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Insights 21 Dec 2010

Defining the Line Between Corporate and Personal Responsibility

By Michael Sadowski

Photo: Peter J. Zaki, Flickr

Unhappy Meals

Last week, a mother from California, with help from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, filed a class action lawsuit against McDonald’s claiming that the company uses toys in Happy Meals as inducements to hook her kids on “nutritionally poor” food. In filing this lawsuit to stop McDonald’s from marketing toys to children, the mother objected to McDonald’s “getting into my kids’ heads without my permission and actually changing what my kids want to eat.”

While I acknowledge the real pressures working parents face in providing nutritious meals to their kids, and that McDonald’s is most certainly trying to get kids hooked on Happy Meals, I wonder if there might be a lawsuit filed against the mother for not “getting into” her kids’ heads herself.

Where to Draw the Line?

This lawsuit is just the latest illustration of an enormous challenge we face across the sustainability agenda: where to draw the line between corporate and personal responsibility. This challenge is alive in so many situations: automakers installing technology to prevent texting while driving, utilities coaxing consumers to use less electricity through demand side management programs, alcohol companies urging drinkers to do so responsibly (disclosure: SustainAbility works with companies in each of these sectors).

Too often, we place the line of responsibility as close as possible to corporations, expecting them to solve these challenges without acknowledging the vital role that individuals (and other stakeholders) play. Can we honestly hold McDonald’s responsible for what we eat? Should we expect an automaker to stop us from texting while driving? Should we expect utilities to install renewable energy when we can’t change our light bulbs?

I raise this challenge not to defend or provide cover to companies – I wouldn’t lose any sleep over McDonald’s selling less beef, especially given the environmental and health impacts of beef production and consumption. Indeed, companies must play constructive and proactive roles in addressing relevant sustainability issues. Rather, I raise this dilemma because in most cases, we won’t solve these problems by blaming companies and expecting them to act unilaterally.

These are typically systemic problems, solutions for which will require a deep understanding of root causes and levers for change. Installing an anti-texting device in a vehicle might stop a driver from texting, but he will find another way to distract himself. Instead, we need to better understand why people distract themselves and identify the interventions that will address these root causes.

Spreading the Responsibility Around

We will find solutions when we stop expecting one actor to take responsibility for a problem and instead bring together a variety of stakeholders to address the problem. We need more efforts like those of PepsiCo, which is shifting to a healthier product portfolio, improving its marketing practices, and entering into partnerships like the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (and of course we need to hold the likes of PepsiCo to account for their progress).

In the McDonald’s case, we should be bringing together policy makers to address why US food policy makes French fries cheaper than brown rice, economists to address why parents are working so hard that they don’t have time to cook healthy meals, health professionals to address why nutrition is mostly an afterthought in our health care system, and yes, companies to leverage their resources and marketing prowess to hook kids on nutritious food (perhaps even by using toys!).

And we must also shift responsibility back towards individuals, as I’m confident that any fix that neglects personal responsibility will fail.

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