1 Introduction

Over the past decade, bibliometric analyses have attracted increasing research attention. This analysis has become popular owing to the introduction of new software programs, multidisciplinary methodologies, and the ability to handle large databases (Khan et al., 2022). Additionally, this analysis allows objective data analysis and identification of various trends in a specific research field and journal performance, topics, authorship, co-citations, and references (Ellili, 2023). This study focuses on sustainability, which is of great interest.

This study focused on the sustainability research field, as its importance has emerged due to the growth in awareness of natural resource depletion and environmental changes. Sustainability has become an area of great interest not only for policymakers, but also for researchers to examine the concept of a green economy. In the last decade, the increasing environmental awareness of international legal bodies has prompted many countries to raise questions about sustainable development.

Most of studies explored the sustainability in the agriculture industry (Fito & van Hulle, 2021; Medina et al., 2021; Pandey & Diwan, 2021; Singh & Misra, 2021; Yasmeen et al., 2022), food security (Alsaleh et al., 2021; Nualnoom, 2022; Pieroni et al., 2021; P. Singh et al., 2022), land management and degradation (Surata et al., 2022; Yu, 2021; Zhou et al., 2022), biodiversity (Teraa & Bencherif, 2022), climate change (Staupe-Delgado, 2020; Wang et al., 2021), urban planning and management (Ahmed et al., 2021; Sunardi et al., 2021; Yu et al., 2021), and carbon emission and pollution (Kapitonov, 2021; Kaya Kanlı & Küçükefe, 2023; Sun et al., 2022).

In the management area, studies have examined the circular economy (di Vaio et al., 2023; Mirzaei & Shokouhyar, 2022; Rasool et al., 2022), life cycle analysis (Hayek et al., 2021; Khaddour, 2022; Sharma et al., 2022) while only one study investigated the impact of sustainability disclosure on corporate performance (Ellili & Nobanee, 2022). Through a bibliometric analysis, this study was not only able to identify the most frequent sustainability topics published in Environment, Development and Sustainability, but also detect various gaps in the literature and propose paths for future research.

This study aims to achieve the following objectives: (1) analyze the major contributions of Environment, Development and Sustainability to the sustainability research field; (2) identify the most productive authors along with their respective papers, organizations, and countries; (3) determine the key reference papers and journals; (4) map and visualize results in simple presentations; and (5) provide directions for future sustainability research to be considered by the journal.

This study had five research questions: The first question is as follows: What are the most frequent topics of papers published in Environment, Development and Sustainability? The second question is: What authors, organizations, and countries have contributed the most to research on sustainability? The third research question was as follows: What are the most cited papers published in Environment, Development and Sustainability? The fourth research question is as follows: What are the most cited reference papers? The fifth research question was as follows: What are the most-cited reference journals? To answer the first and fifth questions, we conducted a cartography analysis using VOSviewer, and the remaining questions were answered by applying bibliometric analyses.

To the best of our knowledge, there are 13 bibliometric analyses published in Environment, Development and Sustainability. These studies are related to sustainability issues in specific industries, such as economics (Dominko et al., 2022; Zhao & Zhang, 2022; Zárate-Rueda et al., 2021), tourism (Diéguez-Castrillón et al., 2022), real estate (Lazar & Chithra, 2021), agriculture (Dash et al., 2023; Mohd Razali et al., 2022), and health (Zyoud & Zyoud, 2021). While this study considers all sustainability papers published in Environment, Development and Sustainability and it will shed further light on this topic. This study contributes to the literature by evaluating the most relevant sustainability research topics. Six major clusters were identified: (1) environmental sustainability, (2) sustainable development, (3) urban sustainability, (4) ecological footprint, (5) environment, and (6) climate change. In addition, the results reveal that Environment, Development and Sustainability has increasingly experienced important growth in research papers and citations, reflecting its significant contribution to the sustainability research field. In addition, this study identifies the authors, countries, organizations, and references that have been the most influential in terms of publishing sustainability studies in Environment, Development and Sustainability.

The remainder of this paper is organized as follows. Section 2 presents the methodology and data. Section 3 interprets the results of the bibliometric and content analyses. Section 4 presents the current topics and recommendations for future research, and Sect. 5 presents the conclusions.

2 Methodology and data

2.1 Methodology

This study applied a bibliometric analysis by considering both quantitative and qualitative approaches (Khan et al., 2022). Thus, the following analyses were conducted: (1) keyword cartography analysis, (2) bibliometric authors’ citation analysis, (3) bibliometric papers’ co-citation analysis, (4) bibliometric references’ co-citation analysis, (5) journals’ co-citation cartography, and (5) qualitative content analysis. Bibliometric analysis was conducted using VOSviewer and content analysis was performed using WordStat.

2.2 Data

In the first step, the Scopus database was selected as Environment, Development and Sustainability is listed in this database. More particularly, we used the keyword “sustainability” and the title source Environment, Development and Sustainability yielding 1,042 papers. The data include all documents on sustainability published in Environment, Development and Sustainability. It covers the period between 1999 and 2022 until August 9th. The data were then screened in multiple stages, as shown in Fig. 1. The final number of papers included in this bibliometric analysis was 997.

Fig. 1
figure 1

PRISMA diagram showing the number of documents at each stage of the screening process

After the data were screened, they were exported to Common Separated Value (CSV) Excel and uploaded to VOSviewer for bibliometric analyses. In addition, the CSV Excel was converted into the Web of Sciences format and uploaded to CiteSpace. The data extraction and conversion steps are illustrated in Fig. 2.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Data extraction steps

3 Results of bibliometric and content analyses

This section summarizes the 997 documents included in this study. These documents were published in Environment, Development, and Sustainability. In addition to the trend analysis, several bibliometric analyses were conducted to identify the most frequent research topics, the most productive authors along with organizations and countries, the most cited papers, the most co-cited reference papers, the most co-cited reference journals, and content analysis.

3.1 Trend in publications on sustainability in Environment, Development and sustainability

Figure 3 shows the number of documents published on sustainability in Environment, Development and Sustainability. The four first studies were published in 1999. The development of this field was slow until 2007, with a maximum of 15 papers published in 2005. The number of published documents on sustainability started to increase, reaching 40 in 2018 and 2019 and continued to increase significantly in the remaining years, reaching 255 in 2021. Although the year 2022 is not yet over, this number has reached 224. The growing number of published documents suggests that academic researchers are becoming more interested in the sustainability field and publishing a higher number of documents in Environment, Development and Sustainability. In this trend analysis, the increasing number of publications in the field of sustainability is not only attributed to the growing recognition of the importance of this research field, but also to the significant contribution of Environment, Development and Sustainability to the publication on sustainability.

Fig. 3
figure 3

Trend in publication on sustainability in Environment, Development and Sustainability

3.2 The most frequent research topics

Co-occurrence analysis of all keywords was applied to conceptualize the development and growth of sustainability studies published in Environment, Development and Sustainability. To arrive at a meaningful analysis, following Khan et al. (2022), a minimum threshold of two for the co-occurrence of a particular keyword was required and filtered. This resulted in 551 words, for a total of 3,577 words. The results are reported in Fig. 3 and reveal six major clusters: (1) environmental sustainability (red), (2) sustainable development (green), (3) urban sustainability (blue), (4) ecological footprint (yellow), (5) environment (purple), and (6) climate change (turquoise). These clusters reflect the need for research on sustainability in response to the main interest in the environment and climate change. In addition, the topic of sustainability is of great importance to help companies ensure sustainable development and growth, as well as to improve stakeholders’ perceptions and public attitudes (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4
figure 4

Keywords analysis

Studies in the environmental sustainability cluster have primarily focused on sustainability indicators. There were three major groups of studies in this cluster. The first group examined the implementation of sustainable development goals (SDG) (Weerasooriya et al., 2021; Phillips, 2021; Udemba, 2022), and environmental conservation policies (Z. Wang et al., 2022; Zolin et al., 2020). The second group explored the adoption of a circular economy (di Vaio et al., 2023; Mirzaei & Shokouhyar, 2022; Rasool et al., 2022), environmental innovations (Tiwari & Thakur, 2021; Weimin et al., 2022). The third group assesses corporate sustainability (de Lima et al., 2022; Ellili & Nobanee, 2022; Rahman et al., 2022; Xu et al., 2021).

In the sustainable development cluster, studies have explored sustainability in the agricultural industry(Fito & van Hulle, 2021; Medina et al., 2021; Pandey & Diwan, 2021; Singh & Misra, 2021; Yasmeen et al., 2022) as well as in tourism (Aygün Oğur & Baycan, 2022; Mohamadi et al., 2022; Xu et al., 2022). Other studies have focused on land use management (Surata et al., 2022; Yu, 2021; Zhou et al., 2022), energy consumption (Petrović, 2023; Saeed et al., 2022), economic growth (Refah-Kahriz et al., 2022), and the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on sustainable development (Bar, 2021; Shammi et al., 2021; Zyoud, 2022).

In urban sustainability clusters, studies have focused mainly on urban planning and management (Ahmed et al., 2021; Sunardi et al., 2021; Yu et al., 2021 J. Wang et al., 2022) and water quality, resources, and management (Torres López et al., 2023; Wang et al., 2021).

In the ecological print cluster, studies have focused on food security (Alsaleh et al., 2021; Nualnoom, 2022; Pieroni et al., 2021; P. Singh et al., 2022), the application of geographic information systems (GIS) to assess climatic conditions (Bherwani et al., 2021; Dereli & Tercan, 2021; Sarif & Gupta, 2022), and stakeholder involvement in ecological initiatives (Salman et al., 2022; Vasconcelos et al., 2022; Woldesenbet & Kebede, 2021).

In the environmental cluster, studies have highlighted the need to reduce carbon emissions (Coller et al., 2021; Khurshid et al., 2022), use renewable energy to improve energy efficiency (Irfan et al., 2021; Xu et al., 2021), biodiversity (Teraa & Bencherif, 2022), and the importance of preserving the environment for poor communities (Forkuor & Korah, 2023; Ho et al., 2022).

Studies in the climate change cluster have focused mainly on adaptation strategies and livelihoods (De & Das, 2021; Ghazali et al., 2021; Islam et al., 2022), and resilience evaluation (Ghamari et al., 2022; Rai et al., 2021; Zhao et al., 2022).

In addition to VOSviewer, CiteSpace was used to analyze the most used keywords in the different stages and development patterns in the publications on sustainability in Environment, Development and Sustainability. The most-cited keywords were calculated and arranged in CiteSpace by time and frequency to form the time view shown in Fig. 5. The figure shows the most frequently used keywords. The four keywords of “sustainable development,” “climate change,” “ecological footprint,” “biodiversity,” and “environment” were frequently included in papers till 2004, suggesting that early interest in sustainability was closely related to the overall awareness about the environment as well as the integration of the environmental policy for the achievement of a sustainable development. For instance, Eppel (1999) explained the recommendations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Council for different countries to integrate areas of the environment and climate change into governmental strategies to ensure the transition to sustainable development. In the following three years, the following new keywords emerged: “water management” and “economic growth”. These keywords reflect the importance of water resource management for ensuring economic growth. Rahm et al. (2006) highlighted the importance of sustainability of water resources to ensure economic development. During 2007–2013, the most used keywords were “perception”, “livelihood”, “integrated approach“, “strategic approach“, “ecotourism“, and “carbon emission”. In addition, interest in sustainability research was not only limited to “rural areas” but was extended to “urban areas. These keywords reflect that the achievement of sustainability objectives requires integrated and strategic approaches to increasing awareness among different stakeholders about sustainability and making them involved in different environmental initiatives. During 2013–2016, researchers were interested in applying more sophisticated methods such as “irrigation system” and “spatiotemporal analysis” to assess the quality of different sustainability practices. The interest was focused on assessing the sustainability performance and the achievement of “sustainable development goals” including the “social sustainability” in different industries such as “supply chain” companies. In the following years, interest continued to be on “sustainability assessment” and moved to the “optimization” of sustainability goals. This evolution in sustainability topics indicates that researchers have started to increase awareness about the environment and climate change by explaining the importance of sustainability efforts to be implemented at the country level and the strong association between sustainability practices and economic growth. Later, interest was focused on spreading awareness about sustainability initiatives in both rural and urban areas, measuring the different potential impacts of sustainability efforts, and optimizing the achievement of different sustainability goals.

Fig. 5
figure 5

Evolution in Sustainability Research topics Over the Years

Additionally, a keyword burst analysis was conducted to identify the emergence of new and significant research topics in the sustainability field over time and track the evolution of ideas over time. Figure 6 presents the top 22 keywords with the strongest citation bursts between 1999 and 2022. The top five keywords with the highest strength were “Eurasia” (2004–2009), “Asia” (2004–2009), “Africa” (2002–2009), “perception” (2016–2020), and “developing word” (2009–2014). The most recent burst keywords were “strategic approach”, “groundwater resources”, “assessment method”, and “Pakistan” with continuous persistence. The keyword “strategic approach” which emerged from 2018, showed the strongest citation burst (4.82).

Fig. 6
figure 6

The keywords with the strongest citation bursts for publications on sustainability published in Environment, Development and Sustainability between 1999 and 2022

3.3 The most influential authors, organizations and countries

The most cited authors, along with their respective organizations and countries, are presented in Table 1. For meaningful analysis, the threshold was a minimum of five papers by author. This yielded eight of the 2,961 authors. Table 1 shows that Hens L. published the highest number of papers in Environment, Development and Sustainability and Islam A.R.M.T. had the highest number of citations. The list indicates that two authors are affiliated with Iranian universities (Bagherpour M and Ghannadpour S.F.). In addition, Table 1 reveals that Belgium, Hong Kong, Sweden, India, Bangladesh, Benin, and Iran are increasingly contributing to research publications in Environment, Development, and Sustainability.

Table 1 Most cited authors, organizations and countries

3.4 The most cited papers

This section presents an analysis of the most-cited papers published in Environment, Development and Sustainability. The threshold was a minimum of 100 citations, yielding 16 of the 997 papers. As presented in Table 2, the topics of the most cited papers are related to environmental sustainability (Munda, 2005; Van Wilgen et al., 2001; Shiferaw et al., 2009; Chavalparit et al., 2006; López-ridaura et al., 2005; Magee et al. 2013) followed by studies on sustainable development (Jabareen, 2008; Fuchs, 2008; Yüksel, 2017) and urban sustainability (Berardi, 2013; Koop & van Leeuwen, 2017; Cetin et al., 2018).

Table 2 Most cited papers published in Environment, Development and Sustainability

3.5 Most co-cited reference papers

This section presents the top 20 co-cited references in sustainability papers published in Environment, Development and Sustainability. As shown in Table 3, most co-cited reference papers were directly related to environmental sustainability. Other co-cited references are related to theories such as organizational behavior considered in the studies of Gholamrezai et al. (2021), Hameed et al. (2021), and Hopwood et al. (2022) or empirical models including fuzzy, structural equations, bounds testing approaches, and linear models that have been applied in many studies to assess environmental sustainability. In particularl, the fuzzy model was considered in the studies of Garg et al. (2022), Goyal et al. (2021), Guo & Wu (2022), and Perçin (2022).The structural equations were considered in the studies of Sachin & Rajesh (2022) and Sekhar & Raina (2021).The bounds testing approaches were considered in the studies of Udemba (2022) and Danlami et al. (2018), and the linear models were applied in the studies of Sameen & Feroze (2021) and Bissinger & Bogner (2018).

Table 3 Most cited reference papers

3.6 Most cited references journals

This section presents the most-cited reference sources. Table 4 presents the top ten journals, along with their respective citations, publishers, Scopus quartiles, and SNIP factors. All journals are part of Q1 Scopus and have high SNIP impact factors (higher than 1.154). Most journals were published by Elsevier followed by Springer.

Table 4 Most cited reference journals

3.7 Content analysis

In addition to bibliometric analysis, qualitative content analysis of the research topics of papers on sustainability published in Environment, Development and Sustainability was conducted using WordStat. The results are presented in Table 5.

Table 5 Content Analysis of the Previous Research Topics on sustainability

Table 5 reveals a high similarity with the bibliometric analysis and clusters explained in Sect. 3.2. This indicates that the most frequent research topics on sustainability are related to environmental sustainability, sustainable development, water quality, carbon emissions, and climate change. The two additional topics are “decision making” and “structured interviews”. These topics are related to methodological approaches and data collection. Table 5 indicates that fuzzy and integrated approaches are the most common methods applied in sustainability studies. Fuzzy models are used to assess different sustainability impacts (Goyal et al., 2021; Yamagishi et al., 2021; Liang et al., 2021). Regarding data collection, the most commonly used methods for assessing the awareness and perception of sustainability are questionnaires, surveys, and interviews (Dipeolu et al., 2021; Gurbuz et al., 2021).

4 Current topics and recommendations for future research

In addition to the content analysis of previous sustainability papers, another content analysis was conducted on the current topics of the most recent papers, published until August 9, 2022. Table 6 presents the results.

Table 6 Content Analysis of the Current Research Topics on Sustainability

Table 6 indicates that the major topics of environmental sustainability and sustainable development are similar to those listed in Table 5. For each topic, there is a new integration, such as the social aspect in the topic of environmental sustainability (Ellili & Nobanee, 2022; Sachin & Rajesh, 2022) and tourism sustainability in the topic of sustainable development (Aygün Oğur & Baycan, 2022; Simo-Kengne, 2022; Xu et al., 2022). In the methodology approach, there is a higher focus on data analysis using data envelopment (Omrani et al., 2022; Ye et al., 2022), panel data (Petrović, 2023), and sensitivity analysis (Yagmahan & Yılmaz, 2023) to assess the different sustainability impacts. In addition, the production of renewable energy is one of the main new topics in recent sustainability studies published in Environment, Development and Sustainability (Adetunji et al., 2022).

As per the keyword burst analysis (Fig. 6), future research on sustainability may include topics on the “strategic approach”, “groundwater resources”, “assessment method”, and “Pakistan”. Future research on strategic approaches may include studies on ecosystem-based management to further understand the management of natural resources by considering the entire ecosystem, including its ecological, social, and economic aspects. Future studies on groundwater resources may include the development of policies and regulations involving the implementation of measures such as groundwater allocation limits and recharge requirements to ensure that groundwater resources are used sustainably and not overexploited. Future research on assessment methods may consider digital platforms for sustainability data collection and analysis. These platforms can help improve the quality and availability of sustainability data and promote data-driven decision making. Future studies on sustainability in Pakistan may include further promotion of the development of renewable energy sources to increase access to clean and affordable energy, investment in green infrastructure, and the resilience of sustainable agriculture to climate change.

In addition, other topics on sustainability that would be considered by Environment, Development and Sustainability may include the following:

  • Environmental and social sustainability assessment across industries: Ellili & Nobanee (2022) examined the impact of UAE banks’ environmental and social disclosure on financial performance. Sachin & Rajesh (2022) analyzed the association between sustainable supply chain practices and the financial performance of Indian manufacturing companies. Aygün Oğur & Baycan (2022), Mohamadi et al. (2022), and Simo-Kengne (2022) examined sustainability practices in the tourism industry, while Xu et al. (2022) compared corporate sustainable growth between the tourism and agriculture industries. It would be interesting to explore sustainability efforts in various industries. This would help determine the best frameworks and practices for sustainability initiatives to maximize financial performance.

  • Environmental and social sustainability assessment in family businesses and small and medium enterprises (SMEs): Family businesses and SMEs contribute significantly to economic growth, while most sustainability studies focus on listed companies. It would be interesting to explore the sustainability practices implemented by family businesses and SMEs and examine their potential impact on financial performance and sustainable development.

  • Environmental and social sustainability assessment in international contexts: Most sustainability studies focus on only one country. However, it would be insightful to conduct multinational studies to compare sustainability efforts in different institutional contexts (such as developing versus developed countries) and benchmark best sustainability practices.

  • Impact of social and environmental sustainability on corporate decisions: Most previous studies have examined the impact of sustainability practices on financial performance (Ellili & Nobanee, 2022; Sachin & Rajesh, 2022). It would also be worth analyzing the impact of these practices on other corporate aspects (such as investment efficiency, earnings management, forecast accuracy, etc.) and financial decisions (capital structure, dividend policy, cash holdings, etc.).

  • More comprehensive sustainability assessment measures: Most previous studies have used either qualitative (such as surveys, questionnaires, and focus groups) or quantitative measures (such as scores, panel data, DEA, and sensitivity analysis) for sustainability assessment. It would be insightful if future research combines qualitative and quantitative methods to develop a more complex and accurate sustainability assessment index.

  • Energy production: Most previous studies have explored different types of renewable energy for the main environmental purposes of reducing carbon emissions and climate change. It would also be interesting to consider the impact of renewable energy production on social sustainability such as employment opportunities, quality of life, healthy lifestyles, and income growth.

5 Conclusion

This study analyzed published papers in Environment, Development and Sustainability to determine the journal’s contributions to the sustainability literature, identify the key ideas and concepts related to this field, and provide recommendations for future research.

By applying several bibliometric and content analyses, the most productive authors, along with their respective organizations and countries, were identified. In addition, this study identified six major research topics related to (1) environmental sustainability, (2) sustainable development, (3) urban sustainability, (4) ecological footprint, (5) environment, and (6) climate change.

This study has theoretical and practical implications. First, it provides an overview of the evolution of the sustainability literature in journals and identifies the most relevant topics. Second, it helps researchers understand the most recent topics, as well as the most cited papers and relevant references on sustainability. Third, sustainability researchers can use the findings of this study to identify the areas of future research opportunities on which they should focus. For instance, they can analyze various issues related to sustainability to ensure sustainable development. In addition, it has been observed that there is a gap in the literature regarding the assessment of social and environmental sustainability in family businesses and SMEs which is considered as an unexplored research field related to the corporate sustainability practices. In addition, most of the previous studies published in Environment, Development and Sustainability explored only the impact of environmental and social sustainability on financial performance, while the economic environment changes over time, and it is important for researchers to constantly evolve their studies to improve the understanding of the major role played by environmental and social practices in enhancing economic growth and sustainable development. Moreover, the main thrust of environmental and social sustainability studies has examined either one institutional context or one industry, and has relied on a limited number of companies, while it can also be applied in a multinational context and across different industries.

This study also highlights the importance of optimizing sustainability management in addressing critical corporate decisions, such as investment decisions, capital structure, dividend payouts, and earnings management. This field has been acknowledged as a leading research topic for exploring the various characteristics of sustainability practices. Much research should be conducted in this field as most studies have focused on financial performance. In addition, more studies should be conducted on the impact of sustainability on strategic corporate governance to ensure sustainable development. Some of these topics include the role of the board of directors in the integration of sustainability into a company’s management.

The importance of sustainability is acknowledged not only by society, but also by investors. Companies should operate in a way that will not only maximize the value of their shareholders’ wealth but also increase the benefit to the entire society by undertaking environmental and social activities, such as investment in renewable energy projects. This will be of great interest for future research, considering the internal policies of companies to promote sustainable development goals and prevent climate change, pollution, and social inequality.

Future studies should examine other databases to analyze trends in the field of sustainability. This study focused only on articles published in Environment, Development and Sustainability. Despite these limitations, this study provides a useful overview of the current sustainability literature.