Tag Archives: #Impact

‘Just Sustainabilities’ in a World of Global Value Chains

By Stefano Ponte.

What if we used our size and resources to make this country and this earth an even better place for all of us: customers, Associates, our children, and generations unborn? What if the very things that many people criticize us for—our size and reach—became a trusted friend? 

Excerpt from ‘Leadership in the 21st Century’, speech by Lee Scott, then CEO of Walmart, Bentonville, Arkansas, 24 October 2005 (as in Humes 2011: 102)

Whenever we engage in consumption or production patterns which take more than we need, we are engaging in violence.

Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (2016: 102)

A New Era

Human activity is having major impact on the earth and its biosphere, to the point that geologists have now defined a new era – the Anthropocene – to reflect this phenomenon. For some, this is a period that started in the late 18th century with a marked increase in fossil fuel use, and that has accelerated dramatically since the middle of the 19th century. During this time, human action has overshadowed nature’s work in influencing the ecology of the Earth. Global sustainability crises, such as climate change, the acidification of oceans, and the ‘sixth great extinction’ of planetary life characterize this period of great turbulence in the relation between humanity and nature.

Others question the focus on humanity as an undifferentiated whole in the term ‘Anthropocene’, and propose a different term to explain the same result: Capitalocene, ‘the era of capitalism as a world-ecology of power, capital and nature’ (Moore 2016: 6). This term shifts focus away from the putative duality of human-nature relations and towards capitalism as a way of organizing nature. From a Capitalocene perspective, major changes in the world-ecology started taking place already in the mid-15th century – with a progressive transition from control of land as a way to appropriate surplus value, to control of land as a way of increasing labour productivity for commodity production. In other words, it is not enough to simply examine what capitalism does to nature and how humanity can solve global sustainability challenges through innovation in technology and business models. We need to conceptualize power, value and nature as thinkable only in relation to each other.

Sustainability Management

In addition to cost, flexibility and speed, sustainability management has become another key element of contemporary capitalism. The practices that corporations enact to address sustainability issues are also (re)shaping the existing spatial, organizational and technological fixes that are needed to ensure continuous capital accumulation.  Geographically, production is moving to locations that can meet basic sustainability specifications in large volumes and at low cost; organizationally, multi-stakeholder initiatives on sustainability have come to play a key role in global value chain (GVC) functioning; labour conditions among suppliers are under pressure from the need to meet increasing environmental sustainability demands from lead firms; and the need to verify sustainability compliance has led to the adoption of new technologies of measurement, verification, and trust.

The ‘business case’ for sustainability has been by and large solved – lead firms do not only extract sustainability value from suppliers, but also benefit from internal cost savings, supplier squeezing, reputation enhancement and improved market capitalization. As the value of goods increasingly depends on their intangible properties (including those related to sustainability) than on their functional or economic value, sustainability management becomes a central function of corporate strategy – filtering through organization, marketing, operations and logistics. Lead firms in GVCs are leveraging sustainability to extract more information from suppliers, strengthen power relations to their advantage, and find new venues of value creation and capture.

The business of sustainability is not sufficient as a global solution to pressing climate change and other environmental problems. It is doing enough for corporations seeking to acquire legitimacy and governance authority. This legitimacy is further enhanced through partnerships with governments and civil society groups. Some of this engagement is used strategically to provide ‘soft’ solutions to sustainability concerns and to avoid more stringent regulation. While the business of sustainability is leading to some environmental improvements in some places, and better use of resources in relative terms in some industries, the overall pressure on global resources is increasing. The unit-level environmental impact of production, processing, trade and retail is improving. But constantly growing consumption, both in the global North and in the global South, means that in the aggregate environmental sustainability suffers.

What To Do

Public actors at all jurisdictional levels need to put in place orchestration strategies that improve the actual achievement of sustainability goals, and activists and civil society groups should identify and leverage pressure to strengthen the effectiveness of orchestration. But these strategies have to be informed by the realities of the daily practices, power relations and governance structures of a world economy that is organized in global value chains. Orchestration is more likely to succeed when a combination of directive and facilitative instruments is used; when sustainability issues have high visibility in a global value chains; when the interests of private and public sectors are aligned, and when orchestrators are aware of the kinds of power that underpin the governance of value chains and act to reshape these power configurations accordingly.

A path towards ‘just sustainabilities’ means addressing inequality – since it drives competitive consumption and leads to lower levels of trust in societies, which makes public action more difficult; it entails focusing on improving quality of life and wellbeing, rather than growth; it demands a community economy and more public consumption; it involves meeting the needs of both current and future generations and at the same time reimagining these ‘needs’; it demands a paradigm of ‘sufficiency’, rather than maximization of consumption; it recognizes that overconsumption and environmental degradation impacts on many people’s right to enjoy a decent quality of life; and it requires a different kind of ‘green entrepreneurial state’, which also caters to these needs. Just sustainabilities necessitate building a social foundation for an inclusive and stable economic system that operates within our environmental planetary boundaries; and it demands business to behave responsibly (within its organizational boundaries and along value chains) to maintain its social license to operate.

This text is based on excerpts of Stefano Ponte’s forthcoming book Green Capital, Brown Environments: Business and Sustainability in a World of Global Value Chains, Zed Books: London. The book is based on 20 years of research on sustainability and global value chains, and builds from empirical work on several agro-food value chains (wine, coffee, biofuels) and capital-intensive industries (shipping and aviation).

Stefano Ponte is Professor of International Political Economy in the Department of Business and Politics, Copenhagen Business School and the former academic co-director of the Sustainability Platform at CBS. Twitter: @AfricaBusPol

Selected books for further reading on this topic:

Agyeman, J. 2013. Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning, and practice. Zed Books.

Dauvergne, P. 2016. Environmentalism of the Rich. MIT Press.

Humes, E. 2011. Force of nature: The unlikely story of Wal-Mart’s green revolution. HarperBusiness New York.

Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. Routledge.

Moore, J. 2016. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, history, and the crisis of capitalism. PM Press.

Shiva, V. 2016. Earth democracy: Justice, sustainability and peace. Zed Books.


Pic by Marufish, Flickr.

Considering Impact on the Road to Sustainability

By Paige Olmsted.

Mainstreaming the environment is a key component to achieving sustainability objectives – how organizations account for their existing impact, and assess the impact of innovative solutions is a focal area for a new CBS effort bringing academic expertise to real-world challenges.

Why nature matters
When we hear words like “biodiversity” and “conservation”, it often conjures images of tigers or coral reefs, of rare and endangered species in faraway places. The benefits that are provided to us from ecosystems however, are not just something that happen somewhere else. Forests not only provide paper goods and construction materials, they regulate rainfall, are the source for new medical discoveries, and remove toxins from the air and soil. Coastal wetlands provide flood regulation, improve water quality, and sequester vast stores of carbon.  With the advent of climate change it has become increasingly clear that protecting wild places and sustainably managing natural resources is critical to sustainable communities and economies.

Despite increased awareness of the large-scale impacts of human activity on natural resources, at best we have collectively slowed bad trends, rather than reversed course toward positive ones. Part of this may be explained by Malthusian logic – even if we produce goods more efficiently and with less net input per unit, as populations increase geometrically, and middle class populations balloon in countries like Brazil, China, and India, demand for more goods far exceeds any efficiencies of new design or technology.  Reconciling how to navigate on this road to sustainability is a central question of our time.

What is the role of business?
Since natural resource consumption — agriculture, mining, fisheries — are major drivers of habitat conversion, corporate actors receive particular attention with respect to their role in ecosystem degradation. This also means that changes toward more sustainable practices can have substantial impact. The former president of WWF Canada explained the corporate relationship with Coca Cola in the following way

Coca Cola is in the top three consumers of sugar cane, glass, and coffee in the world.  We can campaign twenty-five different governments for fifteen years to change the way sugar cane is produced in countries that likely can’t enforce such regulation, or Coke can mandate change and it happens overnight” (Dauvergne and Lister, 2013).

There is inherent skepticism that consumption and corporate action can help address environmental concerns, but we have seen organizations increasingly recognize how sustainability matters are critical to their operations. The environment is not seen as being in opposition to economic growth, but instead seen as essential for it. International reports such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, and organizations like UNEP’s Green Growth Initiative and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development all either implicitly or explicitly endorse the idea that we (as individuals, governments, businesses) will benefit in the long term from healthy ecosystems.  Therefore, even for those not motivated by a conservation ethic, they emphasize that we all benefit directly from their sustainable management.

Of course, to deeply integrate sustainability to the core of doing business, and to achieve ambitious global targets such as those included in the UN’s sustainable development goals, truly transformative action is needed. It will have to involve innovation at all levels of society, across supply chains, and through creative partnerships that leverage the reach of large corporations without discounting the livelihoods and well-being of communities all over the world.

What is happening at CBS?
As one effort to support transformative change in the realm of sustainability, CBS is developing an “Impact for Innovation Lab”. We have chosen impact as the core theme because it is so crucial to understanding whether solutions are truly making a difference – within organizations or on the ground.

The Impact Lab will be a hub for engagement across academic disciplines, civil society, and private sector actors to collaborate on real-world challenges. We will combine ecological, economic, and institutional expertise to develop and test new tools and methodologies. With agricultural commodities, the built environment, and technology as overarching themes, we aim to address environmental and social issues across supply chains, consider the most impactful (as in damaging) practices, to implement the most impactful (as in positive) outcomes. If these sound like challenges your organization is wrestling with, or you want to apply your research efforts to tackling complex problems, do not hesitate to contact Paige Olmsted (po.msc@cbs.dk) or Kristjan Jespersen (kj.msc@cbs.dk). With respect to the road to sustainability, there is likely more than one route or vehicle needed, and we are looking for test drivers.

Paige Olmsted is a postdoctoral scholar at the Institute for Resources, Environment & Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, and a guest researcher at CBS in the Department of Management, Society and Communication for 2017-2018.

Pic by Pranam Gurung, Unsplash.

Is CSR Effectively Altruistic?

By Lot Elshuis.

CSR is the part of a company that focusses on doing good. Interestingly enough, business is all about impact and effectiveness when it comes to the core of the business, but when strategies of doing good are developed and implemented there is often more concern for what sounds good than for the effectiveness and impact of their actions on recipients. Why is the rigor applied to core business activities often not applied to CSR-strategies as well?

Effective Altruism: Maximize impact, not feel-good moments
Effective Altruism takes exactly this approach. Kick-started by philosopher Peter Singer, Effective Altruism is a community that wants to change how ‘doing-good’ is often approached. First of all, Effective Altruism emphasizes that most people in developed countries, and especially those belonging to the richest 10% of the world population, have an outstanding opportunity to do good. We have won the lottery! Therefore we have the beautiful chance to add value to the lives of others.

Second of all, if we indeed want to take the opportunity to do good, we can do the most good by focusing on maximizing positive impact through applying scientific evidence and reason, instead of only looking at what sounds and feels good. Without thinking carefully about how exactly to do good, there is a risk of wasting important resources on things that do not work. Even worse is having the idea of doing good, while actually causing harm.

The Case of Play-Pumps International
Let me give an often-used example. Many developing-world communities are provided with water through hand-pumps. The social enterprise Play-Pumps International had the idea to replace these hand-pumps by merry-go-rounds, which would pump up water while children played on them. It seemed to be the ideal win-win situation. The enterprise received a grant from the US Government, a World Bank Development Marketplace award, and (it can’t get much better) a visit and sponsorship from rapper Jay-Z. However, sadly enough, the Play-Pumps didn’t have the positive impact that everyone assumed it had. One of the main problems was that the pumps needed constant force to obtain the water, which, obviously, made the kids tired. This often compelled the women of the communities to struggle to push the pumps. Moreover, the Play-Pumps were several times the cost of a hand-pump, which were able to pump more water an hour as well. (see Doing Good Better by William MacAskill for a more elaborate description of the case)

Rule of Thumb: Importance, Neglectedness, Tractability
Although Effective Altruism is focused on the individual who is willing to do good, we could apply the same to corporations who pursue CSR or social entrepreneurial strategies. Especially because effective altruists often focus on the cost-effectiveness of a cause or approach. This line of thought shouldn’t be unworldly to corporations, since cost-effective rationalizations are applied on a regular basis. An often-used rule of thumb by Effective Altruism for evaluating causes or approaches is assessing the following criteria:

  • Importance: What is the scale of the problem; how many people are affected and how deeply?
  • Neglectedness: Is there still enough opportunity to do good, or are a lot of other people already working on improvement in this field?
  • Tractability: Is there something practical you can do, with the possibility of succeeding?

By applying these criteria and looking for evidence through research, companies are likely to have a more profound impact on the area in which they want to do good.

Responsibility – but where?
As the name says, CSR is about responsibilities. Therefore, we might wonder whether companies who apply CSR actually have the responsibility to do the most good they can (with the same amount of time and money). Can we argue for saving lives in the poorest countries instead of improving the labor conditions of the workers in one’s own supply chain? While the former has a bigger impact, the latter might, to a greater extend, be in line with the more obvious responsibilities of the particular company. This is an interesting discussion, but unfortunately outside the scope of this post to deal with.

However, a lot of multinational organizations are already involved in causes that do not directly relate to their own supply chain. Google is for example awarding $1 billion in grants and contributes 1 million employee volunteer hours ‘to create more opportunity for everyone’. More specifically, H&M announced in a press release in September that they are donating $200,000 to Save the Children for “South Asia’s worst flooding in years”. From an effective altruist perspective, it would be rational to figure out, what the scale of this cause is at the moment, if there aren’t already a lot of other donors involved in this particular disaster relief in South Asia, and whether Save the Children can actually do something successfully about the situation of those affected by the floods. Accordingly, this could be compared to the measured impact of other causes to conclude where H&M’s, or Google’s, resources would be most valuable.

Impact before Marketing!
We all know that CSR is more often than not linked to marketing strategies. There is a high chance that H&M chose to donate to South Asia’s flooding because more potential consumers will be affected since they probably have heard about the flooding recently and were emotionally moved. However, this doesn’t have to pose a problem, because Effective Altruism is not per se about ‘selflessness’, although often used as definition for altruism. It is totally fine to feel good about doing good. In fact, it would be wonderful if everyone felt better by doing good, because then it is likely that more people will actually do good. Therefore, it would be all the more impactful if organizations started to market the impact of their causes, rather than doing and marketing what feels good. With that, consumers could support companies that do good effectively, instead of companies that scream the loudest without having a real positive impact on important cause areas.

Lot Elshuis is a MSc Candidate in Business Administration and Philosophy at Copenhagen Business School. With a background in philosophy, her research interest is focused on discussions about the role and responsibility of business in society and the ethical dilemmas that these discussions entails. You can contact her on LinkedIn.

Pic by Diego PH, unsplash.


The Impact of Impact: Learning experience from the UK

By Mark Learmonth.

Who are we talking to when we write our articles?  Does our research make any difference to the world ‘out there’, or are we talking exclusively to fellow academics? The UK government has taken the line that too often academics have simply been talking to one another in their research papers. So they are actively encouraging us to try and make our work matter outside academia, and now measure the impact of our work officially. In this measurement exercise, impact is defined as: “an effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia.” Indeed, institutions are now being rewarded (both in cash and in increased reputation) for being able to demonstrate this kind of impact on the world. Here’s my own personal take on some of the key debates.

The Research Excellence Framework

Impact was measured for the first time as part of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF), the UK-wide system for assessing the quality of research in UK higher education institutions. The REF is an assessment which: “provides accountability for public investment in research and produces evidence of the benefits of this investment … [it also provides] benchmarking information and establishes reputational yardsticks, for use within the higher education sector and for public information”. This means, among other things, that the quality of the research conducted in each institution – and within their different schools and departments – can all be ranked against one another using a common metric. My business school in Durham, for instance, came 20th out of the 100 and odd business schools in the UK. In other words, REF matters, and it matters a lot! Impact was a significant factor – counting for 20% of our overall score. One of the implications of REF mattering so much is that everything must be officially defined in great detail – including what counts as impact.

The impact of red-tape

I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the regulations.  It’s enough to say that the way impact was measured was through schools producing case studies that had to be written according to pre-defined criteria. A key issue was to be able to demonstrate convincingly that the “effect change or benefit” we were claiming for our research was in fact linked directly to the research. This was no easy task, given how multi-faceted any such change is likely to be. Even when, in common-sense terms, research had clearly had an impact, we could not always make out story fit into the formal requirements set out for impact case studies.

The impact of impact

It is interesting to reflect on the cultural changes that the UK’s experiment with impact (and there are certainly no plans to abandon it) may have brought about. The worst effects of the nay-sayers have not come to pass.  Even though impact counts for 20% of overall REF scores, the case study format (for all its faults) has at least meant that, in practice, only a relatively small handful of research articles need to have had impact in order for schools still to score highly. So, at least as far as the REF is concerned, blue-skies research can continue much as before.  Furthermore, the recent Stern Review, an evaluation of REF 2014, has recommended significantly broadening the criteria used to measure impact in order to address some of the acknowledged difficulties with the current approach.  And although some academics remain cynical about the whole issue, most of us are buying in to the agenda, at least to some extent.  After all, does anyone really want to conduct research that never influences anything (other than, perhaps, getting a handful of other academics to agree with us)? I, along with most of my colleagues, now have a section on our curriculum vitae headed “impact” in which we suggest how our research might matter to the wider world.

Would I recommend “impact” for Denmark?   

Personally, I’ve changed my views about impact since 2009. Like a lot of other academics, I’m naturally suspicious of governments imposing anything on us. Still, overall, I am now pretty positive about the impact of impact. The doomsday scenarios about the end of blue-skies work and neo-liberal appropriation have not come about. And on a more positive note, the impact agenda has helpfully raised the question of why we do the work we do, and made us think about who might be interested in it. I now find myself turning some of my academic articles into blogs for a general audience, in part, as a potential “pathway” to impact. Here’s an example. So, as long as it’s done sensitively and in consultation with the academic community, I don’t think you have much to fear about the impact of impact were something similar ever to be introduced in Denmark.

Mark Learmonth is Professor of Organisation Studies/Deputy Dean (Research) at Durham University Business School. He spent the first 17 years of his career in management posts within the British National Health Service. Prior to taking up his post in Durham he has worked at the universities of Nottingham and York. You can follow him on Twitter.

Pic: own