(Fizzy) Bubble Busted: Why Big Business CANNOT Save the Earth

A response to the Dec 5th, 2009 NYT Op-Ed Will Big Business Save the Earth? by professor Jared Diamond.

Brian Moss

by Brian Moss, Erb MBA/MS student, class of 2012.

After reading Prof. Diamond’s new “nuanced” views on the recent environmental actions of several large corporations, I was left vaguely dissatisfied with his seemingly shallow and shortsighted analysis. This was a puzzling conclusion for me considering his thoughtful testimonials about the long-term effects of environmental decisions on civilizations in his insightful 2005 book, Collapse.

I guess it all comes down to your definition of “environmental sustainability”. After taking Prof. Gladwin’s Erb seminar for first year students, mine goes something like: total worldwide consumption of renewable resources occurring at a level no greater than that which can be replaced each year by natural systems, and near-zero consumption of non-renewable resources. As far as I can tell from his piece, Prof. Diamond’s definition of environmental sustainability apparently lies closer to a ‘greener’ version of business as usual.

Technological or energy-intensity improvements seem to be the crux of his argument for the “environmentally sustainable” initiatives of Wal-Mart and Coke. Yes, those will help, both to reduce each company’s impact on the environment (at the margin) and to help each company be more profitable (in the short run). However, as the sustainability director for Wal-Mart indicated during a visit to Erb professor Andy Hoffman’s Competitive Environmental Strategy course earlier this semester, Wal-Mart’s current business plan is predicated on increasing throughput every year – a clear indicator that they will never achieve long-term or ‘true’ sustainability (Remember, just as with any natural resource, there is a finite amount of fish that can be ’sustainably’ harvested each year, regardless of sales targets). I believe many (if not all) major corporations hold the same view. Therefore, regardless of corporate image, sustainability initiatives, or even articles such as this one, the best that current corporate behemoths can hope to accomplish is a ‘greener’ version of our current economic system. And this is definitely not the path to long-term sustainable worldwide consumption.

As for Chevron, they clearly recognize that their environmental image is now a potential strategic liability (and asset), and they have therefore adopted practices to protect that image. This image has nothing to do with being sustainable or environmentally responsible at a gut level – it is simply successful strategic planning and positioning.

Nothing sustainability paradigm-shifting here either.

Should companies such as these be recognized as helping to slow down the rate of worldwide environmental degradation (whilst simultaneously improving their bottom line)? Certainly. In my view, however, this piece is simply a more “nuanced” version of the corporate green-washing we complain about when we see advertisements for fuel-efficient SUVs or eco-friendly bottled water. Once you see through the hype, it becomes clear that what is being advertised has NOTHING to do with actually saving the planet.

How “unjust” this criticism of big business is remains to be seen. But you will not find me sipping a Coke as I wander down the fish aisle in my local Wal-Mart waiting to find out.

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