making the best efforts to reduce their social pollution levels will be positioned to succeed as their competitors flounder. Those best positioned to profit will ensure their employees are leaving work energized and motivated to contribute to their community, rather than looking to their communities to provide what their employer has not. And when employees do face demoralizing situations at work, the employers that hear about them – and respond to those situations – will be rewarded for their efforts.
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