Corporate Sustainability is Fifty Shades of Green

Karoline Strauss

Sustainability is far from just plain green. Karoline Strauss and Jan Lepoutre, Professors of Management at ESSEC Business School, together with Geoffrey Wood, Essex Business School, University of Essex, argue that sustainability requires unique change in organizations and explain how employees across different levels of the organization can support it.   

Jan Lepoutre

Not just a whiter shade of pale

There are many preconceived ideas about corporate sustainability – so many that there is a tendency to see sustainability as just plain green: ‘plain’ in the sense of being a rather unexciting and non-essential aspect of company activity and ‘green’ perhaps even in the sense of simply naïve. But becoming (more) sustainable necessarily involves change for businesses. And how sustainability can be achieved, and how individuals throughout the business can contribute to sustainability, varies. This makes corporate sustainability all a shade more interesting.

Some firms aim to simply reduce the environmental impact of their services or products, for example, by reducing waste or pollution, by implementing recycling or car-pooling programs, or by constructing more efficient company facilities. These sorts of programs do not create radical change; they do not dramatically alter the firm’s business model or require it to venture into uncharted territory. Change is gradual and based on continuous improvement. Often, they “involve incorporating off-the-shelf innovations or practices into the company’s operations”[1].

For others, sustainable business practices reflect not simply a desire to reduce environmental damage. For them, sustainability means producing in a way that can, theoretically, be maintained indefinitely into the future[2]. This involves radical innovations and often implies changes in companies’ business models. For example, in its bid to become more sustainable, Interface, one of the world’s largest carpet manufacturers, shifted from a business model based on selling as many carpets as possible to a leasing-based model. Indeed, these sorts of changes are complex and highly disruptive.

There are no general prescriptions for how a company should “go green”. What works and what doesn’t work depends on the shade of green the firm is aiming for: a “light green” strategy of reducing environmental damage will have different implications than a “dark green” strategy which aims at producing in a sustainable way.

Greening from the roots

Whether a firm is aiming to be light green or dark green, individuals throughout the organization are the crucial link between a sustainability strategy and its outcomes. However, how leaders and employees can effectively contribute to the greening of the organization varies depending on the shade of green.

Adapting to change: Light green or dark green, sustainability necessarily requires change, and for employees this means adjusting their ways of working. In the case of “light green” strategies, change is incremental and comparatively predictable. This allows companies to be clear on how employees should change their behavior, and to provide motivation by setting goals and implementing incentives. In the construction industry, for example, setting targets for the reduction of waste materials can improve efficiency and motivate employees to adjust their ways of working.

“Dark green” strategies pose different challenges. It is often not possible to set specific targets for employees, and because change is happening at a rapid pace, it may even be counterproductive to incentivize and reinforce behaviors that soon become irrelevant. For “dark green” strategies to succeed, companies rely on employees who are comfortable with high levels of uncertainty, and who are willing to continuously change and adjust the way their job is done.

Bringing about change: No matter what shade of green a company is aiming for, employees can play a critical role in being proactive and in bringing about change that contributes to sustainability. In the case of a “light green” approach to sustainability, the strategic decisions involved are usually based on leaders’ knowledge and experience. As such, leaders typically set goals to be achieved, such as specific targets for emissions. However, employees play an important role in figuring out just how such targets can be met. For example, when companies in the manufacturing sector set pollution prevention targets, it is the production employees who work on solutions[3]. They are frequently the only ones who are in a position to notice the problems that cause pollution.

For companies aiming for a darker shade of green, it is not always members of the top management team who are the initiators of change processes. When greening an organization in radical ways, relying on what has worked in the past can be a disadvantage. Instead, individuals across the organization need to generate new knowledge and generate ideas for radical change. For example, the home cleaning products company Method aims to change how home cleaning products are made and relies on constant innovation of new products and services that mostly come from their employees or their customers[4].

How employees adapt to and bring about change constitutes the building blocks that allow organizations to put their sustainability strategies into practice. How these different ways of greening organizations can be encouraged depends once again on the shade of green. When taking a “light green” approach to sustainability, companies can typically anticipate the skills and knowledge their employees will need and can provide them with the necessary training. For example, research shiows that environmental awareness training and campaigns can be effective in improving energy preservation and recycling behavior[5]. Suggestion systems and workgroups can generate “best practice” and ideas for incremental improvements, and rewards can be offered to encourage even employees who may not be intrinsically concerned about the environment to contribute to sustainability.

When aiming for a darker shade of green, different approaches are needed. Employees suggesting ideas for such radical change need to be resilient and able to cope with the push-back and resistance their efforts will be met with[6]. Companies will need to count on risk seeking, long-term-focused employees who feel strongly about sustainability, and to encourage exchanges across different functions to help knowledge and ideas flow. Once again, the home cleaning company Method recruits employees who are confident that they can “keep Method weird” and facilitates direct exchange between employees and customers[4].

Life at fifty

Sustainability is not a uniform shade of green with a one-template-fits-all solution. There is no general advice on how to “go green”. Instead, Strauss et al argue that organisations are better helped not by bigger pictures and grandiose templates for action regarding their sustainability initiatives, but more by fine-grained advice that takes into account the specific shade of green an organization aims for. How organisations contribute to a more sustainable world, therefore, is very much in the end in their own hands. And a shade challenging.

[1] Strauss, K., Lepoutre, J., & Wood, G. (2017). Fifty shades of green: How microfoundations of sustainability dynamic capabilities vary across organizational contexts. Journal Of Organizational Behavior. doi:10.1002/job.2186

[2] Hart, S. L., & Dowell, G. (2011). A natural-resource-based view of the firm: Fifteen years after. Journal of Management, 37(5), 1464-1479.

[3] Boiral, O. (2002). Tacit knowledge and environmental management. Long range planning, 35(3), 291-317.

[4] Mittelstaedt, C. (2012). Method’s 4 rules for staying innovative.  Retrieved from

[5] Jones, J., Jackson, J., Tudor, T., & Bates, M. (2012). Strategies to enhance waste minimization and energy conservation within organizations: a case study from the UK construction sector. Waste Management & Research, 30(9), 981-990.

[6] Lepoutre, J. M. W. N., & Valente, M. (2012). Fools breaking out: The role of symbolic and material immunity in explaining institutional nonconformity. Academy of Management Journal, 55(2), 285-313. doi:10.5465/amj.2008.0340

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