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Tippie Contest Examines the Ethics of Being Green or Buying Local

Is it better to buy local or be green?

Nearly 800 University of Iowa students mulled that dilemma this year as part of the Tippie College of Business' annual Mary Thomas Prappas Business Ethics Essay Competition. The annual competition asks business majors to write an essay that takes on a hypothetical business ethical question, with the top three papers honored with cash prizes.

This year's scenario pitted two of the elements of sustainability against each other: local versus environmentally friendly. The winning essays—written by juniors Margaret Boos and Erica Lester and senior Katie Marks—had to weigh the ethical merits of each.

Essay writers assumed the role of a financial analyst at a paper goods company that would like to use more recycled paper in its manufacturing process. The current paper supplier is a local company that's done business with the firm for years, but is unable to provide recycled paper.

Another company that does make recycled paper has offered a good price for its product, but it would have to be shipped from across the country. On top of that, if the company switched its paper supplier, the local vendor would probably go out of business and leave hundreds of workers unemployed.

So the question for the students: should the company keep using its present supplier and buy local, or work with the recycled paper supplier several states away? Is it more ethical to be local or green?

"It's a challenging scenario because it's a 'right versus right' situation from a bottom-line perspective," said Pamela Bourjaily, director of the Judith Frank Business Communication Center and the Prappas contest coordinator. "The students had to ask what obligation a company has or should have when weighing corporate environmental, social, and financial responsibility in comparison with one another. This 'people, planet, profit' triad is a core concept in the ongoing debate over sustainable business practices."

She said the competitors were not judged by their conclusions, but by how persuasively they argued their case. Boos, Lester, and Marks all reached the consensus that local issues should trump, though the company should find other ways to be green.

All three agreed that the damage to the hometown economy caused by the local paper mill shutting down would be incalculable and that overrides whatever green advantage could be gained by using recycled paper from out of state. They also noted that the green advantage of using recycled paper would be mitigated by environmental damage resulting from shipping the product hundreds of miles.

But the three of them also agreed the company should continue to aggressively pursue green initiatives. In her first-place paper, Boos said the company could ensure that the local mill sources its raw materials only from Forest Stewardship Council certified forests that adhere to strict sustainability guidelines. The company should also work with the mill to add the capacity to produce recycled paper in the future.

Lester, in her second-place paper, took a pragmatic approach, noting that the market for green products is already saturated, and so the company would not likely see much of an increase in market share by labeling its products as green. But she and Marks also noted their company could continue its rebranding efforts by engaging in greater sustainability efforts companywide, such as energy efficiency upgrades and pollution prevention in its production facilities. That way, they said the company can rebrand itself as green, if not its products.

The Mary Thomas Prappas Business Ethics Essay Contest is part of the Tippie College of Business' efforts to encourage students to consider the ethical implications of modern business. More information about the contest and the complete essays written by this year's winners can be found at tippie.uiowa.edu/bizcomm/essay-contest.cfm.


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