Social and Ecological Transitions: Winemaking in California

Article excerpt

With rising interest in sustainability, ecology is an increasingly important dimension of organizational research. Yet few empirical studies integrate local ecology into coevolutionary approaches where firms are key actors, and fewer still approach the question of sustainability and organizations from a systems perspective. In this paper, we ask how organizations can effectively participate in efforts to increase sustainability from a systems perspective. We develop an interdisciplinary framework for understanding firm-ecology relationships and then explore how this framework sheds light on regional planning and industrial practice in northern California's wine industry.

Introduction

Porter (2006) argues that we need to take a systems perspective to adequately describe how firms affect natural systems and how they can contribute to increased sustainability. This is a new area for research. While studies on organizations and the natural environment have grown considerably over the last few decades (Bansal 8c Gao, 2006; Jermier et al, 2006), only a few use systems theories (e.g., Allen, 1997; Boons, 2008; Loorbach et al, forthcoming; Whiteman et al, 2004). Instead, organizational research tends to focus on whether or not it pays to be green (Berchicci 8c King, 2007), on the various strategic approaches to framing environmental issues (Etzion, 2007; Jermier et al, 2006), on the impact of regulation on firm behavior, and on measuring the environmental performances of organizations in terms of waste production, resource use, or the adoption of ISO 14001 (Bansal 8c Gao, 2006). But persistent sustainability problems - such as climate change or unsustainable agriculture - require more radical and structural changes within and between organizations (Rotmans, 2005) as they relate to the needs and constraints ofthe local ecology (Allen, 1997; Boons, 2008; Guthey, 2004; Lockwood, 2007; Whiteman et al, 2004).

From a complex systems perspective, sustainability and resilience emerges from the coevolution of social, ecological and economic systems (Allen, 1997; Porter, 2006; Korhonen 8cSeager, 2008). As Seager (2008: 447) writes, "[t]he locus of study in sustainability science is on the interaction between human and natural systems" (italics in original). Capturing this interaction requires a multidisciplinary approach to organizational research which moves beyond a linear search for eco-efficiencies (Allen, 1997; Korhonen 8c Seager, 2008; Loorbach et al, forthcoming). In this paper, we look to the fields of ecology and geography for theoretical tools that can help managers and researchers think about complex organization-nature relationships. We also empirically examine how organizations can effectively participate in efforts to increase sustainability from a systems perspective given the needs and constraints of a specific local environment.

In section one, we briefly review the growing body of work in organizations and ecology. Section two identifies how approaches from ecology can help clarify organizationnature relationships (e.g., Holling, 1986; Folke et al, 2002). In section three, we draw upon research from economic geography to propose that organizations can usefully be viewed as powerful systemic actors that coproduce social understandings of "place" that has direct implications for sustainability. We then present empirical findings in section four to illustrate how organizations (including firms) have coevolved with a specific place through a case study of winemaking and regional planning in northern California.

Data for the case study was collected using documentary analysis, interviews, and observation in order to show how firms embracing environmental values can generate innovations in production processes and markets (Guthey, 2004). In Napa and Sonoma County, firms have contributed to an emergent set of policies concerning ecological protection, agricultural land preservation and promotion for more than 40 years with the result that firms and other stakeholders seem to be coproducing not just wine but also the 'place' associated with its production. …