The Business of Less

October 25, 2021
energy efficiency
environmental impact
lifestyle changes

In ‘The Business of Less’ UC Santa Barbara industrial ecologist Roland Geyer criticises two of the central tenets of the ‘corporate sustainability gospel’:

1. Eco-efficiency – the belief that sustainability can be achieved solely by reducing the environmental impact of each good or service.

2. Win-win – the belief that increasing profits or revenues should be the sole motive behind sustainability initiatives.

As Geyer notes, the increasingly enthusiastic adoption of corporate sustainability plans since the 1990s – for instance in initiatives to develop electric cars or use eco-friendly materials – has coincided with a significant deterioration of the global environment. While the impact of each item we produce has improved, he points out, such gains are eclipsed by the fact that we continue to make more of them. For instance, the number of cars produced globally almost doubled between 1991 and 2019 (from 47 million per annum to 92 million). Consumer behaviour is a confounding factor, with purchases of more sustainable products often leading to a ‘rebound effect’ that negates the benefits.

Geyer argues that the root cause is economic growth, which creates a self-sustaining cycle of more wealth, demand, production and further growth that is inherently unsustainable. He therefore advocates that businesses (and households) adopt a ‘net green’ approach, which values prevention of environmental impacts over control or remediation and targets an overall reduction in impact. This involves looking for ways to lower the impact of what you already do. For example, buying an electric vehicle is net green if it replaces your diesel SUV, but unlikely to be so if you simply add it to your existing car collection.

It can be difficult to gain buy-in for this approach because we live in a society that links growth and consumption with prosperity and success. Geyer suggests that new narratives of what constitutes the ‘good life’ for individuals or success for organisations may be required.

One way that we can potentially improve our quality of life while reducing our impact is to spend discretionary income on experiences, such as massages, rather than consumer goods.