Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister

April 4, 2013

Anyone reading this book who thought that sustainability was the preserve of small, high-minded companies concerned with the impact of their production methods on people and the planet will be quickly disabused. As Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister make clear in their opening pages, what they call eco-business is the takeover of the concept of sustainability and its use as a business tool for control and growth, aiming for sustainability of the business first and the planet second. The objective, they say, is to efficiently control supply chains to navigate the globalised world economy with the main aim of increasing consumption. This is the overarching theme of this book, told in very precise detail in six chapters that consider the politics, production, marketing, supply chain, management of resources and governance of big business in the eco- market.

Overall, the authors’ main objection is with the companies’ motives in the pursuit of sustainability. Certainly in the opening chapters the authors appear ideologically opposed to the idea that big business can achieve both social responsibility and the maximisation of profits, although this is later tempered somewhat. At times, reading this book feels like being at the Mad Hatter’s tea party; confusing in terms of the argument at least, although I think that this is probably for the best of reasons, namely that the authors themselves are grappling with the conundrum that is eco-business. On the one hand, they criticise the manufacture of products with fewer resources and less energy and waste as a means of lowering costs and increasing profits, and on the other, they seem to be commending the move by businesses to deal directly with suppliers, giving advice and technical assistance to improve the quality and security of the food supply. Of course, this last concern may sound rather hollow to European consumers still reeling from the horsemeat issues of recent months and the fulsome mea culpa of food retail giants in the national press. And of course such supply-chain disasters give weight to the authors’ argument that ultimately eco-business is more business than eco.

Eco-Business provides a wealth of examples of the business actions of all the big players from Walmart and McDonald’s through to Ikea and Unilever: if you want to know how Coca-Cola manages its water supply, this is the book to read. The authors are detailed and precise in issues such as where companies have achieved their own sustainability targets and where they have fallen short - all of them, it seems, promising to do better while aggressively marketing products such as nappies, soft drinks and bottled waters to new consumers around the world. Throughout, the paradoxes mount up with companies reducing packaging and landfill and increasing recyclable materials while expanding into markets such as China with disposable nappies, which were virtually unheard of there only a decade ago.

Over the next decade, it is estimated that the 2 billion middle-class consumers across the emerging economies will increase their spending from $7 trillion (£4.7 trillion) to $20 trillion. Consumers are part of the eco-business conundrum too. There is little sign of existing middle-class consumers changing their behaviour and actually reducing consumption. As a quotation from George Monbiot, cited here, makes clear, consumers “rebrand their lives, congratulate themselves on going green, and carry on buying and flying as much as before”.

Finally, we are left with the question of whether the gains from eco- business are worth the losses. The authors do recognise the opportunities to leverage eco-business to provide greater societal and ecological good, but at the end of the day, one is reminded that he who sups with the devil needs a long spoon.

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