Communicating Sustainability Initiatives in Corporate Reports: Linking Implications to Organizational Change

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Linking Sustainability and Organizational Change

In many firms, communicating a focus on sustainability--whether in manufacturing processes, office recycling efforts, community involvement, or human resources development--has become an integral part of the corporate agenda. Companies may use a variety of media and approaches to discuss sustainability, from town meetings to webinars (Clark, 2008). For example, in 1998, Shell Oil Company launched its Tell Shell program inviting consumers to ask questions about the energy industry and continued the effort with the Internet-based About Shell Dialogues ("About Shell Dialogues," 2009). Despite the array of communications options available, however, written reports (either printed or available on-line) are often chosen as the primary means of communicating corporate sustainability initiatives to stakeholders. In 2007, two-thirds of the Global Fortune 500 corporations issued some type of standalone, nonfinancial report addressing sustainability issues (Sustainable Life Media, 2008).

Many factors in today's green-sensitive society support an organization's progress toward sustainability: consumer demand for green products (e.g., hybrid cars), regulatory requirements such as pollution restrictions, and high energy and raw material prices coupled with declining energy reserves. Pressure from the community about a corporation's record and reputation is also relevant; the Ceres Report (Corporate Governance and Climate Change: Consumer and Technologies Company Report, December 2008) noted that green strategies tend to have broad consumer appeal and political support. Expectations for employee development and community renewal may also be elements of the sustainability rubric (Senge, Smith, Kruschwitz, Laur, and Schley, 2008).

Despite these powerful forces for change, a focus on sustainability may be impeded by equally strong forces against organizational change (Lewin, 1951), such as consumer resistance to higher prices for green products, the cost of overhauling manufacturing to reduce pollution, or communicating the sustainability message effectively to the many different stakeholders in an organization. As Clark (2008) noted, "selling a green strategy" requires understanding how change in organizations works. Prior research linking change and sustainability has identified some of the counterforces to implementing corporate sustainability initiatives. For example, Dunphy, Griffiths, and Benn (2003) noted that many sustainability shifts may require transformational organizational change, which is more challenging to implement than incremental change (Jick, 1991). Transformational change breaks organizational frames of reference and requires focused change leadership (Kotter, 1996). Indeed, according to Senge and his colleagues (2008), a sustainability focus requires a necessary revolution, in which revolutionary--not just incremental--changes must be implemented in the way people live and work.

The sustainability concept as it applies to business firms has been proposed for many years, and definitions of sustainability range in scope and application. Over 20 years ago, the 1987 World Commission on Environment and Development identified sustainability as--"development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (Brundtland Commission, 1987). A decade ago, President Clinton's 1999 Council on Sustainable Development noted, "America's challenge is to create a life-sustaining Earth, a future in which prosperity and opportunity increase while life flourishes and pressures on the oceans, Earth, and atmosphere diminish." The recent Ceres Report (2008), which focused on the environmental and climate change issues of sustainability, noted that a wide range of variables are relevant to sustainability, including greenhouse gas emissions, energy efficiency in manufacturing, renewable energy sources, integrating climate factors into product design, and leadership at the highest levels for climate change initiatives. …