Will Big Business Destroy Our Planet? by Peter Dauvergne

The Blurb On The Back:

Walmart, Coca-Cola, BP, Toyota.  The world economy runs on the profits of transnational corporations.  Politicians need their backing.  Non-profit organizations rely on their philanthropy.  People look to their brands for meaning.  And their power continues to rise.

Can these companies, as so many are now hoping, provide the solutions to end the mounting global environmental crisis? Absolutely, the CEOs of big business are telling us: the commitment to corporate social responsibility will ensure it happens voluntarily.

Peter Dauvergne challenges this claim, arguing instead that corporations are still doing far more to destroy than protect our planet.  Trusting big business to lead sustainability is, he cautions, unwise – perhaps even catastrophic.  Planetary sustainability will require reining in the power of big business, starting now. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Peter Dauvergne is Professor of International Relations at the University of British Columbia and in this caustic, thought-provoking book he argues that while big business sustainability efforts help minimise the destruction of the environment, they play second fiddle to the need to generate profit and therefore governmental and international control is required to curb their activities and reduce their damaging impact on the environment.

Dauvergne’s starting point is to reiterate the fact that corporations are usually legally constructed to pursue and maximise profit and to thereby ensure a return to shareholders.  Therefore corporate sustainability efforts have to be viewed as against that maxim, which highlights an incompatibility between the two, e.g. companies usually campaign for governments to reduce the regulatory burden placed on them rather than increase or improve it.  He goes further though, by also pointing out that corporations drive excessive consumption, wasteful consumption and unequal consumption, ensuring a trend towards overconsumption, i.e. consumption beyond what the earth can sustain.

This is not an anti-business book by any means.  Dauvergne is at pains to acknowledge that consumption helps to raise living standards and take people out of poverty – and he acknowledges that corporations are improving their relationships with environmental organisations and improving conservation activities while accepting that some companies do go over and above the norm in the field.  However, he also makes the point that where companies target reducing waste and packing, increasing recycling, improving energy efficiency and improving standards along their supply chain, this is mainly because doing so decreases the company’s costs, which in turn allows it to maximise productivity and profits.  In his view, corporate social responsibility plans are drawn up and implemented to soften criticism and generate praise for big business (including by earning buy-in from environmental and human rights groups), to enhance corporate power over sustainability governance by putting them in the driving seat of public policy, and to thereby justify regulations that are friendlier towards the corporate goal of maximising profits, production and sales.

This caustic, jaundiced argument permeates the book as Dauvergne deftly sets out the rise of corporations and multinationals, the accompanying rise of the millionaire and billionaire classes and the stranglehold that their lobbying has on the political classes. Particularly damning are his remarks on global agriculture – certainly I hadn’t realised that companies using genetic engineering on seeds often make those genetically engineered seeds dependent on the company’s own pesticides and fertilizers and serve to reduce the varieties of seed available to farmers and so increase their own control over food production.

Dauvergne is at his most damning when he examines the dark side of business activities, examining such well-worn subjects as multinational tax avoidance, the VW emissions scandal and oil company attempts to prevent climate change regulations from being introduced and how companies encourage overconsumption.  He also points out how the audit rights that multinationals have over their supply chain seldom goes beyond first or second tier suppliers, meaning that the scope of the audit can never uncover the truth of the situation and that global companies like this because otherwise it could increase their costs.

For all this though, Dauvergne still believes that corporations can be stopped from completely destroying the planet. Primarily this comes from the need of corporations to ensure self-preservation by improving their management of scarce resources, reducing packaging, installing their own renewable energy supplies and forcing these initiatives through their supply chains because of the knock-on cost savings they generate in the long run.  He also points to the rise of environmentalism and the effect it has on public attitudes, e.g. the public outcry against plastics that has arisen in the last 12 months, the campaign against palm oil and in China the decrease in coal production and switch to renewables because of the need to improve air quality for its people.  However, he is at pains to show how corporations have grown cannier about hijacking the environmental agenda to steer it towards its own self interests (e.g. it’s noticeable how the debate on the use of plastics is focused on consumer use of plastic straws and bags, when this is insignificant against business use of single-use plastic and disposal of the same).

The problem though is that in order to curb corporations’ activities, governments have to step up to do more to regulate them and environmental organisations have to expose more bad behaviour and that’s a tall order – especially given the influence that corporate lobbyists have over government officials.  Dauvergne believes that corporations need, in part, public trust, but it’s telling that even when big corporates get caught out for their bad behaviour, e.g. VW or BP, public condemnation doesn’t impact their sales or their share price for long and they inevitably spring back.  Ultimately, I have to say that I’m not convinced the public is going to be able to sustain the pressure on corporations to improve, especially when corporations use techniques such as astroturfing to influence opinion to maintain their position.  Despite this concern though, I think that this is a really interesting book and anyone with an interest in the environment would get a lot from it.

WILL BIG BUSINESS DESTROY OUR PLANET? was released in the United Kingdom on 6thApril 2018.  Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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