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Businesses must back up their sustainability promises says new handbook

3 May 2022

The article at a glance

Businesses need to back up their ‘exciting’ narratives on sustainability with clear implementation, says a new Handbook on the Business of Sustainability co-authored by faculty and others at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Businesses need to back up their ‘exciting’ narratives on sustainability with clear implementation, says a new Handbook on the Business of Sustainability co-authored by faculty and others at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Businesses often have “exciting” narratives about sustainability but only limited implementation of policies and practices, says a just-published Handbook on the Business of Sustainability which includes chapters from several faculty members and others associated with Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Human activity needs to become sustainable, and businesses have a massive role to play in it,” says an introduction to the 584-page Handbook co-authored by Paul Tracey, Professor of Innovation & Organisation and Co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge, who is also one of five editors of the Handbook.

The 30 chapters of the Handbook, published by Edward Elgar Publishing, represent a call to action on the business aspects of sustainable growth.

Progress needs to be made on meeting United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

Although there has been some progress on reaching the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), “more must be done to achieve sustainability targets on a timetable that is relevant,” the Handbook says. “While the narratives of businesses are often exciting, their follow-through with implementation remains limited. So too is information on successful practices, conceptual knowledge of the opportunities, and insight on the trade-offs and challenges.”

The book is organised into four distinctive themes: organising for sustainability, implementing sustainable development, sustainability-in-practice, and measuring outcomes and social impact.

The Introduction co-authored by Professor Paul Tracey provides an organising framework for theory, practice and impact relating to businesses and sustainability. “Humanity and human development is at a pivotal point, and private-sector business cannot be a bystander in an economic model based on capitalism,” it concludes.

The role of community enterprises in addressing sustainability

A chapter on the role of community enterprises in sustainability, based on research in the UK and Newfoundland, is co-authored by four people associated with the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge: Neil Stott, Management Practice Professor of Social Innovation and Co-Director of the Centre; Michelle Darlington, Head of Knowledge Transfer at the Centre; Jennifer Brenton, a PhD candidate at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Visiting PhD at the Centre; and Natalie Slawinski, Professor of Sustainability and Strategy at the University of Victoria in Canada and a Research Fellow at the Centre.

The chapter argues that community enterprises are “critical” to cross-sector partnerships by individuals and organisations in communities seeking to address sustainability as well as inequality. Such action is needed to address some of society’s Grand Challenges such as climate change, which are felt most acutely by people and places least able to address them.

Such community enterprises “deserve more scholarly attention, and a stronger voice in policy and practice”, the authors conclude.

Company culture and sustainability

A chapter on “Organisational culture for sustainability” is co-authored by Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor in Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge, and Tirza Gapp, a PhD candidate at Cambridge Judge. It argues that while businesses have made many commitments to sustainability, including during the COVID-19 pandemic, “being able to actually act and deliver on those commitments goes well beyond aspiration, and requires leveraging a company’s largely existing culture and capabilities.”

“Delivering on the sustainability demands and opportunities currently facing business is an enormous task,” the chapter concludes. “While it may be attractive to focus on innovative technologies, new business models, or whole new markets to move toward sustainability, we must remember that existing and new businesses need to have cultures that support their actions and goals.”

Framework for sustainable strategy

A chapter co-authored by Matthew Grimes, Professor of Organisational Theory & Information Systems at Cambridge Judge, proposes a framework to “help organisations devise an appropriate strategic model for creating maximum social and environmental impact while minimising externalities and risk.”

Among tools that practitioners can use, the authors argue, are an SDG impact canvas to map an organisation’s strategic position and a framework for evaluating the organisation’s SDG impact strategy over time. “Progress toward the SDGs will require leaders to engage deeply with one or more specific, targeted social issues and to remain attentive to trade-offs and harms,” the chapter concludes. Cambridge Judge is involved in various aspects of climate change through research in various subject groups and research centres. The Business School joined with seven other leading business schools last November, at the time of the COP26 climate-change conference in Glasgow, to form an alliance called Business Schools for Climate Leadership. The group released a toolkit at the conference to “help present and future leaders combat the climate crisis facing the planet”.