Big Brands Embrace Corporate Sustainability

A big-brand takeover is in the making. Learn about corporate sustainability, its actual accomplishments and the consequences for the environment.

| October 2014

  • Joining corporate sustainability with big brands.
    Big brands join with corporate sustainability and succeed with real consequences for the environment.
    Photo by Fotolia/iQoncept
  • "Eco-Business” by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister discusses how big brands have come to grasp the importance of corporate sustainability.
    Cover courtesy of MIT Press

  • Joining corporate sustainability with big brands.

In Eco-Business (MIT Press, 2013), Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister reveal big-brand companies that seem to be making commitments that go beyond the usual "greenwashing" efforts undertaken largely for public relations purposes. In this excerpt from the book, the authors examine this new embrace of corporate sustainability, its actual accomplishments, and the consequences for the environment.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Eco-Business.

Corporate Sustainability and Big Brands

Are advocacy and state partners complicit in the takeover of sustainability by the big brands? The answer is surely “yes,” but it is also understandable why so many groups seeking change are now partnering with these powerful players. Eco-business does seem to be both scaling up and gaining momentum. Specialized business sustainability associations are forming and strengthening. Mainstream industry associations are also increasingly adopting corporate sustainability as strategy, forming working groups on water, biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable consumption, among other things. A few industry associations are even lobbying governments for stricter environmental regulations to level the playing field, protect new comparative advantages of members, and create greater certainty. As the analysis in this book reveals, however, at best the scaling up and mainstreaming of eco-business can only ever take us a short way toward genuine sustainability. And any partner should stay alert to its intrinsic limits and dangers.

The Limits of Eco-Business

Great care must be taken when evaluating the ecological or social value of eco-business. Consequences are multi-dimensional and uneven, and any gains may be temporary. Eco-business has not been, and will never be, a simple linear process of constant gains. The process will be messy and complex, with even small changes to products and processes requiring great efforts with often unanticipated setbacks. The financial investments, though measurable and real, are also a tiny fraction of a company’s revenue turnover or total profits. Company forums and consortia to share sustainability ideas and cooperate on standards may even function as a veil for collusion. We saw this in 2011 with the European Commission’s fine of Unilever and Procter & Gamble for price setting when introducing their “eco-friendly” line of concentrated laundry detergent (in response to Walmart’s packaging demands).

Companies are achieving some eco-business targets and falling short on others. Walmart reached only half of its carbon-reduction target for 2010. Starbucks has so far failed to meet its energy-reduction and recycling targets. IKEA fell short of its 2006 commitment to reach 30 percent sustainable sourcing by 2010. Its proportion of certified chipboard and fiberboard was even further off the mark, at just 10 percent. All are promising to do better. IKEA’s reason for the failure to reach its target, however, is revealing of the limits of eco-business: according to IKEA’s global forestry manager, it was impossible to source sustainable wood in a way to keep prices low enough to sustain the company’s rapid growth.

The total environmental impacts of consumption, moreover, continue to increase even as the per-unit energy, material, water, and waste impacts of producing, consuming, and disposing of some consumer goods are declining.24 The same big brands trumpeting sustainability programs are aggressively marketing “new” products to billions of “new” consumers: diapers, soft drinks, plastic razors, flip-flops, bottled water—the list could go on and on. According to Stacy Mitchell, the author of BigBox Swindle, “Walmart is accelerating the cycle of consumption, speeding up how fast products move from factory to shelf to house to landfill. Even if Walmart does reduce the resources used to make a T-shirt or a television set, those gains will be more than outstripped by growth in the number of T-shirts and TVs we’re consuming. It’s one step forward and three steps back. . . .”

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