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The Next Evolution: Conceptions of Sustainability

Updated: May 2, 2022

Our modern society is facing an unprecedent number of challenges that transcend the economic, social, and environmental domains. The subprime mortgage crisis in 2008 exposed critical deficiencies in our global economic system, leading governments and businesses scrambling to prop up significant industry failures with aid packages, in the hope of restoring economic stability and growth. Concurrently, social systems around the world are showing signs of growing instability, ranging from microunrest in the form of food riots, worker riots, and intraregional conflict to macroinstability in the form of interregional conflict and increasing numbers of failing states (Brown, 2008). It is increasingly apparent that these challenges are not unrelated, discrete problems that can be analyzed, attended to, and solved independently; instead, they are complex phenomena that cross system boundaries and that emerge from the dynamic interplay between business, society, and nature (Holling, 1995).

Followingly, in order to gain a holistic understanding of our modern challenges, we want to introduce you to the multiple conceptions that emerged over the years of how business, society and nature relate to each other.

Furthermore, it seems important to underline the fact that there is very little conceptual analyses examining the nature of the relation between business, society, and nature in a business environment, which is also contributing to the fact that modern leadership is not addressing the core root of modern challenges, but rather emphasizes on mitigating negative outcomes.

the disparate view

The first conception presented is an externalizing perspective, namely the disparate view, which is mainly drawn from a neoclassical economic orientation, in which society and nature are deemed to be separable from business systems, which in turn play a central role in this conception. Further, this framework glorifies the maximization of economic outcomes at all levels, which also represents a non-negotiable assumption within this conception. Consecutively, economic growth is also exclusively regarded as desirable, and businesses are generally defined as self-contained and self-organizing entities. If the primary problem to be addressed is predominantly economic in nature and can be determined strictly in terms of financial outcomes, the disparate view may not be a wholly inappropriate conception. However, in its singular emphasis on the business system, the disparate view systematically excludes consideration of social and environmental phenomena that cannot be economically quantified. It thus fails to make salient many of the critical issues currently facing humanity. (Marcus et al., 2010)

the intertwined view

The next conception we would like to present is a relating perspective, in which society and nature are regarded as more central compared to the disparate view, and followingly are more integrated in the business system. As compared with the disparate view, the intertwined perspective is more explicit in the literature and has received considerable uptake in the form of widely popularized triple-bottom-line (3BL) models of sustainability (Elkington, 1998).

As a conceptual framework, the intertwined view is clearly distinguishable from the disparate view in that social and environmental phenomena are seen to be within rather than outside the problem domain. The intertwined view implies that business, societal, and environmental objectives can and should be pursued simultaneously, and the central goal of achieving sustainability takes precedence over simple economic outcomes. Sustainability, from an intertwined perspective, is defined as the successful integration of these multiple objectives and is commonly illustrated as the space where the economic, social, and environmental spheres overlap (Cohen et al., 2008; Stead & Stead, 2009).

The intertwined view has played a vastly important role in both management research and practice, opening, and providing legitimacy for multiple domains of inquiry and greatly increasing our knowledge about the relationship between economic, social, and environmental variables. However, despite these advances, it is not clear that the intertwined view helps to address in a meaningful way the most difficult challenges facing human society. Notably, even while business has largely come on board with accepting responsibility to a broader range of stakeholders and committed to higher standards of ethical conduct (Jenkins, 2001), in the last decade we have witnessed some of the most egregious management behaviour and economically ruinous corporate scandals on record.

the embedded view

The last conception thematized is a reorganizing perspective, in which business, society, and nature are viewed as nested systems, and is adapted from relatively recent work in the fields of environmental studies and environmental economics. The business and societal systems are not seen to merely overlap but rather the business sphere is completely enveloped within the societal sphere (Granovetter, 1985; Westley, 1995). In this conception, the business system, as with other systems of human creation (e.g., legal, moral, religious, etc.), is not considered a comparable equal to society or nature but is rather a component nested within the larger societal system. Similarly, society is completely nested within the natural environment. From an embedded perspective, business is a subsystem fully encompassed within society, and thus it cannot be fully or even partially separated from society as implied by the disparate and intertwined views, respectively. Instead, the embedded view recognizes that business is a wholly human creation—a social invention (Preston & Post, 1975) formed, enacted, and maintained by collective human purpose. Business does not stand outside society (Buchholz & Rosenthal, 1995), just as human society does not stand outside nature (Milbrath, 1989).

An embedded perspective helps to establish a values hierarchy, where nature can be regarded as the most important domain followed by society and then business (cf. Milbrath, 1989). Placing the highest importance in nature is not equivalent to an ecocentric orientation wherein the earth and biosphere are granted exclusive supremacy and human society and business are completely discounted (cf. Gladwin et al., 1995). Rather, the embedded view recognizes inherent—though not equivalent—value in all three systems. As compared with the disparate and intertwined views, the embedded conception is more explicit in prioritizing the natural and societal systems over the business system (Marcus et al., 2010).

As our understanding and definition of our challenges primarily defines our actions, it seems crucial to adopt a multidisciplinary approach towards problem solving in general. This article mainly aims to provide a short overview of the predominating conceptions that emerged over the years, whereas none of them can be intrinsically classified as good or bad but shall be rather seen as lenses, through which an individual can perceive challenges and phenomena.

Cohen, B., Smith, B., & Mitchell, R. (2008). Toward a sustainable conceptualization of dependent variables in entrepreneurship research. Business Strategy and the Environment, 17, 107-119.

Elkington, J. (1998). Cannibals with forks: The triple bottom line of 21st century business. Gabiola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society.

Granovetter, M. (1985). Economic action and social structure: The problem of embeddedness. American Journal of Sociology, 91, 481-510.

Holling, C. S. (1995). What barriers? What bridges? In L. H. Gunderson, C. S. Holling, & S. S. Light (Eds.), Barriers and bridges to the renewal of ecosystems and institutions (pp. 3-34). New York: Columbia University Press.

Jenkins, R. (2001). Corporate codes of conduct: Self-regulation in a global economy. Retrieved March 19, 2010, from$FILE/jenkins.pdf

Marcus J, Kurucz EC, Colbert BA (2010) Conceptions of the business–society–nature interface: implications for management scholarship. Bus Soc 49(3):402–438

Milbrath, L. W. (1989). Envisioning a sustainable society: Learning our way out. Albany: State University of New York Press, Albany.

Preston, L. E., & Post, J. E. (1975). Private management and public policy: The principle of public responsibility. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Stead, J. G., & Stead, W. E. (2009). Management for a small planet. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

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