Business Perceptions of Biodiversity as Social Learning

[We’re pleased to welcome authors Dr. Thomas Smith, Dr. George Holmes, and Dr. Jouni Paavola of the University of Leeds. They recently published an article in Organization & Environment entitled “Social Underpinnings of Ecological Knowledge: Business Perceptions of Biodiversity as Social Learning,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, they reflect on the methods, and contribution of their research:]


Despite mounting concerns regarding the degradation and loss of species, habitats and ecosystems occurring worldwide, biodiversity remains an underexplored issue in corporate sustainability. Increasingly, conservationists, policymakers and organisations such as the WBCSD are focussing on business contributions to tackling biodiversity loss. Yet we know little of how different institutional contexts influence efforts to reduce operational impacts on biodiversity, for instance. It is also unclear how different stakeholders can help – or hinder – reform.

This paper integrates social learning and institutional theory to understand business approaches to controlling impacts on biodiversity. Social learning is often used to examine processes of knowledge transfer and reform in natural resource management, but tends to focus on local communities and public bodies rather than businesses. Combined with institutional theory, social learning demonstrates how social systems shape responses to ecological contexts.

This paper adds to ONE research by demonstrating that to understand business responses to biodiversity, it is vital to focus on interactions between social and ecological systems, rather than each system in isolation. Biodiversity is complex, varying across contexts: successfully conserving it means integrating multiple forms of knowledge and values. Business responses to biodiversity need to be examined across multiple contexts, developed to developing country, tropical to temperate, terrestrial to marine, etc.

Although corporate sustainability scholars must be mindful of social and ecological factors specific to one or another context, this should not prevent us from seeking to identify universal principles underlying best practice. Work on stakeholder engagement and institutional views of the firm applied to other issues in corporate sustainability might be used to inform best practices. There is much left to consider and to research regarding business and biodiversity.

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Time to Reverse the Sustainability Crisis

Editor’s note: The new issue of Organization & Environment (OAE) is now available online! We are delighted to welcome Mark Starik of San Francisco State University and Patricia Kanashiro of George Washington University, who published the lead article, “Toward a Theory of Sustainability Management: Uncovering and Integrating the Nearly Obvious.” Click here to access the full issue free through March 15.

The inspiration for this article was the relentless, continuous, and distressing news about both environmental degradation and socio-economic deprivation that most of us receive on at leaUntitledst a day-to-day basis, which we think should prompt both sustainability academics and practitioners to do something differently in order to help reverse these sustainability crises.  We proposed that, if organization/management theory has any relevance to practice (and, thereby, to results), and, if our current organization/management theories do not appear to be up to the task of assisting in this vital transformation toward sustainability, then new theories of sustainability management apparently need to be developed, considered, tested, and applied.

oaeWe think many sustainability researchers (both academic and non-academic) have “bent over backwards” trying to use traditional organization/management theories to help guide practice for more effective sustainable results, and some of these have been stellar in quality.  But, they do not appear to be providing enough of a positive impact on practice and results to reverse our collective environmental and socio-economic looming catastrophes.

So, our proposed sustainability management theory, which we think is one of many such possibilities, suggests that the more frequently, broadly, deeply, genuinely, competently, and systematically that individuals, organizations, and societies are aware of, think about, and act on sustainability issues, the more likely it is that eventually the results of those actions will be more sustainable  (which we describe as the capacity to advance long-term environmental and socio-economic quality of life) and will be so on a significant scale.  We assert that what we collectively appear to need to move toward, including at the individual, organizational, and societal levels, is to immerse ourselves in the rationales for environmental and socio-economic sustainability and to identify how we can practice effective approaches as often and as widely as possible to make a significant positive sustainability impact.

Regarding the potential for our article to influence future directions in research and practice, our intent was and hope is that the article will generate multiple conversations about the need for sustainability management theories, what these theories might entail that is either similar to or different from ours, and, perhaps most importantly, how any sustainability management theories that are found to be effective can be applied as soon, as widely, and as often as possible.  We welcome all researchers (both academic and practitioner) to develop and test their own theories of sustainability management and to collaborate with one another in evolving those theories and, from local to global levels, in making a substantial, positive sustainability difference.

Click here to read the article, Toward a Theory of Sustainability Management: Uncovering and Integrating the Nearly Obvious,” in the new issue of Organization & Environment (OAE). All articles are available free through March 15. 

starikMark Starik is a professor of management and sustainability and the director of the Center for Ethical and Sustainable Business in the College of Business at San Francisco State University. He researches and teaches in the areas of business environmental and energy management and policy; has consulted with various business, government, and nonprofit organizations; and is a coeditor of Organization & Environment. He holds a doctorate in strategic management from the University of Georgia.

kanashiroPatricia Kanashiro is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Strategic Management and Public Policy in the School of Business of the George Washington University. Her research interests are in sustainability, corporate governance, and business strategies for the poor in developing countries.