Historical scholarship on business-environment interactions has largely sidestepped the study of corporate innovations that had both economic and environmental benefits. This issue is examined through late-nineteenth-century initiatives sponsored by the British Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, whose aim was to document and promote the creation of profitable by-products out of polluting industrial waste and emissions. A case is made that the individuals involved in this effort not only anticipated concepts and debates now at the heart of the modern sustainable development literature, but also that their work questions some fundamental premises of this discourse.
Victorian Pioneers of Corporate Sustainability
A growing number of scholarly contributions situated at the junction of business, technology, and environmental history are devoted to attempts to address pollution problems during the industrial age.1 Few of these, however, discuss the primary example of corporate selfinterest in this context: the creation of valuable by-products from polluting industrial waste and emissions. Although neglected by historians until very recently, a case can be made that tins activity was, overall, more successful, profitable, and significant than the creation of wealth from sewage or domestic waste because of the greater volume and uniformity of manufacturing residuals.2Perhaps no institution ever did more to promote the discussion of by-product development than the British Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (henceforth, Society of Arts) in the second half of the nineteenth century. Through regular meetings, publications, and the creation of a detailed museum exhibit, the two individuals most closely associated with this effort, the chemist and politician Lyon Playfair and the journalist and publisher Peter Lund Simmonds, argued that increased profitability and a cleaner environment often went hand in hand. In doing so, they not only anticipated concepts and debates that now occupy a prominent place in contemporary literatures on corporate social responsibility, environmental management, and sustainable development, but they also ended up by challenging some of the fundamental premises of modern-day theorists.Of course, other writers had paved the way for Playfair and Simmonds, perhaps most prominently the polymath Charles Babbage. After reviewing his work and influence, I shall attempt to summarize Playfair's and Simmonds's contributions and to assess their impact through an examination of archival records and third-party comments. Further, I shall offer some lessons and insights derived from their work.Laying the Foundations: Charles Babbage (1791-1871)The idea that waste products can be the source of new wealth is at least as old as the practice of deriving valuable products from the nonedible portions of animals or plants. Clothing from skins, tools from bones, and fuel from residual matter are among the countless examples. As economies developed and became more complex, the increasing diversification of human skills and materials resulted in ever more sophisticated advances in this respect. Not surprisingly, some early modern writers penned a few words on the issue. Among those in the Englishspeaking world, Charles Babbage was perhaps the most influential.Now mostly remembered as a mathematician and computer pioneer, Babbage was better known in his time for his 1832 best seller On the Economy of Machinery and Manufacture, written after he had visited numerous factories while researching possible ways of building his calculating engine...