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Report from the Research Frontier: March 2019

New findings: Educating consumers isn’t enough; Implementing sustainability means handling tensions with mainstream strategy

Every month, researchers publish dozens of articles on business sustainability. NBS highlights insights at the frontier of knowledge. See all monthly highlights.


Educating Consumers Isn’t Enough 

Businesses and other organizations often provide information on sustainability as a way of improving consumer behavior. The theory is that if people know about eco labels, or carbon footprints, they can change their shopping and other actions.

But information can also have negative impacts – and it’s ultimately not enough to address sustainability. Researcher Cristina Longo and colleagues studied members of an environmental community group — Transition Town — in England. Group members were very knowledgeable about sustainable consumption. But the researchers found that the knowledge could also be a source of “dilemmas, tensions and paralysis.”

The Transition Town members experienced the complexity of trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle and struggled with tradeoffs. “We might want Fairtrade wine or we might want to buy wine from as nearby as we could,” one explained. Product cost and availability limited their choices. They were very aware of failing to live their sustainability values. “Leading a sustainable lifestyle is quite an emotional rollercoaster,” said one.

The researchers say that business and government must take a larger role in addressing sustainability challenges. “Market structures influence the gap between consumer willingness to act sustainably and actual capacity to do so,” they write. Instead of launching broad educational campaigns, companies should work with consumers to develop initiatives, including regulation. “Different stakeholders should increasingly collaborate to better face the multiple challenges of sustainability,” Dr. Longo told NBS.

People also need help managing tension and guilt around sustainability issues, the authors write. “Inner transition” could let people share experiences and realize that others are facing the same challenges.

Article: Longo, C., Shankar, A., & Nuttall, P. 2019. “It’s not easy living a sustainable lifestyle”: How greater knowledge leads to dilemmas, tensions and paralysis. Journal of Business Ethics, 154(3), 759-779. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-016-3422-1.


The Way to Sustainability Is through Tension

Leaders can adopt a sustainability strategy. But for real progress, employees then need to integrate sustainability into their daily work practices.

Researcher Iris-Ariane Hengst and colleagues find that this implementation requires employees to work through tensions between the sustainability strategy and the mainstream or competitive strategy. They studied this process at a consumer goods company over three years, from the launch of the company’s sustainability strategy in 2012.

Building sustainability into products and processes often led to conflict with competitiveness goals. More energy efficient products had fewer features, for example. But as employees worked through those tensions, in each individual task, sustainability gradually became a real, legitimate part of the company.

Here are some ways employees dealt with tensions between sustainability and competitiveness:

  • Split goals across products or processes. If a single product couldn’t be sustainable and a market leader, developers might produce different product portfolios.

  • Find synergies. For example, employees found that data collected for sustainability Key Performance Indicators generated process efficiencies in their broader operations.

  • See sustainability as a source of pride. When managers did have to sacrifice competitiveness for sustainability, they saw themselves as taking the moral high ground.

Sustainability is a slow and incremental process. But these gritty, individual steps ultimately embed new ideas into the organization.

To discuss the findings, contact co-author Paula Jarzabkowski.

Article: Hengst, I.A., Jarzabkowski, P., Hoegl, M., & and Muethel, M. In press. Toward a process theory of making sustainability strategies legitimate in action. Academy of Management Journal. https://doi.org/10.5465/amj.2016.0960

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