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Book review: ‘The Business of Less’ by Roland Geyer

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Published: 4 January 2022

Professor Geyer asks plenty of pointed questions. If corporate greening is really making such tremendous strides, then why is the world’s health deteriorating? In his book he argues for a new, ‘net-green’ paradigm.

Roland Geyer advocates businesses, investors and private consumers should develop a concept of ‘net green’.

in brief

  • Geyer ably demonstrates the shortfalls in the ‘win-win’ ethos that has come to dominate the impact industry.
  • In its place, he advocates businesses, investors and private consumers should develop a concept of ‘net green’: the bottom line on any activity undertaken in terms of emissions and environmental harm.
  • We are given four guiding principles of varying value – Different, Again, Less, and Labour not materials.

Iconoclasts come in many shapes and sizes. Roland Geyer grew up in1980’s Germany in “a seemingly never-ending feast of consumption…a conveyor belt of luxury goods.” He lived through the Green movement, acid rain and Chernobyl, and is now a Professor at Santa Barbara (University of California) where a full 1% of students identify as ‘conservative’.

“Sitting in a remote cabin above Carmel Valley California,” or rather what’s left of it after the recent wildfires, and “after twenty-three years of studying environmental sustainability,” it’s no surprise he’s got a lot to get off his chest.

Business schools get very short shrift. “No one (there) was ever able to give me a meaningful definition of what a green product or business practice is.”

According to Geyer they’re all about financial success and there is “enormous naivety” about even “the notion of green.” Therefore “talking at business schools about environmental impact reduction for its own sake is a nonstarter.” After reading this book I’m not sure he’d be invited anyway.

Which is a shame, because Geyer makes very interesting points and asks plenty of awkward questions.

Reading UN environmental reports “feels a bit like watching Groundhog Day” – we go from the 2012 headline ‘World remains on unsustainable track’ to ‘damage to the planet is so dire that people’s health will be increasingly threatened’ (2019), to ‘a major species extinction event is unfolding.’ And yet nothing seems to change.

“If we were making all these amazing strides in corporate greening,” Geyers asks, “why did the health of our planet go from bad to worse?”

Greenwashing and ‘eco-efficiency’

Geyer asserts that “the notion of ‘eco-efficiency’ gives us the illusion that we can achieve environmental sustainability without having to question the pursuit of never-ending economic growth.”

Further, “The ‘win-win’ paradigm is meant to assure us that companies can be protectors of the environment while also being profit maximisers.” He ably demonstrates both assumptions are flawed.

Any product can be deemed green with enough washing. We are introduced to Forest Reinhardt’s “Environmental Product differentiation” which “introduced Monsanto’s herbicide Roundup as a green product since it…reduces the need for tillage.” Roundup is of course now “listed by the World Health Organisation as probably carcinogenic.”

Talking of greenwashing, Dell announced in 2008 it was going ‘carbon neutral’ only for it to be exposed that this referred only to the 0.49 million metric tonnes emitted in its corporate operations – not the ten times larger amount emitted making and using its computers. “Unsurprisingly, Dell received a fair amount of ridicule.”

Even when no greenwashing is taking place, Geyer shows too often eco-efficiency gains lead only to greater consumption. “One in four homes in Norway now use heat pumps. Unfortunately, a 2013 study by the Norwegian statistics bureau found that these households use their heating costs savings to have warmer homes.” Ouch.

“By keeping one’s sights trained narrowly on eco-efficiency gains, one runs the risk of missing the actual goal, which is moving the planet from its unsustainable pathway.”

The four ‘pollution prevention principles’

Rather, Geyer wants to introduce a “new paradigm” which is “net-green.” He tells us “A business activity is ‘net-green’ (only) if it leads to an overall reduction in environmental impact.”

So far so good. But when Geyer turns to the practical implications of the four “pollution prevention principles” – Different, Again, Less, and Labour not materials – the wheels start to come off his arguments. However interesting they may be.

The arguments for ‘Different’ are well rehearsed. The biggest contribution any household can make to its own environmental impact is by three things. Stop eating beef (you don’t have to go vegan, even switching to eating pork achieves almost an 80% reduction in your emissions), fly less, and buy an electric car. No shock there. The arguments for investing in more renewable energy are strong, but I would hardly term them ‘different’, even in America.

‘Again’ is just recycling. Geyer rightly observes how bizarre the twentieth century is with its adoption of single-use products, but ultimately, he makes a lot of recycling seem pointless.

By this stage the reader has learnt Geyer’s own trick. Of course, if we all consume ‘Less’ then this will help the environment. But what are the unseen consequences? Would social inequalities be frozen? Would healthcare continue to improve?

In ‘Labour not Materials’ Geyer argues that “every dollar spent on haircuts, music lessons, exercise classes and massages cannot be spent on environmentally impactful stuff and is thus net-green.”

Oh no it isn’t. As you’ve taught us, professor, what if the service provider takes those dollars and buys an SUV?

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