Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century

Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century

Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century

Green Capitalism? Business and the Environment in the Twentieth Century


At a time when the human impact on the environment is more devastating than ever, business initiatives frame the quest to "green" capitalism as the key to humanity's long-term survival. Indeed, even before the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s, businesses sometimes had reasons to protect parts of nature, limit their production of wastes, and support broader environmental reforms. In the last thirty years, especially, many businesses have worked hard to reduce their direct and indirect environmental footprint. But are these efforts exceptional, or can capitalism truly be environmentally conscious?

Green Capitalism? offers a critical, historically informed perspective on building a more sustainable economy. Written by scholars of business history and environmental history, the essays in this volume consider the nature of capitalism through historical overviews of twentieth-century businesses and a wide range of focused case studies. Beginning early in the century, contributors explore the response of business leaders to environmental challenges in an era long before the formation of the modern regulatory state. Moving on to midcentury environmental initiatives, scholars analyze failed business efforts to green products and packaging--such as the infamous six-pack ring--in the 1960s and 1970s. The last section contains case studies of businesses that successfully managed greening initiatives, from the first effort by an electric utility to promote conservation, to the environmental overhaul of a Swedish mining company, to the problem of household waste in pre-1990 West Germany. Ranging in geographic scope from Europe to the United States, Green Capitalism? raises questions about capitalism in different historical, sociocultural, and political contexts.


Environmental historians and business historians have seldom looked to each other for inspiration. This collection hopes to change that. It grew out of a thought-provoking 2014 conference cosponsored by the Hagley Museum and Library and the German Historical Institute (GHI) in Washington, dc, held at the Hagley. in the conference call for proposals, the organizers explained that they sought to provide “historical perspectives on a question of obvious relevance today: Can capitalism be green—or at least greener?” Our title—Green Capitalism?—is admittedly drawn from contemporary discourse. But we are convinced that history can provide invaluable insights into the complex and changing relationship between business and the environment.

The conference was developed in dialogue with Hartmut Berghoff, at the time director of the ghi and now director of the Institute of Economic and Social History at the University Göttingen in Germany, and Adam Rome, then Unidel Helen Gouldner Chair for the Environment and Professor of History and English at the University of Delaware. Berghoff and Rome subsequently agreed to serve as editors for this volume. About half of the papers delivered at the conference are included in this collection after considerable revision. the volume also includes essays by Berghoff and Rome as well as several chapters that they recruited from other authors.

Part I asks readers to look at the “big picture” through three wideranging essays posing large questions and stretching over an extensive array of scholarship. in “The Ecology of Commerce,” Adam Rome investigates a provocative question: is business becoming a participant in the environmental movement? Surveying literature among business and environmental writers, he shows how the interest in “greening” capitalism so it would be sustainable has overcome resistance in many quarters such that “the sustainablebusiness bookshelf [now] has hundreds of manifestos.” Looking at similar . . .

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