Review of “The business of less: The role of companies and households on a planet in peril” by Roland Geyer (Routledge: London, 2022)

Roland Geyer’s new book The Business of Less starts with a vivid vignette – taking us back to 1991 and the realization by CES’s founder Prof. Roland Clift that a radical rethinking was needed about pollution, resources, economics and sustainability. Incremental ‘course corrections’ to industrial development could not possibly be enough in the face of mounting global ecological disruption. Roland Clift was – and remains – a pioneer in transdisciplinary work on industrial ecology and sustainable development, bridging the gaps between engineering, systems thinking, environmental science and the social sciences.

On the evidence of the new book, Roland Geyer – an alumnus of CES – has not only learned a vast amount from his namesake but has taken up his mantle as a radical challenger of received wisdom and assumptions. His recent Roland Clift Lecture at the University of Surrey set out the case in his new book against established notions about ‘eco-efficiency’ and ‘win-win’ approaches to sustainable production in business. CES professor Tim Jackson, chairing a panel discussion featuring both Rolands, after the lecture, felt compelled to distinguish them as ‘Roland I ‘and ‘Roland II’. In what follows I will simply refer to Prof. Geyer as ‘Roland’, and will end by setting out an agenda for ‘Roland III’ – although the rising star researchers in CES should be reassured that it’s neither necessary nor sufficient to be called Roland, even if it clearly helps!

Roland Geyer sets out his stall in a punchy first chapter, making the point that three decades of business and political declarations, agreements, targets and investments in ‘eco-efficiency’ of resource use have failed to to put us on course for sustainable development. It is hard to find a corporation or major state that is not committed, on paper, to the UN Global Goals for Sustainable Development, nature conservation, decarbonization, the Paris Accords and reconciling economic growth with ‘the environment’ via ‘win-win’ approaches to eco-efficiency in resource use. That this is so is a triumph of a kind, reflecting the impact of campaigning NGOs and the accumulation of scientific evidence of unsustainable developments over several decades. However, as Roland shows, the gap between rhetoric and strategy on the one hand, and trends in resource use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions on the other, remains huge.

The core of the book comprises a concise but comprehensive analysis of why this gap exists. Eco-efficiency – ‘doing more with less’ – is a dominant approach and value in businesses aiming to become sustainable. As Roland notes, there is nothing wrong with efforts to improve the energy and material efficiency of a unit of production. But he demonstrates that there is a lot wrong with focusing on this idea as the crucial task in moving towards sustainable development, based on the notion that eco-efficiency offers the fabled ‘win-win’, reducing pressure on resources and environment while being good for the financial bottom line.

What is wrong with ‘eco-efficiency’? There is, after all, some important evidence of the ‘decoupling’ of bad environmental impacts from increases in economic output. Decoupling comes in two forms. Relative decoupling means that the negative impacts from a given form of production or consumption are rising more slowly than the economic growth rate. This is better than nothing, but it means that gains in energy and material efficiency are still outweighed by growth in activity – and so damaging impacts are still going up. But the focus on eco-efficiency can blind us to the underlying trend in consumption and impacts. As Roland comments: “Instead of seeing that, since the Earth Summit [of 1992], global CO2 emissions have increased by 62%, eco-efficiency advocates would spread the good news that CO2 intensity of GDP has gone down by 25%. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with eco-efficiency’.

Absolute decoupling is what Roland calls ‘the holy grail of eco-efficiency’. Absolute decoupling means that negative impacts – for example, greenhouse gas emissions – decline towards zero even while GDP growth associated with them rises. There is patchy evidence of some absolute decoupling in the developed world, but clearly nothing like enough yet to break the tight link between fossil fuels, GDP growth and greenhouse gas emissions. Nor is it credible that eco-efficiency gains, plus mass adoption of renewables and new ‘net zero-carbon’ technologies, can deliver a sustainable growth economy in the time left to us to cut GHG emissions in order to limit global heating to 1.5C. The possibility of absolute decoupling is an essential claim and focus for advocates of eco-efficiency approaches to sustainable development, who believe that we can have indefinite economic growth at the same time as radically reducing or eliminating the bad impacts from it. But can we?

Roland’s work at this point begins to converge with that of CES’s Tim Jackson, who has famously questioned the priority given to economic growth, and who explored what an economic system based on prosperity without growth could possibly be like. Roland notes that the problem with the eco-efficiency paradigm is that the environmental benefits it generates in more efficient energy and resource use are swamped by the negative environmental (and other) impacts from economic growth. In a brilliant chapter on ‘why win-win won’t work’ he shows how this process operates at the level of the overall economy and at the level of the corporation. He uses the example of a shoe company to illustrate the case: the logic of profit-seeking, the imperative of growth, rebound effects from eco-efficiency gains – all these work to offset any environmental gains made from decoupling. ‘Win-win’ turns out to mean ‘win-lose’ – as a prelude to ‘lose-lose’ in ecological collapse scenarios –  in a growth economy based on profit maximization.

In subsequent chapters this analysis is applied further, to highlight the limitations of lifecycle analysis and of the idea of a ‘circular economy’ of reuse, repair and recycling. To overlay a circular economy approach on to a growth economy, he shows, is to risk yet more rebound effects, and to encourage more primary production, not less. Roland’s conclusion is compelling and stark: “…it is not enough just to generate a circular economy. Instead, what matters is to what extent the circular economy does away with our current linear economy’.

Roland’s next step is to set out a new paradigm for sustainable business that will overcome the problems inherent in the ‘win-win’ model of eco-efficiency. This framework he calls ‘Net Green’. The core idea is simple and is clearly set out. The aim of sustainable business is to reduce and drive towards zero all negative environmental impacts. Making things less bad less rapidly – the eco-efficiency path –  is not enough. Four key principles are proposed for ‘Net Green’ business. We need less and different forms of production and consumption, using things again, and focusing on labour not materials. The implications are profound: companies need to sell less stuff, more services, with much less material input and waste, with ever lower environmental damage, and with increased labour value so that real wages go up, product costs rise and eco-impacts are reduced as demand is shrunk. A wealth of examples is presented to flesh out the Net Green framework.

This is an admirable book – it’s short, it’s clear and it is unarguably accurate in its diagnosis of what’s gone wrong with the ‘sustainable business’ agenda over the past three decades. The analysis of what could come next – building on the ‘Net Green’ framework – is penetrating and convincing as far as it goes. But does it go far enough? The book ends with reflections on what the argument could mean for businesses and for households. But its challenge goes a lot further. The message of the book is that it is extremely hard to envisage a growth economy of the kind we have, and profit-maximising firms of the kind we know, which are compatible with the absolute decoupling we need of environmental harms from production and consumption.

Roland reflects briefly on the scale of structural change his proposals would require – in taxation for example, and in the values and expectations of business people and of citizens in general. But what the book does not cover – or even sketch – is the political economy, and the moral psychology and ethics, of making the kind of transition Roland convincingly argues we need.

‘Net Green’ would demand a massive political and ethical transformation, not just a profound shift in business models and consumption patterns. How do we change the motivations and desires of affluent citizens, and how do we make room for just transitions for the poor, both in rich and ‘developing’ societies? What will make people want to pay much more for less stuff ? And how do we move from profit-maximisation in enterprise to a far richer ecosystem of enterprises based on wellbeing and Net Green services?  ‘Roland II’ has given us a brilliant analysis of where prevailing sustainable business paradigms fall dangerously short, and a clear and appealing proposition for something far better. But it might need a ‘Roland III’ to take on the enormous task of working out the political economy of rapid transition – which we want to be peaceful and democratic, not based on emergency measures – towards something like the Net Green model.

Review by Ian Christie, Senior Lecturer, Social Science of Sustainable Development, CES, University of Surrey