Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16
Matthew Potoski presented the lecture “Voluntary Environmentalists” in Lancaster Lounge, Moulton Union, on Nov. 6. A professor at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Potoski proposed using a system of voluntary membership in “green clubs” to tackle environmental challenges in the corporate world – an approach inspired by the family dinners of his childhood.
Potoski explained that his parents, as the presiding authorities over a household with multiple unruly children, implemented a system to ensure the entire family would be present at dinner. Those who did not make a timely appearance were relegated to the “get” seat — the chair closest to the water source, which implied the role of server for the rest of table. This self-enforced system of punctuality required little monitoring by his parents.
“I look for ‘get seat’ solutions in much of my research,” said Potoski. “One potential ‘get seat’ solution is voluntary environmental programs: some codified standard of behavior that companies pledge to follow.”
He advocates a system in which companies can voluntarily become affiliated with green clubs — programs that uphold certain production criteria, while providing incentives to adhere to these regulations. According to Potoski, “voluntary programs can induce companies to reduce their pollution emissions if they offer a mechanism that credibly signals their superior environmental behavior.”
One problem solved by this approach, he said, is that of sellers failing to communicate the caliber and value of green goods to consumers. Just as USDA labels communicate the health attributes of certain foods, club partnerships could accomplish the same end for tangible commodities and manufacturing processes – a form of endorsement that would encourage production of green goods.
When Potoski analyzed some existing programs he determined that club-certified facilities produced 5% less air pollution than non-certified corporations. So does the ‘get seat’ solution actually have a place in the real world? “Yes, but only sometimes,” he said. Green clubs, he said, can solve some problems but not others, and they need certain rules to be effective. He concluded that it’s necessary to “look outside the Potoski household and see ways that, in the absence of a course of state, we can produce a win-win outcome.”
Potoski’s lecture was sponsored by the Environmental Studies Program and the McKeen Center for the Common Good, as well as the Bowdoin Globalist, the Government & Legal Studies Department, and the John C. Donovan Lecture Fund.