The 7 Habits of Effective Sustainability Leaders

The 7 Habits of Effective Sustainability Leaders

Article by Wayne Visser

Without bold and effective leadership – at a political, institutional and individual level – we will fail to resolve our most serious social and environmental crises. This short article summarises some of the findings from my work with the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership[1]. To begin with, we distilled the following simple definition:

“A sustainability leader is someone who inspires and supports action towards a better world.”

There are many characteristics (traits, styles, skills and knowledge) that are associated with sustainability leaders.[2] Our research suggests that the following seven key characteristics are among the most important in distinguishing the leadership approach taken by individuals tackling sustainability issues:

  1. Systemic understanding
  2. Emotional intelligence
  3. Values orientation
  4. Compelling vision
  5. Inclusive style
  6. Innovative approach
  7. Long term perspective

Although it is unlikely that any individual will embody all seven characteristics of sustainability leadership, to give a flavour for each characteristic, they are illustrated below by observations from a selection of leaders, many of whom we have worked with and who demonstrate some of these qualities themselves …

 


[1] See for example, the Cambridge State of Sustainability Leadership publication series since 2011.

[2] See my paper with Polly Courtice for a more comprehensive review of these characteristics

 

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.csrinternational.org”]Link[/button] CSR International (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2013) The 7 Habits of Sustainability Leaders, CSR International Inspiration Series, No. 12.

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Changing the World, One Leader at a Time

Changing the World, One Leader at a Time

Blog by Wayne Visser

Part 12 of 13 in the Age of Responsibility Blog Series for CSRwire.

We face a crisis of leadership. Our global challenges loom large and clear, but we seem to lack leaders who can make change happen at a scale and speed that match the size and urgency of the problems we face. In an attempt to understand this leadership impasse, I’ve done some research with the University of Cambridge’s Programme for Sustainability Leadership on how change happens. In this blog, I’ll briefly outline some of our conclusions.

Let’s start with what kind of change we’re talking about. Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, observes that companies that went from being ‘good to great’ did not rely on revolutions, dramatic change programmes or wrenching restructurings. ‘Rather, the process resembled relentlessly pushing a giant flywheel in one direction, turn upon turn, building momentum until a point of breakthrough, and beyond.’

So we’re talking about catalysing and scaling up change. And for this change to be successful, leaders need to foster and entrench new values, culture, incentives, rules and resources. In Accenture and the UN Global Compact’s 2010 survey, 54% of CEOs felt that a cultural tipping point on sustainability is only a decade away—and 80% believe it will occur within 15 years, so perhaps we are nearing a moment of infectious change. Meanwhile, at the organisational level, leaders must catalyse change for sustainability through a suite of actions, including innovation, empowerment, accountability, closed-loop practices and collaboration.

We found that effective sustainability leaders are good at promoting creativity in business models, technology, products and services that address social and environmental challenges. Sustainability leaders also implement structures and processes for good governance, transparency and stakeholder engagement.

Accountability does not have to be all about structures and controls however. Collins believes great leaders foster a culture of discipline, saying ‘When you have disciplined people, you don’t need hierarchy. When you have disciplined thought, you don’t need bureaucracy. When you have disciplined action, you don’t need excessive controls’. According to Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of G.E., ‘Enron and 9/11 marked the end of an era of individual freedom and the beginning of personal responsibility. You lead today by building teams and placing others first. It’s not about you.’

The best sustainability leaders adopt principles of cradle-to-cradle production, internalising externalities and extending these principles to the supply chain. Sustainability leaders also build formal cross-sector partnerships, as well as innovative and inclusive collaborative processes such as social networking (Web 2.0). Betty Sue Flowers, co-author of Presence, poses the challenge as a question, saying, ‘We know a lot about heroic action because that’s in the past of leadership. But how do you have leadership in groups across boundaries, multi-nationally?’

At the people level, leaders catalyse change for sustainability by providing a compelling vision, encouraging long term thinking, making strategic investments and promoting intergenerational equity. Immelt says ‘every leader needs to clearly explain the top three things the organization is working on. If you can’t, then you’re not leading well.’ Ray Anderson, the late CEO of Interface, saw this as a process of inclusion, saying …

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Related websites

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Link[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

Cite this blog

Visser, W. (2012) Changing the World, One Leader at a Time, Wayne Visser Blog Briefing, 12 January 2012.

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Sustainability Leadership

Sustainability Leadership:

Linking Theory and Practice

Paper by Wayne Visser & Polly Courtice

Abstract

The paper aims to create a clearer understanding of the nature of sustainability leadership and how it can contribute to transformational change. It does this by locating sustainability within the leadership literature, defining the concept of sustainability leadership, and presenting a model of sustainability leadership in practice. The model was tested with a sample of senior business leaders and refined in line with their feedback. The model presents insights on sustainability leadership in three areas: context, individual characteristics, and actions. The model is illustrated using quotes from senior business leaders that are focused on sustainability in their organisations.

Introduction

This paper is based on research conducted by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), which works with business, government and civil society to build the capacity of leaders, both to meet the needs of their stakeholders and to address critical global challenges. The paper is an attempt to create a clearer understanding of the nature of sustainability leadership and how it can contribute to transformational change.

The Model of Sustainability Leadership that we have developed was corroborated by interviews with the following business leaders, conducted in 2010: Neil Carson, CEO of Johnson Matthey; Ian Cheshire, CEO of Kingfisher; Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric; Philippe Maso, CEO of AXA; Jan Muehlfeit, Chairman of Microsoft Europe; Truett Tate, Group Executive Director: Wholesale, for Lloyds Banking Group; José Lopez, Executive Vice President: Operations and GLOBE of Nestle; and Sandy Ogg, Chief Human Resources Officer for Unilever. The paper and the model are illustrated by extensive quotations from these interviews.

Definitions and Theories of Leadership

De Vries (2001) reminds us that the Anglo-Saxon etymological root of the words lead, leader and leadership is laed, which means path or road. The verb means to travel. Thus a leader is one who shows fellow travellers the way by walking ahead. He also suggests that leadership – which focuses on the effectiveness of strategy – is different to management – which deals with the efficiency of operations.

Ian Cheshire (2010), CEO of Kingfisher, says “leadership is about getting people to go where they wouldn’t have gone on their own”. Rather more flamboyantly, management guru Tom Peters (1989) suggests leadership is about “discovering the passion, persistence and imagination to get results, to be able to find the Wow factor and to be able to think the weird thoughts necessary to learn and thrive in a disruptive age”.

The element of transformational change in Peters’ definition makes it particularly relevant to sustainability. We have a working definition of leadership, as follows:

“A leader is someone who can craft a vision and inspire people to act collectively to make it happen, responding to whatever changes and challenges arise along the way.”

In addition to definitions, there are also various theories on leadership and while it is not our intention to provide an exhaustive review of these, they do set a frame for sustainability leadership. Hence, we can distinguish three main approaches to understanding leadership …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/corporate-sustainability-responsibility”]Page[/button] Corporate Sustainability & Responsibility (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.cpsl.cam.ac.uk/”]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1947221″]Link[/button] Social Science Research Network (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. & Courtice, P. (2011) Sustainability Leadership: Linking Theory and Practice, SSRN Working Paper Series, 21 October 2011. Published on SSRN at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1947221

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When Corporations Rule the World

When Corporations Rule the World

Chapter by Wayne Visser

Extract from The Top 50 Sustainability Books

Key Ideas

  • We have been seduced by ‘corporate libertarianism’, which demands that all political, economic, and civic barriers to the free reign of corporate interests be removed.
  • The result of this unhealthy power in corporate hands is ecological destruction, the loss of civil freedoms, the erosion of democracy and community disintegration.
  • Although the current corporate globalization represents a failure of governments, it is more fundamentally a failure of the global capitalist economic system.
  • Instead, we should be striving for ‘democratic pluralism’, which requires a “pragmatic, institutional balance between the forces of government, market, and civic society.”
  • We are on the cusp of an Ecological Revolution, which puts people ahead of corporations, local communities ahead of global trade and nature ahead of money.

Synopsis

When Corporations Rule the World suggests that the promises of the global economy are based on a number of myths: that growth in GNP is a valid measure of human well-being and progress; that free unregulated markets efficiently allocate a society’s resources; that growth in trade benefits ordinary people; that economic globalization is inevitable; that global corporations are benevolent institutions that if freed from governmental interference will provide a clean environment for all and good jobs for the poor; and that absentee investors create local prosperity.

Korten believes that these myths are finally being unmasked and challenged by an Ecological Revolution that calls us “to reclaim our political power and rediscover our spirituality to create societies that nurture our ability and desire to embrace the joyful experience of living to its fullest.” He argues that instead of concentrating on increasing economic growth and GDP, we should concentrate on ending poverty, improving our quality of life, and achieving a sustainable balance with the Earth.

In order to achieve this goal of “sustainable well-being for all people”, Korten believes that we need a multilevel system of nested economies with the household as the basic economic unit, up through successive geographical aggregations to localities, districts, nations, and regions. Each level would seek to function as an integrated, self-reliant, self-managing political, economic and ecological community.

A corporations of the future needs to show that it is “committed to investing in the future; providing employees with secure, well-paying jobs; paying a fair share of local taxes; paying into a fully funded retirement trust fund; managing environmental resources responsibly; and other wise managing for the long-term human interest. Such companies are a valuable community asset, and in a healthy economy, they pay their shareholders solid and reliable – but not extravagant – dividends over the long term.”

The Guiding Principles for an Ecological Revolution include environmental sustainability, economic justice, biological and cultural diversity, subsidiarity (where the economy serves human needs, not the needs of money, corporations or governments), intrinsic responsibility (internalising externalities), and common heritage (of the planet’s environmental resources and the accumulated human knowledge) …

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Cite this chapter

Visser, W. (2009) When Corporations Rule the World, In W. Visser & Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, The Top 50 Sustainability Books, Sheffield: Greenleaf.

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Partnerships for Sustainable Development

Partnerships for Sustainable Development:

An Inclusive, Cross-Sector Approach

Paper by Ruth Findlay-Brooks, Wayne Visser and Thurstan Wright

Abstract

Cross-sector partnerships are increasingly being seen as a key development approach for the 21st Century, with many governments and international agencies viewing them as the most effective way to deal with complex and intractable development problems that have defeated single-sector interventions.

However, partnerships are not a straightforward option. Some see them as merely a “phase of policy experimentation” (Geddes, 2000, p797) – a short-term response to rapid global change. There can also be issues of accountability and power imbalance, when un-elected corporations and NGOs have influence in states where governments are weak or failing.  Even where they are the best solution, there can be real obstacles in both the development and management of partnerships which are too easily ignored.

This research draws on the University of Cambridge Programme for Industry’s (CPI’s) many years’ experience of partnership work – and in particular on the experiences of those running and participating in the Postgraduate Certificate in Cross-sector Partnership (PCCP) course.

Through exploring the experiences of these partnership practitioners, together with current thinking on the topic, the paper concludes that, if we are relying on partnerships to bring about structural change and long-term development impacts, then they need to be firmly tied into genuinely inclusive consultation processes, operate within accountability frameworks, be properly supported and evaluated, and where appropriate lead ultimately to policy change.

Introduction

Following the perceived shortcomings of the 1980s Structural Adjustment Programmes in developing countries, public/private partnerships or tri-sector partnerships are perceived as a more sustainable option, with donor agencies giving direct budget support to governments, along with the encouragement of partnership between development agencies, national governments and business. Tennyson asserts (2004, p3) that “only with comprehensive and widespread cross-sector collaboration can we ensure that sustainable development initiatives are imaginative, coherent and integrated enough to tackle the most intractable problems.”

The increasing popularity of partnership as a development solution, however, makes it all the more important to take a realistic view and to test the assumptions made about it. Two common pitfalls need to be avoided:

  1. that the act of setting up a partnership is seen in itself as having taken action on a problem, irrespective of its appropriateness or outcomes; and
  2. that cross-sector partnership is seen as a friendly, straightforward solution to development issues, resisting efforts to problematise, question or test its effectiveness.

Unless a more robust and realistic approach is taken to partnering as a development approach, then it risks suffering a backlash from unmet, unrealistic expectations which could result in its positive potential being lost. For this reason, we have endeavoured to take a critical approach to the findings of this study and look at ways in which partnership can, if it is to offer a successful way of aiding inclusive development, be supported through planning and policy …

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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Page[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.cpsl.cam.ac.uk”]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

Cite this article

Findlay-Brooks, R., Visser, W. & Wright, T. (2007) Partnerships for Sustainable Development: An Inclusive, Cross-Sector Approach Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 4.

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Policy Dialogue on Sustainability

Policy Dialogue on Sustainability:

A New Model – The Case of the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change

Paper by Wayne Visser and Margaret Adey

Abstract

Dialogue is often loosely touted as an approach to tackling sustainability challenges and resolving sustainability dilemmas or conflicts, especially through the process of stakeholder dialogue. However, the literature is more sparse on the role of companies in pro-active, pro-sustainability policy dialogue, as opposed to the practice of corporate lobbying against proposed sustainability regulation. This paper seeks to address this gap by analysing a particularly innovative case study, The Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change. The paper follows the structure of introducing the concept of dialogue, reviewing the literature on sustainability dialogue and describing and evaluating the case study.

Dialogue

Ellinor and Gerard (1998) describe dialogue as a foundational communication process that assists in creating environments of high trust and openness, with reflective and generative capacities.

The word dialogue stems from the Greek roots ‘dia’ (i.e. through) and ‘logos’ (i.e. word or meaning). Although relatively new to modern-day organisational practices, dialogue can be traced to ancient Greece, as described in The Dialogues of Plato (1898) and to forms of communication used by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples. Aspects of dialogue can also be found within Quaker spiritual and business practice, in counselling models such as those of Carl Rogers, as part of certain Eastern meditation practices, and in the philosophical works of Martin Buber (Gerard & Teurfs, 1996).

There are numerous approaches to dialogue. For example, Slotte and Hämäläinen (2003) contrast the Bohmian dialogue, as developed by physicist David Bohm (1996) and championed by Senge (1990) and Isaacs (1999), with Socratic dialogue, inspired by Socrates but developed as specific approach by the philosopher and educationalist Leonard Nelson (1965). The Center for Creative Learning (1996) identify a broader range of perspectives on dialogue, based on the work of Chris Argyris (around organisational learning), David Bohm (around developing shared meaning), David Johnson and Roger Johnson (around cooperation and productivity), Jack Mezirow (around the conditions for rational discourse), and Paulo Freire (around educational transformation).

Among its more modern organisational applications, dialogue can form an integral part of continuous learning, diversity management, conflict exploration, problem solving, leadership development, team-building, organizational planning and culture change (Ellinor and Gerard 1998). Some of these applications adopt a very specific approach and set of techniques, such as the Decision Structuring dialogue method, which uses an agenda or topic as a starting point, focusing both on content (i.e. the issue under discussion) and process (i.e. the way the issue is discussed) and following a series of prescribed steps led by a facilitator (Slotte and Hämäläinen 2003).

Dialogue and sustainability

It would appear, however, that little or none of these perspectives and approaches on dialogue have been applied directly by sustainability scholars. Rather, dialogue most often appears in the sustainability literature in a looser sense as “stakeholder dialogue”, incorporating business ethics (Garcia-Marza, 2005), corporate social responsibility (Jonker & Nijhof, 2006), corporate accountability (Rasche & Esser, 2006) and environmental management (Perret, 2003) …

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Related pages

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/the-age-of-responsibility”]Page[/button] The Age of Responsibility (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.cpsl.cam.ac.uk”]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. & Adey, M. (2007) Policy Dialogue on Sustainability: A New Model – The Case of the Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 3.

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Sustainability Innovation

Sustainability Innovation:

Mapping the Territory

Paper by Michael Blowfield, Wayne Visser & Finbarr Livesey

Abstract

Innovation is a well-studied area of business behaviour, and is increasingly seen as a crucial element in the private sector’s responses to the challenges of sustainability.  However, what exactly is meant by innovation in a sustainability context is not very clear.  This paper makes the case for a more reflexive and structured approach to understanding innovation for sustainability in order to understand what it shares in common with innovation more broadly, where it is unique, what the gaps are in our current knowledge, and what might be the consequence of these gaps.  In building this understanding, we draw on theoretical and empirical studies, normative and non-normative approaches, and descriptive and instrumental analyses.  We employ a framework that distinguishes between the enablers of sustainability innovation (SI), the different types of agent that influence innovation for sustainability and the intra-organisational processes that take place (especially within companies).

Introduction

Increasingly, business is referred to as an essential element in meeting the challenges of sustainability: not only to amend its behaviour so as to reduce negative impacts, but also to use its strengths to overcome barriers more effectively than other sectors of society are able to do.  Innovation is one such area of perceived business strength, and now business and government are encouraged to think in terms of sustainability innovation to meet such demands as green technology, energy efficiency and social enterprise.  It is often claimed that the challenges of sustainability require different approaches to (and perhaps new models of) business.  Yet there has been little rigorous analysis of if and how sustainability requires new ways of thinking about innovation.  The main purpose of this  paper is to examine what we know about sustainability as the determinant of a genuinely different form of innovation, and to set out a framework for a more reflexive and structured approach to sustainability innovation in future.

To understand if sustainability innovation (SI) differs from other models of innovation, let us first consider what innovation means.  When discussing whether innovation (in its broad sense) is qualitatively different from innovation applied for sustainability, it is important to have a clear sense of the boundary of the terms being used. One of the broadest definitions of innovation states that it is “… the successful exploitation of new ideas” (DTI 2003). Unsurprisingly, exploitation in this context has become synonymous with introduction to market and so this definition is one that presupposes a market-based assessment for the outcomes of the innovation process. The bias in most discussions of innovation towards a commercial, for-profit setting with a market mechanism for price signalling and managing distribution should be acknowledged. Equally, this may be where innovation for sustainability distinguishes itself from innovation more broadly.

In terms of market led or company-based innovation there has been an acknowledged shift in recent years towards more dynamic and networked models of innovation (Chesbrough 2003) away from old linear models. This is well described by Rothwell in his five generations of innovation models (Rothwell quoted in Tidd, Bessant et al. 2001).

None of the models of innovation, either descriptive or analytical, presuppose the set of goals which the process is trying to achieve. In that sense, there is no immediate difference between SI and innovation in its broadest sense. However, it is the context for sustainability that implies biases towards different types of innovation …

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Related pages

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/making-a-difference”]Page[/button] Making a Difference (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.cpsl.cam.ac.uk”]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

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Blowfield, M., Visser, W. & Livesey, F. (2007) Sustainability Innovation: Mapping the Territory, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 2.

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Corporate Sustainability and the Individual

Corporate Sustainability and the Individual:

A Literature Review

Paper by Wayne Visser

Abstract

This paper introduces the literature and theories of corporate sustainability and how these have been applied at the level of the individual. It begins by defining corporate sustainability, reviewing the concept origins, demonstrating that it is an essentially contested concept (overlapping with related terms like corporate social responsibility, business ethics and corporate citizenship) and exploring some of the underlying principles. The paper then gives an overview of academic research that has been conducted on corporate sustainability generally and on the role of the individual in corporate sustainability in particular. In term of the latter, five themes are explored: the importance of values congruence of managers and employees with organisational values; the instrumental association between individual concern, knowledge and commitment and corporate social and environmental responsiveness; narrative accounts by sustainability managers of corporate “greening”; the role of sustainability managers as champions, entrepreneurs or agents of change in their organisations; and the application of psychology to understand individual responses to sustainability issues. Finally, conclusions are drawn.

Defining “Corporate Sustainability”

A Synthesis Definition

In this paper, I point out that corporate sustainability is a contested concept, which to a greater or lesser extent (depending on the author) draws from and overlaps with notions of sustainable development, corporate citizenship, corporate (social) responsibility, environmental management, business ethics and stakeholder management.

I have been guided in my own synthesis definition of corporate sustainability by the practitioner perspective that I often encountered (and adopted) in my work as a consultant in the field and which my research participants generally embraced, namely that we should focus on the essence of commonality among these terms, rather than (as viewed by them) the pedantic differences.

Perhaps less acknowledged in practice, but clear from the literature and my philosophical position, corporate sustainability is in no way an objective, scientific or neutral concept, but rather a normative construct, which always contains a set of implicit or explicit values.

Hence, for the purposes of this paper, I define corporate sustainability as a values-laden umbrella concept, which refers to the way in which the interface between business, society and the environment is managed.

Concept Origins

Corporate sustainability evolved as a derivation of the concept of sustainable development, which was first introduced by the United Nations’ World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) and defined as “development that meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (43). The ideas behind sustainable development are much older, traceable at least back to the preservation and conservation movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, but the Brundtland definition quoted above marks the concept’s entry into the modern lexicon …

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Related pages

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”info” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/books/making-a-difference”]Page[/button] Making a Difference (book)

[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”tick” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.cpsl.cam.ac.uk”]Link[/button] Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (website)

Cite this article

Visser, W. (2007) Corporate Sustainability and the Individual: A Literature Review, Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership Paper Series, No. 1.

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