Networks of green commerce

Over the past twenty years, while the broad social movements of environmental and anti-nuclear opposition have tended to lose their significance in many parts of the world, a new range of organizations has entered the world of environmental politics. On the one hand there are the transnational corporations themselves as well as new configurations, such as the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which seek to provide a corporate presence in environmental politics, and new intergovernmental initiatives, such as the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the European Environmental Agency, the environmental activities of the World Bank, regional development banks and trade organizations (see Gan 1995; French 2000). And then there are the activities of transnational non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) which have been central formulators of the global environmental agenda and key participants in the quest for sustainable development (Jamison 1996).

On the other hand there are a number of actors from within the separate domains of government, business, academic life, and civil society, as well as between and among the domains, who have come together in looser, hybrid formations, coalitions, and networks. For while the 1990s has witnessed the emergence of a new discourse of environmental politics in the guise of ecological modernization there has emerged also a cluster of networks that have tended to fill, or replace, the public spaces that were once occupied by environmental movements and movement organizations.

These networks share many of the assumptions and ambitions of the environmental movements of the 1970s, but they nonetheless reflect the changing times and contextual conditions in their language and rituals and in their theory and practice. By leaving the "movement space" behind and linking up with more established social actors these new networkers have sought to translate the environmental message into terms that their new partners can understand and find acceptable.

To improve our understanding of what is taking place, and, in particular, to separate the rhetoric from the reality, it is useful to take a closer look at some of the cognitive dimensions, or learning processes, that are involved in green commerce (Rinkevicius 1998). There are new systems of accounting and organization, new kinds of technological and production paradigms, new management procedures, new economic theories, new business strategies, and new kinds of relations among universities, state agencies, and business firms. There are also new "pro-active" forms of public relations and marketing - as well as a more active collaboration with the more commercially minded non-governmental organizations -that many companies are pursuing.

If we think of green business in cognitive terms we must look at the kinds of human agency that are involved in these various "learning processes": companies, universities, public authorities and non-governmental organizations. We should also consider the hybrid forms of interaction that have developed among these domains. I take as my point of departure one particular agent that has tried to involve all four central constituencies, namely the Greening of Industry Network (GIN). In the openness of its operations and the variety of its participants GIN offers, for my purposes, a useful window into the world of ecological modernization. All too often these developments are discussed primarily in programmatic or rhetorical terms as new kinds of management doctrine or ideology, or as new kinds of technical paradigm or policy instrument. By examining the actual cognitive praxis of specific network formations like GIN we might be better able to evaluate the potential, as well as the limitations, of ecological modernization and of green business generally. I do not claim that GIN covers the total picture of green commerce or ecological modernization. But a closer, more intimate examination of one network and its members may help to bring to life some of the underlying tensions that are at work in the emerging ecological culture as a whole.

This "case study" of GIN traces three dimensions of cognitive praxis -cosmological, technological, and organizational - from GIN's "roots" in the environmental movement of the 1970s to its recombination in the late 1980s and to its growing separation in the course of the 1990s. Like so many other examples of ecological modernization GIN has come up against the power of possession and the logic of commercial enterprise: the all-too-familiar principles of business as usual. Ecological modernization, or sustainable development, is in danger of being reduced to salesmanship - to products to sell and market shares to acquire - as the dominant culture seeks to incorporate the values and practices that have emerged in the environmental movement.

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