Eco-business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability
Authors: Peter Dauvergne, Jane Lister
Pub: MIT Press
In Eco-Business’s opening chapter, authors Dauvergne and Lister claim they will reveal that big brands’ interest in sustainability is ‘actually increasing risks and adding to an ever-mounting global crisis’, a statement that I well believe could be true. The authors further claim they will answer the question ‘Can eco-business halt the rise and the harmful social consequences of global ecological loss?’ with a ‘forceful “no”’, a self-evaluation that I’m sad to say is entirely false.
Throughout this highly repetitive book, concrete examples of companies improving their environmental performances (backed up with actual statistics) are countered merely by a vague (albeit logical) feeling that something isn’t quite right in handing over the sustainability agenda to large businesses, in many cases with the blessing of governments and environmental organisations.
The authors note of the rise of the corporate sustainability agenda that ‘the real motivation here is business value’ or something to that effect over and over in this fairly short offering. It’s a statement that is obvious to anyone with a brain or a set of ears and eyes (as they also cite instance after instance where businesses claim improving their environmental performances also improves their balance sheets), but they fail to make a convincing case for this being a bad thing.
In a section on water scarcity, for instance, they note quite rightly, that the world is fast approaching a water crisis and that many large businesses use a lot of water (‘Coca-Cola’s daily water usage alone equals what a typical American city of 1.5 million people uses in a day’, evidently). They also highlight that water efficiency is good eco-business and that measures to achieve it have saved IBM, for example, more than US$4 million (£2.6 million) a year. And they note that some other businesses are loudly aiming for ‘water neutrality’, whereby they will put as much water into the global system as they take out. To counter this, Dauvergne and Lister say that ‘no big brand is even close to becoming water neutral’, but, frustratingly, they don’t say how far off the mark they are. They also claim ‘severe ecological impacts can arise from diverting and “replacing” water’, but, infuriatingly, make no mention of what these ecological impacts are, nor offer any quantifying evidence to demonstrate their severity.
Three pages before the end, the authors ask the question I came to this book to have answered: ‘[I]s sustainability in any meaningful sense even possible within a world economy that relies on mass retail and growing consumerism?’ And finally, at this point, they provide a bit of evidence that it is not: although generating each dollar of economic growth now requires 26 per cent fewer resources than in 1980, total global ecological impacts are rising. What’s more, per capita resource use is still growing ‘steadily’ in developed countries and ‘rapidly’ in emerging economies.
It’s too little, too late at this point, of course, as the authors wasted roughly 150 pages detailing eco-business’s achievements rather than its shortcomings. A book that does what this one says on the label is still begging to be written.