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The Nation: Eco-Efficiency: The Business Link to Sustainable Development

by Gina NeffThe Nation
November 3rd, 1997

Imagine a world in which every environmental strategy descended from the boardrooms of transnational corporations, in which, as in Dilbert's world, total quality management principles were ridiculously applied to all matters outside the office. Were this apocalyptic vision ever to become a reality we could blame, in part, the success of the mainstream environmental movement. Cashing in on the market created by the popularity of the environmental cause, our newfound friends of the environment sell flow charts, management philosophies and product-design criteria to activists while hawking recycled Post-it notes for the rest of us to buy. Or, as Livio DeSimone, Frank Popoff and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development write in their contribution to the market of green ideas, Eco-Efficiency, "Environmental performance is increasingly a determinant of a company's reputation, among employees, customers, and stakeholders alike. A poor environmental reputation can harm recruitment, retention, and morale, damage sales, and threaten a company's "license to operate.'" Businesses should care about environmental issues because of the "high and continuing levels of public -- and therefore employee and customer - concern about them around the world."

In the win-win world of socially responsible business, where there is no trade-off between environmental and economic efficiency, we can have it all -- lots of consumer goodies, successful businessmen and a nice environmental movement. Environmentalism is as simple as cost-cutting: Trim the amount of materials used in production, be an environmental leader (not just a regulation follower) and collaborate with workers, suppliers and "stakeholder organizations." By producing quality goods for environmentally concerned consumers and salvaging valuable materials from waste, environmental excellence becomes the same as business excellence. To illustrate, DeSimone and Popoff show how Peter Paul, maker of Mounds and Almond Joy candy bars, turned its waste coconut water (which had killed most of the fish in the local river and riled the regulators) into a profitable resource. A Taiwanese company now takes what once would have been waste water and turns it into a drink ingredient. For only a small investment in machinery to cut open and pare the coconuts -- which were previously cut by hand -- Peter Paul has "saved money and at the same time been able to produce in a more ecological manner," says the plant's general manager. Except for the workers who were replaced by more "eco-efficient" machines, everyone in this scenario wins.

DeSimone, 3M's C.E.O. and chairman, and Popoff, chairman of the board of Dow Chemical, take confidence in market solutions to environmental problems to its logical conclusion: Market incentives and business leadership are more eco-efficient than pesky regulations and impractical activists. Environmental regulation, they write, "has often carried an unnecessarily high price and given companies no incentives to move beyond compliance." Compliant companies unfairly have to wade through environmental regulations. Maximizing, instead, their economic benefits and freedom of choice will be "more inspiring and less prescriptive than [regulations] on the books today."

With speech fresher and more flowery than floral-scented Clorox, Popoff tries to sanitize Dow's image by showing off its WRAP (Waste Reduction Always Pays) program and its commitment to "design or modify our products to minimize their environmental impact by encouraging their prudent use." How the world's fifth-largest chemical company -- the one that holds the trademark to Styrofoam, brought us leaky silicone breasts, Agent Orange and more than 5 million tons of chlorine every year, and which is, according to Greenpeace, "likely the world's largest root source of dioxin" -- came to claim to care about environmental issues is the story of the co-optation of the mainstream environmental movement itself. Like Peter Paul's yummy coconut water, Dow's waste, too, is slipped into drinks, only these are lethal cocktails of boozy rhetoric -- served with the presumption that we're too drunk to notice they've been spiked.

Fortunately, Joshua Karliner helps us nurse our hangovers. In The Corporate Planet, he explains how transnational corporations like Dow clean up their image rather than their act: "In an effort to appropriate the symbols, language and message of environmentalism while continuing to promote ever expanding consumerist societies, they have created a... global Emerald City in which all things radiate a feel-good verdant hue and people shop happily as they sing their favorite corporate jingles."

Look carefully at Chevron's "People Do" ads, for instance, which were tailormade for us, a "hostile audience" of "socially concerned" people. Karliner points out that the ads cost significantly more to produce than the environmental protection programs they tout. Feigning modesty in one of these ads -- "True, it wasn't born out of pure altruism" -- Chevron brags about how it protected Montana grizzlies, but fails to mention that it was legally obligated to do so. For the mere $ 5,000 a year Chevron spends on its butterfly protection program at its El Segundo refinery, it gets to spend more than $ 200,000 producing an ad to tell us about it, hoping we won't notice that El Segundo is one of the largest single sources of pollution in the greater Los Angeles area.

According to Karliner and others, environmentalism's most famous conference helped concoct this load of greenwashing. Working with Greenpeace International during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Karliner saw how the U.N.-sponsored, conference "marked the coming of age of corporate environmentalism -- the melding of ecological and economic globalization into a coherent ideology that has paved the way for the transnationals to reconcile ... their ubiquitous hunger for profits and growth with the stark realities of poverty and environmental destruction." Karliner quotes Maurice Strong, the secretary-general of the Earth Summit, as saying that "the environment is not going to be saved by environmentalists. Environmentalists do not hold the levers of economic power." It was Strong who sought the international business community's official involvement in the Earth Summit. Asking Stephan Schmidheiny, a Swiss billionaire, to be his principal adviser for business and industry led to Schmidheiny's founding the Business Council for Sustainable Development, the predecessor to the W.B.C.S.D. And it is Strong who gushes about eco-efficiency in his foreword to the W.B.C.S.D.'S new book, optimistically predicting "how quickly the idea will spread, how fast it will be implemented and how much it will contribute." In addition to the levers of economic power, transnational corporations have arrogated the language of the environmental movement and are the only ones with the "efficient" solution to environmental problems. Now all we have to do is buy it.

Karliner, who now directs the Transnational Resource and Action Center and edits Corporate Watch (www.corpwatch. org), ambitiously jumps around the corporate planet -- from "Rio's aftermath" to Chevron's Nigerian oilfields to Mitsubishi's clearcutting in Papua New Guinea. In attempting to cover so much environmental destruction, Karliner focuses almost exclusively on the heinous activities of large corporations. But as much as many of us would like to place the entire blame for the sorry state of environmental politics on transnationals, that isn't the whole story. Peter Dauvergne, in his new book, Shadows in the Forest, deftly covers only one of the many territories Karliner has touched and emerges with a more complex causal argument. Mitsubishi and other Japanese wood conglomerates need the cooperation of local power structures, domestic policies and monopolies of Southeast Asian timber exporters to allow the logging status quo to persist. Focusing on one issue in a single region, Dauvergne, a member of Australian National University's international relations department, can still criticize "a world that jealously guards artificial borders, relentlessly pursues economic growth and higher consumption, and invariably protects powerful corporations and state patrons." In an outstanding book published earlier this year, Earth for Sale, Brian Tokar, a faculty member at Goddard College and the Institute for Social Ecology, focused on another aspect of ecology and politics missing from Karliner's analysis, the "institutionalization of mainstream environmentalism." Indicting mainstream environmental groups for selling out, Tokar examines the environmental movement's internal and political maneuvers. For instance, the Sierra Club leadership, not wanting to sacrifice its cozy relationship with Clintonian environmentalism, would never have opposed NAFTA or supported a ban on commercial logging in national forests had it not been forced to do so by its insurgent ranks.

As Tokar sees it, "mainstream environmentalists -- with their unbroken faith in the political process, their illusions of access to power, and their commitment to a discredited and ill-defined political center' -- have rendered themselves largely irrelevant to this emerging discussions." Through their successes in raising awareness of environmental issues, these organizations have inadvertently acted as the advance team for corporate advertising flacks. Not that they put up much of a fight: Budgets of the ten largest environmental organizations have grown from less than $ 10 million in 1965 to more than $ 500 million in 1990, with some of the worst environmental offenders helping to bankroll the cause. When it is near-heresy to accuse of irresponsible behavior the very corporations who have bought a seat at the green table and certainly heresy to indict the system that cows us into receiving them, to reject their generous offers of help seems fuzzy-headed only to those not sobered by scholars and activists like Karliner, Dauvergne and Tokar. The environmental movement now finds itself in the ironic situation of trying to maintain a sort of green center by out-lobbying the corporations. (Notice how slickly DeSimone and Popoff suggest getting rid of environmental regulations.) Corporate calls for self-regulation and appeals for their own brands of economic and environmental practicality comer the enviros politically, making unspeakable compromises look better than the unthinkable alternatives.

Taken together, the Karliner, Dauvergne and Tokar books offer an antidote to the noxious swill and point to ways out of this corner: Dauvergne encourages us to look beyond the actions of transnational corporations to solve unsustainability in our economic systems; Tokar sees a renewed ecological movement emerging from networks of grass-roots activists united by a more holistic approach to social ills; and Karliner calls for local, national and global democratization through "grassroots globalization" that works for institutional change. Without such sweeping changes, it could be the last call for the environmental movement.





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