As the planet’s population continues to increase and to grow wealthier, pressures on natural resources and the environment will only become more intense. Corporate sustainability, once seen as window-dressing or even subversive, has become a core part of many corporate strategies. Reducing wasted energy and materials is good business, as well as good public relations. Marketing to the growing segment of green consumers offers top-line benefits as well.
Scholars affiliated with the Alliance for Research on Corporate Sustainability (ARCS) have contributed much of the research that helps to identify the causes and consequences of corporate sustainability efforts, and have recently been instrumental in creating a new series of four edited volumes on Corporate Sustainability for the Sage Publications series of Major Works. Tom Lyon, Dan Diermeier, and Glen Dowell selected the papers to be included, and wrote an Introduction to the series that places the works in context. The series showcases the maturation of research on corporate sustainability, and aims to spark new research to fill in gaps in the literature.
The papers collected in these four volumes provide strong evidence that corporate sustainability as a field of research has come into its own in the past two decades. There is a rich literature, both theoretical and empirical, that studies how – and how well – companies cope with sustainability issues. Business managers, activists and policymakers will all benefit as research in corporate sustainability continues to expand and to deepen over the next twenty years.
“The papers collected in these four volumes provide strong evidence that corporate sustainability as a field of research has come into its own in the past two decades.”
The series is divided into four volumes. Because sustainability is often treated as something beneficial but vague, Volume 1 begins with a series of foundational papers that clarify the meaning of sustainability and place corporate sustainability within the larger field of sustainability governance. This set of issues is taking on renewed importance as many commentators, including such boosters of “Green Business” as Joel Makower, question the impact of the entire corporate sustainability movement. Volume 2 explores the drivers of corporate sustainability efforts, emphasizing the roles of private politics, regulatory pressures, consumer demand and investor pressure. Volume 3 turns to corporate sustainability strategy, with emphasis on environmental management and cost leadership; green markets, product differentiation and eco-labeling; activists and private politics; industry self-regulation; and political strategy. Volume 4 examines the consequences of corporate sustainability programs, reviewing first corporate financial performance and then corporate social and environmental performance.
The series should be especially helpful for doctoral students, junior faculty members, and faculty members teaching courses in the area of corporate sustainability. Not surprisingly, faculty from ARCS schools are well represented in the series, but the set of papers included goes well beyond this circle. Even for seasoned scholars, Major Works in Corporate Sustainability offers fresh insight. Corporate sustainability is by its nature an interdisciplinary field of research, and no single researcher is likely to be familiar with the entire sweep of the field.
The challenge for the next generation of corporate sustainability research is highlighted by a recent State of Green Business report that concluded “Companies continued to tinker with incremental changes in their products and operations…all told, they were necessary but wholly insufficient to address their fair share of environmental impacts.” How can managers take the next steps forward to really move the needle on their sustainability efforts? What can companies do to create systemic change that goes beyond the boundaries of the firm and raises the playing field for everyone? When will corporate sustainability efforts reach a tipping point that truly transforms markets? These and other important questions will be the subjects of the next phase of corporate sustainability research.
Thomas P. Lyon is the Dow Professor of Sustainable Science, Technology and Commerce University of Michigan, and is on the ARCS Board of Directors.