Greening business

Big business faces a conundrum: How to reduce environmental impact while continuing to be successful? How to become environmentally efficient to offset the need to use more resources?

city-solar-panel-600xOur research covers business ethics and corporate social responsibility, exploring firm-stakeholder relationships, the strategic management of these, and their impacts on company performance and reputation.

One of our research themes is ‘green-washing’ – where businesses articulate lofty environmental aspirations but often fail to achieve their goals. Why does that happen? Is it because big business isn’t really committed to conserving the environment, or is the delivery of environmental objectives more complicated than they imagined?

We examine questions of strategy and implementation in relation to how businesses pursue – or fail to pursue – a green agenda, and look at the role played by voluntary environmental standards. Does it make a difference, for example, if you sign up to UN Global Compact?

Keeping your own house in environmental order is one thing, but most big businesses operate beyond their own borders – so we look at how firms (which rarely do everything in-house) manage environmental impacts associated with the goods or services they buy from their value-chain partners. Increasingly, big companies are held responsible for the wider impacts of their operations, yet it is difficult to manage accountability, visibility and traceability across value-chains. How can multinationals be sure that, somewhere along the line, they’re not polluting rivers in India with chemical dye or harming orang-utans in Sumatra?

Research suggests that very few businesses have accounting systems that allow them to understand their environmental impact and the risks to their current and future profitability of unsustainable business practices. The absence of evidence on how much poor eco-efficiency practices and corporate social irresponsibility costs is a major obstacle to the greening of business. Another obstacle to change is the absence of evidence as to the value to businesses of improved eco-efficiency and corporate social responsibility. Greening business requires greening the accounting system and improving corporate accountability. Researchers in the Business School are investigating how innovative accounting techniques can translate big ideas such as climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development into everyday business practices.

The University has recently completed two large-scale international comparative projects on how public bodies and private companies embed social responsibility within their supply chains, and a HEFCE-funded project on embedding principles of social responsibility in management education.

A common cry of big companies is that they are ‘giving the customer what they want’, so should we be looking to create a ‘new normal’ – where the greener option is the preferable, even the automatic, choice?

Already there is evidence of ‘choice editing’, where businesses help customers make greener or more socially responsible choices: Fizzy drinks manufacturers are increasing their range of low sugar products to attempt to reduce people’s sugar intake; car manufacturers are offering more hybrid options.

But who, ultimately, is responsible for corporate greening: the companies themselves, their value-chain partners or the public who buy from them? A carmaker might do all it can to reduce its carbon footprint, but that footprint is tiny in comparison to the value-chain footprint, and insignificant compared to the customer who drives the car around.

Greening big business is complicated further by issues of social responsibility to value-chain partners in developing countries. If supermarkets stop selling strawberries at Christmas and flower wholesalers dispense with Kenyan-grown blooms, what happens to those people whose livelihoods depend upon growing strawberries and flowers for export?