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Sleight of hand shames Alexei Stakhanov.

Sleight of hand shames Alexei Stakhanov

When Russian coal-miner Alexei Stakhanov reported to his bosses in 1935 that he had mined 102 tons of coal - 14 times his quota - in six hours, he was pulled out of his mining job and made a productivity consultant to the entire Soviet mining industry.

From this elevated position, he laid down new targets for miners across the country. His working methods and principles of superior organization were introduced in other key sectors - most notably agriculture, car manufacturing, textiles, timber and the railways. And a special conference at the Kremlin emphasized the outstanding role of the Stakhanovite movement in the reconstruction of the entire Soviet economy.

Of course, it is one thing to set higher targets and another to achieve them. Few employees received the tools or training that would help them to implement Stakhanovite principles. Many of the workers who failed were shipped with their families to Siberian labour camps, where thousands died.

Stakhanov was made a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1970. But 18 years later, Russian journalists discovered that there had been no Stakhanovite system. Alexei had simply bribed other foremen to add their production figures to his.

In the April 2010 issue of Financial World, Witzel includes Stakhanov among the 10 most unethical business people ever to have lived and worked - a list that also includes John D. Rockefeller, for the dubious means he used to dominate the US oil industry, and Basil Zaharoff, whose business practices in the arms industry have been blamed for the arms race and for being a cause of war.

'These people excelled in the arts of wickedness in ways that our modern-day wrong-doers can only admire,' says Witzel, who challenges the notion that businesses of today are sinking into the moral abyss. Certainly, the environmentalism that shapes much of contemporary commercial life would have been foreign to any of the 10 'role models in wickedness' on Witzel's list. But while great strides have been made on green issues, much remains to be done.

In Australia, for example, 99% of households in a recent survey claimed to practise recycling, but actual recycling rates in the country are consistently lower. One estimate is that only 56% of packaging, for example, is currently recycled through kerbside collections.

Moreover, of Australian consumers who actually do recycle, about a half are confused about what can and cannot be recycled and a quarter say they are 'not too fussed' about correctly sorting their waste. Surveys report that almost 80% of consumers unsure of the recyclability of an item will put it in the general-waste bin and only 3% will take the trouble to find out where the item should actually be recycled. Against this background, in Volume 21 Issue 2 of Management of Environmental Quality: An International Journal, Buelow et al. examine how far the environmental labels on packaging actually help consumers to sort their household waste.

The authors' survey of consumers in Melbourne reveals that the best-understood labels are action orientated, telling the consumer exactly what to do with the packaging material. 'Remove cap and recycle PET' and 'Recyclable steel' are good examples of such labels. In contrast, vague labelling such as 'Please dispose of this package thoughtfully' or 'Do the right thing' was considered unhelpful. In some cases, the authors found that the labels actually misled consumers and caused them to dispose of packaging incorrectly.

The authors conclude: 'Apart from consumer inactivity and apathy, one of the largest barriers to materials being properly sorted for council kerbside collection currently seems to be incorrect, misleading and vague labelling provided by packaging and product manufacturers. This barrier can be overcome through the introduction of standards or guidelines concerning more specific and adequate labelling.'