Corporate Sustainability and the Individual

Corporate Sustainability and the Individual:

A Literature Review

Paper by Wayne Visser


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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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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