Throughout the world there are various types of pollution that interfere with the quality of life for all living creatures and with the natural functioning of the earth's ecological systems. Although some environmental pollution is a result of natural causes (such as methane emissions from cattle and toxic materials expelled from volcanoes), most pollution is caused by human activities.
Human Industrial Activities
In the United States, as is the case in most industrialized nations, the greatest source of pollution is the industrial community. According to the 2000 Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), over 2.95 million metric tons (6.5 billion pounds) of toxic chemicals from about 2,000 industrial facilities are annually released into the environment, including nearly 45,360 metric tons (100 million pounds) of recognized carcinogens.
Human contamination of the earth's atmosphere has existed since humans first began to use fire for heating, cooking, and agriculture, approximately one-half million years ago. The mining and smelting of ores that accompanied the transition from the Stone Age to the Metal Age (roughly 5,000 years ago) resulted in wastes that spread potentially toxic elements such as lead, mercury, and nickel throughout the environment. Professor Clair Patterson, a geochemist at the California Institute of Technology, has stated that samples detected in Greenland ice cores at depths just over one kilometer (about 0.6 mile) show small but significant levels of lead present throughout the last eight thousand years. In 1994 scientists reporting in the journal Science (September 23, 1994) concurred with Patterson, saying, "Analysis of the Greenland ice core covering the period from 3,000 to 500 years ago—the Greek, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance times—shows that lead is present at concentrations four times as great as natural values from about 2,500 to 1,700 years ago (500 B . C . E . to C . E . 300)."
During the Industrial Revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, pollution became a major problem with the introduction of the steam engine and a series of technological advances that led to the production of goods shifting from homes and small factories to large industrial factories. The invention of more productive processes to manufacture cotton textiles contributed greatly to the number of mills located in England, and later in the northeastern United States. The steam engine allowed capitalists to transfer their manufacturing plants away from naturally flowing waters (outside the city) to areas inside and around cities where more abundant labor was available. Pollution increased because of the more concentrated conditions within the industrializing cities and because of the use of artificially produced power (such as coal) that replaced the natural power of fast-running rivers.
Evidence of pollution during the early Industrial Revolution in England and the European continent is widespread. South Wales, located in southwestern England, was described by Adam Markham in A Brief History of Pollution (1994) as a "veritable witches cauldron of industrial pollution." Samples of hair from historical figures such as Isaac Newton and Napoleon Bonaparte show the presence of antimony and mercury at toxic levels not normally found in human hair.
An industry is a collection of companies that operate in a related set of goods or services, which are eventually sold to purchasers. In any country, numerous industries work together to produce the necessary goods and services needed and desired for its people. By convention, industries are divided into three groups:
- Primary industries are involved in the collection, utilizing, and harvesting of resources directly produced by physical processes (e.g., mining and smelting).
- Secondary industries deal with manufacturing as they take raw materials, convert them in various ways, and produce tangible goods (e.g., automobile factories).
- Tertiary industries produce services for individuals and groups (e.g., advertising).
These three groups are distinctive regarding the amount of pollution produced in their operations. Some sectors (such as tourism) have a close relationship with the environment, whereas others have adopted a particularly proactive environmental response (such as the automobile industry with regard to recycling old cars) and still others continue to have a noticeable detrimental impact on the environment (such as the automobile industry with regard to exhaust emissions). Since the largest impact from pollution (and associated waste products) is produced within the secondary industries, this sector will be the topic of discussion in this article. Most economists commonly refer to the secondary industries (the manufacturing sector) as
The public is becoming increasingly aware of the interactions and conflicts between industry and the environment. Events such as the 1989 oil spill from the tanker Exxon Valdez off Prince William Sound in Alaska—one of the most publicized and studied environmental tragedies—have highlighted the growing significance of maintaining a healthy environment while improving how corporations operate. Business responses to environmental influences fall within a wide spectrum of actions and inactions. On one side are businesses that attempt to decrease any negative impacts their activities have on the environment. For example, the 3M Corporation's Product Responsibility Program encourages its employees and business units to think from "cradleto-the-grave" with respect to their products. On the other hand, some businesses have continued to pollute the environment while professing to be environmentally conscious. For example, Royal Dutch/Shell has spent millions of dollars to create the impression that it is an environmentally responsible oil company. According to Jack Doyle, author of the book Riding the Dragon: Royal Dutch Shell and the Fossil Fire (2003), the company actively continues its efforts to suppress governmental articles that report on its environmental malfeasance.
Common Industrial Polluters
Many of the largest polluters come from the chemical, pesticide, oil refining, petrochemical, metal smelting, iron and steel, and food processing industries. All are major users of energy that produce large amounts of waste products and pollution. Other industries have less potential impact but are still considered highly problematic when it comes to pollution. These industries include the textile, leather tanning, paint, plastics, pharmaceutical, and paper and pulp industries. Industries that are often outside the traditional manufacturing sector—but nevertheless contribute to environmental degradation—include the construction industry, to name but one example.
Profit-principle Balancing Act
For industry, the bottom line is profits. In 1998 the chairman of The Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies, Mark Moody-Stuart, stated, "We believe that without principles, no company deserves profit. Without profits, no company can sustain principles." Alasdair Blair and David Hitchcock, authors of Environment and Business (2001), respond to this statement by noting the following about the remarks of the Shell chairman: He acknowledges the fact that profits without principles is immoral but, on the other hand, realizes that no company can afford to possess principles which go counter to profits.
There is an inevitable balancing act that must be played out by companies each and every day with respect to "principle" and "profit." No company can operate on purely proenvironmental decisions, nor can a company run solely on the basis of maximum profits. In the end, a company must choose a course of action that is somewhere in between the two extremes.
Evolution of Industrial Perspectives and Pollution
Pollution first became a persistent problem during the Industrial Revolution. The introduction of the factory system, the substitution of hand labor by machine labor (which led to dramatic rises in productivity), the application of power (mainly coal) to industrial processes, and the use of the railroad—all helped to accelerate the pollution problem. Early small-scale industries resulted in local concentrations of air and water pollution and land contamination. The area of London, England, is an obvious example of a locality steeped in considerable pollution. The manufacturing industries of the nineteenth century mostly involved the processing of natural materials such as cotton, leather, and other natural fibers along with the mining and fabrication of metal products.
As the scale of operations grew in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the amounts of pollution and land despoliation and the area over which it took place dramatically increased. The railroads paralleled this expansion. As the rails expanded westward from the New England states, pollution followed in Chicago, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; and Detroit, Michigan; and later in Houston, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Los Angeles, California (to name a few of the states affected). The twentieth century saw the rapid development of industries based on the chemical manufacturing of such items as dyes, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. Oil replaced coal as industry's primary power and energy source. The same era witnessed drastic changes in the structure, nature, and organization of factories as they quickly converted to mass production techniques to keep up with demand. By the close of the twentieth century, companies had advanced from plant-wide organizations to worldwide operations. Throughout the twentieth century, the advancement of technology allowed large corporations to dominate the industrial landscape, and to have a most drastic effect on the environment. To counter some negative environmental impact, the final decade of the twentieth century saw a positive shift in emphasis from "end-of-pipe" controls on releases into the environment to the elimination of potential pollution at its source ("beginning of pipe"). Rather than trying to "fix" a problem that had already occurred, industry began to "eliminate" the problem before it occurred.
Environmentalism. During the Industrial Revolution, companies were virtually consumed with production and profits. There was little time for or concern with the effects of pollution. Companies were by and large concerned with the means of production rather than the effect of production on the environment. Once the wealth generated by the mass production of goods slowly drifted down to common workers, more questions were raised about the air and water pollution being generated by factories. Environmental changes did occur gradually in the next hundred years. But it was the 1960s that saw the greatest increase in environmental concerns raised by the public. Business was perceived as the enemy, and the mass environmental movement brought on by a rejection of social and political traditions of the past forced many changes to the indifference previously displayed by business toward the environment.
The pressures on companies to reduce pollution have varied over time with societal expectations and attitudes. For example, air pollution was a concern in the 1850s when English companies emitted noxious pollutants from their chimneys. In England beginning in 1863, legislation was passed, the socalled Alkali Acts, which eventually improved atmospheric conditions. However, companies continued to emit smoke as a result of coal burning. This problem continued to worsen, and smog became an increasing concern in the mid-twentieth-century skies over London. Public concern was generated after health problems were linked to such soot emissions, and passage of the British Clean Air Act of the 1950s was the result. Today, power stations in England are under pressure to fit scrubbers to their emission systems to reduce atmospheric sulfur emissions.
Environmental Business Costs
Environmental advancements have been made over the past 150 years regarding industrial behavior. In the past, companies had been able to regard the air, land, and water as free goods. Often, companies saw the pollution they generated as something they could externalize. That is, since air, land, and water pollution usually affects areas that businesses do not own, then it was not their responsibility to address and consequently there was no need to increase costs in order to limit their wastes. Industrial polluters then passed on the environmental costs of their operations, instead of incorporating them into their own cost structure. Today, the attitude is completely different: The originator is responsible, on both a legal and moral basis, for the spread of pollutants into the air, land, and water, and must shoulder the cost of any required cleanup.
Environmental costs are a legitimate and justifiable part of doing business, but as with any cost, it is desirable to minimize these costs as much as possible. Environmental costs may be brought into a company as an internal cost for these reasons:
- Compliance with regulations or anticipation of future regulations: Directed by national or state requirements, all companies must obey laws enacted by governments. For example, coal-burning factories install desulfurization equipment when mandated by the government.
- Image building or eco-efficiency: Even though no laws apply, companies might voluntarily use environmentally safe processes when seen as not living up to social norms. For example, Shell Oil towed its faulty Brent Spar oil platform to shore after public protest against its planned disposal on the seafloor.
- Sustainable development initiatives: Companies might add environmental policies when potential savings could be realized in the long term. This concept is basic to the guidelines established by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which sees sustainable development as an essential part of its pollution-prevention philosophy.
- Voluntary cleanup programs: Companies often volunteer to clean up pollution as a result of pressures from politicians, the public, and the government. Many companies would rather pay the extra cost to clean up, rather than fight the problem in court and risk bad publicity in the media.
- Initiatives to attain international certification: Often, in order to expand to overseas markets, companies must strengthen their regulatory standards to achieve certification throughout all trading countries. For instance, a company that wishes to trade internationally must meet the rules enacted by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which is the principal international group whose rules govern the majority of international trade.
Unchanged Industry Behavior
Sometimes, polluting companies have not succumbed to social, political, and governmental pressures. Several companies have denied responsibility for pollution even when faced with strong evidence to the contrary. Other companies, after admitting responsibility, promise strong action, but deliver nothing. Still other companies have performed admirably when it comes to being environmentally friendly. However, industry, for the most part, is only responding to the general demand for a higher material standard of living—that is, giving consumers what they want. If products continue to take priority over pollution control, then the fault must be one shared between the consumer and the producer.
Throughout modern history, individuals and small groups have agitated against various types of pollution. The advent of U.S. and English conservation societies, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, brought to the forefront new environmental issues. There are presently thousands of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that exist in virtually all the world's free-speech countries, including international organizations such as Green-peace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club, to small local organizations that fight to control the pollution of their waters and lands.
However big or small, environmental groups help to publicize industries that pollute. In every case, industry has important decisions to make regarding how it conducts business. It may pollute the environment, but the very pollution that it expels may one day bring an end to its profits. The balancing act that industry now faces with regard to pollution and profits is difficult, at best.
The industrialization of the world has had a profound effect on its people and environment. Industry has not always performed admirably with respect to its responsibility for the pollution it expels into the ecosystem. Nonetheless, with current governmental regulations, the efforts of individuals and environmental groups, and the realization by leaders of industry, themselves, that a healthy environment is good for business and profits, the industrial community is more effectively balancing profits with its environmental responsibility to the general satisfaction of most people.
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William Arthur Atkins & Philip Koth