Multinational enterprises and the Sustainable Development Goals: An institutional approach to corporate engagement

Abstract

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) cannot be achieved without the contributions of multinational enterprises (MNEs). However, extant international business research hardly covers the private sector’s role in achieving international policy goals. This article conceptualises the SDGs as a goal-based institution. Building on institutional theory, it develops propositions that help explain MNEs’ engagement with SDGs. Exploratory survey results from 81 European and North American Financial Times Global 500 companies indicate that MNEs engage more with SDG targets that are actionable within their (value chain) operations than those outside of it, and more with SDG targets that “avoid harm” than those that “do good”. Differences in SDG engagement based on MNEs’ home- and host-countries and their industrial sectors are also explored. We draw policy conclusions for a more pro-active involvement of MNEs in sustainable development, and we define avenues for future international business research. In particular, cross-sector partnerships deserve further attention.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful to Consulting Editor Ans Kolk and three anonymous peer reviewers for their detailed, constructive, and timely feedback. We also thank Peter Nolan at Jesus College, Cambridge, for supportive and stimulating discussions during the initial stages of research leading to this article.

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Correspondence to Jan Anton van Zanten.

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Accepted by Ans Kolk, Consulting Editor, 21 May 2018. This article has been with the authors for three revisions.

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van Zanten, J.A., van Tulder, R. Multinational enterprises and the Sustainable Development Goals: An institutional approach to corporate engagement. J Int Bus Policy 1, 208–233 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s42214-018-0008-x

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Keywords

  • corporate sustainability
  • sustainable development
  • Sustainable Development Goals
  • institutional theory
  • cross-sector partnerships
  • corporate social responsibility