Sub-theme 17: Cherry Picking Sustainability Action? Exploring the Tensions in Achieving a Sustainable Future

Belinda Wade
University of Queensland, Australia
Samuel Tang
Imperial College Business School, United Kingdom
Jonatan Pinkse
University of Manchester, United Kingdom

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?



  • Andersson, L., & Bateman, T. (2000): “Individual Environmental Initiative: Championing Natural Environmental Issues in U.S. Business Organizations.” Academy of Management Journal, 43 (4), 548–570.
  • Ayres, R.U. (2008): “Sustainability economics: Where do we stand?” Ecological Economics, 67 (2), 281–310
  • Campbell, J.L. (2007): “Why would corporations behave in socially responsible ways? An institutional theory of corporate social responsibility.” Academy of Management Review, 32 (3), 946–967.
  • Hahn, T., Preuss, L., Pinkse, J., & Figge, F. (2014): “Cognitive Frames in Corporate Sustainability: Managerial Sensemaking with Paradoxical and Business Case Frames.” Academy of Management Review, 39 (4), 463–487.
  • Hoffman, A.J. (2001): From Heresy to Dogma: An Institutional History of Corporate Environmentalism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Hoffman, A.J., & Devereaux Jennings, P. (2015): “Institutional Theory and the Natural Environment: Research in (and on) the Anthropocene.” Organization & Environment, 28 (1), 8–31.
  • Jennings, P.D., & Zandbergen, P.A. (1995): “Ecologically sustainable organizations: An institutional approach.” Academy of Management Review, 20 (4), 1015–1052.
  • Maon, F., Lindgreen, A., & Swaen, V. (2008): “Thinking of the organization as a system: The role of managerial perceptions in developing a corporate social responsibility strategic agenda.” Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 25 (3), 413–426.
  • Rockström, J., et al. (2009): “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” Ecology and Society, 14 (2), 32;
  • Raworth, K. (2012): A Safe and Just Space for Humanity. Can We Live Within the Doughnut? Oxfam Discussion Paper. Oxford, UK: Oxfam.
  • Sabadoz, C. (2011): “Between profit-seeking and prosociality: Corporate social responsibility as Derridean supplement.” Journal of Business Ethics, 104 (1), 77–91.
  • Scherer, A.G., Palazzo, G. (2007): “Toward a political conception of corporate responsibility: Business and society seen from a Habermasian perspective.” Academy of Management Review, 32 (4), 1096–1120.
  • van de Ven, B. (2008): “An ethical framework for the marketing of corporate social responsibility.” Journal of Business Ethics, 82 (2), 339–352.
  • Van der Byl, C.A., & Slawinski, N. (2015): “Embracing Tensions in Corporate Sustainability.” Organization & Environment, 28 (1), 54–79.
  • Sharma, S. (2000): “Managerial interpretations and organizational context as predictors of corporate choice of environmental strategy.” Academy of Management Journal, 43 (4), 681–697.
  • Sharma, S., Pablo, A.L., & Vredenburg, H. (1999): “Corporate Environmental Responsiveness Strategies: The Importance of Issue Interpretation and Organizational Context.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 35 (1), 87–108.
  • Sharma, G., & Jaiswal, A.K. (2018): “Unsustainability of Sustainability: Cognitive Frames and Tensions in Bottom of the Pyramid Projects.” Journal of Business Ethics, 148 (2), 291–307.
  • Whiteman, G., Walker, B. & Perego, P. (2012): “Planetary Boundaries: Ecological Foundations for Corporate Sustainability.” Journal of Management Studies, 50 (2), 307–336.
Belinda Wade is a Lecturer in Sustainability within the Strategy and Entrepreneurship Discipline of the University of Queensland Business School, Australia, and a leader of the school research area – the “Business Sustainability Initiative”. Co-ordinating courses on Corporate Sustainability and Strategies for Business Sustainability and Innovation Belinda’s teaching closely follows her research agenda promoting organisational transformations to a sustainable future. Recent research has highlighted decarbonising actions taken within contrasting Australian industry sectors, dynamic capabilities promoting adaptation to sustainability related changes, and evolving sustainable business models. On a professional level Belinda has worked extensively within the trading areas of major energy providers, in a mix of commercial analytical, trading and managerial roles. Her research has been presented at major international conferences, in academic journals, practitioner publications and as a columnist for ‘Entrepreneur Magazine’.
Samuel Tang is a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Leonardo Centre in Imperial College Business School, London, United Kingdom. His research crosses strategy, organizational theory and science and technology studies, focusing on sustainability issues. Samuel’s work on climate change and water strategies of organizations (public, private and third sector) and how these are developed in response to regulatory, social and competitive pressures has been published in ‘Economic Geography’, ‘Journal of Business Research’, and ‘Business Strategy and the Environment’.
Jonatan Pinkse is a Professor of Strategy, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship at the Alliance Manchester Business School, University of Manchester, United Kingdom. His research interests focus on corporate sustainability, social and sustainable entrepreneurship, business responses to climate change, and corporate innovation strategies. His work has appeared in various journals including the ‘Academy of Management Review’, ‘Journal of Management Studies’, ‘Journal of International Business Studies’, ‘Organization Studies’, ‘Journal of Business Venturing’, and ‘Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice’. Jonatan is currently Associate Editor at the journals ‘Business & Society’ and ‘Organization & Environment’. Jonatan currently serves as the chair of the Academy of Management’s Organizations and the Natural Environment (ONE) division. Within the Alliance Manchester Business School, he serves as Associate Head of Research of the Innovation Management & Policy division.