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Think Like A Pre-Schooler: Always ask ‘Why?’

In rough economic times, corporations should re-think status quo to save money and the environment.

My six-year old niece has a beautiful, inquisitive mind: “Uncle Kevin, why do dogs stick their tongues out?” “Why do people drink coffee?” and best, “Why are those people watering their grass in the rain?”

Companies late to jump on the sustainability bandwagon must take a similar approach of asking simple but hard questions about the way they do business. Addressing global climate change will require cultural changes within companies, similar to other corporate movements like Total Quality Management, Y2K and e-commerce sales via the Internet.

Here are three examples of my own burning “why” questions that relate to energy conservation and waste prevention:

Why does milk have to be sold in a refrigerated cooler at the grocery?

Why would a company mail a 3-inch, lightweight item in a 10-inch by 12inch inch box?

Why not bring back the rubber band for newspaper delivery on sunny days?

Unplug refrigerated milk at the grocery?

More than a year ago, a packaging client from Brazil explained to me how most of the world’s grocery consumers purchase their dairy milk right off the shelf, and it doesn’t require refrigeration. Hogwash, I thought.

But in February 2007, I was in Sao Paulo, Brazil and went to a grocery store to see for myself. “Shelf stable milk” is sold in aseptic packaging, not plastic jugs in a refrigerated section. This lighter-weight packaging seals out light, so the milk doesn’t spoil so quickly, and there is no difference in taste.

A mother could stack the milk in her pantry and keep it there until she wants to put it in her refrigerator. Growing up in a house with four boys, we drank a gallon of milk almost every day. My mother had to drive to the grocery store 2-3 times per week to buy milk that wouldn’t go stale.

A (CFL) light bulb went off in my head: How much energy could U.S. grocery chains and consumers save if we didn’t have to refrigerate milk? Think how much time and gasoline moms across America spend making trips to the grocery store for fresh milk. Think about the increasing electric bill your local grocery store pays for refrigeration, and how it might affect food prices.

A box in a box, in a box, in a box: why?

I recently received a Sharper Image gift card for my birthday, so I went to their online store and purchased a wireless headset for my cell phone. I was shocked when I received a huge cardboard box at my doorstep that held the tiny product. Inside that cardboard box was a smaller box, and then a smaller plastic box which held the three-inch device.

Sharper Image filed for bankruptcy in February, and is trying to re-emerge as a successful company. Wouldn’t that company want to consider every way they could reduce their packaging and shipping costs?

Time for a rebound for the rubber band?

As a teenager, I delivered newspapers to my neighborhood for the Houston Chronicle on my bicycle. No matter how bulky the newspaper was each day, we were trained to bundle the paper sections with a simple rubber band, unless there was a threat of rain. We only used plastic bags to cover the newspaper when necessary. Today, most daily newspapers deliver their product in clear and colored plastic bags; that’s 365 bags per customer, per year, and few are recycled. No doubt, there is less risk of having to replace a wet paper if you always “bag the paper.”

The U.S. newspaper industry is struggling with decreasing readership and increasing newsprint and fuel costs. While most community recycling programs accept newspapers for recycling, that’s not the case with plastic bags. Why not examine the full economic and environmental cost of those bags? What if the rubber band made a comeback, or if the newspaper industry encouraged local recycling programs to accept plastic bags? With some communities and grocery chains moving to ban plastic grocery bags, could newspapers’ plastic bags be next?

Achieve results by asking “Why?”

Wal-Mart’s sustainable packaging effort aside, discussion about source reduction and pollution prevention is getting lost amid the cap-and-trade discussions about solving climate change.

In my 15 years of helping business and government with sustainability, the biggest success stories emerge from leaders who ask the hard questions of executives in their own organization. Your company may have always done something a certain way–but why?

Kevin Tuerff is CEO of Green Canary Sustainability Consulting.

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4 thoughts on “Think Like A Pre-Schooler: Always ask ‘Why?’

  1. At Hanger Network we are doing our part by replacing wire hangers at dry cleaners with 100% recyclable EcoHangers. In order to make a real difference we need corporate brands to take advantage of this unique advertising platform.

  2. I like this list and I agree entirely. The best part: All of this stuff is common sense. It’s just that businesses are so used to looking for complicated ways for doing something simple. There appears to be an aversion to simple these days.

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