Private Interests Fuel Corporate Sustainability

The benefits of corporate sustainability principles are brought into question as big-brand companies continue to implement more environmental goals.


"Eco-Business," by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister, highlights the “zero waste” claims of large corporations and explains how corporate sustainability is motivated by profits.

Cover Courtesy MIT Press

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Today, big-brand companies seem to be making commitments that go beyond the usual “greenwashing” efforts undertaken largely for public relations purposes. In Eco-Business (MIT Press, 2013) authors Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister detail how corporate sustainability is being used as a business tool. This excerpt from chapter one, “The Politics of ‘Big-Brand Sustainability,’” dissects the motives behind these environmental goals.  

Zero waste. 100 percent renewable energy. Zero toxics. 100 percent sustainable sourcing. Zero deforestation. These are just some of the grand promises that multinational companies such as Walmart, Nestlé, Nike, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola are now making as they claim to lead a corporate charge toward “sustainability.” “We’re integrating sustainability principles and practices into everything we do,” Nike tells us boldly.

What is going on? Why are these big-brand companies making such promises? Why do they seem to be accelerating their efforts? Is this merely crafty marketing? Are they using feel-good rhetoric to placate governments, activists, and consumers? Some of what we are seeing is definitely “greenwashing” and business as usual. But, as this book will reveal, these iterations of “corporate sustainability” have more powerful drivers and motives, and more varied consequences, than previous iterations, which tended toward peripheral, one-off, reputation-saving responses. Now, leading-brand companies are racing to adopt sustainability in order to enhance their growth and control within the global economy. These big-brand companies are defining corporate sustainability and implementing it through their operations and supply chains to gain competitive advantages and increase sales and profits.

What we call “eco-business”—taking over the idea of sustainability and turning it into a tool of business control and growth that projects an image of corporate social responsibility—­is proving to be a powerful strategy for corporations in a rapidly globalizing economy marked by financial turmoil and a need for continual strategic repositioning. It is also enhancing the credibility and influence of these companies in states, in civil society, in supply chains, and in retail markets. And it is shifting the power balance within the global political arena from states as the central rule makers and enforcers of environmental goals toward big-brand retailers and manufacturers acting to use “sustainability” to protect their private interests.

Eco-business is likely to keep rising in importance as a global force of change—a trend that global governance analysts and practitioners will have to watch closely. Some are applauding this trend, seeing it as valuable for the mainstreaming and scaling up of sustainability that global solutions will require. Executives of big-brand companies also are making this case, arguing they are “sustainability leaders” and that states now are the “laggards.” They are quick to provide example after example of savings, efficiencies, social responsibility, and more transparency and accountability within supply chains. On the surface, the benefits of eco-business do seem to be advancing environmental improvements—and, as we will see later, many governments and environmental groups are now rushing to partner with big brands. For those wanting to hear some good news for a change, it is easy to find the apparent gains reassuring.

Can eco-business halt the rise and the harmful social consequences of global ecological loss? The answer is a forceful “no.” Eco-business is fundamentally aiming for sustainability of big business, not sustainability of people and the planet. It is not about absolute limits to natural resources or waste sinks; nor is it about the security of communities or family businesses. It is largely about more efficiently controlling supply chains and effectively navigating a globalizing world economy to increase brand consumption. Some good can come out of eco-business. Indeed, one source of its power as a marketing and management tool, and one reason why it is a force that will keep growing in importance within global governance, is that it has the capacity to achieve clear and measurable economic gains.

Though eco-business is good for business and for the economy, it has limits as a force of environmental protection and social justice—limits that are hidden behind corporate sustainability claims and promises, and that arise directly from the explanation of why and how big brands are adopting it. Much of what big brands are doing involves defining and using sustainability as a business tool in ways that are actually increasing risks and adding to an ever-mounting global crisis. Part of the growing value of eco-business, moreover, is its capacity to help “roll back” consumer prices by shifting costs upstream onto those least likely to be able to afford them: small suppliers and low-paid labor. This is helping to stimulate consumption of retail goods even during economic downturns. Equally disquieting, eco-business is increasing the power of big-brand companies to sway nonprofit organizations, shape international codes and standards, and influence state regulations and institutions toward market interests. In view of all this, governments, environmental groups, and consumers have no choice but to engage with big-brand eco-business—something that will have to be done with eyes wide open about its limits and its overall consequences. True or “deep” sustainability requires restoring and protecting ecosystems and communities, and not, as every big brand is doing, first and foremost trying to use sustainability to enhance the efficiency of production and the quality of products to speed along growth.

Reprinted with permission from Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister and published by The MIT Press, 2013.