Corporate Sustainability and the Individual

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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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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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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[button size=”small” color=”blue” style=”download” new_window=”false” link=”http://www.waynevisser.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/paper_sustainability_individual_lit_wvisser.pdf”]Pdf[/button] Corporate Sustainability & the Individual (paper)

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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