The corporate takeover of ‘sustainability’


Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability
Peter Dauvergne & Jane Lister
MIT Press, 2013, 194 pages

Every big retail brand name you can think of — McDonalds and Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Nestle, Nike and Adidas, Disney and Google — are leading an apparent corporate charge towards ecological sustainability. Or so they would have us believe, say Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister in Eco-Business.

There is some substance to this business movement, they conscientiously note. It is more than just “greenwashing”, that public relations sprucing up of a company’s environmental image to attract more consumers.

On offer with the “eco-business” model more than competitive branding advantage. There is also lower input costs and thus increased corporate growth, sales and profits.

Most of the big brands’ business costs, and their environmental damage, is found in their supply chains — up-stream production, packaging, shipping and distribution.

If a big brand can avoid damage to its reputation via avoiding association with blatantly destructive practices, if it can make cost savings through efficient use of energy and water, then the big brands will become apostles for sustainability.

Where there is money to be made from going green, they will go green. If it boosts their bottom line, they will even sup with the devil. Partnerships between big corporations and environmental groups are now far from rare, with companies purchasing the rights to display green logos in return for green cred.

The World Wildlife Fund, for example, partners with Coca-Cola, the WWF logo worth billions in increased sales to Coke and US$20 million from Coke to the world’s largest environmental NGO.

Mainstream green groups describe their corporate involvement as getting out of “the green ghetto”, but Dauvergne and Lister show that the green heavyweights are complicit in the corporate takeover of sustainability.

The growing corporatisation of the global environmental movement, through its own organisational model and its co-option by corporate polluters, has moderated its earlier focus on “radical transformation — such as reducing consumption, slowing resource use and limiting economic growth – and opted to pursue incremental market-driven advances instead”.

The fatal ecological flaw of eco-business, argue the authors, is that sustainability is not possible within a world economy that relies on a perpetually growing consumerism based on rapid obsolescence and ever more turnover of retail goods.

Environmental efficiencies, which cut per unit resource use, can never keep pace with total growth in consumption through selling more TVs, T-shirts and other stuff to more people. This is especially the case in the expanding consumer markets of emerging economies such as India, China and Brazil.

The authors make the best case they can for eco-business (their book sandwiches copious lists of eco-business ventures between clunky layers of business jargon). But in the end, they conclude that eco-business is all about “sustaining business, not ecosystems”.

This valuable message remains relevant for a green movement wanting to remain untamed by the lure of the corporate dollar.