The 2021 PIRG naughty or nice list: We’ve made a list and checked it twice

Which decision makers have stepped up and prioritized our health, safety, and well-being this year? Which decision makers need to step up, or risk getting coal in their stockings?

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Candles & presents | CC-BY 4.0
Candles & presents | CC-BY 4.0
Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Holiday traditions are what make this time of year so much fun. In my house, for example, my four-year-old daughter thinks Santa’s whole thing is mostly great, but she’s not crazy about the idea of letting a stranger into the house. So, for the second year in a row, my family will be leaving cookies, milk and carrots outside the house with a note asking Santa to just go ahead and drop the presents down the chimney.

Speaking of Santa, he has his own yearly tradition of making a list of who this year was naughty and who was nice (and checking it twice). In that spirit, we decided to create our own PIRG “naughty or nice list” this year. For our list, we’re running decision-makers at various levels through the filter of who’s done right by the public interest this year and who hasn’t. Below is our list of high-profile players who are either helping protect consumers and moving us toward a healthier, safer world, or who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, could use a Christmas transformation to better promote the public interest.

So without further ado, let’s start with the people and companies that deserve a big present this year.

Nice List

1. Framework, a new super repairable laptop company: While other manufacturers like Apple and Microsoft make modest steps toward repair, Framework is setting the bar much higher. Framework is a true market leader in the electronics arena, pushing against the “planned obsolescence” that is far too pervasive in the tech industry and the rest of society. Americans dispose of 416,000 cell phones per day, and only 15-20% of all electronic waste is recycled. That has to change. Framework is helping lead the way toward a different kind of system, where instead of throwing things out, we reuse, salvage and rebuild.

2. McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and the states of California, Connecticut and Maine for acting to reduce the use of toxic PFAS “forever chemicals”: Exposure to PFAS chemicals can lead to serious health problems, but they continue to get used in everyday products, including food packaging. By curbing the use of these dangerous toxins, these leaders are paving the way for others to make important changes in the name of public health.

3. Joe Biden and members of Congress for passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill: Finding common ground to move things forward is not easy, but these elected officials got it done. Their action will help America keep its drinking water clean, invest in walkable and bikeable communities, and advance such clean energy solutions as electric vehicles and energy efficiency investments.

4. Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland: The district entered a contract to introduce 300 electric school buses into its fleet and committed to transitioning to all electric buses over the next fourteen years. This will make it the nation’s largest operator of electric school buses and will help protect the health of kids and air quality in communities across Montgomery County.

5. School districts for Portland, Oregon, San Diego and Detroit: These districts are taking important actions to prevent the lead contamination of school drinking water. Lead is harmful to kids’ health  and school should be the last place for kids to get exposed to this neurotoxin. For more on what these cities are doing and how your community can follow their lead, check out U.S. PIRG Education Fund’s Get the Lead Out toolkit.

6. Capital One: In a move that will have tremendous benefits for its most vulnerable customers, Capital One, one of America’s largest fifteen banks, announced early in December that it would eliminate all overdraft fees. 

7. Xavier Becerra, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary, and his team at Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services: This team developed strong rules to protect patients from surprise billing and plan to implement the No Surprises Act on time, by January 1. Secretary Becerra stood on the side of patients when he said, “I’ll pay for the best, but I don’t want to have to pay for the best and then three times more on top of that and get blindsided by the bill.”

8. Ricardo Lara, California Insurance Commissioner: Lara and California have led the country in making sure auto insurers gave refunds to consumers whose driving — and risk — have declined dramatically during COVID. Lara regularly mandates refunds and calls for companies to “close the gap” on refunds. From the beginning, California mandated more refunds from companies such as Progressive than other states have.

9. Janet Woodcock, acting commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and Frank Yiannas, FDA deputy commissioner for Food Policy and Response: To address the problem of poor tracking and slow response to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses, these officials are pushing the FDA’s new Foodborne Outbreak Response Improvement Plan (FORIP). The FORIP prioritizes the use of tech-enabled traceability measures for tracking food associated with an outbreak so that the contamination can be addressed quickly and completely to avoid future illnesses. 

10. Sen. Richard Blumenthal: Sen. Blumenthal has stood up for consumers in a big way this year. He, along with three of his colleagues, reintroduced the FAIR Fees Act, which would restrict hidden fees by airlines. Alongside a bipartisan group of legislators, he reintroduced Reese’s Law, which would require child-resistant closures on consumer products with button cell batteries. He also sponsored two food safety bills to address inaccurate, incomplete, and confusing food and nutrition labels that cause a variety of problems.

11. Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce: For their bipartisan support of the INFORM Act, which would put into place safeguards to help protect online shoppers from unsafe products. It has been supported by the Retail Industry Leaders Association and major retailers, including Target, Best Buy and Home Depot.

Sadly, not everyone deserves a full stocking. Here’s our naughty list for 2021, which, unless they change their ways between now and Christmas, won’t receive a visit from Santa this year.

Naughty List

1. Investor-owned utilities of California, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SoCal Edison) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E): These investor-owned utilities are attempting to undercut solar energy by targeting the state’s net metering program, which compensates solar owners for the excess electricity they sell back to the grid. PG&E, SoCal Edison and SDG&E are using the playbook described in Blocking Rooftop Solar to push for drastic changes to net metering in California. Earlier this year, the utilities moved to create the nation’s highest fixed charges for solar customers while simultaneously slashing the net metering payments that solar customers receive.

2. Burger King continues to use dangerous PFAS: The burger chain still hasn’t announced a commitment to getting rid of PFAS in its food packaging, despite competitors McDonald’s and Wendy’s addressing this issue (see list above). There is ample evidence that fast food companies can go PFAS-free – notably some of Burger King’s packaging already doesn’t contain PFAS. Nevertheless, the choice to knowingly expose people to dangerous chemicals through their wrappers and boxes is seriously not nice. 

3. Whole Foods: The grocery chain failed (again) to reduce single-use plastic. For the second year in a row, the once-green grocer received an “F” on As You Sow’s annual corporate plastic pollution scorecard. This regrettable showing happened despite PIRG gathering over 59,000 petitions earlier this year urging the company to do better. This year, Santa won’t be shopping at Whole Foods to fill his (reusable, of course) bag full of goodies.

4. The American Medical Association and the American Hospital Association: Instead of focusing on keeping Americans healthy, these groups are suing to block elements of the No Surprises Act which are designed to hold down costs for insured Americans.

5. Leading baby food companies: A congressional investigation found toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, and cadmium, were present in food made by all four of the major baby food companies that cooperated with the investigation – Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain, and Gerber. Meanwhile, some companies, including Walmart, Sprout Foods, Inc. and Campbell, the maker of Plum Organics, didn’t cooperate with the congressional investigation until after a subcommittee report was released in February.

6. Phone companies: Everyone knows what an annoying and sometimes costly problem that robocalls are. A new federal law requires phone companies to verify caller ID to stop spoofed calls. But a PIRG Education Fund analysis of FCC records showed that as of September — two months after the new law took effect — fewer than 20 percent of phone companies nationwide reported that they had adopted mandatory robocall-fighting technology throughout their networks.

Thankfully, we still have a few days between now and Christmas. Hopefully those on our naughty listy won’t need a visit from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to start to make a change for the better. Because as we approach this special day, remember it’s never too late to flip from naughty over to nice.


Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG