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close this bookSteering Business Toward Sustainability (UNU, 1995, 191 pages)
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View the documentExecutive summary
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Executive summary

Business activities are responsible, directly or indirectly, for most human impacts on the earth's ecosystems - and business operations today are conducted with too little thought as to their sustainability - that is, the satisfying of our own needs without diminishing the chances of future generations. The term "sustainability," which has both ecological and social components, poses business an inescapable challenge: without sustainability there will soon be no more profits. Hence, business people have a strong self-interest in minimizing the ecological damage of their operations.

In this book, business people, economists, ecologists, and other thinkers outline new practical approaches that business and society, including media and educators, must take to move towards sustainability.

As José Lutzenberger, a Brazilian agronomist active in reducing toxics usage writes, much of the driving force for change in business comes from outside-in particular, from the teeming nongovernmental organizations that marshal ecological and political expertise, educate the public, bring political pressure to bear on government, and outline new and often profitable possibilities for business. But executives must take responsibility themselves for reeducating themselves and their managers. Thus Kris McDivitt, former CEO of the premier outdoor-clothing company Patagonia, tells of her self-education experiences, while Oscar Motomura, whose company runs management education programs in large Brazilian companies, describes his strategies for sensitizing and informing managers. The information needed both within companies and outside is becoming steadily fuller, and Charles Fombrun, Luis Martins, and Alice Tepper Marlin describe the work of services and groups that assess and help to improve the environmental performance of a wide range of large corporations.

Social change takes place within the interplay among media, corporations, and the public, and Eric Utne, publisher of the innovative Utne Reader, describes some of the new patterns that are emerging in America. Government also enters the picture on many levels. Monika Griefahn, Minister of the Environment in the German state of Lower Saxony, describes many types of leverage that government can exert to reduce environmental impacts and motivate companies to redesign products and processes. Herman Daly, the world-renowned economist formerly with the World Bank, outlines how ecologically based tax reforms can stop rewarding intensive resource use, pollution, and job destruction, and reward companies that produce true "goods" instead of ecological "bads."

Within the financial world, also, new ideas are stirring. Woody Tasch and Stephen Viederman, foundation executives, explain how narrow traditional notions of fiduciary responsibility among investment people are expanding to include ecological responsibility and a longer-term analysis of financial returns.

Technology, which many take to be hostile to the environment, also has a new role to play in moving toward sustainability. Gunter Pauli describes the coming zero-emissions industrial clusters, where everything we now consider "waste" becomes the raw material for an adjacent industry, greatly minimizing industry impacts on the earth. And John and Nancy Jack Todd tell of their "living machines" complex multi-species configurations that serve human purposes while also constituting sustainable organisms.

Finally, Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, tells how he guided his highly profitable company toward limited growth, greatly reduced environmental impacts, and consistent support for positive social and ecological goals.

Fritjof Capra is the author of The Tao of Physics, The Turning Point, and the script for the film Mindwalc. His work focuses on the paradigm shift needed to remedy the crises of perception that today make it difficult to see our way toward a sustainable future. Founder and president of the Elm- wood Institute in Berkeley, California, he is also co-author of EcoManagement: The Elmwood Guide to Ecological Auditing and Sustainable Business.

Gunter Pauli trained as an economist, obtained an MBA, and has established numerous companies. During the 1980s he undertook major research on the rising service sectors of the world economy. In 1992 he was instrumental in the building of the world's first zero-emissions factory - a Belgian detergents plant. He is now establishing the zero-emissions research program at the United Nations University in Tokyo.