Green business books

Over the last year or so I have been reading (or, in one case, listening) my way though a cluster of books on green business. They include titles such as Green to GoldSmart Green, and The Sustainable MBA. Books on this subject now constitute a sub-genre (though whether of business books or of green books is debatable). Eco-Libris has recently published a list of  ‘the 10 best green business books‘ (in which ‘green’ is defined rather loosely).

Books on the green business shelf come from a variety of publishers. The titles I’ve mentioned all happen to be published by Wiley: other publishers in this market include McGraw-Hall, Prentice Hall, Harvard, Earthscan, Greenleaf, and Entrepreneur Press. The sub-genre is related to, but distinct from, another sub-genre, consisting of books on green economics more generally – written by authors such as Jonathan Porritt and Zac Goldsmith.

Green business authors like to argue that one can reduce the environmental impact of one’s business while also – indeed, as a consequence – improving profitability. The main arguments here are:

1. reducing waste reduces costs;

2. adopting a sustainable attitude to the environment makes a business more attractive to its staff and improves morale and productivity;

3. green business appeals to customers and so stimulates demand;

4. good (sustainable) practice in procurement and supply chain management reduces risk – both risk of interruption of supplies and reputational risk.

All these arguments make some appeal – at least on a  prima facie basis. The problem with this area of publishing, however, is that too often it exhibits a lack of rigour and assumes that its readers lack intelligence. I say this for three reasons:

1. The commonality of argument: Naturally, one accepts there will be overlaps between the books. Indeed, any book that was original in every way would no doubt be difficult to write, market, sell, or understand. But surely one should expect distinctiveness? I suspect that in some cases the books have been commissioned by imprints insufficiently close to their markets. There is more than a hint here of a “This is a trendy subject, get it out there!” approach to product development;

2. The lack of rigour: As I say, each of the arguments above appeal as prima facie arguments. The problem is that they largely remain at that level. If, say, you introduce more sustainable practices, that might increase productivity or attract demand: but by how much? Is it – commercially – worthwhile? Some books recognise this more than others. One of the strengths of Smart Green, for example, is its attention to the role of ‘analytics’ and ‘metrics’. In general, though, this genre shies away from the business of statistics – presumably on the grounds that we’re not up to it.

3. Design: Guess what most of the book covers in this genre are characterised by? Yes, you’ve guessed it: the colour green. Do business publishers assume that, if you read a ‘green’ book, your favourite colour must be green? When they think of readers reading their books, do they imagine them dressed in green, sitting on a green chair, basked in green light? Or is there some design agency out there specialising in utterly literal design? Yes, yes, the colour communicates what the book is about: but perhaps the title might do that.  Evidently, a new fundamentalism is abroad.

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