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Corporations veering toward environmental sustainability

Peter Dauvergne, political science professor at the University of British Columbia, speaks Friday at the LSRC
Peter Dauvergne, political science professor at the University of British Columbia, speaks Friday at the LSRC

The public shouldn’t let old practices perpetuate the view that corporations are all villains in the move toward a more sustainable future.

Big-brand corporations’ growing focus on sustainability is paralleling an overwhelming cultural shift in that direction, said Peter Dauvergne, political science professor and Canada research chair in global environmental politics at the University of British Columbia. Addressing a crowd of faculty and students at a talk sponsored by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions Oct. 28, Dauvergne discussed the need for environmentalists to move past historical anti-corporation attitudes and embrace the role corporations can play in a sustainable world.

Dauvergne has written more than 50 articles and nine books on the politics of global environmental change, including subjects such as sustainable consumption and corporate social responsibility. He serves as director of the Liu Institute for Global Issues, having previously directed the Institute’s Environment Program. He was also the founding editor of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology journal, Global Environmental Politics.

“Sustainability is becoming a very powerful tool for these companies to control supply chains as chain leaders,” Dauvergne said. “Over the next decade, corporations will develop a very different business model that largely incorporates environmental and sustainability efforts.”

Walmart, Nike and McDonalds are examples of large corporations attempting to enact sustainability efforts, he said. For instance, Walmart has severed ties with some suppliers in China due to environmental abuses.

“By adopting goals like zero waste to landfill and 100 percent sustainable sourcing, it becomes a more powerful way for these companies to claim leadership,” he said.

The recent corporate sustainability trend may result from a realization that resources are scarce, added Jeff Vincent, professor of forest economics and management at the Nicholas School.

“There is a long history of this in the business of cost savings. Corporations must have anticipated this near the beginning of the decade with oil price increases,” he said.

A growing belief in climate change, public pressure and an overall public shift toward sustainable living contribute to the corporate drive for sustainability, Dauvergne added. There is, however, an inherent stigma against large corporations and reversing this trend will be difficult.

“From an environmental authority perspective, these companies are trying to legitimize themselves after years of losing trust with consumer individuals,” he said.

To combat this, major corporations such as Coca-Cola are teaming up with nongovernmental organizations to aid this transition.

“I would argue, with the economy in the state that it is, that companies are going to accelerate this trend,” Dauvergne said. “The logic that NGOs should not mingle and partner with Walmart because they are an evil old corporation is wrong.”

Mixing corporatism with sustainability is not the biggest challenge facing the environment, Dauvergne noted.

“It is not a replacement for government action,” he said. “The biggest limit is the idea that this remains the sustainability of business, not the sustainability of the planet.”

Audience member David Bell, a doctoral student at the Nicholas School, said it is vital that large corporations team up with NGOs for success to spill over.

“I imagine that the forum in which NGOs and corporations interact will serve as a model for governments to increase cooperation with the private sector for environmental causes,” Bell said.

Although companies are trying to improve their image, Dauvergne reminded the audience that business still remains business.

“The interesting thing to note is that corporations are looking at sustainability as necessary to grow and to expand.” he said. “[They’re] increasing profits through [customer] appeal and cutting waste is a major theme.”

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