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Senior Managers Drive Internal Sustainability Commitment

A survey of supervisors in a multinational corporation finds only one factor is significant in shaping perceived support for corporate sustainability: commitment from top management. This paper examines how sustainability goals in an organization trickle down, particularly through supervisors’ behaviour, and how this influences their subordinates. The authors tested for the supervisors’ beliefs and organizations’ values, beliefs and norms in affecting corporate sustainability in a multinational pharmaceutical corporation. They find perceived corporate commitment to sustainability (but not personal environmental beliefs, trust in top management or commitment to the organization) affects how supervisors interact with employees to elicit ecological behaviour.


The literature on pro-environmental behaviours has addressed environmental citizenship, consumerism and public policy but not individual behaviour within a business. Making strides towards sustainability is particularly challenging as a multinational corporation due to the expansive geographic distribution of its employees. The message of sustainability promoted by top management needs to reach every employee. Supervisors can provide this link because they are in day-to-day contact with those on the front lines.


  • Supervisors are more likely to exhibit sustainability behaviours if they perceive corporate commitment to sustainability (i.e. commitment from top management).

  • Supervisors are more likely to feel positively about their organization if they think top management is committed to sustainability and they trust top management.

  • Surprisingly, the supervisor’s own personal environmental beliefs did not affect their ecological sustainability behaviour. Supervisors really do take their tone from the top.

Implications for Managers

  • Your supervisors are the key link between broad-level corporate commitment to sustainability and lower-level employee engagement.

  • In a large corporation where contact between top management and supervisors is limited, your top management team must show support for sustainability. How can you do it? Try environmental awareness training or incentives and rewards for environmental achievements.

  • Creating a corporate culture of sustainability can have the added benefit of helping supervisors feel more connected to your organization.

Implications for Researchers

Researchers can further explore the role supervisors play in promoting sustainability by surveying multiple corporations with varying degrees of sustainability values, as well as looking at varying corporate size and sector. Researchers can also broaden the measures used in Value-Belief-Norm theory to predict environmental behaviour and include more than the personal and corporate values, beliefs and norms such as social dynamics within a corporation and commitment history.


This paper surveys 147 supervisors from two countries within a single multinational corporation in the pharmaceutical industry with a well-established ecological sustainability commitment. The authors assess their results based on a theoretical framework of sustainable behaviours. authors examined firms in industries required to report under EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory program. Data from 1997-2003 was collected on CEO pay, tenure and duality (when the CEO doubles as board chair) from Standard & Poor’s ExecuComp database on 823 companies. Governance data was obtained from SEC. The paper contains a discussion of how pollution prevention and pollution control were operationalized. Authors estimated a fixed-effects model with White’s correction, controlling for several factors including firm size and performance.

Andersson, Lynne, Shivarajan, Sridevi & Blau, Gary. (2005). Enacting Ecological Sustainability in the MNC: A Test of an Adapted Value-Belief-Norm Framework. Journal of Business Ethics. 59, 295-305.

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