In the book Eco-Business, a Big Brand Takeover of Sustainability by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister, 2013 MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, the authors acknowledge the assistance of Peter Dauvergne’s daughter in asking two questions. She asked her father: “What is sustainability?” “Should I shop at Walmart?”
As a retailer of do-it-yourself kitchen and garden tools and hand-crafted products, I have also asked myself these questions. What a pleasure it is to have Mr. Dauvergne and Ms. Lister, two well respected professors at the University of British Columbia, help answer these questions!
Eco-Business reports that many large businesses with global brands and world-wide operations, such as Walmart, Nike, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, 3-M, Kraft, Telco, Nestle and Procter and Gamble have made “sustainability” a part of their stated corporate missions. These companies now actually keep their promises to the public – their customers and potential customers — to reduce carbon emissions and waste, use less energy, recycle, prevent de-forestation and attain many other environmentalist goals.
The book provides many examples of the results of sustainability programs relating to reduction of energy and water usage, carbon emissions, packaging, harmful chemicals and waste. For example, the authors write:
“Walmart, by reducing its store lighting from 32 to 25 watts reports that on average it is saving about $20,000 a year at each store. With more than 10,000 Walmart outlets worldwide, that adds up. IKEA claims that it has halved the electricity costs at its distribution center in Tejon, China by simply installing motion detectors for lighting…Big-brand companies are also beginning to invest and experiment in renewable energy alternatives such as solar, wind and geothermal…”
More examples of successful programs of other companies to have their fleets of vehicles use energy other than fossil fuels and to offer greener products are given.
Authors Dauvergne and Lister further observe that because the big brands have control over their suppliers, they have not only implemented sustainability practices in their own companies but have also forced sustainability practices up their supply chains to change the practices of their suppliers.
The authors further report that the sustainability practices of these global companies have produced measurable results more rapidly and more broadly than government regulations. As a result, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that previously lobbied governments for environmental regulation and protested against the polluters now partner with big brand companies. Applauding the results of sustainability by big brands, some NGOs, such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Defense Fund, have even decided to permit their names and logos to be associated with big brands in product marketing campaigns.
The authors have found that the big brands are not, at this point, simply “green washing” consumers with feel-good propaganda. They argue that real gains for more sustainable eco-systems have been made by these companies. However, they also acknowledge that “sustainability” or “ecological good” is not the goal of business – business is ultimately about “sustaining business not ecosystems.”
While Eco-Business provides a lot of information with footnotes, suggestions for further reading and an index, I wish that the authors had fleshed out another recent development relating to “business sustainability.” In the last few pages of their book, Dauvergne and Lister document that eco- business practices have allowed big brands to lower the costs of production and pass the savings along to their customers. With products of big brands being offered at lower prices, more people around the globe will be able to afford big brand products.
However, with hundreds of millions more customers, the results of sustainability practices might be overtaken by the imperative to produce more products to make more sales. In other words, big brand companies in the interest of their own business’ sustainability, will facilitate more and more consumption of products that use our resources. Would insistence on strict sustainability practices and investments raise prices of big brand products to a point that people in the third world would be unable to buy cheap cleaning products, sneakers, toothpaste and packaged food goods? Perhaps this is a question for another book.
The authors have left it to their readers to decide whether or not sustainable production and development is here to stay in big brand mindset and behaviors or is only an idea that has been co-opted by the big brands and will eventually be phased out as soon as it no longer helps sell more products.
The authors observe that the big brands met their sustainability goals by setting the bar themselves using of various industry “standards” and “certifications.” As researchers, Professors Dauvergne and Lister are not persuaded by self- defined successes.
While Eco-Business is a well researched analysis of corporate stewardship of the earth at this time, the authors did not precisely answer the question of Dauvergne’s daughter: “What is sustainability?” But that’s what good professors do – raise the issue, make YOU think and decide.
However, I think that the authors did answer the Walmart question…. at least for me. I should not shop at Walmart.