Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press)

Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press)

by Adrian Parr

ISBN: 9780262013062

Publisher The MIT Press

Published in Business & Investing/Green Business

Are you an AUTHOR? Click here to include your books on

Sample Chapter

The Greening of Junkspace

One says "pleasure in a thing": but in reality it is pleasure in oneself by means of a thing. -Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human

At the turn of the twenty-first century, sustainability has rapidly become the buzzword on everyone's lips. In the United States it is not ideology that is turning sustainability into a cultural hegemonic: it is a socially and environmentally conscious multitude whose investment and consumption patterns are prompting multinational corporations such as Wal-Mart and BP to develop a new image of corporate social responsibility. The rise of socially (and environmentally) responsible investment (SRI) has prompted corporations to become more accountable and transparent. At the same time, the convergence of popular culture and the sustainability movement has provided the corporate world with new opportunities to resituate their products and services within the competitive global market. Ironically, ecobranding-this new strain of branding committed to showcasing a company's social and environmental responsibility-has been empowered by the emerging culture of activist investment. However, what are the effects of this marriage between commerce and sustainability culture? Does ecobranding produce passive landscapes of consumption or active and affective landscapes conducive to sustainable ways of life?

As social and environmental injustices present themselves, there has been a simultaneous cultural shift toward social and environmental activism. This phenomenon, which I describe as sustainability culture, is an affective state. That is, it is associated with shifts in the state of a body's feeling of power. The feeling of power, however, too often is confused with the power to act as compared with a more affective notion that involves a power to affect and be affected. In other words, instead of asking what power is and where it comes from, we need to ask how it is practiced. A case in point would be the strengthening culture of SRI. These investors align their money with certain ethical positions they hold, such as not financing companies that support military regimes or ones that use child labor. The feeling of power produced in the activist investor simultaneously empowers the corporate sector to change. In turn, these changes affect the commodity market and character of popular culture. That said, just because sustainability culture can change the way the corporate world does business, assuming that this equates with corporate transparency and accountability would be a mistake. As the theory of greenwashing brings to our attention, activist investment does not necessarily change the ills of the global marketplace; corporations also use the affective power of sustainability culture to camouflage otherwise unsustainable business practices. Corporate Watch calls this technique greenwashing, "the phenomenon of socially and environmentally destructive corporations attempting to preserve and expand their markets or power by posing as friends of the earth." Greenwashing aspires to change the public's negative perception of a corporation by promoting a new sustainable corporate image. However, the public face of the company is asymmetrically aligned with the way it conducts business.

A case in point would be the multinational oil company BP, originally British Petroleum and later BP Amoco after 1999. BP set out to redefine itself as an environmental company in 1997 when it withdrew support from the Global Climate Coalition, an industry organization established in opposition to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and that had fought hard against regulating greenhouse gas emissions. The often-cited reason given by the BP chairman for the break was, "the time to consider the policy dimensions of climate change is not when the link between greenhouse gases and climate change is conclusively proven, but when the possibility cannot be discounted and is taken seriously by the society of which we are part. We in BP have reached that point." BP reentered the market with a fresh logo, a name change, and an aggressive marketing campaign under the guidance of renowned advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather. In 2000 the connection between environmentalism and BP was further reinforced with the slogan "Beyond Petroleum," a catchy way to repeat the old association while producing it differently. The slogan quickly helped situate BP in the object space of environmental brands such as the Rainforest Action Network, whose slogan for its alternative energy campaign was "Beyond Oil." As is discussed later in this chapter, this strategy is common for those involved in realist branding initiatives-the equity of the brand is the result of finding its own niche within object space alongside other similar products that are used to legitimate the credibility of the brand and from which the new brand also differentiates itself. So how does BP's social and environmental record align with the socially and environmentally responsible image that its new logo touts?

The story reveals itself as we work backward in time. In July 2007, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state of Indiana had given BP an exemption from the provisions outlined in the Clean Water Act (1977), allowing the company to dump approximately 4,925 pounds of sludge and 1,584 pounds of ammonia into Lake Michigan. Before that, there was the lawsuit Colombian farmers waged against the company in 2006 after they had been forcibly removed from their farms to make way for a 450-mile BP pipeline. The farmers had been intimidated by Columbian paramilitary groups to relocate to nearby towns, where they lived in slum conditions. After taking their case to the High Court in London, where BP faced a charge of human-rights abuses, the two sides came to a mutual agreement prior to the case going to trial. The company not only avoided a very public and lengthy trial, but it also did not have to admit liability.

A leakage from a corroded Alaskan pipeline on March 2, 2006 resulted in BP indefinitely closing down its Prudhoe Bay operation in August 2006. This negatively impacted upon 8 percent of the U.S. domestically produced oil supply. The Alaskan oil spill of approximately 270,000 gallons of crude oil-the largest spill in the history of the North Slope-resulted in a U.S. grand jury issuing a subpoena to the company in June of 2006. Slightly farther back in time, on March 23, 2005, their Texas refinery exploded, killing fifteen people and injuring more than 170 others; BP was fined $21,361,500 by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for violating safety regulations, which resulted in the explosion. After a thorough investigation took place, the verdict of the U.S. congressional committee was that cost cutting "was having a troubling effect on the company's ability to design and maintain a sound corrosion control program." Furthermore the committee reported that the problems leading to the Alaska oil spills were strikingly similar to those that created the Houston refinery explosion. After the Texas refinery incident, outraged shareholders demanded that BP directors have their bonuses linked to how well the company performs on safety and environmental issues, a clear case of SRI at work.

BP is a recent example of SRI in the United States, but in the past SRI often began with religious groups and indigenous cultures marrying their core beliefs and traditional ways of life to their economic practices. Namely, it was common practice amongst the Quakers and Methodists to invest in ways that did not promote the slave trade. Established in 1928 as primarily a Christian investment fund, Pioneer Fund screened its portfolio of "sin stocks." To this day there are no alcohol, tobacco, or gambling industries in the fund's portfolio. Then, the U.S. civil rights, feminist, and environmental and peace movements of the 1960s raised the public's awareness of corporate responsibility on social and environmental justice issues. By the late 60s and early 70s this interest in SRI became more institutionalized, seeing the establishment of organizations such as the Investor Responsibility Research Center and the Council of Economic Priorities. Also around this time the first contemporary form of socially responsible mutual funds came into being with the Pax World Fund (1971) and the Dreyfus Third Century Fund (1972), both of which avoided investing in companies with shoddy social and environmental records, nuclear power stocks, and military defense contractors.

However, it was not until the anti-Apartheid campaign of the 1980s that the SRI movement really gathered steam in the United States. At this time "social investors and institutions divested their portfolios of companies doing business in South Africa as a protest against the regime's system of racial inequality or led resolutions with companies in operations there." Continuing on from there, Chernobyl and the Exxon Valdez oil spill provided flashpoints for investors concerned with environmental corporate responsibility. In this way, the anti-Apartheid campaign and a series of high-profile environmental disasters produced a break in the socioeconomic arena, one that redistributed social energies so that they found investment in a different mode of economic practice. The result was that the power of the shareholder started to intensify and shape the economic landscape from the bottom up. The anti-Apartheid investment campaign changed the nature of investment. Drawing on the energies and affects that connect with broader collective struggles, SRI redefined the landscape of investment as it energized the voice of the investor, and in the process the culture of the corporation started to enunciate itself differently. As SRI gathered momentum it generated different ways of entering into the market of investment as well as constructing alternative ways of exiting it.

Such socially responsible investors follow "an investment process that considers the social and environmental consequences of investment, both positive and negative, within the context of rigorous financial analysis." This group of investors consists of individuals, universities, businesses, corporations, hospitals, religious and nonprofit organizations, and even pension funds. In the decade prior to 2005 the association between economic life and social and environmentalist culture strengthened, with $1 in every $10 of professional management in 2005 coming from SRI. In 1995, $639 billion-totaling 9 percent of the $7 trillion in total assets under professional management-were managed using SRI strategies. Since then it has increased at an average annual rate of 26 percent; by 2005 SRI reached $2.3 trillion in total assets. From 1995 to 2005 in the United States SRI grew more than 258 percent as compared to other assets under professional management, which grew 249 percent. These figures certainly reinforce the idea behind the Next Industrial Revolution, with environmental and social justice policies being strengthened as they enter into a marriage with the values of big business. Later in this book I challenge this claim more directly, but suffice it say for the moment to briefly add the following caveat: I share the one rule George Monbiot works by, which is to "trust no one who has something to sell."

The three principal SRI strategies include screening, shareholder advocacy, and community investing. The first strategy uses social and environmental criteria to evaluate investment portfolios and mutual funds, much like the previously cited example of the Pax World Fund. In the case of the second strategy, shareholders use their power as owners of U.S. corporations to shape the social and environmental performance of a company. To return to the case of BP, in the wake of the Texas explosion the Local Authority Pension Fund Forum (it owns 1.2 percent of the group's shares) placed BP chair Peter Sutherland under pressure to address how the pay of senior executives could be linked to nonfinancial issues such as social and environmental performance factors. This is a perfect example of shareholder advocacy. The third strategy, community investing, "directs capital from investors and lenders to communities that are underserved by traditional financial services." Combined, they create a political encounter as both the power of the investor and that of the corporation are enhanced in tandem.

The end result of activist investment is a protest portfolio involving both reactive and active uses of power. Activist investment is reactive insofar as it involves a negative screening technique, withdrawing money from companies identified as having a poor social and environmental record. As an active power it seeks out and invests in companies that are enthusiastically involved in promoting the practices of good corporate citizenship. Both modes of investment draw on the notion of power as affective. The idea being, just as the actions of a corporation produce sensations and affects in us and throughout the social field, so too do our own economic practices.

Because it operates outside of the structure of domination, SRI is affective. It constitutes a different exercise of power, which emerges out of a dynamic of agitation as opposed to an ideological struggle between two distinct positions (activist versus capitalist, or the greenwashing thesis that claims corporations ideologically manipulate the public's perception of them). In other words, the investor's own sense of power as a politically engaged citizen and the economic power of the corporate world mutually reinforce each other.

It is evident that the investors' sense of power comes from the feeling that they have the power to not only change the way corporations do business, but also that on a deeper level they increase the power of the corporation and hence their own feelings of power are awakened. In short, the trend toward SRI demonstrates that by contributing to the power of capitalism investors' feelings of power are amplified. As each is affected by and affects the other, their capacities to act and be affected also change, producing a dynamic of creative change. However, one can never tell in advance where this path of transformation and mutation, formed out of the unlikely connection between multinational corporate life and sustainability culture, will go. Will it produce a new organization of a socioeconomic territory, or will it return to the recognizable landscapes of junkspace? More recent trends seem to suggest the latter: as sustainability culture goes corporate, it is turning into another branding strategy.

The changing face of the Hummer is a classic example of what happens when sustainability culture and capitalism join forces. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks a large military vehicle was domesticized and renamed Hummer. Acquired by General Motors in December 1999, the Hummer flexed its fuel-inefficient muscles in defiance of the rest of world, as the U.S. and its allies went to war in the Middle East in search of Osama Bin Laden and later Saddam Hussein. Sales almost doubled between July and November of 2002, while at this time the figures for SRI in the U.S. dropped for the first time in ten years (the social feeling of power was now invested in militarism). In 2001, SRI figures were at $2.32 trillion but they fell to $2.16 trillion in 2003. As these numbers improved (by 2005 SRI increased to $2.29 trillion) this translated into an overall shift in the pattern of commodity culture. Entering the United States on the heels of the Hummer, which gets 13 miles to the gallon, sales figures for the Toyota Hybrid Prius, which in comparison gets 46 miles to the gallon, increased 82 percent from January 2003 to January 2004. According to Autodata, by November 2003 twice as many Prius's were sold as compared to the H1 Hummer.

On the whole, hybrids continued to enjoy robust sales, with Green Car Congress reporting a 43.8 percent rise in sales between 2005 and 2006 alone. In response to these dramatic shifts in the culture of investment and buying, General Motors developed a new Hummer, which was showcased in the Los Angeles Design Challenge. The concept of the Hummer [O.sub.2] is:

a fuel-cell powered vehicle with a phototropic body shell that produces oxygen ([O.sub.2]) even while parked. The concept features algae-filled body panels that consume atmospheric C[O.sub.2] and produce oxygen that is released back into the environment. The [O.sub.2]'s construction specifies the use of 100 percent post-consumer materials like aluminum for the frame and VOC-free finishes.

What we have here is a fascinating crossbreed formed out of an unlikely marriage between ecobranding and militarism. The result was an ironic paradox in terms: a "green Hummer." As General Motors Chief Executive Officer, Rick Wagoner explained:

General Motors is committed to sound corporate citizenship in all aspects of our business. Above all, we know that maintaining a strong company will help ensure our continued commitment to the communities in which we live and work, and to the social interests we have identified as important to our business and our stakeholders.

In other words, the greening of the Hummer was part of a new wave of corporate branding that targets not only the investor but also the consumer.


Excerpted from "Hijacking Sustainability (MIT Press)" by Adrian Parr. Copyright © 0 by Adrian Parr. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Thanks for reading!

Join BookDaily now and receive featured titles to sample for free by email.
Reading a book excerpt is the best way to evaluate it before you spend your time or money.

Just enter your email address and password below to get started:


Your email address is safe with us. Privacy policy
By clicking ”Get Started“ you agree to the Terms of Use. All fields are required

Instant Bonus: Get immediate access to a daily updated listing of free ebooks from Amazon when you confirm your account!

Author Profile

Amazon Reviews