Decent Work and Economic Growth

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Sustainable Business Strategies

  • Thomas B. LongEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-71058-7_49-1

Synonyms

Definitions

Sustainable business strategy is the integration of economic, environmental, and social aims into a firm’s goals, activities, and planning, with the aim of creating long-term value for the firm, its stakeholders, and the wider society. This means that strategy is formulated and executed so that the needs of the firm and its stakeholders are met today, while protecting, sustaining, and enhancing the natural and resources that will be needed in the future.

Introduction

The creation of a sustainable, just, and equitable economy will require fundamental shifts in the way businesses operate. Businesses, in particular, bear some responsibility for many of the social and environmental problems currently afflicting society, such as exploitative working conditions or the destruction of habitats.

The core aim of conventional business strategy is the production of economic value – generally profits – for the short to medium term. These strategies aim to create value for a narrow set of stakeholders – primarily, owners and shareholders. Developing value beyond these actors was traditionally seen as illegitimate (Friedman 1970). In this view, preventing or solving social or environmental problems is the responsibility of individual shareholders, for instance, through charitable giving, or governments, who could use tax revenues. The narrow pursuit of profits is associated with many of the issues and challenges currently facing society, such as poor working condition, low wages, and environmental degradation.

This narrow view of strategy is now changing. As this chapter will show, businesses are increasingly developing strategies that integrate sustainability aims and objectives. These strategies do not just aim to reduce negative social and environmental impacts but also seek to enable businesses to have a positive and regenerative impact on society and nature. This is important, as businesses and, in turn, the strategies they use can have a profound influence on production and consumption patterns (Michaelis 2003). Nike, Apple, and Walmart, for example, represent a business community with global reach and influence. This has meant that businesses operated with enhanced political and economic power, making it difficult for any single government or regulatory organization to control and influence them. It also means that there is the potential to harness this power and influence for the achievement of sustainability aims. This is the aim of sustainable business strategy.

Conventional business strategies have a range of links to goal 8: decent work and economic growth. For instance, conventional strategies have often sought to minimize labor costs, paying workers the minimum amount possible. As we will show, business strategies can have an important influence on the aims of goal 8. The wages earned by workers and the conditions they work under are influenced by company strategy, as are the type of innovations pursued and how they are developed. Strategy will also influence where a company locates and even the number and types of jobs provided.

In the following sections, we first consider the factors that drive the development and implementation of sustainable business strategy. Next, the form and nature of sustainable business strategy will be considered, alongside how they increase in maturity. Circular economy, as a particularly promising sustainable business strategy will be explored before considering some criticisms to the sustainable business strategy approach. Throughout we will highlight how businesses, through their strategies, influence work, innovations, and growth.

The Origins of Sustainable Business Strategy: Context and Driving Factors

The development of sustainable business strategies is dependent on a range of facilitating contextual factors as well as drivers. These help create the opportunities necessary for sustainable business strategies to be successful, as well as motivate business to design and enact new sustainable strategies. External and systemic factors are explored first, after which, factors linked to the internal dynamics of businesses are considered.

The global capitalist system and the markets that it includes cause many sustainability issues, including widening inequality, exploitative labor practices, and many environmental issues. They also create the opportunities needed for sustainable business strategy to be successful (Cohen and Winn 2007; Hart et al. 2005). For instance, the industrialization of economic activity and associated consumption levels create obvious environmental problems (Hart et al. 2005). Current production techniques are associated with low levels of efficiency in many markets, which is represented by the high amount of waste created by many industrial processes. Cohen and Winn (2007) highlight the example of a semiconductor chip, the production of which is associated with waste that represents 100,000 times its weight (Cohen and Winn 2007; Hawken et al. 2013). These market inefficiencies provide the space for improvements. Sustainable business strategies often target these improvements through, for instance, eco-efficiency strategies. These can reduce costs for businesses, which we will examine in the next section. The capitalist system is also associated with widening inequalities, creating opportunities (or the need for) and strategies linked to resource ownership and community development.

Current markets also create externalities. These are the consequences of business activities, which affect stakeholder such as local communities, but are not reflected in the price of the product or service. They can be positive or negative – we focus on the negative kind, where producers and users avoid the costs of the externality, placing them instead in communities and the environment. Within the current system, it is in the interest of businesses to externalize as many costs as possible, whether this is through carbon emissions into the atmosphere, dumping wastes into local rivers, or paying local workers the lowest wages possible. The existence of externalities creates opportunities for sustainable business strategies, such as the development of new technologies that reduce externalities. These can create reputation improvements for firms or take advantage of regulations aiming to stop externalities.

The pricing and valuation of resources in current economic systems also create opportunities for strategy changes. Many natural resources are both exhaustible and undervalued, which is contrary to assumptions used to value them (mainly, that they are infinitely plentiful). This means that finite resources are used inefficiently or potentially exhausted completely – this is especially problematic where resources provide critical ecosystem services such as fresh air or water. Increasing recognition of the value of these resources is moving the status quo closer to more accurate pricing, and as this happens, this in turn creates opportunities for sustainable business strategies by entrepreneurs and incumbents, such as new products, customer segments, or how these resources are owned and managed. Maintaining local community control and ownership can promote more sustainable use and also ensures that local people benefit through jobs or the extraction of appropriate rents.

The fourth key systemic imperfection creating opportunities for sustainable business strategies is the lack of perfect information. Current markets, in theory, rely on all actors having perfect information, which is rarely, if ever, the case. This lack of knowledge on part of the consumer creates a market imperfection, where consumers make uninformed buying decisions, often at the cost of both the environment and their wallets. Cohen and Winn (2007) provide the example of low consumer understanding of energy consumption in the home, in terms of how much they use, the relative benefits of different fuel sources, or the rate of return on potential improvements. This often results in an inefficient and wasteful system and one which is more expensive for often cash-strapped consumers – which, in turn, creates opportunities for businesses to enact strategies to improve this situation, for instance, through servitization or the use of smart meters.

More widely, globalization and the inequality it is associated with can provide business opportunities at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP). Globalization has lifted many millions out of poverty; yet it has also led to increasing inequality and poverty (Hart et al. 2005). While markets in developed countries are well developed and subject to fierce competition between industry rivals, those in the developing world are often underserved. Companies have overlooked opportunities to meet fundamental societal needs, which sustainable business strategies can fill.

The increasing prominence of sustainability problems and improved understanding of their nature and source has meant that the reputation and standing of business has suffered. Prominent strategy thinkers highlight this as a key driver of the need for businesses to rejuvenate their approach to strategy – again, sustainability is given as a solution, offering businesses new opportunities and reducing societal ills (Porter and Kramer 2011). The role of reputation in driving sustainable business strategy creation is linked to an increasingly connected and assertive civil society (Hart et al. 2005), who much improved access to information. Business is increasingly held accountable for social and environmental impacts, including those that occur outside of their organizational boundaries. For instance, impacts occurring up- or downstream in supply chains are now attributed to the lead business, often a manufacturer or consumer facing retailer. This is especially problematic for businesses that hold high amounts of value in their reputation and brands. As will be shown, sustainable business strategies can interact with these features providing tangible benefits to businesses enacting sustainable business strategy. For example, child labor accusations damaged the Nike brand, with sales ultimately impacting by boycotts (Beder 2002). Linking (un)sustainable practices and business value provides an avenue through which sustainability can affect business’s bottom line.

More widely, enhanced business performance is linked to contextual factors, such as the health of ecosystems or local communities (Porter and Kramer 2011). The competitiveness of a company and the health of the communities around it are closely intertwined, providing further rationale and drivers for sustainable business strategies. A happy, healthy, equal, and well-functioning community is critical for the effective functioning of business.

Many of the dynamics creating opportunities for sustainable business strategies and the drive to enact them focus on internal organizational elements. While brand and reputation are influenced by external events, internal dynamics are also important. For instance, while market structures contribute to the creation of inefficiencies, the management of inefficiencies is an internal management competence (Schaltegger and Wagner 2011). Environmental or social impacts can create internal costs for firms, such as wasted energy or the costs of public relations campaigns. Unhappy and exploited workers will be less efficient and less likely to genuinely work toward a firm’s long-term benefit. Targeting these inefficiencies can reduce costs and risk.

A shift away from a focus on short-term profit to longer-term performance is often at the center of many sustainable business strategies. The extension of time horizons reduces the likelihood of businesses inflicting negative externalities on communities and can make many sustainability initiatives attractive in terms of ROI (Fowler and Hope 2007). Such “win-win” outcomes are now well documented in both academic and practitioner literature (Beckmann et al. 2014). “Win-win” outcomes can stretch to factors such as enhanced attractiveness as an employer and improved capacity to innovate (Schaltegger and Wagner 2011).

Business Cases for Sustainable Business Strategy

Businesses are founded and run for economic purposes. So, while contextual factors have created the necessary background for change, this is not sufficient to encourage the transition needed. The development of sustainable business strategy requires the linking of sustainability to the creation of shareholder value. Linking these types of values legitimizes sustainability actions within conventional business contexts, highlighting how the generation of benefits for wider stakeholders is advantageous to the long-term prosperity of a business (Hart et al. 2005; Porter and Kramer 2011).

To link shareholder (economic) value with environmental or social value creation requires the development of a business case for sustainability (Schaltegger and Wagner 2011). This produces a situation where enhanced economic success is achieved with positive social and/or environmental impacts. The link between sustainability and business benefit is not automatic, meaning that strategic business objectives must be purposefully linked to and oriented toward sustainability.

The generation of a business case for sustainability has implications for the competitiveness strategy of a business (Baumgartner and Ebner 2010); the degree to which a sustainable business strategy enhances or detracts from the generation of economic value can be described as the “fit.” For instance, the best fit would involve the sustainable business strategy being an essential component of overall business strategy. This would enhance the generation of economic returns – positive from a business perspective and achieve wider sustainability outcomes. Poor sustainability strategies will create conflicting goals between competitiveness and sustainability, enhancing the likelihood that the strategy be dropped.

Early thinking on sustainable business strategy saw that firm performance is predicated on the resources available to it, including those of the natural environment (Hart et al. 2005; Fowler and Hope 2007). This line of thinking is known as the natural-resource-based view of the firm. Three interconnected basic strategies are recommended: (1) pollution prevention, where wastes are reduced through production changes (rather than end-of-pipe applications), (2) product stewardship and the use of tools such as life-cycle assessment to reduce the impacts of a product over its whole lifetime, and (3) sustainable development, where the business considers the impacts on and engages with stakeholders in this developing world. These strategies are path dependent, for instance, product stewardship efforts are dependent upon its prior capability in pollution prevention, and its sustainable development efforts are dependent upon its capability in pollution prevention and product stewardship.

The concept of shared value creation emerged later, and was instrumental in moving the idea of sustainable business strategy into the more mainstream business consciousness (Porter and Kramer 2011). A shared value creation perspective proposed that business performance can be enhanced (alongside the solving of reputational issues) by increasing the share of value for everyone. Creating economic value by creating societal value can occur in three ways: first, by reconceiving of products and markets and producing products that help to solve societal problems. Society gains because businesses will often be more effective than governments at solving societal issues. Businesses start by identifying societal needs that could be met through products and services, and then commercializing these products, reaping income while also creating wider value. For instance, the raising of awareness of the need for hygiene by an antibacterial soap company enhances sales and provides a community benefit (less infection and disease).

Redefining productivity in the value chain is the next key strategy, involving the creation of societal value by reducing externalities of production, such as waste or poor labor practices. These externalities often also inflict internal costs on the firm, meaning reducing them benefits the business as well as local communities. This can involve focusing on energy use and logistics, resource use, procurement distribution, employee productivity, and firm location. Finally, the third strategy involves building supportive industry clusters. Productivity and innovation are strongly influenced by the proximity of other firms and related services provided by suppliers, universities, or support professionals. By helping to build these clusters, by investing in infrastructure, for instance, firms benefit local communities as well as themselves (Porter and Kramer 2011). Firms benefit from improved access to labor, ideas, and financing, while local communities have improved employment options, better \infrastructure, and improved community prospects.

These types of strategies can have wider positive influences on goal 8. For instance, the reconceiving of products and pollution prevention can be a driver for innovation. This in turn can create new process, new products, or even new industries. These would lower impact and have the potential to provide employment as well as growth. Shared value creation explicitly seeks to ensure that the “pie” is shared more widely, partly, by ensuring a bigger pie in total. This can help to provide community programs or enhanced working practices, which can help to stimulate virtuous cycles of development if managed correctly. Although these approaches represent initial business reactions to sustainability challenges – as they still focus to a large extent on economic outcomes – it is still possible to see how they can start to see how business strategies can positively influence socioeconomic outcomes.

Sustainable Business Strategy and Maturity Scales: Charting the Journey Through Sustainable Business Strategy

Sustainable business strategy has three core dimensions (Baumgartner and Ebner 2010). These include an economic dimension, containing those activities which are required for a business to remain functioning in the market. Factors such as innovation, collaboration, and knowledge management are critical business functions in terms of developing economically valuable products or services. Without this element, businesses will be unable to finance themselves and will ultimately become bankrupt.

Ecological dimensions of sustainable business strategy concern environmental activities that cause or prevent environmental impacts. These include, for instance, recycling, biodiversity, or waste management. These processes help mediate the relationship between the business and the physical or natural environment. It is these aspects that can help sustainable business strategies to contribute toward sustainable economic growth in terms of environmental dimensions. Current growth is associated with unsustainable production and consumption, but integration of sustainable business strategies can help to ensure that growth decoupled from material consumption and exploitation.

The social dimension of a sustainable business strategy has internal and external dimensions. Internally, aspects such as corporate governance and employee health and safety are important – they can improve productivity, enhance the attractiveness of a business as an employer, and ensure that internal policies are ethical. It is these aspects that are critical for targets concerned with good, safe, just, and fairly paid livelihoods. Externally, social dimensions focus on how the business relates to external stakeholders and its wider ethical behavior in the community.

As noted, a sustainable business strategy can be integrated into a business’s wider strategy to a greater or lesser extent. This has implications for the effectiveness of the sustainable business strategy as well as the broader competitiveness strategy of the business. Initial sustainable business strategies are likely to be light touch, involving minor changes to management systems or alike. As drivers increase and businesses become more adept at integrating sustainability, strategies become more mature. The most effective sustainability strategies are those which are fully integrated into a firm’s overall strategy and will involve adjustments to the underlying organizational logic (Baumgartner and Ebner 2010; Blok et al. 2015; Long et al. 2018).

Various maturity scales for sustainable business strategy have been developed, all illustrating how organizations start from a low point to where sustainability is fully integrated (Baumgartner and Ebner 2010; Schaltegger and Wagner 2011). Initial, early strategies are termed defensive or introverted. They describe a narrow and reactive sustainable business strategy focused on compliance and risk mitigation. The approach to sustainability is likely to be driven by cost constraint and is little more than compliance with official or civic regulation. Activities could include the introduction of basic environmental management systems to reduce inefficiencies or limited efforts at transparency through sustainability reporting.

Accommodative or extroverted approaches represent a next step, involving cautious modifications to the businesses but without questioning the revenue logic or core business aims. This could include more enhanced use of management systems, for instance, for environmental protection or eco-efficiency. There would be more focus on external relationships and the need for a “license to operate.” Many corporate social responsibility initiatives could be consistent with this approach. These represent efforts by business to engage in social or environmental initiatives, but as “bolt-on” programs. While they can have positive influences, they can be at risk of being ended as they are not necessary for a firm’s core function (Lefebvre and Lefebvre 2012; Campbell 2007).

A third, conservative stage, involves further focus on cleaner production. This can include pollution prevention and eco-efficiency initiatives that alter systems and processes that contribute to the creation of waste. Innovation and the use of new technology enable internal production processes or the actual design of products and services to be changed. Product stewardship ideas fit within this approach, where the business seeks to lengthen product use periods. While this can reduce sales, as products do not need replacing so often, businesses can implement maintenance or other servicing type approaches to enhance economic returns and lengthen the life of products (Hart et al. 2005; Lehni 2000). This is a good example of how businesses can maintain revenues while limiting or reducing materials flows (which we consider more in the following sections).

Finally, a proactive or holistic stage is reached, where sustainable business strategy is fully integrated into all business activities. Competitive advantage is derived from differentiation and innovation, offering customers and stakeholders’ unique advantages through sustainability. This means that sustainability is fully intertwined into company strategy, meaning sustainability elements are not at risk of being dropped. Within this approach, stakeholders are extensively engaged and are given opportunities to share ideas and resources, creating a favorable institutional context for sustainable development (Gast et al. 2017). This final stage of sustainable business strategy is likely to involve a redefinition of the underlying organizational logic of the business, which involves changes to the business models used.

Business Models and Sustainable Business Strategy

As organization’s sustainable business strategy matures, they start to change the business model. A business model describes the underlying logic of how an organization operates. The business model helps to define the competitive strategy, impacts of the design of products (and so also environmental and social impacts in the value chain), the value the product delivers (including environmental or social value), and how the firm captures some of this value (Rasmussen 2007). At its core, the business model will outline a value proposition, value creation, and value capture aspects (Teece 2010).

Sustainable business strategies create sustainable business models. These create competitive advantage for the business organization, but in a way that contributes to sustainability (Bocken et al. 2014; Boons and Lüdeke-Freund 2013). The development of a sustainable business model is a requirement for sustainable business strategies. Different types of sustainable business models are found, each providing different solutions to different challenges (Bocken et al. 2014).

Bocken et al. (2014), in their research on sustainable business model archetypes, identify technological, social, and organizational types, each able to support different sustainable business strategy. Technological archetypes include (1) the maximization of material and energy efficiency. This business model type seeks to do more with fewer resources, generating less waste, emissions, and pollution. In this way, it has links with eco-efficiency initiatives. (2) Business models that create value from waste can reduce pollution and reduce costs in the production process; wastes are often seen as undesirable, and so if a business model and accompanying strategy are able to use these inputs, they are often at lower cost and help reduce wastes that need processing or dumping into the environment. (3) Substitute with renewables and natural processes – these business models reduce environmental impacts and increase organizational resilience by reducing reliance on finite or hard to get inputs.

Socially orientated sustainable business models cover the next three types. These include (4) functionality rather than ownership. These business models satisfy users’ needs without the users having to own the physical products. This enables organizations to ensure that machinery and capital are used in an optimal way, while they are also better able to manage material flows – helping to decuple growth from material use, in turn helping to facilitate sustainable growth. For instance, think of a car – your car is likely to sit idle in your garage for the majority of the time, while with a functionality business model, it can be used more ensuring its relative embodied environmental impact is reduced. (5) Adopt a stewardship role. Business models involve proactively engaging with stakeholders to ensure their long-term health and well-being; stewardship and certification schemes are good examples of this type of approach, where organizations are accredited as to their efforts at long-term care of a resource or community. (6) Encouraging sufficiency. These business models actively seek to reduce consumption and production, often through demand and supply side effects. For instance, energy service companies encourage consumers to reduce energy use. This would usually reduce revenue for the energy provider. However, with innovative contracts or government support, these organizations are able to benefit by reducing overall energy consumption.

The final two types of sustainable business model relate to organizational elements. These include (7) repurposing for society or the environment, such as prioritizing social or environmental value creation over economic profit. This is often achieved by aligning with and integrating local communities and stakeholders into the organization. (8) The development of scale-up solutions, which involves ensuring that effective local solutions can be scaled to enhance impact.

It should be highlighted that business models are simplifications to aid in design and assessment. In this way, the development of a full strategy involves placing the business models within specific contexts, considering local conditions, competitors, regulations, etc. These business model types can also be used together. The use of any one of these archetypes does not necessarily mean that another cannot also be integrated when considering the development of a full-scale and implementable sustainable business strategy. In this next section, we consider circular economy as a specific sustainable business strategy. This is due to its potential to provide significant environmental value.

Circular Economy and Sustainable Business Strategy

Circular economic is a new approach to sustainability. Its potential is in part due to its applicability to a wide range of organizations. Circular economy is the opposite of a linear economy, which is characteristic of most contemporary production processes, where natural resources are converted into products, via production, which then turn to wastes. This means natural capital is used and never restored. Circular economy strategies aim to have no net effect on the environment, restoring damaging resource acquisition while reducing the waste generated in production (Gast et al. 2017; Murray et al. 2017; Geissdoerfer et al. 2017). A key premise of this approach is that overall systems (and strategies) are optimized rather than individual components. This is achieved via design to redesign thinking and other novel innovation techniques.

Circular economy strategies have grown from work by industrial ecologists in the 1990s. The aim was to create a system with (near) complete internal cycling of materials (MacArthur 2013). The 4R framework of reduce, reuse, remanufacture, and recycle is often used as a hierarchy of preferred options for managing materials. Reduce involves increasing efficiency by consuming fewer natural resources and materials during both the production and use phases. Reuse involves ensuring that old products that are still able to function are still used, while remanufacture takes old and often worn-out products through re-processing and ensures that they retain their original function. Lastly, recycling involves further processing of materials to obtain the same or lower quality (Kirchherr et al. 2017). How circular economic interacts with social aspects, such as working conditions or wider social issues, is not so clear. However, these types of strategies can help to create new industries, new jobs, as well as more sustainable economies.

Criticisms of Sustainable Business Strategy

“Win-Win” Versus the Reality of Trade-Offs

Engaging with sustainability issues involves attempting to marry opposing values – namely, economic profit with social or environmental value creation (Zahra et al. 2009; Smith and Lewis 2011). Those individuals attempting to develop sustainable business strategies have to tread a fine line, balancing these often-competing objectives. Much of the sustainable business strategy literature focuses on those situations where “win-win” outcomes exist, where economic profits can be made while also ensuring social and/or environmental value creation. This perspective has been critical in ensuring that the debate on strategy shifted to a point where sustainability is legitimized. However, it can also limit the scope and potential for action to only those situations where clear “win-wins” exist (Hahn et al. 2010, 2018). This is problematic, especially in situations where large social or environmental value gains can be made, but at a small economic cost to a business. Within the win-win perspective, such actions would seem illegitimate and as such inhibit action. This means potentially impactful actions would not be undertaken and result in considerable loss of potential in terms of societal or environmental improvement.

The management of these competing objectives can be viewed in terms of “paradox,” which in turn can be useful for designing sustainable business strategies that are able to deal with these tensions (Hargrave and Van de Ven 2017). A paradox is defined as “contradictory yet interrelated elements – elements that seem logical in isolation but absurd and irrational when appearing simultaneously” (Lewis 2000).

Tackling these tensions and contradictions head-on in an “integrative” manner is recommended, as this can promote creativity and innovation (Hahn et al. 2018). By taking this perspective, even where clear “win-wins” are absent, businesses can legitimately address environmental and social concerns (Rivoli and Waddock 2011) or engage stakeholders who have limited business relevance (Hart and Sharma 2004). By accepting that clear “win-win” situations may not always exist expands the scope of legitimate business action and can stimulate enhanced innovation and solution finding.

A first step in managing these tensions involved recognizing and acknowledging them (Hahn et al. 2010). This is something that is absent in much of the early sustainable business strategy concepts previously discussed. Following this, various management approaches are available (Hahn et al. 2010, 2015; Smith and Lewis 2011). These include “acceptance” that attempts to “live with” the conflict by shifting expectations or via making do. “Resolution” strategies are also available, such as separation of the objectives either spatially (location or levels) or temporally (one aim first and then the other). A synergy approach seeks a view that accommodates the opposing poles.

Limits of Sustainable Business Strategy

Apart from the limiting effect of only operating within “win-win” contexts, sustainable business strategies are subject to a range of criticisms. For instance, aside from circular economy, many sustainable business strategies fail to acknowledge the ecological limits of the biosphere, focusing on eco-efficiency rather than eco-effectiveness approaches (Dyllick and Hockerts 2002). Such thinking is also based on ideas that current technological progress will “save” humanity from environmental limits, and that prosperity will help to create awareness, further reducing environmental stressors. Therefore, while sustainable business strategies are important and necessary for the creation of sustainability, they are unlikely to be sufficient. For instance, wider economic systems will need to be adjusted, as well as changes to consumer mind-sets (Naess 2011). Questions over the appropriateness of continued growth also exist. Even where materiality is separated from growth, it rarely stays stable or reduces – rather, it just increases at a slower rate. Within this perspective, growth is questioned as an aim in itself.

Many sustainable business strategies, especially those of a younger or shallower nature, are criticized for being unoriginal and ineffective. While they may lead to business benefits, the social or environmental returns are likely to be negligible (Crane et al. 2014). These approaches are also potentially naïve about the challenges of business compliance. Business motives and conduct are treated as a given, whereas in reality, these actors have often behaved in amoral ways. Much thinking on sustainable business strategy does not question the sanctity of corporate self-interest or fundamental models of strategy. For instance, many sustainability problems are systematic in nature, meaning individual businesses are unlikely to be able to deal with them alone.

Future Prospects

The development of sustainable business strategy and associated thinking has dramatically shifted the debate concerning businesses’ contribution to sustainable development goals. Sustainability is now considered an everyday parlance in many organizational contexts, while awareness of environmental and social problems, and the role that businesses in particular play in their creation, is higher than ever before.

However, the scale and complexity of sustainability challenges mean that the “the current rate of change is not commensurate with the challenge we face” (Staafgard 2008, p. 34). While sustainable business strategies are evident, they are not the norm. For further progress to be made, changes to wider systems and mind-sets are likely to be needed. Contemporary businesses may struggle to see how paying higher wages can be beneficial for the business or how ensuring that more challenging sustainability aims are integrated into innovation targets are worth the cost. These types of changes will expand the scope for successful sustainability strategies and enhance the ability of sustainable business strategies to compete against non-sustainable ones.

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Sustainable EntrepreneurshipUniversity of Groningen/Campus FryslânLeeuwardenThe Netherlands

Section editors and affiliations

  • Edurne A. Inigo
    • 1
  1. 1.Business Management & Organization, Social Sciences GroupWageningen University and ResearchWageningenThe Netherlands