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Session IIb Summary: Sustainability Strategies
Chair: André Nijhof, University of Twente, The Netherlands

Rapporteur: Agni Kalfagianni, University of Twente, The Netherlands

The session on Sustainability Strategies provided an assessment of current business’s efforts towards sustainability and identified the opportunities and challenges entailed in a transition towards more sustainable business practices. The session showed that currently little evidence exists in favour of a “greener” business transformation, albeit a few exceptions. Moreover, such exceptions usually form the central object of research concerning sustainability transitions while the business mainstream is less under scrutiny. Hence, a strong message that comes out of this session is the need to expand the focus of future empirical research to include lagers as well as frontrunners in order to better understand the processes that shape the greening of industry as a whole.

Moreover, the session demonstrated that currently research tends to adopt a quantitative perspective in order to explain business’s success and failure to improve sustainability or to adopt more sustainable strategies. A number of participants suggested that such emphasis can be explained by the dominance of business rationality on scientific research. The emphasis of present research on the economic side of sustainability, while underplaying the ecological and social one, can be explained likewise, according to the participants. Clearly, however, the opening towards a more qualitative approach alongside quantitative information and a readjustment in focus on sustainability deem necessary.

The session also highlighted the need to investigate the role of other societal actors in the adoption of more sustainable strategies by business. More specifically, the participants explored the role of governments and NGOs at different levels (local, national and regional). The role of governments, especially at the local and regional (EU) levels was portrayed as particularly stimulating and influential. At the local level, government and business were shown to collaborate effectively towards sustainability through the employment of local networks. At the regional level, the role of the EU as a leading actor in the sustainability process was particularly emphasised. Moreover, the role of government as a regulator, through the imposition of uniform (even though basic) standards and prevention of free-riding, was also considered vital. However, the participants also stressed that governments need not and better not be confined in their regulatory role, but also act as innovators.  This can be done, according to the participants, through rewarding and supporting the good business practices rather than simply punishing the bad ones.

With respect to other societal actors, and in particular the NGOs, the participants saw a very marginal or even non-existent role. The NGOs were regarded as either irrelevant or an obstacle to business’s green transformation. One has to wonder though if that conclusion is supported by significant evidence or whether such a perspective is influenced by the dominance of business rationality that the presenters identified above.

Finally, a number of challenges were also identified. Challenges include the complexity of decision-making, the types of instruments that governments need to adopt, the difficulty of sustained collaboration over time between business and governments or business coalitions, as well as the role of other “background” actors, such as the media. Moreover, the time frame required for real change, the fact that there may be winners and losers in the process and the opportunistic character of many politicians (and businesses) were also identified as challenges towards a genuine improvement of business’s sustainability strategies.  Clearly, however, the need for further research not only on business’s strategies per se, but also on the context within which businesses operate is a strong message from this session.

 

All Submissions
7:00 AM-5:00 PM, Thursday, 28 April 2005, Oral

The Netherlands 2005 Meeting