Skip to main content

The wrong-headed solutions of corporate sustainability

<p>Present-day corporate sustainability strategies ignore the systemic effects of what they do to produce and market their goods.</p>

In their new book, Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability (Stanford University Press, April 2013), authors John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman invite readers to eavesdrop on a conversation between them as they discuss how to create a sustainable world. Much of the book is based on taped conversations and structured like a dialogue, or Q&A sessions divided up by themes, such as “The Myths of Our Modern Culture” or “Reasons to Be Hopeful.” Each chapter opens with a brief narrative in Ehrenfeld’s voice and edited by Hoffman. Ehrenfeld, Hoffman’s former teacher, instructs readers in his unique and often surprising perspective by way of these essays. They also allow us to peek around the corner, to preview what is coming in the authors’ tête-à-tête.

In the following excerpt, Ehrenfeld describes “The Wrong-Headed Solutions of Corporate Sustainability.”

If you look at the semantics of the phrase “corporate sustainability,” it means a condition in which the corporation prospers for a long time. I don’t think this is what it was meant to refer to, but there it is. It’s important to get this straight because so many businesses (and the business schools that serve them) are increasing their attention to “sustainability” through both words and deeds. Increasing numbers of firms are adopting a program of “corporate sustainability,” complete with a “chief sustainability officer,” annual sustainability reports, green product lines and a well-equipped PR department to “sell” them. It is encouraging to see firms show that they are thinking about sustainability, but they have got it mostly or completely wrong. My concern is not that this new awareness is the wrong thing to do, but it can, at best, produce only incremental Band-Aids. It will not solve the unsustainability problem at its roots; it can, at best, only lessen its impacts.

I sit in front of my computer and scan the news almost every day. I type in "sustainability," "green," "environmentally friendly" and a host of other related terms and get hundreds of hits a day. What I see are companies talking about their sustainability strategy, and their sustainable and environmentally friendly products. Well, none of them are talking about sustainability-as-flourishing in any real sense. The advertising may be well intentioned but it’s misleading for at least three reasons.

First, sustainability is a property of the whole system in which the firm is situated and is interconnected to many other nodes: other firms, customers, the natural environment, regulators, banks and so on. What matters to sustainability is the health of that worldly system, not the health of any particular enterprise within it.

Second, Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which has become the measure of how businesses care about people and the environment beyond the usual economic factors, is either oxymoronic or hypocritical. The CSR programs at companies such as Walmart, which have a strategy to grow in the name of efficiency and at the expense of local merchants and suppliers, are inconsistent with the vision of sustainability. Such efforts hold humans (the workers) only as instrumental factors of production. They have become interchangeable commodities. Philosopher Immanuel Kant’s important moral imperative is completely ignored. He said, “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.” With this consideration missing, it is easy to see why flourishing is struggling to burst forth. Most CSR programs merely balance the harms done in one place with token beneficence in another. The stirring of efforts to replace wealth driving measures such as GDP with human-centered measures offers some hope for improvement, but the power and dominance of economic and monetary measures are too strongly supported by the myths of modern culture to be displaced any time soon.

And third, most of these efforts, notably led by groups such as The World Business Council for Sustainable Development and following the mandate of the Brundtland Commission, are built upon the notion of eco-efficiency as the central organizing principle. It is a central tenet of the economic models used to devise public policy and business strategies. Growth depends on efficiency improvements. But while efficiency drives competition and growth, it is not the right answer for sustainability. Like growth, efficiency cannot be the long-run strategy. There simply isn’t enough Earth to allow for continuous growth in material terms; and certainly not if growth adds to, rather than reduces, inequality. So while eco-efficiency is a very broad concept and efforts in its name are critically important, to call it a sustainability strategy is misleading.

Don’t read this as meaning that I am opposed to these efforts. They are important. Without them, the velocity at which we are approaching a system collapse would be much higher. It is the suggestion that they have anything to do with sustainability that fires me up. They are part of the fundamental strategy of a liberal, free market economy that always tries to hide from the public the externalities (the unseen, unintended consequences of the economy) tied up with the goods and services that we consume. Whether intentional or not, the road to high profits always has been to push the hidden costs onto the consumers and others. Present-day corporate sustainability strategies do exactly this. They ignore the systemic effects of what they do to produce and market their goods. Further, the way they advertise and publicize their programs lulls the public into believing that the firms are taking care of their future.

No matter how many times someone talks about what they are doing for sustainability — using green, sustainable or sustainability to describe a new product or new program to inform their customers — they are still in the world of Business (Almost) As Usual. It’s different from Business As Usual, but it is not the kind of paradigmatic or transformational shift that is necessary to address health, well-being, community building, interconnectedness and all the other parts of the vision of sustainability-as-flourishing. At this moment in time, almost everything being done in the name of sustainability entails attempts to reduce unsustainability. But reducing unsustainability, although critical, does not and will not create sustainability.

Excerpt from Flourishing: A Frank Conversation About Sustainability, by John R. Ehrenfeld and Andrew J. Hoffman. Copyright ©2013 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University

More on this topic

More by This Author