The possible role of business organisations in sustainable development: approaches, boundaries, future directions
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It is increasingly evident that human development is proceeding in an unsustainable manner, and that large business organisations are significantly complicit in this process. In this context, the purpose of this study is to explore the possibilities by which business organisations could come to support sustainable development, with a particular focus on related barriers and how they may be overcome. Literature on business and sustainable development is dominated by managerialist, organisation-centric perspectives, where the focus is on business profitability rather than planetary sustainability. This study seeks to challenge this mainstream literature, engaging with more critical perspectives and exploring the subtleties of the contradictory arguments presented by these two literatures. Empirical investigation involved two major steps. First the thesis employs a) a content analysis and b) a “close reading” of corporate public utterances on sustainability. Secondly, and more substantively, the thesis comprises a series of semi-structured interviews with individuals in organisations. To obtain a range of perspectives on the sustainable development-business relationship, a number of “different types” of organisation are sampled, in the form of social enterprises, large PLCs, SMEs and co-owned businesses. Based on the research findings, it is argued that the most significant barriers within the business-sustainable development relationship in fact concern the nature of modern international financial capitalism, and the nature of business itself. Certain characteristics, such as growth, competition and self-interest, essential to both the nature of the “system” and the nature of business, are fundamentally incompatible with sustainable development. In recognising this dissonance, a blank canvas is created where new imaginings of “sustainable business” can begin to take place. Through detailed engagement with the critical and managerialist literatures, and drawing insight from the different types of organisations sampled, the thesis identifies a number of characteristics, such as collaboration, compromise and consideration of the common good, which may have the potential to enable an alternative, more “human”, and ultimately more “sustainable” form of business organisation.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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