This week we look at paradoxes in corporate sustainability.
A paradox perspective on corporate sustainability: Descriptive, instrumental, and normative aspects
The last decade has witnessed the emergence of a paradox perspective on corporate sustainability. By explicitly acknowledging tensions between different desirable, yet interdependent and conflicting sustainability objectives, a paradox perspective enables decision makers to achieve competing sustainability objectives simultaneously and creates leeway for superior business contributions to sustainable development.
In stark contrast to the business case logic, a paradox perspective does not establish emphasise business considerations over concerns for environmental protection and social well-being at the societal level. In order to contribute to the consolidation of this emergent field of research, Tobias Hahn and his team offer a definition of the paradox perspective on corporate sustainability and a framework to delineate its descriptive, instrumental, and normative aspects.
This framework clarifies the paradox perspective’s contents and its implications for research and practice. The authors use the framework to map the contributions to this thematic symposium on paradoxes in sustainability and to propose questions for future research.
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Tobias Hahn, Frank Figge, Jonatan Pinkse and Lutz Preuss. 2018. A Paradox Perspective on Corporate Sustainability: Descriptive, Instrumental, and Normative Aspects.
Journal of Business Ethics, 148(2), 235–248.
‘Activists in a suit’: Paradoxes and metaphors in sustainability managers’ identity work
Both sustainability and identity are said to be paradoxical issues in organisations. In this study authors Carollo and Guerci look at the paradoxes of corporate sustainability at the individual level by studying the identity work of those managers who hold sustainability-dedicated roles in organisations.
Analysing 26 interviews with sustainability managers, the authors identify three main tensions affecting their identity construction process: the business versus values oriented, the organisational insider versus outsider and the short-term versus long-term focused identity work tensions. When dealing with these tensions, some interviewees express a paradoxical perspective in attempting to accept and maintain the two poles of each of them simultaneously.
It emerges in particular that metaphorical reasoning can be used by sustainability managers in varied ways to cope with the tensions of identity work. Carollo and Guerci read these findings in light of the existing literature on the relation between paradoxes and identity work, highlighting and discussing their implications for both research and practice.
Luca Carollo and Marco Guerci. 2018. ‘Activists in a Suit’: Paradoxes and Metaphors in Sustainability Managers’ Identity Work.
Journal of Business Ethics, 148(2), 249–268.
The paradoxical role of the financial logic in socially responsible investment funds
Socially responsible investing (SRI) is gaining traction in the financial sector, but it is unclear whether the dominant financial logic complements or competes with the social logic in the founding of SRI funds.
Based on insights gained from observation at an Asian SRI industry association, interviews with SRI professionals in the U.S. and Europe, and other fieldwork, these authors questioned explanations for SRI’s conflicted relationship with the financial logic.
Their observations prompted them to build a panel database of SRI fund foundings from 1970 to 2014 in 19 countries so that they could examine how a dominant logic interacts with alternative logics to promote or stifle institutional change. Authors Shipeng Yan and team decomposed the financial logic into interdependent dimensions as the provider of means (resources, practices, and knowledge) for novel financial ventures to be founded and the enforcer of profit-maximizing ends that constrain such foundings.
This theory suggests a paradoxical role for the financial logic, which explains an intriguing empirical finding: the founding of SRI funds has a curvilinear, inverted-U-shaped relationship with the prevalence of the financial logic. The authors propose and find that the relationship between the dominant financial logic and the social logic of SRI shifts from complementary to competing as the financial logic becomes more prevalent in society and its profit-maximizing end becomes taken for granted. Shipeng Yan’s team examined how certain alternative logics—those of unions, religion, and green political parties—moderate these effects. The results shed light on how and to what extent institutional change can occur in fields in which one institutional logic is dominant. They also reveal country-level institutional factors that drive SRI.
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Shipeng Yan, Fabrizio Ferraro & Juan (John) Almandoz. 2018. The Rise of Socially Responsible Investment Funds: The Paradoxical Role of the Financial Logic.
Administrative Science Quarterly, online available at https://doi.org/10.1177/0001839218773324
Unsustainability of sustainability: Cognitive frames and tensions in bottom of the pyramid projects
Existing research posits that decision makers use specific cognitive frames to manage tensions in sustainability. However, we know less about how the cognitive frames of individuals at different levels in organisation interact and what these interactions imply for managing sustainability tensions, such as in Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) projects.
To address this omission, authors Sharma and Jaiswa ask do organisational and project leaders differ in their understanding of tensions in a BOP project, and if so, how? They answer this question by drawing on a 5-year study of a BOP project of a global pharmaceutical company in India.
In line with the existing research, these scholars found three kinds of frames—paradoxical, business case, and business—held differently across organisational levels and over time. The authors also found that the shift in frames of both project and organisational leaders was mediated by the decision-making horizon.
The initial divergence across organisational levels, seen in paradoxical and business frames, was mediated by long-term decision-making horizon. However, there was an eventual convergence toward business frames associated with the shift from long- to shorter-term decision-making horizons and one that led to the project’s closure.
The writers contribute by proposing a dynamic model of cognitive frames in sustainability, where the research has either alluded to top-down or bottom-up understanding.
Garima Sharma and Anand Kumar Jaiswal. 2018. Unsustainability of Sustainability: Cognitive Frames and Tensions in Bottom of the Pyramid Projects.
Journal of Business Ethics, 148(2), 291–307.
Defensive responses to strategic sustainability paradoxes: Have your coke and drink it too!
This study examines how the leading beverage company handles the strategic paradox between its core business and the social issue of obesity. A discursive analysis reveals how the organisation does embrace a social goal related to obesity but not the paradoxical tension between this goal and its core business.
The analysis further shows how the tension, along with the responsibility for the social goal, is projected outside the organisation. This response is underpinned by the paradoxical constructions of consumers and the concept of obesity in the organisation’s communication.
Based on these findings, the author outlines a new type of process for projection, one of the defensive mechanisms recognised in the literature. The findings increase understanding of defensive responses to organisational paradoxes and help distinguish between different kinds of strategic paradoxes. They also highlight the need to further open up the complexity and multiplicity of strategic paradoxes related to corporate sustainability.
Kirsti Iivonen. 2018. Defensive Responses to Strategic Sustainability Paradoxes: Have Your Coke and Drink It Too!
Journal of Business Ethics, 148(2), 309–327.
Managing corporate sustainability with a paradoxical lens: Lessons from strategic agility
Corporate sustainability introduces multiple tensions or paradoxes into organisations which defy traditional approaches such as trading-off contrasting options. Authors Ivory and Brooks examine an alternative approach: to manage corporate sustainability with a paradoxical lens where contradictory elements are managed concurrently.
Drawing on paradox theory, the authors focus on two specific pathways: to the organisation-wide acceptance of paradox and to paradoxical resolution. Introducing the concept of strategic agility, these scholars argue that strategically agile organisations are better placed to navigate these paradox pathways.
Strategic agility comprises three organisational meta-capabilities: strategic sensitivity, collective commitment, and resource fluidity. Ivory and Brooks propose that strategically agile organisations draw on strategic sensitivity and collective commitment to achieve organisation-wide acceptance of paradox, and collective commitment and resource fluidity to achieve paradoxical resolution.
For each of these meta-capabilities, the researchers identify three organisational practices and processes specifically related to corporate sustainability that organisations can leverage in pursuit of strategic agility. The authors offer a conceptual framework depicting the strategic agility meta-capabilities, and associated practices and processes, which organisations draw on to successfully manage corporate sustainability with a paradoxical lens.
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Sarah Birrell Ivory and Simon Bentley Brooks. 2018. Managing Corporate Sustainability with a Paradoxical Lens: Lessons from Strategic Agility.
Journal of Business Ethics, 148(2), 347–361.