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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

The COVID19 crisis of 2020 has brought a rethink of our current practices once again to the fore. To what extent is our current way of consuming, producing and moving stuff about actually sensible and do we perhaps need to rethink all this and the way we do business, as well as the kind of businesses we run? This book argues that in order to engage properly with sustainability, the sustainable business literature has to engage with the science behind it and therefore with the relevant scientific literature, but also that the very essence of ecological thinking should be internalized in business in order to facilitate a genuine, deep understanding of the place of business within natural systems it is essential for business disciplines to engage, at least at some level, with ecological thinking in order to play their role in any transition to a more sustainable economic system and help create the alternative business models this requires. In this context, this chapter provides a brief overview of past attempts to link business and ecology.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

This book assesses the consumption problem both from a sociological and philosophical perspective by linking with some recent thinking in these disciplines, while adding to this by exploring consumption’s interactions with production and, crucially, the supply chains (or ‘webs’) that link consumption and production. Consumption is at the heart of contemporary capitalism, meaning that any viable alternative to capitalism will need to focus on developing a convincing argument as to how we reform and/or manage people’s relationship to their ‘stuff’. The capitalist system contains cracks and openings that, according to Gibson-Graham (2006), have the potential to lead to different kinds of being, which may provide us with the opportunity to glimpse and stimulate more progressive ways of relating to the products that we use. This would represent an attenuated or ‘tempered capitalism’.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

We may be at a moment when one of Gibson-Graham’s (2006) openings is emerging, with the prospect of different ways of organising and understanding our lives. In the language of Holloway (2010), we have found a ‘crack’, for as we write this book, the scene has changed fundamentally with the rise of Covid-19. We have seen a growing awareness of our shared vulnerability and attempts to help each other become more resilient. This has been at the heart of an academic approach known as vulnerability theory. The crisis causes us to pause and reassess what is important and how we want to be. We were working with these ideas long before Covid-19 came to reshape our lives but we feel the debates are ever-more pressing considering that when are producing this work, so much feels transient, with a future up for grabs in a way that it may not have been just a few months before.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

One possible way out of the perceived over-consumption culture is to think in the first instance, perhaps, of a kind of transition phase, not so much in terms of just consuming less, but replacing quantity with quality, not unlike the transition position suggested by Geels et al. (2015). There are potentially difficult transitions to be made from mass production, mass consumption and mass employment to low volume production and consumption of higher value durable goods and consequent employment of people in higher skilled jobs in smaller, more personalized facilities using more labour and creativity-intensive processes. Yet, with regards to consumption at least, there is significant cause to think that such an approach focusing on quality may be viable as it appeals to our basic drives to express ourselves and establish a comfortable position in society.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

The growth paradigm has become deeply engrained into people’s mindsets. Growth is a natural process, which in nature precedes stability and decay. Degrowth and post-growth economy imaginings are thus all based on the re-imagined relationship between humanity and nature. A number of theorisations exist as to what a degrowth world economy would look like. Detaching ourselves from the growth ideology fundamentally reshapes the very notion of consumption towards a more eco-centric, less materialistic, non-alienating view where the relationships between humans, their needs and the objects that fulfil them are transformed. It has been argued that one of the causes of premature disposal of things lies in the inability of those things to grow with us and this includes our growing inability to adapt those things to our lives as producers take control. Consumers were thus not born wasteful, they were trained to be so by the sales-addicted leaders of a handful of industries seeking market domination.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

McDonagh and Prothero (2014: 1201) remind us that current marketing philosophy is centred on the concept of ‘creating consumer value’. But customers are also stakeholders, often potentially critical stakeholders in relation to those very businesses that may try to sell them goods and services as mere customers or consumers; a clean and sustainable environment is of at least equal value to citizens, as consumers, as any product or service they may wish to acquire or use. Why then, is this aspect of ‘consumer value’ generally overlooked? The disconnect here is with the conventional, limited view of marketing as focused on the promotion of specific goods and services. Recognition of this fact could help lift marketing to that higher level, whereby it could still play its role in promoting goods and services. Marketing at this higher level could then be used to help guide the transition from an economic to an ecological model.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

Telling people to stop consuming will not work. More realistic, then, to encourage a more self-aware consumer and more ‘reflexive’ consumption practices encouraging consumers to think about themselves as part of a broader system. The literature presents us with two possible models, to which we add a third: (1) Transition through regulation, based on public consensus; (2) Radical transition through niche accumulation and system collapse, or; (3) Transition through a reconfiguration phase of consuming fewer, higher quality products and services, combined with a subsequent and gradual culture change. Option one, while promising, is only feasible to a limited extent and only in certain social and political environments. Option two presents the most radical approach, but leaves most consumers at the mercy of a system collapse at some point in the future. It is therefore proposed that - following Geels et al. (2015) - a third option is introduced, involving a continuation of consumer culture, but at a much-reduced level, through a shift from consuming quantity to consuming quality.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

Mass consumption, or over-consumption has only been made possible by mass production, which - as we will show - almost inevitably leads to over-production. As Sabel and Zeitlin (1985, 1997) have argued, mass production was never an inevitable outcome of historical developments in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; it was the result of specific choices made at the time. Mass car production can be seen as the archetype of modern mass production. Today it is dominated by large centralized assembly facilities sourcing from world-wide networks of suppliers. However, it is clear that the present structure is closely linked with the adoption, by much of the car industry, of three interlocking strands of activity; in addition to the technological contributions by Ford and Budd outlined in the next chapter, there was also the crucial contribution by General Motors under Sloan that made a mass car market possible by essentially creating the demand for cars.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

If mass production was the result of conditions specific to North America, why did it spread globally? Few observers today seem aware that this is not the only possible way to make and use cars. This is due to the fact that Budd-style car manufacturing has become closely integrated with the Fordist and Sloanist strands, although the additional, non-technological, socio-economic element of mass car markets and the resulting cultural and regulatory approaches should also be highlighted, making what some have described as a ‘socio-technical regime’ (Geels, 2002). These innovations prompted buyers to think of the car no longer as a single item bought for life, as Henry Ford had intended (Ford, 1924, 149), but as a product that needed regular updating and replacement. GM and Sloan are therefore crucial in this second, ‘consolidation’, phase. These innovations, and their manipulation of the market, allowed the supply-driven Ford-Budd manufacturing technologies at the heart of mass production to become firmly rooted for over a century.

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Paul Nieuwenhuis, Daniel Newman and Anne Touboulic

Most accept the notion that Ford was the first to mass produce cars. However, the car he mass produced was an ‘Edwardian’ car, based on a modular approach to car making. Ford took the car as it was understood in his day, added some incremental improvements and adapted it to be mass produced. Modern mass produced cars are not made like this. They use all-steel ‘monocoque’, or ‘unibody’ construction. This technology was made possible by Budd and Ledwinka’s invention, of the all-steel welded body. While Fordism was possible without Budd, Toyotism refined Fordism within Budd technology by enhancing its responsiveness to market demand: the ‘pull-through’ concept. Like Ford’s mass production of mechanical components - notably engines - Budd’s steel body technology requires very high initial investments, but once made, these allow low unit costs at high production volumes. Budd’s innovations constitute the basis for the economics of car making, notably its economies of scale.