Journal of Business Ethics

, Volume 145, Issue 2, pp 259–276 | Cite as

In Search of the Dominant Rationale in Sustainability Management: Legitimacy- or Profit-Seeking?



The academic debate why and how companies are dealing with sustainability is dominated by two main arguments—the profit-seeking and the legitimacy-seeking view. While the first argues that companies (only) establish sustainability management measures if this helps to increase their economic success, others emphasize that companies predominantly react on societal pressure dealing with sustainability (only) to secure legitimacy. Whereas both lines of argument have gained a lot of attention in academia, little is known about their relative importance in shaping corporate practice. This papers aims to fill this gap with an empirical analysis of corporate practices of large companies in ten countries worldwide. To capture the organizations’ rationale in sustainability management practice, we systematically applied various measures related to actors and operational activities focusing on the companies’ intention to pursue sustainability management, the integration of sustainability management to the core business, and the actual implementation of related measures. Overall the findings indicate that seeking legitimacy dominates corporate sustainability management practices.


Sustainability management Legitimacy Profit-seeking Corporate sustainability Sustainability management practices 



The authors are thankful to the anonymous reviewers and the associate editors for excellent comments. We are also grateful to Markus Beckmann for valuable comments on earlier versions of this paper.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM)Leuphana University LüneburgLüneburgGermany
  2. 2.Alanus UniversityAlfterGermany

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