I recently thought back on my time working in retail, for a large company with three decades of history. Within my role, I had many opportunities to witness the degree to which the business cared for the environment, through small- and large-scale practices.

Frankly, I was shocked. Before being displayed on the shop floor, new stock was individually wrapped in multiple layers of plastic. I was supposed to rip them off before the customer ever saw them, and dispose of them in a landfill far far away from where anyone in the shop could see — maybe even the Pacific Ocean. 

Sometimes there was even a nifty sheet of plastic that had the magical “recycle triangle” printed on it. Filled with an environmental and civic responsibility, I hunted for the appropriate recycling facility within the store. By now you could’ve guessed, there was none. An ostensibly green move from the higher-ups was ruined further down the chain with the inconsistency of green practice throughout the whole company.

A more traumatizing experience was when a customer handed me the box of her new shoes, telling me she didn’t need it and “at least you’ll recycle it, right?” With the image of the cardboard box falling into a waste compactor downstairs and eventually ending up in landfill, I smiled and timidly nodded slightly. A nod that hid not only my shame, but the company’s. An affirmation that I wish I didn’t have to give in order to save the interests of the company and keep my job.

And the worst part? The overuse of plastic and the lack of recycling, happened with a whole shipping pallet of stock, and with every customer, on a daily basis, in every single branch of the company and in many companies across the nation and the globe.

Clearly, businesses have a large-scale and daily impact on sustainability. Because of the increased impact compared to individuals, they have greater environmental responsibilities and should be held to a firm standard. Governments should therefore be aware of businesses’ huge influence on the environment and implement strict and specific mechanisms to target this elusive problem.

Of course, every jurisdiction has different regulations for business environmental obligations. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has many programs that encourage businesses to prevent pollution and adopt sustainable practices. But the keyword there is “encourage.” These are programs that have no enforcement mechanism, and require managers to take initiative to research them independently, with lack of tangible incentives.

The EPA only mandates a handful of concrete laws and regulations that pertain to businesses, such as the Clean Air Act, or various laws relating to insecticides and toxic substances. These are not specific enough to mitigate smaller actions from businesses, that done on a daily basis, are incredibly destructive. These don’t reduce the carbon footprints of businesses that don’t visibly make the sky sooty, but instead fill our landfills insidiously and unnecessarily.

How exactly to regulate businesses in such detail is not clear. But one thing is crystal — the issue has been ignored and hidden, in exchange for activism against large scale, dramatic environmental threats — fossil fuels, oil drilling, ice cap melting activities.

It’s the small, everyday practices that can and should be changed. Carbon emissions and deep sea oil drilling are certainly environmental dangers. But legislators and the public already fight over this more than any other environmental issue. It’s a large, visible issue. One shipping pallet full of plastic disposed everyday in every store is comparatively invisible. It isn’t discussed, but it’s pandemic, consistent and destructive.

Penn students often get caught up in the “big picture.” They want to do a lot, and fast. Let’s face it, it looks and sounds better to be on the team that stopped Penn’s administration from investing in fossil fuels, than to talk about the lack of a recycling bin in Urban Outfitters.

That being said, Fossil Free Penn activists are doing a fantastic job, targeting a huge issue that matters. But where are the activists for our growing landfills? It should be time for us to target less dramatic, but also very harmful practices. No one notices, and that’s exactly why businesses have no incentive to change. 

If we demanded that governmental attention be paid to small actions by businesses, we may just end up with a little less wastage and a little cleaner land. First steps though? To notice and to care.

LUCY HU is a College sophomore from Auckland, New Zealand, studying political science. Her email address is lucyhu@sas.upenn.edu. “Fresh Take” usually appears every other Wednesday.

All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.