The EU Taxonomy reflects a classification system that assesses whether certain economic activities are environmentally sustainable. Without doubt, the idea is a good one and the Taxonomy acts as a prerequisite for the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation (SFDR) to unfold their full potential. But: should fossil gas and nuclear power be included into the Taxonomy and hence count as environmentally sustainable? A leaked EU “non-paper” seems to suggest exactly that…
Including fossil gas and nuclear power will significantly harm the Taxonomy, both in terms of its perceived legitimacy but also in terms of its consistency with existing policy frameworks and regulations. I believe that there are three key points to consider:
Legal Inconsistency: Including fossil gas and nuclear power into the Taxonomy is likely to undercut the very regulation that the Taxonomy is based on. Article 10 of the Taxonomy Regulation (EU 2020/852) makes clear that an economic activity is considered sustainable if “that activity contributes substantially to the stabilisation of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere” (my emphasis); at least for fossil gas this is highly questionable. Although nuclear power is a low-carbon energy source, it is by no standards a safe alternative to renewables. In fact, it is a risky energy source, especially if we consider its entire life cycle. This is exactly why many investors see nuclear power as an exclusion criterion for sustainable finance products. When considering the entire life cycle of nuclear power, this energy source creates non-calculable risks vis-à-vis the Taxonomy’s environmental objectives (e.g., the protection of healthy ecosystems). For instance, the mining and processing of uranium has a questionable sustainability track record.
Policy Inconsistency: The EU itself suggested that to reach its goal to reduce emissions by 55% until 2030, there is need to cut 30% of the total consumption of fossil gas by 2030. However, including fossil gas into the Taxonomy will re-orient capital flows in a way that money is flowing into this sector (and not away from it). At the end, it is likely that this will lead to higher usage of fossil gas, much beyond the “transitional use” that the EU intends to establish. Further, a number of EU member states have pledged during COP26 to show “public support towards the clean energy transition and out of unabated fossil fuels.” This pledge does not seem well aligned with an inclusion of fossil gas into the Taxonomy.
Reduced Perceived Legitimacy: A factor that is less debated in the public, but still very relevant, is the reduced legitimacy of the Taxonomy. Although the Taxonomy, and linked regulations like SFDR, imply more work and a certain “bureaucratic burden” for financial market participants, many market actors have welcomed the new regulations. They increase transparency, make greenwashing harder, and hence have the power to re-orient capital flows into sustainable economic activities. Including fossil gas and nuclear power into the Taxonomy, endangers this legitimacy. In fact, the Taxonomy may move “from hall of fame to wall of shame”, as the WWF recently suggested.
At the heart of the problem, lies a misunderstanding, I think. The EU Taxonomy is supposed to single out those economic activities that have the potential to make a substantial contribution to reaching six environmental objectives. Just because an economic activity is a little less unsustainable than comparable activities, it is not ipso facto sustainable. Being less unsustainable is different from being sustainable. Put differently, just because nuclear may be “cleaner” than coal does not imply that the former contributes to sustainability.
It is often argued that fossil gas and nuclear power need to be included into the Taxonomy as they are necessary “transitional activities”. I believe this claim is misleading:
Focusing on “transitional activities” sets the bar very low for Europe’s ambitions Green Deal. Ursula von der Leyen called the Green Deal Europe’s “Man on the Moon” moment, pointing to its ambitious character. If contested energy sources like fossil gas and nuclear power become part of the Taxonomy, we have not put a man on the moon. Maybe, then, we have not even managed to let the rocket start…
Excluding fossil gas and nuclear from the Taxonomy does not imply that these energy sources will vanish overnight. It simply means that they will not be considered a sustainable economic activity (like a number of other economic activities).
It is time to take the Taxonomy seriously, otherwise we may slow down or even hinder the necessary green transition of Europe’s economy…
Business firms worldwide are increasingly engaging in practices of corporate social responsibility (CSR), a trend strongly driven also by the agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, when doing CSR, firms tend to face recurrent suspicions by the media, NGOs, and other civil society actors that they would not put the money where their mouth is; in other words, that they would adopt CSR practices only ceremonially rather than substantially (a.k.a. “greenwashing”).
High transparency demands are commonly seen as the main ‘remedy’ that would ‘cure’ firms from mere ceremonial adoption and would drive them towards substantive adoption of CSR practices. However, in recent years we can find increasing evidence that high transparency demands do not always lead straight to CSR paradise. In a Financial Times article from 2020, Jason Mitchell raised the provocative question: Is greenwashing a necessary evil? The author argues that firms often require some leeway to experiment with CSR and sustainability practices to begin with, and without such leeway CSR efforts tend to get cut off too early by too high transparency demands and greenwashing accusations. After all, some decoupling between talk and action can also be due to a time lag between aspirations and the actual implementation of CSR practices within a firm (see here).
In the same context, Patrick Haack (HEC Lausanne), Dirk Martignoni (University of Lugano), and Dennis Schoeneborn (Copenhagen Business School) have recently published an article in the Academy of Management Review that draws on a computer-based simulation to study the dynamic interplay between transparency demands and CSR practice adoptions in a field or industry. By drawing on a probabilistic Markov chain model, the authors demonstrate that under certain conditions a regime of opacity followed by transparency (i.e. intially low and later high transparency demands) “outperforms” a regime of enduring transparency (i.e. high transparency demands right from the start) with regards to maximizing the share of firms in an industry that would adopt CSR practices in a substantive way. But what are such boundary conditions?
In the article, the authors explain that the optimality of the “opacity followed by transparency” regime tends to apply only for practices that are characterized by low adoption rates (i.e. those costly to implement) as well as by low abandonment rates (i.e. once adopted firms tend to stick with the practice, also since they may face public backlash if they abandon a practice after adoption). Interestingly, these are exactly the kinds of conditions that characterize CSR as a practice area.
What to learn from all this? NGOs and other civil society actors can benefit, in the long run, from cutting business firms some slack (i.e. putting rather low transparency demands onto firms), at least in the initial stages of CSR adoption processes. Instead, societal actors should then try toincrease transparency demands at later stages in the adoption process to push firms further towards substantive adoption.
Haack et al. (2021) explain this process to work due to what they call a “bait-and-switch” mechanism of CSR practice adoption. Initially lower transparency demands allow for larger numbers of firms to adopt practices, even if they do so for ceremonial reasons to begin with. Importantly, when transparency demands are then increased over time, a number of firms tend to switch from ceremonial towards substantial adoption, thus leading eventually to the desirable outcome (from a societal viewpoint) of rather high rates of substantive CSR adopters in an industry.
You can also access a (non-layouted) version of the same article at ResearchGate. The article has been picked up in a recent story by Forbes magazine. And if you want to learn more about the ‘backstory’ behind the AMR article, you can watch a video interview with two of the authors, Patrick Haack and Dennis Schoeneborn, on YouTube.
About the author
Dennis Schoeneborn is a Professor of Communication, Organization and CSR at Copenhagen Business School and a Visiting Professor of Organization Studies at Leuphana University of Lüneburg. In his research, he focuses on organization theory, organizational communication, digital media and communication, corporate social responsibility and sustainability, as well as new forms of organizing.
To mark International Women’s Day 2021, the University of Bath’s Business and Society blog and Copenhagen Business School’s Business of Society blog have teamed up to present March for Gender. This month we will explore research focusing on gender, or research findings that have specific implications for women.
In our final piece of the month Maria Figueroa looks beyond gender, and explains how business education and research can create a fully inclusive society that leaves no one behind.
The ethos of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that society should be inclusive, environmentally just and enabling economic prosperity leaving no one behind. Business knowledge, education and research in these areas keep however advancing in separated disciplines, often directing the focus of attention to partial responses that may contribute to perpetuate conditions that leave people behind. Cohesion in achieving the SDGs goal of leaving no one behind cannot rely in adapting sameness of solutions. It requires attending to societal differences and facilitating the multiplication of ideas, creativity and forms of collective action and knowledge production and dissemination.
There is a critical role for research and education to help deepen the inquiry of what it takes to leave no one behind particularly a key role in business education.
The ethos of business education and research for sustainability is to prepare private actors, investors, new business models, organizations and institutional actors in finding ways of addressing SDGs. In the selection and adoption of seventeen development goals of 2015 involvement of a great array of societal actors, from national governments to business representatives, big corporations and civil society organizations was ensured. The resulting agenda for action made emphasis to acknowledge the central role in achieving SDGs to be played by private actors, private finance, and businesses in forms of public private partnerships.
However, more than five years later, only marginal changes are tangible within business school education and research and a weak articulation of the bold SDG agenda for change.
Besides individual courses and occasional initiatives, no major overhaul or programmatic educational shift effort within or across departments has challenge the operation and scope of business education.
A common approach in universities and business schools has been identification of how many SDGs goals are being targeted in their scope of education and current action, and reporting on these as evidence of engagement with SDGs. A similar approach serves to help businesses and public actors learn and report on what they are already doing to engage with SDGs. This together with helping business explore effective reactive stances to avoid societal or environmental crisis or challenges emerging. These two common approaches to business research and education make no clear inroad for how business and private actors can contribute to leaving no one behind.
The ethos of civil society is to generate voices and manifestations that reveal the extent of economic, social and environmental discontent, lack of improvement and unjust conditions and of articulating demands for action and changes at all levels. Recent events have elevated voices in movements such as Black Lives Matter, Me Too, Fridays-for-the-Future, Extinction Rebellion, Indigenous communities and other organized voices in society ranging from extreme right movements to nature representatives organizing other than human voices (forest, soil, pollinators, biodiversity).
The complexity of the current climate and environmental challenges and increasing volume and presence of these voices cannot be dismissed in business education and research, or handled in separated efforts as matter of concern only to businesses operating in international or developing regions and localities.
Leaving no one behind requires engaging in knowledge production that gives attention to all forms of engagement in business and societal interactions. This attention should facilitate changes in education that to produce exceptional novelty and innovation and to nurture a potential to advance knowledge of practical and academic high quality, education that is capable of setting new frontier research bringing in systemic interactions within a variety of academic disciplines and ensuring practical and transformative business knowledge with a holistic and environmentally just take toward sustainability transition.
Business schools are posed to advance breakthrough knowledge to meet the “leave no one behind” goal, tackling several areas from the production and service processes transparency specifically in value creation, to emphasising sustainability and environmental justice through the company’s technological advancements and presenting sustainable values, mission and vision.
Furthermore, business education need incorporating appraisal of systemic change associated with challenging processes and their ecological and social impact and behavior change. With the capability to increase the value for the environment, participation of nature in business innovations, the understanding of what enhances people’s agency, what provision safe wards participation, and improves cooperation and what helps to unleash individuals vitality and imagination and can contribute to co-create new market niches and business opportunities.
Maria Figueroa is an Associate Professor in Sustainability Management at the Department of Management Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. Her research intersects scholarship from urban sustainability science, comparative international politics of climate mitigation, innovation, and partnerships for sustainable development. She focuses on the assessments of drivers, trends and challenges of low carbon transitions and sustainable development.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the common goals of global development as we all agreed. Since its endorsement in 2015, it has become the norm. Multilateral corporations, aid agencies, development finance institutions and international organizations all refer to one or two Sustainable Development Goals (as their priorities) to legitimize environmental and social impact of their business activities. (I must confess here that I was also one of them). However, what are the actual changes in practices? Does it merely work as one other additional reference to our work? Otherwise, does it provoke transformational changes in our business strategies and practices for sustainability? Ironically, the Sustainable Development Goals are at once too sophisticated and too vague to do so.
The complexity of the goal structure should not be an excuse.
The development process of SDGs has been grounded based on lessons learnt from the Millennium Development Goals. Because the MDGs excessively focus on the social aspect of development, the SDGs embrace economic, social, and environmental aspects. This led the number of goals to increase from 8 to 17. In relation to the goals, 169 target goals and 231 indicators have been developed to track the progress of 17 goals (In comparison, the MDGs only have 21 target goals and 60 indicators). These vast numbers intend to strengthen progress monitoring and enhance result management; however, such complexity seems problematic to fulfil the initial purpose. Some indicator selection processes are still under the technical review process after five years of SDGs have once passed and almost half of the indicators (106 out of 231) contain technical difficulties producing data on a regular basis to track the progress. I know that measuring the fulfillment of the whole massive SDGs is complex and may not be an easy task. However, when it comes to wrestling with such a giant, the sophisticated skill set (here, seeking clear target goals and indicators) would be a winning strategy rather than hurdles. Thus, how should we deal with the giant?
We have to consider which specific target goals and indicators are aligned with my actions if you have a will to achieve the SDGs. Simply stating one of the goals does not track your achievement. Each goal cannot be even drawn in parallel rather they are all interlinked.
Universality matters, but not everyone is in the same boat.
We know why the SDGs have a principle of “No one left behind” across all the goals. This principle is again a result of lessons from the MDGs, which were criticized for the fact that they did not consider inequality and vulnerable groups in a development process. So that, this core principle is embedded into seventeen goals with the terms “inclusive”, “for everyone”, “for all” regardless of the developmental stage of their nations. Then, how can we make sure this would go far beyond the rhetoric?
We need extreme caution here. Do we have enough knowledge on those who are left behind? To move forward beyond the rhetoric, we need to unpack the word ‘everyone’. Even though ‘universality’ is an essential principle, we have to find out ‘who is left behind’ in every different context to make them not left behind, rather than concealing those excluded people under the name of “for everyone”.
Let’s see microfinance. It was expected as a universal means to reduce poverty and inequality since it provides a way of financial inclusion to those previously excluded to access credit. However, many research findings demonstrate that a particular type of “financial inclusion” which is embedded into microfinance cannot solve the marginalized groups’ economic challenges by itself. Without complementary social support, it was not enough to empower the poor, and even sometimes it resulted in an exacerbating situation for the people. I think this tells us the importance of deeper understanding of the poor, thus the need for a carefully targeted approach for impact.
In brief, working for “everyone” requires additional attention and effort. Whose reality should count first? How could we guide us to hold clear accountability to turn the “No one behind” catchphrase into concrete actions? I believe one of the roles of research on the SGDs should be founded here.
SDGs as a norm: it should be embedded into everyone’s everyday life.
Unlike the age of the MDGs, the SDGs involve a variety of actors such as private sectors and civil societies, who were not officially a part of the MDG process. Various stakeholders can create synergy through cooperation, but the responsibility to fulfil the SDGs become vague. According to Jurkovich (2019), three essential elements are needed to become a norm: “a moral sense of “oughtness”; a defined actor “of a given identity”; a specific behaviour or action expected of that given actor”. The SDGs as a global norm neither identify relevant actors for each specific goal and indicator nor have a compliance mechanism.
Sadly, the SDGs do not assign the responsibilities to anybody and the technical difficulty to monitor them also implies oughtness can be weakened. Frankly speaking, we officially have no obligation to contribute to the SDGs.
Despite its non-obligatory identity, I strongly believe that most of us have a willingness to dedicate to the SDGs. Although we all understand its complexity of monitoring, ambiguity of target people and non-compliance mechanisms. I urge you as an individual, a scholar or a member of the whole global development community to carefully consider what goals/target goals/indicators and for whom I can contribute with a strong responsibility. Otherwise, the SDGs risk losing its political power and may be on track to decay its status as the norm before its completion in 2030.
About the Author
Suhyon Oh is a PhD fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication, Copenhagen Business School, and has over ten years of professional experience working with the donor agency, international organizations, development consultancy, NGOs as well as private sectors. As an international development expert, she has worked with the projects on development finance, financial inclusion and global value chain development, etc. Her current research interest is development finance institutions, impact investing funds in developing countries, hybrid organization strategy and strategy as practice.
By Isaac Caiger-Smith, Izabela Delabre and Kristjan Jespersen
In recent years, companies dealing in global commodities – such as palm oil, soy and timber – have faced increasing criticism for failing to meet zero deforestation targets in their supply chains. In response to these concerns, the use of innovative technological solutions, such as satellite monitoring systems to monitor deforestation in supply chains, are becoming increasingly commonplace.
Companies such as Global Forest Watch, Satelligence and MapHubs provide such platforms, though many large companies also choose to create their own monitoring systems in-house. It is in the palm oil sector that adoption of satellite monitoring has (so far) been most widespread. The palm oil sector is commonly characterised as being ‘hourglass’ in shape, with hundreds of thousands of growers/producers, mostly in Indonesia and Malaysia, being connected to hundreds of thousands of end users all around the world by a handful of powerful traders and refiners. Previously, single companies aiming to monitor their supply chains for deforestation risk would thus be faced with the impossible task of keeping track of (potentially) thousands of suppliers simultaneously.
In principle, satellite technology platforms signify a ground-breaking shift in possibilities for those concerned with monitoring deforestation risk.
By making it possible to map out suppliers’ concessions and monitor in ‘near real-time’ for deforestation events, consumer goods manufacturers and palm oil traders are able to cheaply and accurately ensure suppliers’ compliance with their commitments to zero deforestation, punishing non-compliant suppliers, encouraging and incentivising good environmental practice (Global Forest Watch, 2020). The clear promise such technology brings has led to their rapid uptake by the majority of the world’s largest palm oil traders and refiners, as well as many influential consumer goods manufacturers and non-governmental organisations. The hope of companies and non-governmental organisations is that such technological initiatives will play an important role in supporting zero deforestation efforts. As such, many of these actors are investing significant capital to increase their monitoring capabilities, and are highly vocal about doing so, speaking of the positive environmental impacts they claim will flow from their use.
Through a series of in-depth interviews, it quickly became clear that despite the far-reaching functions these actors claim satellite monitoring can serve, its impact on the palm oil sector thus far has been far more limited in scope (both in terms of impact on supply chain relations and environmental outcomes) than the PR teams of the world’s palm oil giants seem to suggest.
Despite some positive developments in the realm of certified palm oil, the widespread adoption of satellite monitoring schemes across the palm oil sector has thus far failed to significantly reduce the rates of tropical deforestation associated with the industry.
Lyons-White and Knight, 2018.
Although satellites provide timely data on exactly where and when deforestation is occurring, traders and refiners have thus far been largely unable to use the data to influence the behaviour of offending firms. There are numerous reasons why this is the case.
Knowing where deforestation is occurring does not necessarily tell you who is responsible. In many instances, palm oil traders simply do not know who their third-tier suppliers are – if the alerts provided by remote sensing data cannot be combined with full knowledge of a firm’s supply chain (‘traceability to plantation’), they will often be unable to act on them. Achieving 100% traceability to plantation is a task all of the major traders are currently engaged in, yet it is a long and difficult process – as previously mentioned, the structure of the palm oil sector is complex, with numerous tiers of suppliers separating those engaging in monitoring from those being monitored.
In addition, the difficulty of the task is further exacerbated by inaccurate data on land ownership, competing claims, and unofficial occupation. Until these systemic issues are addressed, the situation regarding monitoring will remain much as it is today – satellite monitoring systems will continue to provide accurate alerts, but in the vast majority of cases (approximately 90%, according to interviewee from palm oil trader) traders will be unable to attribute it with certainty to actors from their supply chain, and thus will not be able to meaningfully respond.
In instances where technology users are able attribute a deforestation alert to an actor from within their supply chain, firms often lack the leverage to change suppliers’ behaviour and ensure compliance with their sustainability standards. Buyers have two options: negotiate with producers or blacklist them.
Given that buyers are unwilling to pay a premium for deforestation-free products (Delabre et al, 2020), providing incentives for non-compliant suppliers to stop harmful behaviours is challenging – expecting growers to bear all the costs associated with non-expansion without any reward is not a sustainable system. Furthermore, the threat of being blacklisted from a company’s supply base is also unlikely to have the desired impact; suppliers will likely have no trouble finding other buyers, in markets where sustainability credentials are generally seen as less of a priority (Schleifer & Sun, 2018).
In this context, it is clear that thus far, satellite monitoring has not been capable of producing the far-reaching effects, which may have been desired.
Despite this, satellite monitoring has certainly contributed to several interesting developments in the palm oil sector. For example, interviewees emphasised the positive impacts of environmental non-governmental organisations armed with satellite monitoring technologies, acting as unofficial but powerful ‘watchdogs’, ‘naming and shaming’ consumer brands and traders associated with deforestation events.
It seems the ever-present risk of exposure (and subsequent brand damage) posed by non-governmental organisations’ use of satellite monitoring is a significant driver of new norms and practices within the industry.
These norms emphasise that it is necessary for powerful actors, such as traders and consumer goods manufacturers to be proactive in effectively addressing deforestation, both within and outside their supply chains. Interviewees also emphasised increasing levels of dialogue/cooperation across actor types, through for example, the creation of focus groups made up of producers, traders, local governments and community leaders, for the purpose of discussing the data provided by satellite monitoring, and working together to create solutions. In light of the ever-increasing levels of transparency that satellite monitoring brings, such institutions seem an inevitable and positive consequence of implementation.
However, given the severity of the contextual constraints hindering the industry’s sustainability, it is unlikely that such noble intentions (or even significant capital investments) will be capable of truly addressing the problem.
Satellite monitoring technology has dramatically expanded the realms of possibility for forest governance, yet its implementation in the palm oil sector remains hindered by the structures, institutions and political and legal realities of palm oil production, and producing countries more broadly, dramatically reducing its ability to create positive change. Whilst they are clearly useful tools for environmentally conscious actors aiming to reduce their deforestation risks, they are only one small piece in a very complex puzzle. The problem of tropical deforestation caused by palm oil expansion is at once an economic, political, social and historical problem. As such, ‘technological fixes’ or the actions of individual firms (or even groups of firms) are themselves unlikely to lead to significant environmental improvements. In order to address such a vast problem, the underlying context must shift. Nothing less than large-scale international public and private sector cooperation is required.
Isaac Caiger-Smith is a Junior Research Associate and undergraduate at the University of Sussex, studying philosophy politics and economics. His current research project focuses on the use of satellite monitoring technologies for addressing deforestation risks.
Izabela Delabre is a Research Fellow at the University of Sussex, examining sustainable forest governance, sustainable production and consumption of food, and sustainability transformations. Izabela worked for the Business and Biodiversity Conservation Programme at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) managing ZSL’s global oil palm work. Her PhD (Human Geography) examined the political ecology of participatory impact assessment practices in the context of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Kristjan Jespersen is an Associate Professor at the Copenhagen Business School. He studies the growing development and management of Ecosystem Services in developing countries. Within the field, Kristjan focuses his attention on the institutional legitimacy of such initiatives and the overall compensation tools used to ensure compliance.
As a number of the CBS Sustainability blogs have mentioned since March 2020, the official reactions to Covid-19 have (so far) not been doing much for sustainable development (apart from lower CO2 emissions from air travel). Despite concerned voices criticizing the limited attention to combating climate change (‘environmental sustainability’) in the longer run, little impact on policy makers has been registered.
If we focus on ‘social sustainability’ the picture is similar. Discussing the social side of sustainability is part and parcel of assessing the situation in the informal sector and among the estimated two billion people reliant on their livelihoods through the informal activities across the Globe. Sadly, the situation has shown that this group of people and their families have suffered from the imposed restrictions due to Covid-19 (see here).
While the negative impact on income and livelihoods probably is the most severe consequence of inability, lack of willingness (and in some cases maybe even sheer ignorance) among authorities, the events since March can also be viewed ‘an opportunity missed’ regarding (more) sustainable practices.
The classical example is waste handling where informal workers (or scavengers) are involved in waste collection, sorting and identifying material for recycling and reuse. The Indian system where almost all component of waste are sorted and reused is well-known. But additional examples are found in areas like minimizing food waste and establishing social safety nets (Tucker and Anantharaman, 2020). Had governments appreciated the role of the informal sector and the activities undertaken, the period since March could have been used to change towards a ‘sustainability footprint’.
So, instead of using the (unfortunate) challenge to aim for positive change why have governments then been so keen to do the opposite and merely lockdown the informal sector (including denying poor people of their meagre livelihoods)? As Tucker and Anantharaman (2020) argue, it might be due to informal work being perceived as a ‘deficit’ (lack of contracts, lack of permits, lack of tax payment, lack of this and lack of that). International organisations like ILO have long been arguing in favor of ‘formalization of the informal’ (ILO, 2019). And not to romantize the informal sector, nevertheless it is intriguing that this is and has not been a sector perceived as ‘creative, agile, flexible’ and all the buzz that the present glorification of the private sector and individual initiative otherwise has been marked by.
Now, we can’t change what have been the typical type of reactions to the Covid-19 situation across the globe, but we do note that we have increasing social challenges ahead due to rising poverty levels, the naïve, optimistic wish for the New Year is that attention will be placed on how to engage the informal sector and all its resources in the strive for a more sustainable development path. It will not only open up the Pandora’s box regarding new and valuable ways on dealing with the Global trajectories, but could provide avenues for the informal sector to be reckoned as ‘a contributor’ (instead of ‘a deficit’).
Søren Jeppesen is Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. His research concerns the development of firms in developing countries. He focuses on SMEs, CSR and driving forces (or lack of same) for strategies of SMEs in developing countries in engaging in CSR (or not engaging).
Lessons learned from the responsible behaviors of individuals during the Covid-19 crisis
By Fumiko Kano Glückstad
The Covid 19-crisis has had – and still has – a very serious impact on a global scale. The New Normal guideline published by WHO  suggests that the responsible behaviors of individuals during the Covid-19 crisis have a critical impact on how a country is able to control the spread of infection. However, the reactions of individuals to aspects of the New Normal such as “social distancing” and “wearing a mask” have been considerably diverse depending on who they are and which society they belong to .
Who they are?
To overcome a challenge like the Covid-19 crisis, but also e.g. the long-term crisis on climate change, socially responsible behaviors from individuals are required. Roughly speaking, such behavioral changes may be motivated by four types of personal value priorities : i) anxiety-free values, ii) anxiety-based values; iii) personal-focused values; and iv) social-focused values (See the Figure).
Socializers and social control agents discourage values that clash with the smooth functioning of significant groups or the larger society. Values that clash with human nature are unlikely to be important. The basic social function of values is to motivate and control the behavior of group members (Parsons, 1951). Two mechanisms are critical. First, values serve as internalized guides for individuals; they relieve the group of the necessity for constant social control. Second, people invoke values to define particular behaviors as socially appropriate, to justify their demands on others, and to elicit desired behaviors. Socializers seek, consciously or not, to instill values that promote group survival and prosperity.
Schwartz, 2012, page 12
This statement is highly relevant to the two aforementioned challenges: Covid-19 and climate change.
Let us for instance think about the economic situation that the Covid 19 crisis has brought upon the tourism and experience economy (EE) sector. In order to thrive and secure the jobs of the employees involved in the sector, the EE sector needs to maintain a certain number of tourists visiting its destinations. On the other hand, society needs to prevent further spreading of Covid-19. Hence, the responsible behaviors of individuals expressed in association with their travel activities play a crucial role in maintaining the EE businesses.
However, individuals’ attitudes to traveling and to the Covid-19 crisis substantially differ, and manifest in different behaviors. For example, some individuals may prefer to enjoy traveling because they prioritize “personal-focused” values, seeking to fulfill their hedonistic needs, their needs of self-expression and to obtain a sense of achievement. Such internalized personal values may trigger a negative reaction to the constant social control enforced by Covid-19. On the other hand, a person inclined to “social-focused” values may instead tend to choose socially appropriate behaviors required to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Which society they belong to?
While the value priorities of individuals within and across societies may differ, cultures also influence the formation of selves. Markus & Kitayama’s  phenomenal theory, ‘Culture and Self’, defines the independent and the interdependent self-schemas that demonstrate “how sociocultural contexts can shape self-functioning and psychological functioning (Markus & Kitayama, 2010, page 425)”.
Kitayama (2001; 2010) explain that:
When an independent schema of self organizes behavior, the primary referent is the individual’s own thoughts, feelings, and actions. Alternatively, when an interdependent schema of self organizes behavior, the immediate referent is the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others with whom the person is in a relationship.
Markus and Kitayama, 2010, page 423
Accordingly, feelings of happiness also differ depending on whether a person is rooted in a culture emphasizing the independent or interdependent self-schemas .
Specifically, in North America happiness may most typically be construed as a state contingent on both personal achievement and positivity of the personal self. Negative features of the self and negative feelings are thus perceived to be a hindrance against positivity and happiness. In contrast, in East Asia happiness is likely to be construed as a state that is contingent on social harmony and, thus, on a balance among different selves in a relationship.
Uchida, Norasakkunkit, & Kitayama 2004, page 227
Following the arguments of the aforementioned East Asian cross-cultural psychologists, the formation of value priorities might have been influenced by such culture-rooted self-schemas. Thus, the value priorities and culture-dependent self-schemas of individuals become important factors when scholars do research on sustainable and responsible consumer behaviors. In other words, if the mechanism of feeling happiness is fundamentally different between the independent and the interdependent cultures or between the social- or the personal-focused individuals, the motivations for behaving in a socially responsible way may substantially differ.
Socially responsible reaction to the New Normal
existing individual and cultural differences may cause us to think about the definition
of “socially responsible behaviors” in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.
Wikipedia, “social responsibility” is defined in the following way:
Social responsibility is an ethical framework and suggests that an individual has an obligation to work and cooperate with other individuals and organizations for the benefit of society at large. Social responsibility is a duty every individual has to perform so as to maintain a balance between the economy and the ecosystems. A trade-off may exist between economic development, in the material sense, and the welfare of the society and environment…
viewpoint, the Covid-19 crisis could be an excellent opportunity for
individuals to exercise “socially responsible behaviors” for the benefit of
society, i.e. in order to return to a Covid-19 free society. However, it generally
seems that the young generation of Scandinavians who have been world-leading in
sustainable behavior changes have been less engaged in the socially responsible
behaviors encouraged during the Covid-19 crisis. What we have learned from the
Covid-19 crisis is that the cultures emphasizing the interdependent self-schema
have had a smoother path to the New Normal behaviors.
An Australian writer, Paul De Vries posted his interesting observation of the Japanese people’s reactions to Covid-19 in Japan Times :
A stumbling block of the “assumption of carrier” countermeasure is that it requires people to endure discomfort for the sake of the collective good, despite the likelihood of being COVID-19 free. Persuading a critical mass of the population to accept such an imposition is a challenging task, especially when new case numbers are in decline.
Three of the motivating factors that induce Japanese nationals to adhere are courtesy, obligation and shame. Courtesy is the willingness to act out of genuine concern for others. Obligation involves placing the needs of the group before those of oneself. Shame is fear of what others might think if one does not comply to group or societal norms.
There is no shortage of courtesy among the silent majority of the West, as unlikely as that can sometimes seem. A sense of obligation also exists, but typically toward groups less large than society as a whole. Shame, on the other hand, is not a dominant Western trait.
Cultural sensitivity and diversities in the measuring of sustainable development
The diverse reactions to the Covid-19 crisis observed in the past months are good examples demonstrating a need “to prepare a new cultural map of developmental goals, and to create and adapt development indexes that are more culturally sensitive”.
However, the mapping of cultural differences is not enough to capture heterogeneities of the respective societies. Here, the individuals’ value priorities play in. The theory of basic human values by Schwartz  implies that individuals prioritizing the “self-transcendence” value, for example, might be more prone to engage in the socially appropriate behaviors specifically required to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In order to effectively implement a policy for the various sustainable development goals, a new cultural map integrating the heterogeneities of societies will become necessary. In this way, a policy maker could distinguish messages suitable for the respective target segments and optimize their effects on the citizens’ responsible behaviors.
The recent development of machine learning technologies has made it possible to classify populations into such personal value typologies, to describe who they are, and to predict how they will respond to various situations . In our project, UMAMI (Understanding Mindsets Across Markets, Internationally) , we developed a workflow and methodologies to investigate such heterogeneities of societies based on personal value priorities. It would be interesting to explore how these can be exploited in various application domains addressing the sustainable development goals in the coming years.
Fumiko Kano Glückstad is Associate Professor of Cross-Cultural Cognition at Copenhagen Business School. She works in the area of cross-cultural psychology. She has developed a workflow and methodologies enabling data-driven segmentation and typological analysis of consumers based on their personal value priorities in close collaboration with the Section of Cognitive Systems, DTU Compute at the Technical University of Denmark during the UMAMI project (2017-2020) funded by Innovation Fund Denmark. She previously worked as a consumer researcher and product concept designer of kitchen appliances at Panasonic Corporation, Japan and as a Japanese market specialist at Phase One A/S, Denmark.
For too many firms corporate sustainability is itself not a sustainable endeavor
By Andreas Rasche
Corporate sustainability initiatives are blossoming around the world. While some firms have built robust infrastructures around their efforts, other firms struggle to do so, making their engagement a short-lived endeavor. In other words, corporate sustainability is itself often not sustainable enough to create lasting change in organizations. While there is hope that firms’ sustainability strategies are becoming more robust (e.g., because basic market conditions have shifted in favor of sustainability and make it difficult to ignore), there is still much work to be done to create sustainable corporate sustainability efforts.
The Challenge of Integration
One important barrier is the belief that “integrating” sustainability is more important than having an own dedicated organizational infrastructure around it. In 2019, the Danish multinational Maersk laid off a significant part of its sustainability team (including the head of the division). The aim of the reorganization was to merge its ongoing sustainability activities with work undertaken in other departments of the company. While integration may sound like a sound strategy and for many years consultants advised firms to make sure that sustainability work is not detached from the core of the firm, it also comes at a price:
In many firms, integration “waters down” sustainability efforts, makes them less visible in the organization and hence easy to neglect.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not arguing against integrating sustainability into organizations. I am arguing against using integration as a cover-up strategy to make sustainability efforts themselves less sustainable. Integration can easily be misused. Take the example of business education. For many years, business schools have struggled with finding the right balance between creating standalone courses on sustainability topics and integrating related content into the regular curriculum. Over time, integration proved to be difficult and only very few schools succeeded with truly embedding sustainability content across their curriculum. The main hurdle was to free up room in otherwise already packed courses and to also move beyond a symbolic adoption of sustainability content in classes.
Business schools’ experience holds a lesson for corporations. If you integrate, you need to ensure that wherever integration happens enough resources support the journey (e.g., time, knowledge but also interest). Often, this is where integration fails…
The Challenge of Corporate Size
Another barrier to making sustainability more sustainable is corporate size. Recently, I published a paper that analyzed which types of firms are delisted from the UN Global Compact (UNGC). We analyzed over 11,000 firms (both active and inactive participants in the UNGC). One key finding was that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) were much more likely to leave the initiative than larger firms. It would be easy to conclude from this that SMEs are less sustainable than larger firms – but this would be the wrong conclusion.
What it shows is that SMEs struggle to develop lasting organizational structures around their sustainability efforts. UNGC delisting is based on firms’ failure to submit a mandatory annual implementation report. While larger firms usually do not struggle with such reporting, because this task is anchored somewhere in the organization, smaller firms find it more difficult to make reporting a lasting endeavor (e.g., because of resource constraints or lack of knowledge). Often, sustainability commitments by SMEs are based on internal champions who push relevant efforts and also sign the organization up to the initiatives like the UNGC. Once these people leave the organization or assume a different role within the firm, there are little formal structures that could fill the void that is left behind.
SMEs sustainability work is often more implicit and tied towards the communities they operate in. However, in a more transparent world where sustainability is increasingly datafied and benchmarked such implicit efforts may be easily confused with corporate sustainability lacking sustainable implementation.
Sustainable Corporate Sustainability
So, what is the bottom line? Making corporate sustainability itself more sustainable remains a key management challenge, both for larger and smaller firms. Creating durable organizational structures that can withstand the pressures of crisis situations and related cost-cutting efforts is one important way to address this challenge. Such structures have to be integrated with the rest of the organization to be not an add-on, but they also need to have a life on their own. What may even be more important is that corporate leaders and associated Boards need to develop an unambiguous vision for where the firm is supposed to go with its sustainability activities. This puts Board-level engagement with sustainability topics at the very top of the agenda, both for practitioners and academics.
The word “stakeholder” is ubiquitous in sustainability discourse. We see it in corporate sustainability reports, policy documents, business plans, and sustainable development guidelines. Stakeholders are discussed in parliaments, in corporate boardrooms, at sustainability conferences, and in classrooms around the world.
The stakeholder concept was popularized with the 1984 publication of R. Edward Freeman’s Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach, where the stakeholder was defined as a person or group who are able to affect or are affected by an organization pursuing its goals. Although the term has been hotly debated ever since, it is clear that Freeman’s work has had a huge impact on management discourse, especially when it comes to social responsibility and sustainability.
In my own ethnographic research over the past few years among people I refer to as “sustainability professionals,” I’ve heard the word stakeholder mentioned countless times, in nearly every context, from venues like the COP21 negotiations in Paris to casual conversations with friends and colleagues at the pub.
Students in my classes use it fluently to refer to groups as distinct as shareholders, consumers, and factory workers. They’re able to classify these different stakeholders according to how important they are from the perspective of the company. Sometimes, the stakeholder concept can seem too expansive, with students questioning whether anyone is not a stakeholder.
But in my own research, I’ve found that although it is pretty widely accepted that most people are stakeholders in one form or another, there is a particular imaginary surrounding stakeholders. In a recent article, I found evidence for this by looking at the images that accompany mentions of the word stakeholder in sustainability reports and standards guidelines.
More often than not, these images depict workers in the Global South who are almost always people of color, and who are often women.
Similarly, when people use the word “stakeholder” in interviews, they are typically referring to people in producer countries, with the implication that these distant, marginalized stakeholders are the ones who stand to benefit the most from sustainability projects and, crucially, stand to lose the most if those projects are unsuccessful.
This led me to question the power dynamics that are inherent in the stakeholder concept. There’s a big literature in geography and anthropology on the power to categorize groups of people, drawing on decades of critical research on international development. More to the point, when companies talking about engaging with stakeholders in their corporate sustainability and corporate social responsibility initiatives, most of the time they’re actually treating the people we think of as stereotypical stakeholders as stakes, that is, what stands to be lost in a game of chance.
Given the power differences between people who can affect an organization and people who are affected by it, perhaps it’s time to come up with an alternative to the stakeholder concept.
About the author
Matthew Archer is Assistant Professor at Copenhagen Business School. He is an ethnographer and political ecologist interested in corporate sustainability and sustainable finance. Visit Matthew’s personal webpage.
One thing seems to be clear by now – that we are all challenged by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. This includes all enterprises, large as well as small firms. As states and individuals, also SMEs (Small and Medium-size Enterprises) need to figure out how to respond. SMEs constitute the vast majority of enterprises on the Globe, and their response to the current situation, including how they behave in terms of social responsibilities matter a lot. If jobs disappear, or wages are lowered and/or working conditions deteriorate, a large number of persons (employees) and families will be negatively affected. If environmental standards are lowered the nature and humans will be negatively affected.
The perception of what constitutes social responsibilities varies substantially across countries. As SMEs in different parts of the world face very different situations (see Spence et al. 2018), also in times of Covid-19, the responses will be very different. We already witness intense debates on what is the ‘appropriate way’ of reacting. Most SMEs have a less formalized way of operating compared to larger firms. While this is viewed as leading to being less socially responsible compared to large firms this type of organizing – not being so standardized – maybe be is an advantage in an unknown situation like the one that we are witnessing right now. Agility, creativity and ability to make a decision fast could be an advantage right now like the Danish small firms that have adjusted their production to include critical health products show.
However, the examples are probably the exceptions rather than the rule as only a smaller section of the SMEs typically can be characterized like this. The majority of the SMEs are operating in more traditional, standardized ways and have a more limited range of responses as things stand right now.
In our part of the world, governments have implemented numerous support schemes trying to assist the private sector, including SMEs, in various ways. The Danish SME has various public-funded support packages and a highly formalized labour market cushioned by a number of social benefit programs to factor into the considerations. Hence, we can insist that an important part of managing continues to be keeping an eye on working conditions and the environmental impact. In other parts of the world like the developing countries, governments have so far done less and given the much more informal nature of the economies, SMEs are much harder effected.
The Ugandan SME is faced with no economic assistance and a complete lockdown of the society leading to a dramatically reduced – if not totally halted – operation and turnover. In addition, no social benefits exist to assist employees who are losing their job. So, the overarching topic concerns the socio-economic dimensions of how many SMEs that survive while retaining a good number of the staff – or on the more pessimistic side – how many that go down leaving scores of people unemployed and without an income affecting individuals as well as tons of families.
What can we then expect in terms of social responsibilities in such a situation? Given that some developing country SMEs are characterized as having ‘family-like culture’, we would expect such enterprises to retain the employees (Tran and Jeppesen, 2016). Even though the SMEs retain the employees, owners and managers personally have to handle the insecurity that accompanies the situation as well as relating to the concerns among the employees.
The family-like type of organization could ensure that employees are kept and not fired. Still, we know that a number of SMEs pay little if any wages in times of limited production. Hence, having a job with no income does not make a difference right now.
Small enterprises in developing countries are also praised for their community engagement in taking up activities ensuring women (Langevang et al, 2015) or young people income. The localized response may assist in various ways of helping citizens in dire need. Religion and which church that you are a member of play a role. Some churches, as well as the wealthier members (and among these SME owners and managers), come forward to assist their congregation and the less well-off families in times of need.
We need to wait for the answer to whether and to what extent Covid-19 will be marked by resilience and a protective and more caring (social) response by SMEs – or rather by the tough reality of downsizing and/or closing down with numerous dire consequences.
Søren Jeppesen is Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. His research concerns the development of firms in developing countries. He focuses on SMEs, CSR and driving forces (or lack of same) for strategies of SMEs in developing countries in engaging in CSR (or not engaging).
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Cities are hard and complex systems. With their defined policies, grids and routes, they offer limited space for experimentation, with a low threshold for any type of interference to their regular flow. To test and prototype  in the urban, besides dealing with regulatory procedures, require clear indications of the positive impact those tests might bring. Thus, any change in routine flows is disruptive and not necessarily welcomed by all.
Some of these difficulties have become explicit during the processes carried out by various cities in four EU funded neighbourhood projects, Cities-4-People, Sunrise, MUV and Metamorphosis . These projects have brought together citizens and other key city stakeholders to identify and co-create mobility solutions and approaches to tackling local problems. Each project has had a distinct goal, but all are part of the CIVITAS initiative focusing on ‘sustainable neighbourhood mobility planning’ and have been running since 2017, with three of them to end in 2020 and another in 2021. In the case of the Cities-4-People project, running in the cities of Hamburg, Istanbul, Oxford, Trikala and Budapest, cities, citizens and transport authorities have worked closely together to co-create and implement solutions addressing congestion, bike parking, safe and new routes to reach public transportation, and more .
Primarily, one of the biggest difficulties in deploying urban prototypes deals with permissions, space sharing, closing parts of or an entire street, or pavement, changing traffic routes, etc.
Even when implementing aspects citizens see as valuable and beneficial, such as bike racks, paths, during construction, these processes tend to be perceived as a nuisance. Another aspect stems from the fact that, unless it is a whole new city or neighbourhood been planned, the city, as a canvas, is never blank. Therefore, cities are constantly bound to develop solutions, which are imposed over an existing and fixed grid with very little wiggle room. All true, until March 2020.
The pandemic, through lockdowns and other movement restrictions, has changed the flow of cities almost overnight. For the first time, since the widespread city development focusing on automobiles, cities have had a chance to look at their now empty public spaces and rethink their use and purposes. These changes have forced the neighbourhood projects into a sudden halt, as people’s engagement with urban spaces has been very limited. However, while physical workspaces, shops and many businesses closed their doors, with citizens mostly at home, cities have encountered an unprecedented opportunity to rethink their streets.
In two related mobility examples, Vilnius, Lithuanian capital, the city Mayor has opened up eighteen of the city’s public spaces, free of charge, to bars and restaurants, so they can run while keeping the required social distancing .
In Milan , over the summer, the city will engage in a large-scale urban prototype, deploying 35km of temporary biking lanes and enlarged pavement areas.
While the city slowly opens up, with most employees still working from home and not commuting as much, citizens, when going out, should have enough space to keep a safe distance, while also experimenting in environmental friendly modes, such as walking and biking.
When some of the neighbourhood projects, such as Cities-4-People, resume in a few months, their cities and citizens might have changed. However, instead of considering the data that has been collected in the projects prior to the lockdown as ‘outdated’ or no longer valid, these projects can consider repurposing this data, using it as a robust baseline to be compared with post lockdown. From a mobility perspective, this ‘new normal’ might prove itself a valuable mobility asset. As people return to their streets, they can experience these known spaces in new formats encountering novel mobility patterns, where people and businesses can repopulate streets differently, reconfiguring city flows.
Furthermore, some of these temporary changes might prove to be popular and become permanent, promoting not only better mobility, but also lower pollution and improved air quality , indirectly helping cities leapfrog into achieving some of their sustainable development goals (SDGs). The opportunity to reset busy urban centres is rare; however, as it has occurred and continues to run with the pandemic, more cities and citizens have the unique chance to engage and exploit their cities’ canvas in new ways to seize their days.
Isabel Fróes is a postdoc at MSC Department at Copenhagen Business School working in two EU projects (Cities-4-People and iPRODUCE) dealing with distinct aspects of urban services and sustainability. Her latest publications deal with urban planning and co-creation based on results from the Cities-4-People project. Isabel also has wide industry experience and has worked both as a user researcher and service design consultant for various companies in Denmark and internationally. For more detail please see her Linkedin profile
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The COVID-19 crisis has made evident the limitations of existing thinking, preparedness and policy in relation not only to health pandemics but also to the sustainability challenges we face, locally and globally. Contemporary capitalism, with its hyper-individualistic culture and just-in-time – instead of just-in-case – approach to infrastructure and essential equipment, is not geared towards solving global problems that require coordination, cooperation and solidarity. As some activists, scholars and medical personnel have stated recently, ‘We don’t need heroes if we have preparation’.
Clear examples that have emerged with particular force in the past few months include the political inability to coordinate emergency responses within the EU and the US, cut-throat competition among countries seeking to procure essential medical gear, and the realization that we have been undermining the working conditions for ‘essential workers’ for decades. Therefore, an expansive economic stimulus to restart the economy during/post-covid-19 cannot be based on the first-line response of capitalism – restoring production and consumption back to ‘usual’.
This is the time to expand and rethink our socio-economic models to stimulate a more sustainable approach to consumption – not limited to consuming more sustainable goods and services (such as organic milk, ecotourism holiday or FSC certified timber), but also on consuming less.
We need to rethink the current organization of the global economy, reform the national economic and political institutions that govern it and devise new forms of governance and collective action within states and across borders. Contemporary hyper-capitalism, rather than humanity per se, is the root cause of the global sustainability crisis and the spread of pandemics – and thus should be the focus of action.
To achieve this, we need a different kind of ‘green entrepreneurial state’ that de-couples sustainability from growth, and that does not intervene to bail out carbon-intensive industries tout court. Oil markets have tanked in recent weeks, and $0 (or even negative) oil prices are devaluing oil industry assets dramatically. A green and just recovery in the oil industry transition means focusing on helping workers first and foremost, rather than executives or shareholders. This could entail partial nationalization of assets to essentially shut the oil industry down in the mid-term and open the way for further investment in renewables, which would otherwise be dampened by competition from cheap oil.
Second, what we need is more community involvement in the economy, changes in labour law to make unionization easier, tax reforms to make municipal and cooperative forms of organization more attractive, corporate regulation to facilitate employee ownership, and stimuli to expand the radical and democratic ecological experiments that are already in place – such as the shared living communities that have been active in Denmark since the 1970s.
In the midst of the global coronavirus crisis, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government finally decided last month to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympics until next year. The general public across the world may have different views on the Olympics – positive and negative, or simply indifference. But with regard to the Tokyo Games, there is a fair reason for not just postponing them but reconsidering their relevance and preferably cancelling them altogether. The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has underscored the long-standing controversies surrounding the Tokyo Olympics, and it is indeed sustainability that is at stake.
Economic problems in the host country
A tag line that Tokyo, the host city of the 2020 Olympics, has been using is “Recovery Olympics” for a sustainable future. The “recovery” is primarily referring to the recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and the ensuing nuclear disaster in Fukushima, a city in northern Japan. When Tokyo was successful in its bid to host the Games, it estimated that the market effect of the Olympics and Paralympics would be more than JPY 32 trillion in total, which would be a huge boost to Japan’s shrinking economy. Clinging on to this rather optimistic figure, the IOC and the host government were reluctant to make any change to the original schedule in spite of the coronavirus pandemic, and their attitude was criticised as “wildly irresponsible” (Boykoff, 2020).
Besides the cost-benefit analysis of the Tokyo Games, it should be noted that, as of March 2020, nine years after the Fukushima disaster, approximately 48,000 people were still living in evacuation zones in Japan. Despite this, a huge amount of money has been spent on constructing new facilities for the Olympics, rather than aiming to reconstruct “sustainable cities and communities” (Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 11) in the disaster-hit northern city. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Olympics has been the most over-budgeted Games ever, because of Tokyo’s lax policy.
Postponing the Olympics will entail an extended preparation/maintenance period for another year amid uncertainty, which is likely to impose an additional tax burden on citizens. It is highly questionable whether the host government has appropriately prioritised key issues and allocated resources accordingly.
Environmental issues: Value chains in the global sports industry
The Olympics is big business, involving not only elite athletes, but also a large number of stakeholders such as sponsors, media, providers of various products, and spectators. A mass of people moves across borders and within the host country, consuming a great number of goods in just a few weeks. The huge amount of greenhouse gases and waste that each Olympic Games generates has been the subject of continuing international debate. These are also the problem areas addressed by SDGs 12 and 13.
On the other hand, the United Nations recognises that sport can be an enabler of sustainable development (UN General Assembly, 2018). If the host is committed to the SDGs, and stakeholders and resource-rich companies/countries collaborate to implement environmentally friendly technologies and practices, the Olympics could be a showcase of new ideas to facilitate sustainability. In this regard, the Organising Committee of the Tokyo Games has promoted several sustainability concepts and plans. Nevertheless, a group of non-governmental organisations has raised a question concerning Tokyo’s approach (Heineken, 2019). They reported that a huge new national stadium for the 2020 Games was built by cutting down trees in Indonesia and Malaysia, thereby damaging these countries’ efforts to preserve their rainforests (SDG 15).
When it comes to a mega sporting event such as the Olympics, we tend to, somewhat naively, pay attention to the downstream, in which big brands, celebrities, impressive new technologies and goods to consume are all visible, and we are often ignorant of what is happening in the upstream.
If the upstream of the whole value chain is neglected and sustainability is used (or misused) as just a fancy concept, while economic actors act irresponsibly, the SDGs will never materialise.
Health concerns: Summer heat as usual, and now Covid-19
Since Tokyo was selected as the host city for the 2020 Olympics, persistent health concerns have been raised. One of the almost inevitable problems in Tokyo is, in fact, a hot summer, which Weather Atlas describes as “oppressive humidity and extremely high temperatures”. Indeed, many people actually suffer illness each year due to the summer heat in Japan; in 2019 alone, more than 70,000 people were admitted to hospital due to hyperthermia.
Although Tokyo insists that the Olympic venues will be closely monitored with adequate safety measures, it is unclear how this can be guaranteed, not just for the athletes but also for the volunteers and spectators in the different locations.
Now, a new and bigger concern certainly involves Covid-19. To date (as of mid-April 2020), the number of confirmed cases in Japan has been significantly lower than the other G7 nations as well as neighbouring Asian countries. However, medical experts and other countries are sceptical, questioning whether Japan may be overly restricting coronavirus testing in order to maintain its safe image for the sake of the Olympics. Of course, the slow testing could be due to other factors such as the limited availability of testing kits, which has also been a problem for other countries. Nonetheless, the root cause of the concern is the slow response of the authorities in taking the necessary action, because this would trigger an explosion of infection cases as we have witnessed in other countries.
Although Tokyo eventually declared a state of emergency on 7 April, this was a few weeks later than the lockdowns enforced by many major countries, and two months after a coronavirus outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship anchored offshore in Yokohama, just 30 km from Tokyo. Tokyo’s lenient approach casts doubt on its capability of dealing with communicable diseases when a rapid response is crucial (SDG 3).
The point is not to abolish all future Olympic Games as this global sporting event can be an important platform for athletes, and potentially a contributor to peace (SDG 16), or at least a symbol of it. However, the Tokyo Olympics is missing the meaning behind sustainability in many ways. Furthermore, amongst other factors, it is also ill-timed. The world is now facing a serious challenge on a global scale.
One clear message that the coronavirus pandemic has taught us is that we may be vulnerable wherever we are – even in a wealthy country – and that we all have a responsibility to strive for sustainability.
In this context, financial resources should be invested in essential products and vaccine research to tackle Covid-19, and human resources should be allocated to immediate needs to sustain local societies. In short, get the priorities right. Then, strong global partnerships and cooperation (SDG 17) will hopefully facilitate our efforts and achieve a more meaningful positive outcome.
About the author
Faith Hatani is Associate Professor at the Department of International Economics, Government and Business at Copenhagen Business School. Her research interests reside in the role of international business in sustainable economic development, focusing on responsible management of value chains and institutional constraints in different industries and countries.
The coronavirus and responses to the pandemic are right now defining human existence inside and outside of organizations. All societal attention and communication are centred on the virus, its day-to-day consequences and possible future repercussions for the people, the economy – and the planet.
Indeed, we are living through a gargantuan social experiment, and these can turn out to be the defining weeks and months of the new decade. Social distancing. Lockdown of public institutions and private businesses. Closing of national borders. No travelling, no tourism. All live entertainment (sports, music, culture) suspended. Places for social gatherings (restaurants, cafés, bars) closed (except for takeaway). Until further notice. The mind boggles.
The closing down of open societies is blocking the blood flow of large parts of the economy, spelling potential disaster for many businesses and cultural institutions – in spite of large relief packages. Meanwhile, waters are clearing and air pollution is going down due to the drop in industrial production. There is an ominous air about these climatic improvements, though. They seem more like a morbid dress rehearsal for life on earth after human civilization than a silver lining.
Is it the end of the world as we know it? Certainly, we can expect – at least in the privileged global north – that life will soon return to something much more normal than the current ‘show responsibility by staying as far away as you can from other people’. In Denmark, the gradual reopening of society is already underway.
However, the question remains whether we will look at each other and on human interaction (particularly in large social gatherings) in the same way as we did before. Will the awareness of ‘the others’ close to us as potential carriers of disease somehow stay with us.
Certainly, the comparisons with war are fitting. Who would have thought that anything except a worldwide war could affect all people’s social lives and the workings of government and business so rapidly and profoundly?
The pandemic constitutes a crisis of public health and health systems of unforeseen magnitude. The noun ‘crisis’ derives etymologically from the Greek krinein (Latin: krisis), which means ‘turning point of a disease’. This point was made repeatedly in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008-9: a crisis constitutes a turning point and thus an opportunity for new things to happen, for things to be different and perhaps better than they were. As the saying goes: ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’.
After sickness, there is newfound health. A crisis is not supposed to persist. However, recent years have taught us new lessons. Crisis has to understood in the plural, as crises, there are many of them (climate crisis, refugee crisis, trust crisis etc.), they are systemic and interconnected and they do not seem to go away.
Thus, we live in an age of perpetual or recurrent crises. We can imagine another side to where we are now, a new and more social normal, but it is becoming more and more difficult to imagine a future without some profound element of crisis.
Speaking of the interconnectedness of crises, what impact will the pandemic have on sustainable development and the green agenda? Will the public health crisis, its resultant need for emergency relief and its immediate and longer-term negative impacts on the economy take the wind out of the sails of green transition for a while? Making us waste precious time.
Or will this crisis and the efforts needed to get the economic wheels turning again turn out to be the greatest of opportunities to invest in green infrastructure and the solutions needed to create a more sustainable future? At this time, it is anyone’s (more or less qualified) guess. Not least because the answer depends on actions not yet taken by government and business leaders. Both narratives are out there.
The pandemic obviously lends itself to many interpretations. Among them faith-based apocalyptic visions of the end of times. Others see potential in this for putting an end to capitalism, as we have known it. Certainly, market-based solutions are taking a backseat to government intervention in our current predicament. It appears that in times of profound crisis we have to rely on big government (federal, local) and political leadership to take care of the common good and sort things out.
Time will tell whether or how the pandemic and all that comes with it will change people’s view of the market economy and of the need for government intervention in the market economy – not to mention people’s proclivities to consume, travel, engage with (many) others in the experience economy etc.
The more moderate take is that we need a regulated market economy and that the current crisis shows the limitations of cost/benefit analysis and the neoliberal urge to subject all things to marketization and economization. In light of the human suffering and the deaths caused by the coronavirus and facing health systems and heroic health professionals in distress, the cost/benefit mindset has come up short. This calls for immediate action and full commitment – even if the odd economist may question the utility of such a course of action.
We should take this lesson with us into the broader realm of sustainable development. Market thinking will not suffice.