Review by Matto Mildenberger, Yale University

Eco-Business: A Big-Brand Takeover of Sustainability by Peter Dauvergne and Jane Lister, MIT Press, 2013, 208pp.

The last decade has seen global brands, including Walmart, General Electric, and Coca-Cola, proliferate corporate sustainability initiatives. But can these initiatives deliver global sustainability? In a compact volume, Dauvergne and Lister elaborate the theoretical reasons for being skeptical of this approach. Unlike earlier multinational corporate environmental programs, described as little more than greenwashing, the authors argue that recent corporate actions reflect a major, strategic shift in business operations. However, these efforts are motivated more by profit imperatives than by environmental or social goals. The authors argue that sustainability initiatives help moderate the risks associated with complex, global supply-chains, increase global competitiveness and enhance brand loyalty. They assert these initiatives herald a shift in governance power away from the state towards private retail and manufacturing interests. While big-brand sustainability programs can produce some concrete environmental change, they also facilitate consumer growth and stabilize current economic structures. This leaves them unlikely to trigger the transformative change necessary for a sustainability transition.

Eco-Business is brimming with more thought-provoking ideas than many texts twice its length, raising critical questions about corporate sustainability efforts that it does not always give itself time to answer. For example, the reader is left wanting further elaboration of the conditions under which big business sustainability efforts can still generate meaningful environmental change. Nonetheless, Dauvergne and Lister have outlined a fascinating new research agenda that should spark needed debate about business’ ability to drive positive environmental change.

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