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In the corporate fight club, the environment usually loses

A commitment to sustainability has become a typical component of any modern-day corporation’s public face. Visit the homepages of major organisations in any sector, from coal-mining to cola-making, and…

Research shows the environment usually comes off second best when companies are forced to compromise between sustainability and profit. Mohammad Rhaman/Flickr

A commitment to sustainability has become a typical component of any modern-day corporation’s public face. Visit the homepages of major organisations in any sector, from coal-mining to cola-making, and you’ll find “green” credentials front and centre.

This might be viewed as a predictable and well-intentioned response to mounting concerns over climate change, deforestation, declining biodiversity and other environmental issues. Yet a distinctive component of that response has been to try to incorporate the environment within market capitalism.

For example, last year the UK government’s Environment department initiated an Ecosystems Market Task Force to review opportunities to “value and protect nature’s services”. This is typical of the fast-emerging trend for the environment to be accorded a market worth and for corporations to be seen as the central institutions through which that worth can be maintained.

Consequently, we seem to have reached a stage where both the environment and the market are treated as social goods. It follows then that the two will occasionally have competing interests. So which tends to benefit and which tends to suffer when compromise is inevitably sought? In a recent article in the British Journal of Sociology, we argue it is the market that is almost invariably and overwhelmingly favoured.

The study, focused on the sustainability approaches of a number of Australian and global companies and involved lengthy interviews with their sustainability managers and consultants. They were chosen because their work encompasses precisely the sort of compromises that have come to characterise the relationship between the environment and the market. Many saw their roles as involving not only an allegiance to their employers and shareholders, but also a concern for the environment and society. Some had even changed careers and reconsidered their personal values because of their dedication to environmental issues.

We also analysed a range of relevant material, including corporate sustainability reports, policy documents and statements relating to carbon emissions. As has become de rigueur, many of these were festooned with evocative images of forests, oceans and landscapes, as well as employees' testimonials about the environment’s significance in their personal and professional lives.

Yet beneath the warm glow of corporate social responsibility lurked the cold reality of economic exigency.

In the cold light of day…

Staff members expressed a keen and genuine interest in the environment, but at the same time were well aware of the constraints of challenging successful business practices likely to exacerbate ecological degradation. As the director of one sustainability consultancy remarked: “It always comes down to the optimum point. You want them to be as sustainable as can be, but you don’t want them to shut down their operation. There’s no simple path through this.”

Moreover, compromise was shown to be at best a temporary resolution – one subject to continued criticism, adaptation and refinement. The next step frequently led only to a new and ‘better’ compromise or an outright shifting of the goalposts.

Take, for instance, environmentalists' much-publicised claim that bio-fuels cause deforestation and food shortages: the result was the promotion of “second-generation”, more environmentally friendly bio-fuels. Or the company whose initial confidence in its “ambitious” carbon emissions reduction target of 40 per cent was followed by the observation that this would prove “difficult to deliver” because of an increase in business – despite investment in energy-saving equipment and “sustainable” retail outlets.

There are “win-win” situations – say, when new “green” products or initiatives cut costs or enhance revenues – but it is generally acknowledged that these are pursued only when the benefits to the market, not the benefits to the environment, can be guaranteed. In such instances compromise serves to deny the inequality of competing goods. There is no space for a reduction of profit or a decline in growth. Boosting the bottom line remains the primary objective. Ultimately, it is the market that records another lopsided victory.

Ironically, within any organisation it is the individuals who are most environmentally attuned who are also most often engaged in compromising the environment. They accept – albeit sometimes grudgingly – the impossibility of governing innocently. As the environment is reconstructed into a commodity and a tool for profit, they have to get their hands dirty.

One key question is whether the continued expansion of the market might be met with a counter-movement of protection and conservation through legislation. In short, can nature have a legal standing? There may be some hope in this regard.

In New Zealand a river was recently recognised as a legal entity with the same rights and interests enjoyed by a company. Constitutional amendments in Bolivia and Ecuador have embraced specific rights for the environment.

Irrespective of whether they eventually prove of limited practical impact, these fledgling efforts at least illustrate a social awareness of the need for some control over market capitalism’s excesses. They also underline – as if further evidence were needed – that the conflict between the environment and the market is likely to prove a source of even greater friction, criticism and compromise as the physical realities of the natural world’s decline become ever more profound.

Join the conversation

38 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Forshaw

    Conservation Student

    What I always find remarkable is that environmental loss can so easily be measured (EG Hectares of land). However, environmental offset objectives and projections are much cloudier.

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    1. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Thomas Forshaw

      Thomas,

      Yes indeed some environmental losses can be easily measured (although often under-valued upon a market logic!).

      However, other environmental implications of business and economic activity are more difficult to account for regarding their implications for biodiversity decline, ocean acidification, or climate change.

      They are also, as we are currently seeing, politically contested and socially constructed. Witness the political (and discursive) battles over the environmental impact of CSG and coal mining!

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  2. Meg Evans

    Elder at Tutor - positive ageing, cooking, TESOL, philosophy for children, reading recove

    Don't be totally fooled by the 'sustainability' measures of big corporations. They are doing so purely for financial reasons because of the efficiencies and dollar savings gained by such measures.
    Sounds like a win - win!!, but..... the profit gained is ploughed back into more production which is the problem in the first place - too many resources, particularly CO2 emitting fossil fuels being consumed and too much stuff being produced, all of which further destroy our planet.

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    1. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Meg Evans

      Meg,

      Thanks for the comment. While 'greenwash' is alive and well, we have found in our research that there are individuals and groups in corporations that genuinely seek to improve their organisations' environmental impact and have had significant impacts. Whether this is reducing greenhouse gas emissions, material usage, waste etc. So 'win-wins' are possible and do occur, indeed this is the core of ecological modernism and corporate environmentalism. So for instance, a company like Walmart can…

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    2. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Meg Evans

      Meg, no doubt you are speaking from all your experience as a corporate leader, right?

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    3. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      @Michael Sheehan

      And no doubt you are speaking from all your experience as a sock-puppet for one of The Conversation's more notorious trolls.

      You were formerly David Thompson, marketing expert until that identity was banned. You are now a geographer.

      How does that work?

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  3. Paul Richards

    integral operating system

    Appreciate the article.
    "A commitment to sustainability has become a typical component of any modern-day corporation’s public face." But it is just greenwashing with empty weasel words created by public relations agencies.
    Awareness of real damage caused leaving our local environments of corporate spreadsheets is growing.
    The gap in corporate social responsibility CSR seen by new generations who are fully aware of our reliance in natural resources now and in our future.
    A change in corporate…

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  4. Robert McDougall

    Small Business Owner

    Fascinating concept, if a corporation can be given the status of "person", then why not nature? Nature is certainly more "real" than any corporation.

    Then, if we do sign the TPP, woud nature then be able to sue any government that takes actions that harm the integrity/sustainability/profitibilty of Nature?

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  5. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    My own experience at the coalface of 'corporate sustainability' pretty much aligns with this article.

    If anyone is interested in the practitioner perspective, Auden Schendler's 2009 'Getting Green Done' is a great read - frank and non-pollyanna but not despairing either - really addresses many of the pragmatic problems faced in the corporate sector.

    Schendler himself has, I think sensibly, sugested that we should ditch terms like 'sustainability' because we're not - not even close (Meg's comment…

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    1. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Felix MacNeill

      Felix,

      Yes another excellent recent book on sustainability is John Ehrenfeld and Andy Hoffman's 'Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability' (Greenleaf Publishing, 2013). They make the point that most sustainability efforts by companies are about being 'less unsustainable' which is something very different from most definitions of sustainability.

      I use this distinction in my teaching on organisational sustainability and discus it in more length on my blog here: http://climatepeopleorg.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/sustainability-and-stuff/

      'Sustainability' has become a form of obfuscation in the conflict between ever increasing economic growth and environmental degradation.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Christopher Wright

      Thanks Christopher - really appreciate those links (and the one you provided above) - my bookshelf keeps groaning, but my bank account is light as a feather!

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  6. John McBain

    logged in via Facebook

    It is a bit of a dilemna for human beings.
    We are an integral part of the environment : there is no such thing as 'us' and over there is 'the environment'.
    We are largely water - despite the best efforts of the market, water is also an integral part of nature.
    The rest of us is various elements such as calcium - also natural stuff.
    However, what is a corporate entity?
    In addition to having legal status and power it is also made up of humans.
    And humans are an integral part of nature.
    To me…

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    1. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to John McBain

      John,

      Yes agreed. As David Suzuki highlighted in his recent visit to Australia, our modern society has served to anthropomorphize 'the market' and elevate it to an exalted status. This is a truly bizarre practice when we consider that it is the environment that sustains our society and economy within which the fiction of the market exists.

      The imminent physical threat to our continued existence posed by climate change, ocean acidification and biodiversity loss have now made these basic facts very real.

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    2. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to John McBain

      John, I'm about a third of the way through Charles Eisenstein's 'Sacred Economics' - a fairly personal, non-academic and undoubtedly debatable view I'll admit, but a really challenging and interesting read on this topic.

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    3. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Christopher Wright

      Ah, the "market" IS human beings. Human beings operating in their most social. The market IS the social.

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    4. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Christopher Wright

      "As David Suzuki highlighted in his recent visit to Australia, our modern society has served to anthropomorphize 'the market'"
      Indeed, such as:
      "the social good of the environment?"

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    5. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Michael,

      Yes fair point, we humans also anthropomorphize the environment (a point Bruno Latour has made in critiquing the Boltanski and Thevenot's 'green order of worth'). From our perspective the market and the environment are separate orders of worth evaluated according to different proofs (the market according to competitiveness and profit, the environment in terms of ecological well-being). It is when these separate orders of worth overlap and the market worth dominates and corrupts others that we focus on in this piece and the BJS article. However, you are right our conception of the 'environment' is also a social construct.

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    6. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Yes the 'market' is a socially-constructed concept, just as our conception of the environment is. However the market is not the ONLY social good or 'order of worth' we see as important. For instance, prior to the dominance of neo-liberalism we used to place equal if not greater emphasis on concepts of equity, collective welfare, aesthetics, spirituality, tradition, and environmental well-being.

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    7. Henry Verberne

      Once in the fossil fuel industry but now free to speak up

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      A very narrow definition of the social, Michael! read a bit of sociology my friend.

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    8. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Henry Verberne

      Actually, Henry, it is a capacious definition; and a definition that is not denied in the sociology literature. What have YOU been reading?

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    9. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Christopher Wright

      Bruno Latour!!?? Really!!!??? As you work in a Business School, and not the English/Media/Cultural Studies department, surely you have the resources to see through the con artists of French postmodernism? After all, it's been nearly 20 years since the Sokal Hoax!

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    10. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Christopher Wright

      When you say "prior to the dominance of neo-liberalism", do you really mean 'before the defeat of Communism'? Because, there is no such thing as "neoliberalism", except among bitter Communists, who are in denial that good old fashioned liberalism remained alive and kicking throughout the Communist onslaught, and prevailed.

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    11. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Re neo-liberalism the following might help:
      Crouch, C., (2011). The Strange Non-death of Neoliberalism, Cambridge: Polity.
      Harvey, D., (2005). A Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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    12. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Christopher Wright

      Christopher, your choice of David Harvey is ironic, and just emphasises my point. As a geographer, I have read most of what David Harvey has written from 1970 until the present day. You might not be aware that David Harvey is a Communist, so you have just proven my point.

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    13. Mike Hansen

      Mr.

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Sheehan's particular trolling technique is known as "namedropping".

      When he says
      "As a geographer, I have read most of what David Harvey has written from 1970 until the present day."

      He means
      "In my current sockpuppet identity as a geographer, I looked up David Harvey on Wikipedia"

      where as well as discovering that Harvey is "the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY)" and "was listed as the 18th most-cited intellectual of all time in the humanities and social sciences by The Times Higher Education Guide" he also found out that Harvey "has been credited with restoring social class and Marxist methods as serious methodological tools in the critique of global capitalism". Hence the redbaiting which is about as deep as the troll's understanding of Harvey or neo-liberalism will ever get.

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  7. Fred Moore

    Builder

    Corporate Dictums that women are bigger consumers than men who will thus create bigger trickle UP profits for major corporations whether it be in the boardroom or the bedroom. And then women retire and have half a dozen uber consuuming kids. You can't fight or compete with that as a male as BIG Corporate and Dumb Government are backing this paradigm to the hilt..
    Of course intelligent people know that UBER CONSUMERISM is unsustainable due to
    *Environment and biodiversity losses
    *Dwindling…

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  8. Pat Moore

    gardener

    Evident, nakedly apparent unsustainability, is rapidly rendering the window dressing greenwash lie unsustainable anyway.

    As an ingeniously and massively destructive species we're beginning to face ourselves in the mirror, starkly and darkly on the inevitable, unstoppable journey; the Easter Island syndrome on a macro global level, in the race to build the biggest profits, in place of statues, accrue the most goods, arms and power. It seems to be an inwritten code within the human species. And…

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    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Pat Moore

      In other words, Pat, you don't think the third world should share in your bourgeois, white privilege? Do you remember when you last smiled?

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    2. Pat Moore

      gardener

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Well Michael, we mutually understand our views are diametrically opposed/planets apart? A Mars and Venus type thing? You are a keyboard guerilla for your ideological cause, which many similarly active commentators here would classify as regressive and to be definitely, not only part of the problem which we are discussing here, but actually the main motor, the dominant machine of the process of environmental degradation and major climate catastrophe....which is why you are here fighting for your…

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  9. Gopalan Srinivasan

    logged in via Facebook

    A well-written piece that comes as a salutary wake-up call for all of us who are concerned over the apathy and utter indifference with which the entire debate on environment and market are treated by most of the governments and the corporates. The author rightly highlighted the state of play in the entire polemics with the remark that "there is no space for a reduction of profit or a decline in growth". As long as this is the stand of most of us, all talk about the future or our responsibility to…

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  10. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    We have figures for net profit, and figures for the stock market, and figures for GDP, but it appears there are no official figures for sustainability.

    It is known that consumption is generally increasing, but no figures for sustainability.

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  11. Peter Gringinger

    logged in via email @iinet.net.au

    Some of the most recent comments appears to come a bit closer to the core of the issues. Namely endless growth within a finite system and market capitalism as a tool to achieve this. Hence earth carrying capacity and our economy is on a collision course, and any conventional sustainability stuff most corporations do does not change this trajectory, but maybe slightly delays its collapse and lulls us into fales hopes that we may be able to turn it around. Underlying this are our social constructions…

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    1. Michael Sheehan

      Geographer at Analyst

      In reply to Peter Gringinger

      "Namely endless growth within a finite system and market capitalism as a tool to achieve this."
      Except market capitalism - indeed the discipline of Economics - is premised on a finite system of finite resources.

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    2. Christopher Wright

      Professor of Organisational Studies at University of Sydney

      In reply to Michael Sheehan

      Neoclassical economics is premised on scarcity but please enlighten us on market capitalism being "premised on a finite system of finite resources" because clearly no one has told our current economic system this - natural resource depletion and an assumption of on-going economic growth based on material consumption.

      A more realistic perspective is to view our current economic system as reliant on the unending exploitation of nature - a process which is now reaching its physical limits.

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Christopher Wright

      A sustainable system can be drawn on a page.

      A box is drawn, with an arrow going in, and an arrow coming out.

      But to make that system sustainable, the arrow coming out has to go all the way around, and become the arrow going in.

      There is no waste and no loss of energy in the system.

      No such system occurs, unless it occurs on a geological time scale.

      So there is no such thing as short term sustainability, and any profits are actually short term profits only.

      There can be degrees of sustainability, but no figures have to be published on the sustainability of a piece of equipment or some manufactured item, such as figures on the energy efficiency of electrical equipment.

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  12. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Ecological sustainability depends upon peace, justice and democracy.
    Until peace justice and democracy are established then the ecology (which includes humanity, incidentally) will always suffer.
    Or so the Political Greens Parties have been saying for more than three decades, if anyone is actually interested.
    No?
    Looking at the state of the planet, it seems that no-one is actually very interested at all.
    All the result of political interference from the out there and proud, Anti-Greens?
    What is so wrong about peace, justice, democracy and ecological sustainability?

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