Whether you believe the greening of business is hype and greenwash, or that businesses are starting to play an important role in hastening the coming ecological age, In Earth's Company provides a good overview of the successes, failures, and challenges of corporate environmentalism.
Author Carl Frankel is the North American editor for Tomorrow magazine, a slick glossy publication from Sweden that is one of the better periodicals covering developments in business and the environment. Frankel makes good use of his broad knowledge of current events in environmental management and his book is full of stories and examples that go beyond the usual extremes of either finger pointing or hero worship.
Frankel does not attempt to demonstrate the overwhelming decline in global life support systems. He accepts that this has been well documented in many other places and focuses on how businesses have reacted to this overwhelming driving force.
Why are major corporations now starting to consider integrating sustainability into their strategies and operations? To answer this question requires an understanding of the four eras of corporate environmentalism
The first era of corporate environmentalism was the era of barebones regulatory compliance. Simply complying with the growing array of environmental laws developed in the 1960s and 70s kept corporate environmental management fully occupied.
After environmental catastrophes such as the release of 57,000 litres of methyl isocyanate from a Union Carbide plant into the air in Bhopal, India that killed and injured thousands, companies felt extreme pressure to disclose more to their stakeholders. The second era of increased disclosure began.
Out of increased disclosure, public accountability increased and companies began to make voluntary commitments to go "beyond compliance," the defining characteristic of the current third era of corporate environmentalism.
The fourth era of corporate environmentalism is just beginning. To achieve it, bigger, more creative, higher-level thinking - systems-level thinking - is required. Businesses have generally taken a narrow view of the nature and implications of sustainable development. Frankel believes that this needs to change before corporations can develop truly effective sustainability strategies. The key challenge is educational - a matter of changing mental models.
Tracing the evolution of four eras of corporate environmentalism, Frankel concludes that the business community may be on a sustainability trajectory it isn't quite aware of. I hope he is right. According to Frankel, the transition to the fourth era of corporate environmentalism is linked to the death of modernism and the transition to a post-modern, post-industrial culture. Drawing parallels to the dawn of the industrial age, we know something large and significant is happening, we're just not sure what the outcome will be.
Frankel calls for a new humanism - a new appreciation of the qualitative "depth dimension" of experience. The business axiom of "what gets measured gets managed" ignores the converse that what isn't measured (e.g. soulfulness, connectedness, meaning, artistry, etc.) gets discounted and ignored.
Frankel acknowledges the need for radical change. He traces the rise of green consumerism and the challenge of creating a consumer movement that puts sustained pressure on the corporate community to create meaningful change. At the same time, he is disturbed that what were once called "members of the public" or, better yet, "citizens," are now referred to as consumers. This is a symptom of a society whose underlying theme is "I buy, therefore I am." We need to become green citizens, not green consumers. The difference is one of underlying ideology versus passing issue.
Finally, Frankel argues that many of the concepts and technologies for creating a sustainable future have already been developed and are in place. He points to examples like zero waste design concepts that have produced fabric-dyeing factories where the water effluent is cleaner than the water brought in. Some innovative companies are leasing their products so that they sell a service (e.g. "cold beer") rather than a product (the refrigerator). This changes the cost of ownership drastically and more durable products and many other environmental innovations become economic. Micro-credit can help address some of the social justice and equity issues of sustainability. Other useful concepts include The Natural Step, and "Factor Four" that envisions a four-fold increase in material and energy efficiency.
According to Frankel, it is not a question of if we will make the transition to a sustainable society but when? "Will we continue to limp and stagger toward sustainability, with the cultural and political mainstream largely oblivious to the urgency of the challenge? Or will we at some point, ... display the collective wit and will to commit massive resources to accelerating the transition into a more sustainable industrial culture?"
In Earth's Company is a thoughtful and informative piece about the history and current status of environment and sustainability within the business world. It covers a lot of ground and provides an accurate view of some of the key challenges facing those who see a role and opportunity for businesses in creating a more sustainable world.
With a foreword by leading author and environmentalist Paul Hawken as well as endorsements from a broad range of greeneratti including Hazel Henderson, David Korten and architect Bill McDonough, In Earth's Company is sure to win "must read" status within the corporate sustainability niche. It deserves to be read by a much broader audience and could make a solid contribution to a richer and better informed dialogue involving business, governments and citizens.