Sub-theme 17: Cherry Picking Sustainability Action? Exploring the Tensions in Achieving a Sustainable Future
Call for Papers
Evolving environmental, societal and market trends, along with more sudden system jolts, are shaping corporate sustainability
action across micro, meso and macro levels. From the global challenges relating to managing the environmental issues of planetary
boundaries (Rockström et al., 2009) to the societal needs outlined by doughnut economics (Raworth, 2012), there are unrivalled
opportunities for scholars and practitioners to assist in transitions and redefine business in the Anthropocene (Hoffman &Jennings,
2015). While a new role for business in a world where planetary boundaries are being acknowledged is often purported, business
organizations and social activists still seem worlds apart as to what they see as appropriate action on corporate sustainability.
No matter how laudable many corporate initiatives seem, corporate action comes closer to a smart process of cherry picking
instead of seeking integral solutions to pressing sustainability problems.
Cherry picking of perceived salient issues and tensions (i.e., focus on one tension without consideration of, or at the expense of others) risks undermining the success of global action, furthering the inequality that is already present within the context of sustainability. The challenge exists in establishing an equitable commitment and developing a reliable research approach to address all facets to achieve action on all issues. Clearly, fundamentally changing ways of doing business involves confronting many tensions such as how to balance different stakeholder interests, how to act when there is no obvious business case, or how to reconcile a long-term transition with short-term needs.
This sub-theme aims to further discuss how we can better understand tensions in corporate sustainability theoretically. The scope, scale and interdependency of the issues covered under the banner of sustainability are such that tensions can be approached from multiple theoretical perspectives. These tensions exist in promoting sustainability related action at multiple levels. Individual (micro), firm (meso) and systemic (macro) level sustainability issues face unique factors of influence which can be examined using specific theory:
At the micro level, to understand individual’s decision making, several authors have applied a cognitive lens to the analysis of corporate sustainability (Andersson & Bateman, 2000; Maon et al., 2008; Sharma, 2000; Sharma, Pablo & Vredenburg, 1999). In addition to the identification of different types of cognitive frames (e.g., business case, paradoxical) (Hahn et al., 2014), research has highlighted the process with which cognitive frames of different actors within an organization interact and influence sustainability (Sharma & Jaiswal, 2018):
At the meso level, organizational sustainability tensions have not only been examined under the traditional triad of sustainability dimensions (e.g., economy, society and environment) but also through strategic management choices and management of conflicting temporal and spatial contexts (Hahn et al., 2015). Four classifications have been applied to understand the meso level management of tensions – win-wins (interrelated), trade-offs (contradictory), integrative, and paradox approaches (Van der Byl & Slawinski, 2015). Meso level theories have also included theoretical areas such as stakeholder theory, the resource-based view of the firm, and virtue ethics (van de Ven, 2008).
At the macro level, scholars have explored the impact of organizations on boundary processes (Whiteman et al., 2013) in order to understand the contribution of the firm in helping the transition to a viable economy, a sustainable society and healthy ecosystems (Ayres, 2008). Particularly attention has been placed on the tensions between institutional pressures and societal expectations regarding firm contributions to address social and environmental concerns (Campbell, 2007; Hoffman, 2001; Jennings & Zandbergen, 1995), as well as decision-making and actual response measures taken. Other macro level theories include post-growth economics, Porter’s Hypothesis and Habermas’s theory of democracy (Scherer & Palazzo, 2007).
Whilst research is evolving within each level, much has been done in isolation, failing to explicitly interrogate and address the tensions that exist across levels, and that can occur at different points in time and at different social and physical locations. Understanding interactions is integral to comprehensively evaluate the potential to achieve progress on grand challenges. The degree to which a key frame comes to dominate in a firm may transcend organizational boundaries to impact sectorial and potentially national agendas on sustainability. This culmination of ‘cherry picking’ dominant challenges can be interpreted as acting against the ethos of sustainability itself and should be brought into focus in the evaluation of corporate actions. Indeed, calls have been made for organizational theorists (and organizations) to take an integrative view on sustainability – moving beyond instrumental logic – that simultaneously pursues and considers the full spectrum of tensions in order to identify the sources of different tensions and to characterize their underlying logic.
To that end, we have identified several promising pathways of research for contributions in this sub-theme area:
What tensions exist within and between micro, meso and macro scales in achieving the grand challenges and how can they be understood theoretically?
Which key areas of theory offer the greatest potential to meet the challenges presented by tensions that exist across levels?
How can the tensions between change processes (i.e., different forms/types/modes of response mechanisms) and different organizational responses be resolved in planning for grand challenges?
How can corporate strategy shape the management of tensions?
How do organizations manage tensions when they involve different performance metrics, e.g. improved water quality vs increased product costs?
What role can key parties play in managing tensions to achieve grand challenges (e.g. NGOs; consumer groups; consulting firms; governments; businesses)?
What causes new tensions to emerge or evolve over time? How can organizations plan for these?
How do organizations manage tensions that occur in different temporal and spatial contexts in which they operate?
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