Private Interests Fuel Corporate Sustainability

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"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.
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To avoid negative social consequences, big-brand companies such as Nike, Coca-Cola, and Walmart, are attempting to make environmental improvements while keeping private interests in mind.

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.

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