Corporate Sustainability and the Individual:

Understanding What Drives Sustainability Professionals as Change Agents

Paper by Wayne Visser and Andrew Crane

Abstract

This paper looks at what motivates sustainability managers to devote their time and energies to addressing social, environmental and ethical issues. It is rooted in the literature on the role of individuals as change agents for corporate sustainability, in particular in their capacity as environmental or social ‘champions’. The paper presents in-depth research among sustainability managers, providing a rich, nuanced understanding of different types of sustainability change agents. It identifies four such types – Experts, Facilitators, Catalysts and Activists – and uncovers the pivotal role of values, inspiration, expertise, empowerment, strategic thinking and social contribution as sources of meaning for these purpose-inspired managers. The findings deepen our understanding of the psychological dimensions of corporate sustainability management, and provide a useful tool for improving individual and team performance, enhancing recruitment and retention of sustainability talent, and developing more effective organisational leadership for sustainability.

Keywords

corporate social responsibility, corporate sustainability, change agents, environmental champions, meaning in life, psychology, sustainability managers, values 

Introduction

As social, environmental, and ethical issues like persistent poverty, climate change, financial market instability and economic globalisation continue to move up the geo-political and economic agendas, corporate sustainability is increasingly touted as a timely and necessary response by business (Dunphy et al., 2003; Shrivastava, 1995; Zadek, 2004). Viewed in this way, sustainability can be thought of as a conceptual framework and practical mechanism for creating change that results in improved social, environmental and ethical conditions (Van Marrewijk, 2003).

Attention to corporate sustainability has tended to focus on how change can be achieved at the organisational level (Benn, et al. 2006; Dunphy et al., 2003). By contrast, comparatively little research exists on the role of the individual as a change agent for sustainability (Sharma, 2002). What literature there is on corporate sustainability and the individual level typically focuses on four areas: 1) The importance of values congruence between managers/employees and organisational values (Fryxell and Lo, 2003; Hemingway and Maclagan, 2004; Van Marrewijk and Werre, 2002); 2) the instrumental association between individual concern, knowledge and commitment and corporate social and environmental responsiveness (Bansal and Roth, 2000; Keogh and Polonsky, 1998); 3) narrative accounts by sustainability managers of corporate ‘greening’ (Fineman, 1997; Georg and Fussel, 2000; Starkey and Crane, 2003); and 4) the role of sustainability managers as champions, entrepreneurs or agents of change in their organisations (Andersson and Bateman, 2000; Prakash, 2001; Walley and Stubbs, 1999).

This literature brings insights to our understanding of individuals within a corporate sustainability context by highlighting the importance of ‘intangibles’ like values, attitudes and beliefs in driving corporate sustainability, the crucial role of education and awareness in achieving behaviour change, the scope and necessity for managerial discretion in making change happen, the power of corporate culture in shaping a consensus ‘story’ on sustainability, and the pivotal role of leadership support for sustainability. However, the literature also shows certain limitations. We still know little about what drives individuals to be sustainability managers, how this affects such individuals, and what they seek to achieve from their actions on a personal level. Moreover, the notion of sustainability champions …

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Cite this article

Visser, W. & Crane, A. (2010) Corporate Sustainability and the Individual: Understanding What Drives Sustainability Professionals as Change Agents, SSRN Working Paper Series, 25 February 2010. First published on SSRN at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1559087

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