Profit, loss and co

The Natural Advantage of Nations
September 2, 2005

This book claims to be about "innovation, solutions, competitiveness and profitability. It is also about building environmental integrity and sustainability now and for future generations". This high-sounding ambition very quickly translates into something much more mundane, and the book is really about interesting and worthwhile case studies showing that businesses can embrace sustainability and gain a competitive advantage and more profits all at the same time. This is fine as far as it goes, but it is not surprising and it is not new. It was the main subject matter of Ernst Ulrich von Weizsaecker's book Factor Four (1997), which is not even referenced, and the main point in Frances Cairncross's Green Inc (1995) and in John Elkington's The Green Business Guide (1991).

The Natural Advantage of Nations adds nothing to the points that were made ten or 15 years ago and misses an opportunity to explain why the sound messages, advice and case studies of the 1990s have still not been converted into mass acceptance by the business world. We do not need more books repeating the same story, we need to understand why concepts as glaringly obvious and important as environmental responsibility, sustainability, public health and ecological limits are routinely ignored by the mass of businesses, and we need to know what will shift business in this virtuous direction.

This book does not answer these questions and also goes to enormous lengths to keep the discussion rooted in voluntary behaviour on the part of the corporation and behaviour driven by profit. A regulatory approach to protecting the environment, protecting public health and eliminating toxic products is given very short shrift (pages 182-186) on the rather flimsy grounds that regulations do not work very well and might be watered down.

The book then returns to the safe territory of voluntary initiatives.

The arguments are frequently shallow and poorly researched. We are told that Shell and BP "have undergone major changes in their mindsets and now see themselves as energy providers". No evidence is produced in support of this proposition and it would be very helpful to know how much they spend on oil exploration and extraction to see if this reflects a major change in mindset. We are also told that Shell has switched "some of its focus from petroleum towards alternative fuel sources". It would be helpful to know what "some" means and exactly how much shift there has been towards alternative fuel sources. The lack of evidence in support of some very strong statements is worrying. On the same page, we learn that "Shell's position is indicative of an important shift that has taken place in the mindset of multinationals over the past two decades which is evidence of a more general shift in thinking amongst business leaders". The complete lack of substantiation is not acceptable and particularly worrying when set against the declared objectives and "visions" of business leaders to expand aviation regardless of the impact of climate change, and expand car production in India and China regardless of the widespread impact of vehicles on fatalities, injury, pollution, greenhouse gases, respiratory health and land take. The world's largest businesses are doing what they are legally obliged to do, which is to make money for shareholders.

This blindness to corporate realities is profound. We are told that Ford "understand that they are not simply a car company but rather providers of mobility services". But the Ford website is very clear and proclaims that its "vision" is "to become the world's leading consumer company for automotive products and services".

The book is glowing in its praise of best-practice examples of high environmental standards and contributions to sustainability, but silent on the enormous contribution of business to environmental destruction.

Significantly, aviation is not even discussed. Aviation has a serious and growing impact on climate change and in a globalised world dominated by multinational corporations, the growth of airports, flying and large aircraft is essential to the routine work of business. The damage done by oil exploration, the destruction of tropical rainforests, road building and the global arms and weapons industries are also airbrushed out of the picture. This produces a seriously imbalanced book.

However, being an edited volume, Natural Advantage has a few excellent contributions: Peter Newman on sustainability in Western Australia, Jeff Kenworthy and others on transport, and Mark Diesendorf on "Tomorrow's mega cities".

It would be very good if business adopted high environmental standards, pursued sustainability objectives and safeguarded communities from pollution. But in reality it will not do so purely by voluntary initiatives.

John Whitelegg is professor of sustainable development, Stockholm Environment Institute, York University.

The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century

Editor - Karlson "Charlie" Hargroves and Michael H. Smith
Publisher - Earthscan
Pages - 5
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 1 84407 121 9

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments