This post is the fifth in a seven part series on the state of introductory environmental politics literature. 

Sustainability Through Eco-Capitalism

This rapidly emerging subfield addresses the belief that companies can be founded on sets of business ethics, not just profits. This challenges the assumption that business ethics in a mission statement can be more than ‘afterthought ethics,’ statements that are tacked on to a business to make it appear more sustainable (Chouinard and Stanley 2012; Humes 2010). The question is raised of ‘can businesses be truly eco-ethical and sustainable intuitions?’ Are businesses fated to always hold tension between their moral stances and business missions? In other words, is sustainability antithetical to making a profit (Dauvergene and Listor 2013; Schor 1999)?

Eco-capitalism, also referred to as ‘green consumerism’ is the first step to developing a different mindset on buying and money allocation. Businesses practicing eco-capitalism and sustainable manufacturing affect consumer’s purchasing power by directing it away from wasteful materials or packaging, or products with a short life (Schor 1999; Wackernagel and Rees 1996). Unfortunately, while consumers may purchase used items, or items repaired or designed to have a long product life (such as Patagonia products), they are still entrenched in a consumer pattern. Redirecting purchasing patterns only goes so far—eco-capitalism must address broader patterns of purchase and materialism.

Many of the companies discussed appear to find company sustainability culture to rest on the leadership of the businesses’ early CEOS. Humes in particular analyzes the way a CEO’s individual growth and development can later shape business culture, even after the individual leaves the position (2010). A critical focus for later eco-capitalism works is the potential and durability of leadership ethics to persist in a business after the individuals leave the company. Moreover, is it possible for an econbusiness to arise without an individual champion, or a small group of founders? Is it possible for a focus on sustainability to arise organically within an existing company culture? So far, scholars suggest not (Chouinard and Stanley 2012; Dauvergene and Lister 2013; Humes 2010).

A further question we must ask is how can consumers keep their eyes open for false ecobusinesses—those who tack unregulated sustainability claims on products for profit’s sake? Some scholars find this duplicity a real threat to the emergence of eco-sustainability as a climate change dampener (Dauvergene and Lister 2013). Others believe that there will be greater regulation in the long term, in both material product and ‘experience’ purchases (Holden 2016). This connects to the discussion on the growing political power of businesses.

Most scholars recognize the growing power of industries, interest groups, and businesses in shaping trends and tastes. Most authors agree on the growing potential of ecobusinesses to sway both consumer preferences and politics; however, they vary on whether this swaying power is good or bad. Those to consider eco-capitalism as a tool to reshape consumer preferences in a more sustainable manner find this growth of influence a definite boon (Chouinard and Stanley 2012; Dauvergene and Lister 2013). Conversely, those who see businesses are more profit driven, who will use ecobusiness tactics and labels to simply sway a consumer base, will find the influence of businesses to hold distinct dangers (Schor 1999; Humes 2010). Schor also tends to look at the wealthy individuals who head businesses, rather than the comprehensive business. This recognizes the influence leadershiphas in engaging in controversial decisions, such as engagement and conservation in Chile (1999; Humes 2010).

Ultimately, there is a clear political trend in the way businesses engage with consumers, shareholders, stakeholders, and the environment they conduct businesses in (Dauvergene and Lister 2013). Businesses have clear strengths and sway in a consumer society, and those who attempt to manipulate the ecobusiness signals indicate there is value behind these signals in attracting consumers. Businesses see value in emphasizing their sustainability, whether they are actual or supposed (Dauvergene and Lister 2013).

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