Sun Chips Makes Some Noise

by Steve McKee

Sun Chips Makes Some NoiseOoh. Lots of angst in the past few days about Frito-Lay’s announcement that it’s killing (OK, significantly cutting back) its Sun Chips 100% compostable packaging because consumers complained about the noise. According to The Wall Street Journal, “The racket clocked in at around 95 decibels, louder than a lawnmower, a coffee grinder, or certain breeds of dog barking in your ear.”

That is, indeed, loud. But can we not put up with a little…er, lots of noise if it’s good for the environment? That’s the argument Kate Sheppard makes in her blog post at Mother Jones, ominously headlined “Why We’re Doomed.” She admits that people are entitled to their own opinions about consumer product aesthetics, “but should those really trump the environmental benefits?”

Hold on a minute there. Unless I’m missing something, it’s not a question of what’s good for the environment vs. what’s bad for the environment. It’s a question of which is worse for the environment, trash pollution or noise pollution. Both are bad, and the market (that means us) is determining which is worse. We may have to address these two problems one at a time.

Sun Chips’ customers are voting with their dollars (by withholding them) against noise pollution. It’s probably because the noise pollution is more immediate and painful to them personally, and in that sense it’s a rational decision—especially since there are lots of other potato chip options out there served up in nice, quiet bags. That doesn’t make them bad actors; it makes them economic actors, as we all are, in a world full of trade-offs and imperfect information. That’s the way the market works. And the market works.

That’s why I’m OK with this development and don’t see it as a step toward armageddon. I view it as a valuable learning experience about real world causes and effects. You can be sure that someone will find a way to keep biodegradable bags quieter, betting that’s what consumers will prefer and they can thus make a killing when the industry converts.

The term “converts” is indeed apropos in this situation; conversion, to be lasting, must be based on free choice. History is replete with the bloody consequences of trying to force it.

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Steve McKeeSteve McKee is a BusinessWeek.com columnist, marketing consultant, and author of “When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, and What To Do About It.” Learn more about him at www.WhenGrowthStalls.com and at http://twitter.com/whengrowthstall.

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