Becoming a responsible actor and promoting sustainable development requires companies to adopt a new perspective on combining responsibility and strategy. In his dissertation, Pasi Heikkurinen, M.Sc. (Econ.), states that market-oriented and image-centric corporate responsibility strategies cannot bring about sustainable development or the adoption of a responsible identity. In their place, Heikkurinen offers an awareness-sustainability approach that focuses on building a responsible corporate identity and operating on a sustainable basis.
How should responsibility and strategy be combined in the business organization so that a company can become a responsible actor promoting sustainable development? Pasi Heikkurinen's doctoral dissertation shows that the theory and practices of strategic corporate responsibility require reframing. Pasi Heikkurinen is an MTT Agrifood Research Finland Research Scientist and doctoral student at the Aalto University School of Business.
According to the dissertation, strategic responsibility does not usually suffice to implement sustainable development, since it defines sustainability through economic logic and what is termed as weak sustainability.
"This way of thinking posits that labour, economy and technology will be able to replace natural processes, so issues such as exhausting natural resources or climate change are not considered problematic. This kind of unwavering trust in market mechanisms, belief in technology and excessive confidence in man's abilities endanger the survival of the human species. The needs of other people and the natural world are overlooked in the rush for growth and profit," says Heikkurinen.
Responsibility is too easy to outsource
Market-oriented thinking also provides an opportunity to push responsibility out of the company, on to customers or other stakeholder groups. According to this way of thinking, ethicality is always achieved through the market and the purchase decisions made by customers, so the company management or employees do not need to concern themselves with morals.
"This logic could be described by the old Savonian proverb that responsibility lies with the listener. In strategies that emphasize the moral responsibility of others, the company is viewed as an instrument of ethical demand, various requirements and supply -- not as an actor that could have a will of its own with regard to a sustainable future. This is rather odd, since companies are made up of people with morals," says Heikkurinen, in amazement.
Another effect of outsourcing morals is that focus is easily shifted from the corporate identity to the corporate image. This is problematic, since it is difficult for a company to attain a responsible identity if it only keeps thinking about its image: that is, whether it looks responsible or not. On the contrary, developing a responsible identity requires the organization to internalize its ethical decision-making instead of thrusting it on others.
"A responsible corporate identity will reflect a responsible image that customers and stakeholder groups will take note of," says Heikkurinen.
Need for radical change
A new kind of awareness and sustainability thinking on business is already on the rise. For a company to participate in sustainable development, its business strategy must follow "strong sustainability," in which human labour, economy and technology are subordinated to the ecosystem. According to this mindset, the majority of natural resources and processes are irreplaceable.
This entails a shift in world view: company owners and employees are regarded as moral actors who cannot control nature, since they are merely part of it. Achieving this change requires a bold reform of the current way of thinking, not only in business life, but also in scientific and political decision-making.
"Some companies have already realized and admitted their own responsibility for acting in a sustainable manner, even if no direct customer demand or stakeholder pressure exists for it," says Heikkurinen. It is precisely this type of leading by example that future generations will need.
Pasi Heikkurinen calls in his dissertation for the adoption and exercise of this awareness-sustainability perspective in place of economic instrumentalism. The awareness-sustainability perspective does not subordinate everything to the organization's economic processes, but also assigns intrinsic value to external actors.
"If a company decides to build strategic corporate responsibility from this starting point, it can set a course for sustainable development," Heikkurinen maintains.
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