Integration of Sustainability Approaches in Companies: an Exploration of Narratives and Internal Organizational Functioning

Raphaëlle Marie Marianne Stewart

Research output: Book/ReportPh.D. thesis

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Intensively discussed in the international scene, as illustrated with the Sustainable Development Goals launched by the United Nations, sustainable development and sustainability have been well established as central topics for our societies. Recent scientific work urges to reduce environmental sustainability pressures so that Earth’s life-supporting functions can be maintained, and economies and societies nested in the Earth system can keep thriving. The role of companies in supporting the transition towards sustainable societies has been emphasized by researchers, policy-makers and companies themselves. In this context, companies increasingly develop their own sustainability approaches. Sustainability approaches can take various forms such as environmental management, sustainable supply chain management, and cleaner production. In this PhD project, a product life cycle perspective was taken, which relates to viewing companies as the major providers of goods and services (hereafter referred to as “products”), with their embedded life cycles, in our economies. The decisions made during the product development activities have typically been considered to determine a large share of products’ environmental sustainability impacts along their life cycle. Hence, companies have a key role to play through the development and delivery of products, which is the focus of ecodesign research. Sustainability approaches can be researched on different layers, ranging from internal organizational functioning, over operational sustainability practices and companies’ narratives, to functioning of the overall business ecosystem. In this PhD project, sustainability approaches from a product life cycle perspective were researched based on two different layers of sustainability approaches, namely company narratives and internal organizational functioning.
First, although life cycle thinking has been driven by various industry and policy-making initiatives, and been considered to constitute a shared worldview of environmental management, the extent to which it is actively used in industry to guide sustainability approaches remains unclear. This PhD project set out to research this question based on company narratives, and more precisely based on corporate sustainability reports. Corporate sustainability reports deliver insights on how companies understand that their sustainability efforts should be best presented, and, hence, contain concepts and reasoning lines considered critical by the companies’ themselves for their official communications. In this context, the first research question (RQ1) addressed in this PhD project is: “To what extent is life cycle thinking present in company narratives of their sustainability approaches provided in corporate sustainability reports?” Second, recent developments in ecodesign integration literature have called for a deeper embracement of both formal aspects (e.g. organizational units, processes and targets) and informal aspects (e.g. individual aspiration, routines, and power relationships) of organizational functioning. A framework from general management literature, the four-lens view of organizations, was identified as a candidate conceptual framework to address formal and informal aspects of organizational functioning. In this context, the second research question (RQ2) addressed in this PhD project is: “To what extent can the four-lens view of organizations help investigating and supporting ecodesign integration in formal and informal organizational functioning of companies?”
The presence of life cycle thinking in companies’ narratives provided in corporate sustainability reports was explored using three different indicators: (i) references to life cycle-based methodologies; (ii) extent to which reported environmental sustainability operational practices covered the different life
cycle stages; and (iii) presence of life cycle thinking elements in companies’ narratives (product life cycle system, hotspots in the life cycle, tradeoffs in the life cycle or across environmental problems, and product environmental sustainability budget related to the idea of ecological limits). The main findings are:
1. The idea of product life cycle was found present in corporate sustainability reports as a concept or through operational practices addressing the different life cycle stages.
2. The Life Cycle Assessment methodology in itself was found with a rather weak presence in corporate sustainability reports globally; yet, in smaller and targeted samples, presence of life cycle-based methodologies was found more frequent;
3. Life cycle thinking was found only limitedly used to critically analyze and reflect about environmental sustainability problems associated with product life cycles.
A set of literature and empirical studies were undertaken to answer RQ2, and overall consisted of (i) mapping measures in favor of ecodesign integration in the four-lens view framework; (ii) uncovering cross-lens effects, i.e. interactions between lenses, and (iii) deriving applications of the four-lens view in ecodesign integration activities. The main findings are:
1. Lens dominance was revealed among measures in favor of ecodesign integration in literature and empirical data, although measures corresponding to all lenses were found.
2. Indications of cross-lens effects, i.e. indications that measures corresponding to a given lens enhance factors at the core of other lenses, were found in the literature and in the empirical data.
3. Three hypothesized applications of the four-lens view in ecodesign integration activities were derived including continuous improvement, problem solving and training or recruitment of employees.
Together, the two tracks of this PhD project had in common to allow “getting closer to companies”- to the companies’ understanding of how to best present their sustainability efforts, and to the companies’ internal organizational functioning, respectively. This PhD research provides complementary insights on how to strengthen the integration of sustainability approaches in industry, from a product life cycle perspective. The first track identified the need for an increased use of life cycle thinking in companies’ narratives for critical analyses and reflections about existing product life cycle systems, and the environmental sustainability challenges they are associated with. The second track paved the way for further testing of the analytical and practical value of the four-lens view of organizations to investigate and support ecodesign integration in companies, with a broad horizon of what internal organizational functioning entails. These two tracks were conducted independently to a great extent, and opportunities for their cross-linking are outlined for future research.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages409
Publication statusPublished - 2019


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