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Toward a Theory of Sustainability Management: Uncovering and Integrating the Nearly Obvious


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The continuing evolution and increasing salience of the concept and practice of sustainability among individuals, organizations, and societies worldwide appears to warrant the development of conceptual approaches to theories of sustainability management for application to management research, education, and practice. While other management theories have been employed by many management scholars to help explain the need for and advancement of sustainability management, none of those theories appear to have the unique features, benefits, opportunities, challenges, or orientations to assist individuals, organizations, and societies to move toward sustainability as much and as soon as appears necessary. However, since the consideration of theories of sustainability management is relatively new for most management scholars, the authors hope this article begins a dialogue among those stakeholders to better describe, develop, and apply this and related theories of sustainability management as significantly, effectively, and urgently as possible.
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Organization & Environment
26(1) 7 –30
© 2013 SAGE Publications
Reprints and permission:
DOI: 10.1177/1086026612474958
on & EnvironmentStarik and Kanashiro
1San Francisco State University, San Francisco, CA, USA
2George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Mark Starik, San Francisco State University, College of Business, Center for Ethical and Sustainable Business, 835
Market Street, Suite 594, San Francisco, CA 94103,USA.
Toward a Theory of Sustainability
Management: Uncovering and
Integrating the Nearly Obvious
Mark Starik1 and Patricia Kanashiro2
The continuing evolution and increasing salience of the concept and practice of sustainability
among individuals, organizations, and societies worldwide appears to warrant the development
of conceptual approaches to theories of sustainability management for application to manage-
ment research, education, and practice. While other management theories have been employed
by many management scholars to help explain the need for and advancement of sustainability
management, none of those theories appear to have the unique features, benefits, opportuni-
ties, challenges, or orientations to assist individuals, organizations, and societies to move toward
sustainability as much and as soon as appears necessary. However, since the consideration of
theories of sustainability management is relatively new for most management scholars, the
authors hope this article begins a dialogue among those stakeholders to better describe,
develop, and apply this and related theories of sustainability management as significantly,
effectively, and urgently as possible.
social issues, ecosystems, multilevel, multisystems, theory building, sustainability management
Global business, as well as society in general, is in the midst of one of the most significant
changes since the information revolution of the 1990s. The sustainability revolution, that is, the
movement of individuals, organizations, and societies toward developing the capacity for envi-
ronmental and socioeconomic long-term quality of life improvements, could even be character-
ized as encompassing the information revolution and may be the most transformative cultural
phenomenon since the industrial and agricultural revolutions (Edwards, 2005). The importance
of this movement can be better understood with the consideration that information, industrializa-
tion, and agriculture all vitally depend on a multitude of aspects of both environmental and
socioeconomic evolutionary realities. This effort to realize healthier long-term futures for the
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8 Organization & Environment 26(1)
world’s population and for future generations, one could argue, may be the pinnacle (to date) of
human civilization endeavors (Brown, 2010; Edwards, 2005; Friedman, 2008).
In its full conceptualization, a sustainable world has been suggested to include enough access
to resources for even multiple billions of people to meet their various environmental and socio-
economic needs, as well as for multiple millions of other species to coexist and thrive with
humans, as both humans and the rest of nature continue to evolve (Cortese, 2010). This vision
can include global scale aspects such as a healthy biosphere, stabilized world human population,
intra- and intergenerational equity, universal human rights, and the resolution of social and eco-
nomic challenges of the world’s poor, among other mega-challenges and opportunities, such as
our energy future (Lovins, 2011). Given the monumental change at individual, organizational,
and societal scales that would be required to move most humans substantially toward the realiza-
tion of such a sustainability vision, the thoughtful management scholar and practitioner might
ask “what theory of human management can account for (or otherwise address and/or advance)
such an enormous change in human civilization?” A number of possibilities developed and pre-
scribed by current management theories have been called to the task of addressing the need for
and effective application of sustainability values, actions, and results. But, as will become clear
throughout this article, as well-intentioned, -researched, and -argued as these theories have been,
none of the traditional management theories seem to adequately reflect the essence of the sus-
tainability challenges of and potential approaches to the current and emerging human individual,
organizational, and societal sustainability-related realities.
What does apparently exist is a global interest in and an evolving human capacity for achiev-
ing a more sustainable world (Esty & Winston, 2006; Hawken, 2008; Jacobson & Delucchi,
2009; Marcus, Geffem, & Sexton 2002; Orr, 1994; Russo, 2008; Starik & Heuer, 2002). More
people than ever appear to be learning about and trying to take more substantive, more frequent,
and/or more numerous actions in reducing energy consumption, improving water quality, recy-
cling or reusing “waste” products, upgrading their own or their stakeholder network’s health, and
assisting in improving their community’s socioeconomic sectors (Danaher, Biggs, & Mark,
The emergence of this reality probably should not surprise anyone, given that human indi-
viduals, their organizations, and their societies are not only completely and continuously sur-
rounded by the natural environment but are essentially composed of the natural environment and
would not exist and could not survive without the rest of the natural environment (Driscoll &
Starik, 2004). Everything in and on this planet, including our set of socioeconomic environ-
ments, is intricately and inextricably tied to the natural environment (here defined as Earth’s
atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and the forces, cycles, and phenomena that
affect or are affected by these spheres). Even spiritual (Egri, 1997), cognitive, and psychological
entities have biophysical bases, since if humans and other sentient species had no biophysical
brains and nervous systems, these characteristics, too, would not be possible. However, the
awareness of the mutual embedding of humans and the rest of nature may be so obvious that
many of us take this special connection for granted and may not effectively employ it to advance
our collective sustainability vision (Roszak, 1992; Throop, Starik, & Rands, 1993). The authors’
intention in this article is to bring attention to this obvious-but-hidden aspect of human–natural
environment interactions. In addition, we are interested in providing information that would help
in the development of one or more theories of sustainability management and offer an initial
statement of one possible such theory (which we call a proto-theory to signify it as an initial
attempt). We provide the justifications for, as well as the values and scope of, such a proto-the-
ory, continue the development of a multilevel/multisystems approach in the literature and con-
nect it to this proto-theory, and conclude by offering one major suggestion regarding an overall
characteristic of such a proto-theory, which is the cultural sustainability immersion concept.
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Starik and Kanashiro 9
One important note before we proceed further about this article’s use of the term values,
which we employ in several different but complimentary ways. First, values is used to identify
one paradigm in particular—the integration of environmental and socioeconomic sustainability.
Since the latter is a main topic of our article, that “value” is an all-encompassing one here. Our
second use of the term values is to include it in our suggested proto-theory of sustainability man-
agement, as one of several system components, along with strategies, processes, and other sys-
tems elements. Integration and coordination are two open systems values initially and conceptually
suggested by Katz and Kahn (1978). The third use of the term values in this article is as a sustain-
ability theory evaluation criterion, suggested by Gladwin, Kennelly, and Krause (1995). Our
interpretation is that the latter researchers identified that the types of values such a theory might
include and advance, such as the precautionary principle, could provide insight into how that
theory compares to other sustainability-related theories. So while we use the term values in sev-
eral different contexts in this article, these uses are related to one another in that they connote a
conceptual characteristic about which most people care most of the time and want to either main-
tain or increase over time.
Why Are New Theories of Sustainability
Management Needed?
Several justifications prompted us to consider the suggestion that one or more new theories of
sustainability management may be needed in the management literature. First, as we have iden-
tified and will explain in greater detail later in this article, most other organization/management
theories that have been used in sustainability research do not either explicitly or implicitly rec-
ognize the obvious (or near-obvious) fact that all human organizations are embedded within the
natural environment, and that, all of those which have human managers and other employees,
also contain the natural environment inside of their respective biophysical bodies. This mutually
embedded aspect could be a key element of sustainability research and practice, encouraging
natural environment phenomena to be considered at the center of and throughout all human
organizational activity and acknowledging that the natural environment is present throughout all
organizational stakeholder networks (including value and supply chains), directly or indirectly
affecting (or affected by) the decisions and actions of multiple organizational decision makers
(Waddock & McIntosh, 2011). By logical extension, the human social environment is also cen-
tral to most organizational management decisions and interweaves throughout all organizational
networks (Husted & Allen, 2011). Ignoring either the natural or social environment aspects of
human organizational decisions and actions by either researchers or practitioners can lead to
short-term thinking and short-sighted action, with potential negative environmental, social, and/
or organizational consequences (Diamond, 2005). So the first reason one or more sustainability
management theories are needed is because they may best reflect the current and future bio-
physical and social realities of human organizations and the contexts and impacts of their deci-
sions and actions.
A second major justification for suggesting the need for the potential initial development of
one or more sustainability management theories is that we humans apparently need to pay much
more attention to sustainability challenges and related potential catastrophic outcomes.
Numerous modern-day intractable environmental and social issues, such as climate disruption,
debilitating poverty, biodiversity loss, human rights and child labor abuses, ecosystem toxic pol-
lution, overpopulation, and overconsumption, among many others, such as deforestation and
gender discrimination, have exacerbated traditional human maladies of war, violence, crime,
illiteracy, and disease to the extent that these “wicked problems” appear to hold an ever-tighten-
ing vice-grip on both human development and ecosystem health and survival (Brown, 2010;
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10 Organization & Environment 26(1)
Busch & Shrivastava, 2011; Hoffman, 2011; Meadows, Meadows, & Randers, 1992; Victor,
2011; World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987; The Worldwatch Institute,
2012). While many different reports have emerged on the global sustainability challenge in the
past several decades, from an ecosystem perspective, the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
in 2005 identified that 15 of 24 (nearly two thirds) of global ecosystems were under severe stress,
with only 4 of the 24 ecosystems out of danger of severe degradation (United Nations, 2005). On
the socioeconomic front, more failed states exist today than in all of human-recorded history;
world military spending has continued to surge; the global economy has just experienced a mas-
sive, worldwide “great recession”; and the gap between rich and poor worldwide continues to
widen (Brown, 2010). Theories of sustainability management, because they can include and
integrate human and other natural environment and human socioeconomic phenomena, have the
potential to describe, analyze, and prescribe both scientific and practical approaches for the sur-
vival of human civilization on Earth, a presumably worthy human management (and research)
goal. Human development, including its burgeoning population (now more than 7 billion and
expanding by a net amount of more than 200,000 humans per day) and evermore powerful tech-
nology and expanding economies, have become leading contributors to natural environment
deterioration and destruction, much to the detriment of significant proportions of the human
population (Brown, 2010). Clearly, human overpopulation and overconsumption need to be
urgently reduced on a significant scale around the planet by as many individuals, organizations,
and societies as possible, as much as possible, for human civilization to survive and thrive on
Earth (Starik & Gribbon, 1993). Theories of sustainability management may possibly provide
more and/or better guidance than any other management theories on how those systems can
advance in that desirable direction. The time appears ripe for management scholars to question
whether current management theories actually address the unique features, challenges, opportu-
nities, and urgency to help advance individuals, organizations, and societies toward a more sus-
tainable future.
While business as an institution has its limits, few have suggested that the business sector,
as well as governments and nonprofit organizations, and their cross-sector collaboration, are
hopeless to address many of these issues or to potentially halt or reverse some of them. The
management profession, including business academics, appears to have the opportunity, even
the responsibility, to play significant roles in examining and addressing many of these chal-
lenges, and one way to do so is to put those environmental and social issues squarely at the
center of and throughout their scholarly work, which the development of one or more sustain-
ability theories can do. While not a panacea, given the limitations of academia to affect prac-
tice, business academics can play a nonnegligible role in doing their part to base their research
around these issues and some potential ways to effectively address them (Sharma, Starik, &
Husted, 2007).
A third justification for considering new theories of sustainability management is a combina-
tion of the first two: other theories of management do not focus on sustainability and, therefore,
do not systematically address pressing sustainability issues, so one or more sustainability man-
agement theories may be needed to match these two phenomena. Like many theories of manage-
ment (which have the advantage over organizational theories in that management can be
performed at multiple levels, from individual through organizational to societal levels), theories
of sustainability management can exhibit both descriptive/empirical and prescriptive/normative
elements. Sustainability (both socioeconomic and environmental) is currently being managed by
individuals, organizations, and society, if not as efficiently or effectively as it could be, since
many observers would suggest that these same entities could manage sustainability issues with
much more positive results. For instance, at the individual level, who among us uses energy as
efficiently as we could, and how many of us are actually tracking our individual use of energy in
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Starik and Kanashiro 11
its many forms to even know whether we can manage our energy consumption more efficiently?
Regarding organizations, much the same could be asked of our own universities: Have our places
of academic employment adequately assessed their respective roles in alleviating poverty, home-
lessness, and/or drug addiction in society? One aspect of sustainability management theories
with which we conclude this article is that the more that individuals, organizations, and societies
are immersed in both environmental and socioeconomic sustainability phenomena, the more
likely one or more sustainability cultures will begin to emerge, with more values, attitudes, per-
ceptions, decisions, and actions being informed by ever-improving sustainability results. The use
of other organization and/or management theories in previous sustainability management
research has produced interesting and helpful findings and recommendations, but most of these
studies, with a few notable exceptions, could be viewed as incremental and more focused on the
business organization or their industries than on socioeconomic and environmental sustainability
issues, impacts, and futures (de Lange, 2010).
We acknowledge and appreciate the stellar work of sustainability scholars who have devel-
oped and/or used more traditional organizational/management theories in their respective
research efforts, and we encourage them to continue to explore how traditional theories can be
used to examine and advance sustainability management (Starik, Marcus, & Ilinitch, 2000). We
are also interested in encouraging these and other scholars to consider the proposed and other
sustainability management theories to perhaps better reflect our societies’ collective current sus-
tainability challenges and opportunities and to potentially advance both researcher and practitio-
ner capabilities in addressing those challenges and opportunities.
If sustainability management theories gain some traction in the management researcher and
practitioner communities, we foresee an increasing amount of attention being developed on sus-
tainability management topics by other academics and practitioners, given that more articles will
likely be written and more presentations will likely be made on the topic. We would also expect
that more interviews and social media will likely be generated on it and, hopefully, that more
support for overall or particular sustainability concepts and practices will likely develop, rein-
forcing our prediction that more sustainability inputs will help produce more sustainability out-
puts, processes, values, strategies, feedbacks (such as outcomes), and connections to other
systems. More attention to this and other sustainability management theories will likely help
increase our understanding of its components, processes, potential improvements and applica-
tions, and results.
Yet a fourth reason that motivated us to engage in this conversation about a proto-sustainability
management theory was the set of several meetings of the Academy of Management that have
occurred over the past 3 years in which numerous scholars proposed various justifications and
aspects of one or more new sustainability management theories. At those same meetings, an
average of several dozen Academy members attended and participated in those sessions. The
proposers were a very diverse group of scholars, representing different age groups, divisions,
genders, and countries of origin, indicating potential widespread interest in this topic. These
discussions indicated that sustainability management theory is a topic of interest, even if they
identified that the need for these theories had not yet achieved consensus. In fact, in numerous
conversations with Academy scholars on the topic of sustainability management theories, we
have found both support (mild-to-strong) and opposition (also mild-to-strong), which in itself is
a contributing reason for further topic exploration.
Finally, a fifth justification for suggesting the consideration of one or more sustainability
management theories is that most other management theories are based on a very limited num-
ber of disciplines, and often only on one or a small number of these, primarily neoclassical
economics, psychology, political science, business, and public affairs. Since sustainability in
this article deals with the multifaceted long-term quality of life aspects of human individual,
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12 Organization & Environment 26(1)
organizational, and societal levels, it necessarily would draw from not only the several disci-
plines mentioned above. It would also require knowledge from a wide range of natural science
disciplines, philosophy, humanities, other social sciences, such as sociology and anthropology,
and several professional fields, including from medicine (including modern, alternative, and
preventive), engineering (including systems), public health, education, and law. Other manage-
ment theories, of course, still have applicability within a theory of sustainability management
when more focus is desired (see, e.g., Russo & Harrison, 2005). But the greater breadth, espe-
cially when its components are integrated, allows theories of sustainability management to
better reflect a more comprehensive view of reality, including biophysical and biophysically
based socioeconomic reality, which can have greater global applicability for human behavior
over a longer, multigenerational timeframe.
What Is Sustainability Management?
Human language processes can derive words for concepts that have meaning but are either dif-
ficult to define precisely or are still evolving their meanings (or both). Examples are numerous
and include such terms as love, trust, courage, freedom, and fairness, among many others.
Except in highly legalistic or philosophical discussions, most people have a general idea about
what these words mean (in their own languages), at least in casual conversation. The lack of a
single, narrow definition of these terms has not prevented people from using them or from acting
on their broad conceptualizations.
Sustainability appears to be such a term (P. A. C. Smith & Sharicz, 2011). While, from its
roots of “sustain” and “ability,” the term seems to have come to generally mean “the capacity to
maintain,” in the past few decades, it has probably most often been applied to a type of human
societal development—sustainable development. Sustainability might also mean the capacity to
endure and adapt, prompting the question of what existing conditions need to and should be
maintained. Most often, the term sustainable development has been interpreted to mean “meeting
the (human) needs of the present without compromising the ability of future (human) generations
to meet their own (human) needs” (Brundtland Commission, 1987). However, this definition has
been criticized on a number of fronts, including not being sufficiently specific about whose or
which needs should be addressed first and foremost (though inclusion of the world’s poor in its
development is an important, recurring theme), and about what constitutes “needs” (vs. “wants”),
especially between present and future (human) generations and between humans and other spe-
cies. A number of other definitions, perceptions, and interpretations have emerged and been used
by individuals, organizations, and societies (Bell & Morse, 2008; Welcomer, 2011), and many of
these appear to coalesce specifically around the concepts of carrying capacity, futurity, and envi-
ronmental and socioeconomic long-term quality of life (Starik & Rands, 1995). This article
employs the latter set of concepts and interprets “life” as primarily, but not exclusively, human
life, and recognizes that “long-term” is a relative term and could mean “into the foreseeable
future” or “in perpetuity.”
We define sustainability management as the formulation, implementation, and evaluation of
both environmental and socioeconomic sustainability-related decisions and actions (Bell &
Morse, 2008; Dunphy, Benveniste, Griffiths, & Sutton, 2000; Elkington, 1998; Laszlo, 2003;
Stead & Stead, 2004) and, for the purposes of this article, includes decisions and actions at the
individual, organizational, and societal levels. Individual sustainability management decisions
and actions might include the reduction of energy overconsumption in the areas of personal or
household transportation, housing, and purchasing, including food production and purchasing.
Organizational sustainability management decisions and actions may involve some of the same
sustainability aspects, but at a larger, more collective scale (Sharma et al., 2007). So while
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Starik and Kanashiro 13
individuals’ and households’ transportation-related sustainability management might include
commuting choices, organizations often need also to account for in-bound and out-bound trans-
portation related to the distribution of their products and services, among other operational and
ancillary activities (Aras & Crowther, 2009). At the societal level, which could vary from local
communities (Hopkins, 2008; Roseland, 2005) to entire countries and cultures (Edwards, 2005;
Starik, 2010), sustainability management could include the environmental and socioeconomic
aspects of major institutions, sectors, and trade and professional associations involved in trans-
portation system planning, development, operations, and upgrades, including those spanning
countries and continents (de Lange, 2010).
What Is Missing in Current Management Theories?
As we mentioned earlier, sustainability management appears to require one or more dedi-
cated theories because no other theories of management appear to have expressly included
attention to human individuals, organizations, and societies and multiple other systems and
their mutual embedding with the natural environment. A theory of sustainability manage-
ment would likely specifically recognize quality of life at different levels of existence
through time and space (Bell & Morse, 2008). A theory of sustainability management has
the potential advantage over other management theories in more comprehensively reflect-
ing the biophysical-based reality of human individuals, organizations, and societies and
their integration with human cultures and economies. Traditional management theories are
virtually silent on the application, consideration, or discussion of multilevel quality of life
and on our individual, organizational, and societal management efforts to ensure that all
life, human, other animal, plant, and microbial is viewed holistically, over long-time peri-
ods, in multiple settings, under a wide range of conditions. In short, current management
theories, even those that have been “greened” (including by one of the coauthors of this
article), do not account for the various types of, risks to, and potential impacts on both
human biophysical and ecosystem health, for current and future generations, nor do they
address the integration of these systems with more familiar (but sometimes just as intrac-
table) socioeconomic challenges (Driscoll & Starik, 2004). In addition, current manage-
ment theories also appear to be lacking in a number of other elements compared to
potential theories of sustainability management.
Research in the general field of sustainability management has increasingly employed
existing management theories to explore, for example, how sustainability enables firms’
unique capabilities/resources (Hart, 1995; Russo & Fouts, 1997), increases environmental
legitimacy (Bansal & Clelland, 2004; Bansal & Roth, 2000; Berrone & Gomez-Mejia, 2009),
and enhances performance (Hart & Ahuja, 1996; King & Lenox, 2001; Margolis, Elfenbein, &
Walsh, 2007).
Despite the increasing importance of sustainability in the management literature, theoretical
development in sustainability has yet to yield a model that fully acknowledges: the changing
organization-and-environment field and its implications in the long term; the interdependence
and integration of relationships of humans, organizations, and society; and the paradoxical
demands inherent in a dynamic society.
Current management theories, for example, have generally not accounted for the changing
organizational environment (Corley & Gioia, 2011; Suddaby, Hardy, & Huy, 2011). Suddaby et
al. (2011) observe that many management theories were developed in the 1960s and 1970s and
have remained almost intact since that period. Corley and Gioia (2011) explicitly argue that sus-
tainability is an important theoretical management issue, but it is currently viewed by many
scholars as “atheoretical.” According to these researchers, more effort needs to be invested in
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14 Organization & Environment 26(1)
developing a theoretical framework of sustainability to help forecast events and to influence
managers and academics to address specific sustainability phenomena or problems.
Most current management theories have also not explicitly recognized that organizations are
not isolated entities but, instead, are part of a complex network of relationships with other beings
(Sandberg & Tsoukas, 2011; Waddock & McIntosh, 2011). Pogutz and Winn (2009) argue that
the growing literature in sustainability has not adequately recognized the interdependence of
organizations and the natural environment. For example, social network theory apparently needs
to acknowledge that organizations are not only embedded in economic, social, and cultural life
but also in biophysical ecosystems. Ecosystem embedding implies that individuals, organiza-
tions, and societies depend on ecosystem resources and that individuals, organizations, and soci-
eties can have a significant (positive or negative) impact on ecosystems (Dauvergne & Lister,
Ecosystems are complex, evolve, and can be overly stressed. Pogutz and Winn (2009) define
sustainability fit as
the ability of the firm to adapt and align dynamically with the resilience of the ecosystem
where it is embedded, preserving ecosystem health to the extent that the provisioning of
ecosystem services on which the firm depends is not jeopardized. (p. 32)
A “fit” between organizations and ecosystems is therefore temporarily and spatially dynamic
and should reflect the consequences of exceeding ecosystem carrying capacity. It can be argued
that individuals and societies also need to “fit” their ecosystems to stay within its carrying
While the concepts of nature’s carrying capacity and ecosystems have been raised by manage-
ment scholars, the promise of infusing management theory with biophysical foundations remains
largely unrealized. Much of the literature on management continues to ignore sustainability
issues, such as biodiversity, habitat protection (Dauvergne & Lister, 2010; Etzion, 2007), over-
population, overconsumption (Starik, 1995), and a host of other issues.
Finally, existing management theories may be too simplistic and static to fully explain the
complexity of the paradoxical demands inherent in the management of sustainability (W. K. Smith
& Lewis, 2011). A paradox is composed of two components: (a) an apparent contradiction
between two elements and (b) a response that addresses the resulting tensions simultaneously.
Paradoxical demands arise from diverse stakeholders with conflicting demands. For example,
firm maximization of profits for shareholders is said to often conflict with its social and ethi-
cal responsibilities (Husted & Allen, 2011). A theory of sustainability management could
potentially address such a paradox by examining how individuals, organizations, and societ-
ies could environmentally and socioeconomically thrive in the long term, while allowing
shareholders to also thrive by ensuring that their respective organizations’ sustainability man-
agement programs reduce firm costs, increase firm revenues, add value to firm assets, or
reduce firm risks and liabilities (Fisk, 2010).
W. K. Smith and Lewis (2011) concluded that purposeful and cyclical responses to paradoxi-
cal demands enable sustainability—which they define as “peak performance in the present that
enables success in the future” (W. K. Smith & Lewis, 2011, p. 389). The ability to respond to
paradoxical demands is characterized by a dynamic equilibrium in which there is constant motion
in opposite directions. “A dynamic equilibrium enables sustainability through three mechanisms:
(1) enabling learning and creativity; (2) fostering flexibility and resilience; and (3) unleashing
human potential” (W. K. Smith & Lewis, 2011, p. 393).
In summary, although current managerial theories have advanced our understanding of sus-
tainability to a certain extent, these theories present fundamental sustainability omissions.
Table 1 presents those theory omissions regarding environmental sustainability, however,
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Starik and Kanashiro 15
Table 1. Current Managerial Theories: Environmental Sustainability Connections and Omissions.
Contrast between
dominant emphases in
current theory versus
those in sustainability
management theories
External shocks influence
environmental strategy.
Firms gain environmental
legitimacy by complying
with external/societal
environmental pressures.
The natural environment is external to an
organization while in reality an organization
is embedded in, connected to, dependent
on, and integrated with the natural
Reaction versus
External pressures
versus embedded
based view
Sustainability strengthens
competitiveness by
enabling its unique
resource capabilities.
Potentially accelerated changes in ecosystems
may cause highly unpredictable impacts,
due to the change magnitude, period
of disturbance, and cascading effects at
multiple levels. Turbulent conditions would
require new organizational capabilities to
respond to such uncertainty.
Unique resource
capabilities versus
shared resources
Competitiveness versus
The natural environment
is seen as a provider
of source and sink
resources for human
usage and should not be
abused or exceed related
to carrying capacity.
Nature is not only a collection of
disaggregated resources for human business
use but also a set of complex, interacting
phenomena that need to be available to
humans, their businesses, and the rest of
nature, both now and in the future.
Respect for limits
versus respect for
Natural resources
versus natural
Principals and agents
may have similar or
divergent interests
related to organizational
interactions with the
natural environment.
Very limited assessment of the value of the
natural environment to the extent that
environmental actions may enhance firm
Risks versus
Divergent interests
versus convergent
Economic transaction costs
should include costs
associated with use of
environmental resources.
Transaction cost barriers are not established
for the natural environment to the extent
that nature (i.e., water, air) property rights,
usage, and terms of trade are not known.
Transaction costs versus
full transaction costs
Public goods versus
universal biome
Firm survival depends on
its ability to procure
critical resources from
the external environment.
The interdependence between organizations
and ecosystems is not addressed to the
extent that they are mutually interactive
and integrated with each other.
Dependency versus
External environment
versus embedded
The natural environment
may or may not be
recognized as one or
more stakeholders.
Environmentalists may
or may not be legitimate
and/or powerful
Long-term quality of life for all stakeholders,
making connections between and among
them is not addressed.
Current human
stakeholders only
versus systems of
stakeholders that
can include future
generations and non-
human nature
Rights versus enduring
Businesses are affected by
the external environment
and the interactions
between them.
Business is not a separate entity but is in fact
embedded in nature. The interdependence
between and among individuals,
organizations, and societies, and the rest of
nature are not addressed.
Affected by versus
embedded in
External environment
versus embeddedness
Sustainability issues may
affect how individuals
interact and relate to
each other.
Human individual, organizational, and societal
interactions are important, and can be
applied to natural environment issues, but
typically, interactions between humans and
the rest of nature are not addressed.
Interactions versus
Humans versus all types
of life
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16 Organization & Environment 26(1)
those same omissions would equally apply to socioeconomic sustainability, since most cur-
rent management theories (with some exceptions) do not include significant attention to at
least the multiple levels of socioeconomic phenomena
What Might a Theory of Sustainability Management Include?
As implied above, a theory of sustainability management would likely encompass several
aspects of both sustainability and management. First, such a theory would necessarily need to
focus significant attention on both natural and socioeconomic environments, ideally describing,
predicting, and prescribing their systemic existence, value, and integration (at least of their
inputs, processes, and outputs, and, if possible, their mutual feedbacks within multiple environ-
ments). We believe that both environmental and social aspects need to be included in the concept
of sustainability and that most academics and practitioners accept that interpretation, although
the degree to which each is considered to be within the sustainability concept probably varies
significantly from one scholar or practitioner to another. We are also inclined to treat each as
equally important, and to identify that, while humans are dependent on (and significantly com-
posed of) the natural environment, most sustainability challenges cannot be addressed except by
aspects of society, whether these are human individuals, organizations, communities, or cultures.
Since we include both environmental and social sustainability in our concept of sustainability
management, the following questions are the type that one or more theories of sustainability
management would likely address (but are beyond the scope of this article):
How can the science of climate disruption be best understood by as many of the deci-
sion-making and action-taking entities in as timely a manner as possible?
How can the human species better relate to the millions of other species on this planet
to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity that both humans and nonhumans need?
What are the socioeconomic problems connected with the use of fossil fuels and other
toxic substances that play such a large role in the world’s millions of organizations and
multiple societies?
Such questions imply that sustainability management theories may need to address what may be
very deeply embedded and entwined challenges and to do so on an ongoing, or frequent, basis
for these issues to be effectively resolved, rather than to be treated only on the surface and only
when they are perceived to reach a high level of severity.
Second, a theory of sustainability management would likely include attention to both environ-
mental and socioeconomic sets of sustainability issues at multiple levels (at least, at the indi-
vidual, organizational, and societal levels) and in many different contexts (global to local,
multiple biomes, under a variety of atmospheric, hydrospheric, and geospheric conditions, and,
of course in multiple cultures, economies, and communities (Sharma et al., 2007).
Third, since management approaches often are organized into stages (such as formulation,
implementation, and evaluation) and are attempted or adopted at least at the three levels of indi-
vidual, organizational, and societal, applying systems analyses and developing conclusions and
recommendations for humans at each of these levels appears to be another sensible aspect of a
theory of sustainability management (Starik, 2006). This aspect implies the quality of genuine-
ness, or seriousness, in focusing human concern and capability in addressing sustainability issues
at multiple levels.
Fourth, a theory of sustainability management would likely also need to account for a wide
range of quality of life phenomena, and do so for multiple forms of life and over various time-
frames. We humans have typically regarded the quality of our own lives and those of other
humans as the main, if not only, concern of our species, but in recent decades, a wider array of
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Starik and Kanashiro 17
life, presumably not just their survival but their development, as well, has also warranted increas-
ing human individual, organizational, and societal concern (Waddock & McIntosh, 2011).
However, in addition to humans themselves, members of our species have been increasingly
paying attention to the welfare of other primates, and to cetaceans and other mammals, and to
other animals that are pets, or that dwell in habitats within or nearby human habitats. Selected
species of the rest of the animal kingdom, especially those that appear endangered, and even
plants and other life, are also of interest to an increasing number of human individuals, organiza-
tions, and societies (Starik, 1995; Wilson, 1984). So, sustainability management theories are
likely to address a broad range of sustainability challenges and opportunities.
Fifth, one of the main features likely to be a part of a theory of sustainability management, in
contrast to incremental or evolutionary approaches (Boons, 2009), would be the recognition of
the need for transformational perspectives, decisions, actions, and results to begin to address
looming catastrophes, whether environmental or socioeconomic or combined (Brown, 2010;
Hopkins, 2008). Environmental sustainability catastrophes are probably the most important and
urgent of those to address, since socioeconomic phenomena are dependent on environmental
quality of life. Whether the sustainability issue is climate disruption (Blockstein & Weigman,
2009), biodiversity extinction, widespread deforestation and desertification, microbial epidem-
ics, air, water, or land toxic pollution, or natural (including cosmic-originating) disasters, the
prevention, or at least amelioration, of the pervasive destruction and/or deterioration of life asso-
ciated with these survival issues is a potential distinguishing feature of theories of sustainability
management. While such a theory would likely not include efforts to micromanage solutions to
these catastrophes, it would likely provide a framework for developing and implementing broad
sustainability solutions. It would also imply competence in identifying and eventually resolving
sustainability challenges.
Sixth, another distinguishing feature of theories of sustainability management would
likely be the exploration and development of sustainability solutions that are multilevel,
systematically integrated (including their inputs, processes, outputs, and feedbacks), and
multi-stakeholder-oriented, rather than incremental, single media-focused, and narrowly
(human) elite-dominated. As such, theories of sustainability management may become one
of the most holistic, strategic, participatory, and time-and-space–related theories that man-
agement scholars have forwarded and, hopefully, which are applicable to a wide range of
human individual, organizational, and societal environmental and socioeconomic opportu-
nities and challenges (Edwards, 2005). This last distinguishing feature highlights the need
for the several aspects mentioned in the previous five points, which are included in our
proto-theory below.
A preliminary statement of our proto-theory of sustainability management that we tentatively
forward in this article is as follows:
The greater the frequency, breadth, depth, genuineness, competency, and systems-orien-
tation of human involvement in addressing sustainability management phenomena at
multiple levels, the greater the possibilities for improvements in both the capacities for
and achievements of environmental and socioeconomic long-term quality of life on a
significant scale.
While the above several descriptors of features of our proto-theory of sustainability manage-
ment may be somewhat intuitive, we want to emphasize the latter feature of systems-orienta-
tion, since this phenomenon has been identified by other researchers as a key sustainability
management characteristic (Capra, 1996; Maser, 2012; Rands et al., 2007; Stead & Stead,
2004; Townsend, 2006).
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18 Organization & Environment 26(1)
A systems-oriented expression of our proto-theory of sustainability management would
include several elements identified with the systems concept, including values, strategies, inputs,
processes, outputs, feedbacks, and connections to other systems (Starik & Rands, 1995). Systems-
oriented values would likely highlight connectivity, resource flows, and internal/external bound-
aries and conduits and systems-oriented strategies would likely include selecting goods and
services to help conserve and restore both ecosystems and socioeconomic systems. Finally, we
can project that sustainability management systems would likely affect and be affected by (at
least) political-economic systems, sociocultural systems, and, of course, natural ecosystems (see
Figure 1; Starik & Rands, 1995; Rands et al., 2007).
What Would a Theory of Sustainability Management Probably
Not Include?
The proto-theory of sustainability management presented in this article is a comprehensive
theory, but it does have its limits, as would all sustainability management theories. First of
all, these theories would likely not include or encourage an excessive amount of attention
on short-term phenomena. Theories of sustainability management would likely include and
Figure 1. A multi-level, multi-system perspective of a proto-theory of sustainability management.
Note. Systems of individuals, organizations, and societies are comprised of and are embedded in ecosystems. Such
systems include humans and nonhumans (i.e., plants, animals, microbial organisms, and all forms of life). Feedback loops
between and within systems have a focus on human long-term social, economic, and environmental needs. Policies
prescribe integrated solutions to urgently address environmental and socioeconomic challenges.
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Starik and Kanashiro 19
encourage attention to longer term or discounted perspectives, which are usually ignored
by other management theories. Focusing too much attention on the short-term, or not
explicitly recognizing medium- and long-term aspects of human individuals, organiza-
tions, or societies, and on both the environmental and socioeconomic contexts, can lead to
suboptimal decisions, such as not saving for or investing in current and future technologies
which could have a major positive sustainability impact in the medium- and long-terms
(Forbes & Jermier, 2010; Hawken, Lovins, & Lovins, 1999; Norton, 2005). For example,
consuming energy inefficiently may be convenient or hidden in the short term, but invest-
ing in energy efficiency and/or clean energy technologies today may have high environ-
mental and socioeconomic payoffs in the medium and long terms. Theories of
sustainability management are likely one of the extremely few sets of management theories
of which the authors are aware that explicitly acknowledges the precious resource of time,
the ever-present reality of space, and ensures that all due attention is focused on medium-
and long-term aspects of human individual, organizational, and societal (including eco-
nomic) interactions (Bell & Morse, 2008).
Second, theories of sustainability management (Bell & Morse, 2008; Dunphy et al.,
2000; Elkington, 1998; Laszlo, 2003) probably do not include the denial or devaluing of
human-natural world interactions nor include a near-autistic fixation on the human species
as the figurative universal center of existence, as do many other management theories, at
least implicitly. Theories of sustainability management likely would not adopt an anti-
science orientation, but also not deny that modern science has much yet to learn about our
biophysical and socioeconomic realities (and, in the case, of learning from indigenous
cultures, to re-learn lessons lost; Egri, 1997). Theories of sustainability management would
also likely explore how human individuals, organizations, and societies can better integrate
their activities with those of the rest of the planet and with one another, including through
a recognition that multidisciplinary approaches (Uiterkamp & Vlek, 2007) and those that
are based on communities of practice have much to contribute to our collective movement
toward more human and ecosystem sustainability.
Third, theories of sustainability management probably would not include an obsession with
encouraging the continued attainment of material wealth, excess consumption, and most of the
other neoclassical economic values that many other management theories appear to assume (or,
for those that are neoclassical economics-based, make explicit). While adequate levels of vari-
ous material needs are important for both human survival and development, theories of sustain-
ability management would likely recognize the limits of our natural and socioeconomic systems
to provide for human needs beyond their respective capacities, especially when those basic
“needs” evolve into excessive “wants” (Ricketts, 2010). Sustainability management theories
would likely not dismiss the possibility that, in addition to instrumental value, much of the
nonhuman natural environment has intrinsic value and that socioeconomic systems need to
account for that intrinsic value, beyond the surface-level human “use” value as a “resource”
only that is often emphasized in traditional socioeconomic-based perspectives (Armstrong &
Botzler, 1993; Berry, 1988; Daly & Townsend, 1993; Nash, 1989; Schumacher, 1973; Stone,
Fourth, theories of sustainability management would likely also not be a panacea or a state-
ment about a quest for human perfection. Much needs to be learned about how humans have
interacted with and how they do, can, will, and should interact with the rest of the natural envi-
ronment, for both their own long-term biophysical and socioeconomic benefit, as well as for the
benefit of the continuation and restoration of Earth’s biosphere. Learning appears to be a key
sustainability management value, given that both humans and the rest of the natural environment
continue to co-evolve (Sinclair, Dudick, & Fitzpatrick, 2008).
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20 Organization & Environment 26(1)
What Are Some Scope and Values Features of a Theory of
Sustainability Management?
The next section of this article discusses the scope and values elements of our proto-theory of
sustainability management to better highlight aspects of this theory that are often neglected (or
not stated) in other management theories. “Scope,” which here includes multiple levels and
multiple system elements, describes the applicability and limits of the proposed proto-theory of
sustainability management, while “values” illuminates the deeply perceived human concerns
and interests that underlie sustainability management.
Since long-term quality of life can encompass many different scales, a proto-theory of sustain-
ability management in this article identifies three levels of potential sustainability management,
macro or societal, meso or organizational, and micro or individual sustainability management
(Cavagnaro&Curiel, 2012). Of course, many other levels of human-to-human and human-and-
environment interaction are and could be considered, including ecological, global, multina-
tional, regional, national, multiorganizational, suborganizational, community, and household,
among others (Rands et al., 2007; Starik & Rands, 1995). However, the authors believe that
identifying at least one macro level, one meso level, and one micro level illustrates the point that
sustainability can be perceived as a multiscale concept and that improvements in long-term qual-
ity of life occur not only at these levels but also between and among them. For example, a suf-
ficiently influential individual (such as former U.S. Vice President, Al Gore, related to climate
crises) can change both organizational and societal sustainability phenomena (Gore, 2006;
Starik, 2004). Only these three sustainability management levels are highlighted here to reduce
any unnecessary complexity in the understanding and applicability of this proto-theory, but the
authors of this article encourage the exploration of other levels, as well as their sustainability
management-related interactions.
In addition, sustainability management seems best conceptualized as a systematic approach to
long-term quality of life improvement (Starik & Rands, 1995), probably requiring a holistic
series of connected steps or stages in generally sustainable, though not necessarily linear, direc-
tions, including at least inputs, processes, outputs, and feedbacks. For instance, a manufacturing
organization’s attempt to reduce the toxic components of its products (outputs) needs to ensure
that not only its own processes are not responsible for the toxicity, it needs to ensure its inputs
(which are its suppliers’ outputs) are also as free of toxic substances as possible (Fullana i Palmer
et al., 2011). The systems approach also is illustrative of the concept of linkages between or con-
nections among various other sets of inputs, processes, outputs, and feedbacks. So, the scope of
sustainability management theories would likely account for interactions between and among
effects on environmental systems, such as tropical forests, by socioeconomic system activities,
such as timber company operations that result in deforestation. Scope includes not only the
decisions, actions, and outcomes of sustainability management but also the socioemotional
aspects of desiring, needing, creating, promoting, and appreciating the various stages, elements,
and results of sustainability management.
Values are deeply held beliefs, assumptions, and desires that are often the bases for voluntary
(as opposed to involuntary) human actions (Joyner & Payne, 2002). Since many sustainability
actions, such as recycling, are most typically voluntary, a theory of sustainability management
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Starik and Kanashiro 21
needs to recognize the values that form the basis of related perceptions, thoughts, affinity,
actions, and results. Given that sustainability attitudes, behaviors, and other psychoemotional
phenomena can cover a wide range of possibilities, sustainability values are themselves numer-
ous and multilayered and several are presented below (Leiserowitz, Kates, & Parris, 2006).
First, the most basic set of human values contributing to sustainability, especially at the indi-
vidual level, but also extant at the organizational and societal levels, is survival, that is, the
maintenance of life processes. Most typically, this value involves meeting the basic requirements
of a living system, which in the case of human individuals, organizations, and societies, means
meeting human biophysical and psychoemotional needs at multiple levels. Satisfying just these
human requirements for all 7 billion-plus humans on 24-7-365 basis for each of our average
nearly 70-plus years each is no mean feat. And, doing the same with at least biophysical needs,
nearly 9 million other species on our planet have similar, at least biophysical, requirements for
their own life processes (Mora, Tittenson, Adl, Simpson, & Worm, 2011).
Second, a related sustainability value is resilience, or the ability of a system to withstand
multiple and various life stresses and to recover from any related damage. Again, in humans, and
probably in other primates, and in cetaceans and other higher order animals, as well, this would
include not only biophysical resilience but also psychoemotional adapting. (United Nations,
2012). Human individuals both experience and cause such stresses, from which they need to
“bounce back.” These include their own birth, maturation, and near-death experiences, as well as
their need for power, affiliation, and other psychoemotional needs.
Third, sustainable systems are expected to not only deliver this recovery capacity from intrin-
sic factors but also from extrinsic forces, such as violence, conflict, disease, and accidents. Both
intrinsic and extrinsic stresses can be reduced in advance, and not just confronted after they
occur, in sustainability management approaches (United Nations, 2012).
In climate change conversations, the terms mitigation and adaptation have often been
employed to reflect this idea that human problems do not only need to be solved after-the-fact
but also can be foreseen and addressed before they occur (Lovins, 2011). So the resilience value
is related to not only crisis management but also to planned behavior theory (Ajzen, 1991). One
of the advantages of our proto-theory of sustainability management is that its breadth is wide
enough to connect with other management theories and concepts such as these, potentially result-
ing in a wider application and acceptance of this proto-theory.
Fourth, another important sustainability value is efficiency, or the amount of input that results
in useful output, which is sometimes addressed in economic terms in some traditional manage-
ment theories. Efficiency can be applied to nearly any system (since all systems, by definition,
have inputs and outputs). In the sustainability sense, again in the case of human individuals,
organizations, and societies, efficiency can be considered in both biophysical and psychoemo-
tional realms, in the sense of not wasting natural resources or human mental, temporal, and
relational resources or efforts. Biophysical efficiency appears to be an automatic phenomenon of
many natural systems (including nonhuman living systems), but humans do not appear to prac-
tice biophysical efficiency as automatically as do other living systems (Hawken et al., 1999).
Rather, humans generate significant, sometimes overwhelming, amounts of wasted natural
resources in nearly all of their activities, whether these involve basic functions such as producing
and eating food, more involved functions such as sheltering, and some higher order functions
such as consuming energy to do work, such as electricity for manufacturing activities.
Sustainability management systems would identify opportunities for humans to reduce their
waste of both biophysical and other resources.
Fifth, the set of values of protection, conservation, preservation, and restoration are another
key aspect of a theory of sustainability management, as these are the human-ascribed sets of rela-
tionships with the rest of the natural environment that best identify harmonizing or integrating
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22 Organization & Environment 26(1)
human and nonhuman phenomena, with the intent of increasing the long-term survivability and
“thrive-ability” of both. This value set includes both an action component and an inaction compo-
nent, in that humans need to take actions, such as land use zoning and ocean dumping regulation,
to prevent other human actions, such as excessive logging, hunting, or other depletion and pollu-
tion activities for harmonization or integration to be achieved. Much of the world’s environmental
law (and enforcement) is designed to advance these values, and worldwide, these have been cred-
ited with addressing at least some of the most egregious violations of these values, such as species
extinction, to a minimal extent. However, past and current human depletion and pollution activi-
ties have endangered nearly two thirds of the world’s ecosystems (United Nations, 2005), and
future human population growth, affluence, and related technology portends continuing deteriora-
tion of these sustainability values (Meadows et al., 1992). Human individuals, organizations, and
societies apparently need to protect, conserve, and preserve the Earth’s ecosystems, and to restore
those ecosystems when they have been damaged. Cultivation of and mobilizing on these values
may be among the most strategic sustainability actions that humans can plan, implement, and
Finally, given the potential breadth of the concept and practice of sustainability, many other
values in addition to those described above can be included in a theory of sustainability manage-
ment. Innovation, evolution, learning, collaboration, tenacity, durability, adaptability, rationality,
empathy, responsibility, justice, reflection, and spirituality would likely begin the list of addi-
tional sustainability values, all of which, to some degree, would have in common the character-
istic of contributing to the overall multilevel improvement of quality of life. While many other
management theories might also incorporate some of these values, the uniqueness and utility of
a theory of sustainability management is its purpose in recognizing and encouraging humans at
multiple levels to recognize, respect, and integrate their interests, actions, and results with the
realities of the rest of the natural environment and with our ever-evolving socioeconomic milieu.
The related ultimate goal of sustainability management theory would likely be the continuous
enhancing of the ability of individuals, organizations, and societies to realize and appreciate
multiple biophysical and socioeconomic (and related psycho-emotional) benefits. We are sug-
gesting these additional values to provide the perspective that, over time, theories of sustainabil-
ity management will likely undergo some changes, including the consideration of other long-term
quality of life values, which we welcome and to which we hope to contribute.
What Are Some Possible Criteria for Evaluating a Theory of
Sustainability Management?
More than 15 years ago, a set of management scholars suggested a number of criteria for assess-
ing whether or not a management theory could be described as sustainable (Gladwin et al.,
1995). These included the values of inclusiveness, connectivity, equity, prudence, and security.
The theory of sustainability management suggested in the present article addresses each of these
areas, but only two, inclusiveness and security, will be developed further here for the purposes
of brevity. We are, however, interested in promoting the use of other criteria in evaluating the
proto-theory in this article and other theories of sustainability management. This is especially
the case for connectivity, since that concept is a key feature of systems, and our proto-theory is
systems-based. The inclusiveness value would be advanced by the incorporation of concern for
the rest of nature, in addition to humans, and an involvement of many more human stakeholders,
including future generations, in sustainability-related decisions (Sharma & Ruud, 2003; this also
partially addresses the evaluation criterion of equity). The security criteria would be advanced
in theories of sustainability management by encouraging attention: to global security (Renner,
2005), by addressing rather than ignoring climate disruption and other human-induced natural
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Starik and Kanashiro 23
environment syndromes; to national security, by promoting cross-country agreements to protect
valuable natural environments and their most vulnerable human citizens (this also partially
addresses the evaluation criteria of prudence); and to community security, by addressing unem-
ployment, violent crime, and social justice issues.
Numerous other criteria might be employed to assess the feasibility of a theory of sustain-
ability management to actually provide the benefits mentioned in this article. In the environmen-
tal sustainability area, for instance, development and implementation of a theory of sustainability
management would likely include the several most common categories that have come to char-
acterize various sustainability management certifications, such as energy and water efficiency,
waste reduction (including reuse and recycling), biodiversity (including ecosystem restoration),
and health (both human and nonhuman; Edwards, 2005; Hitchcock & Willard, 2009).
Socioeconomic sustainability could include a wide variety of well-known human “social respon-
sibility” categories, including community cohesiveness, individual freedom, personal safety, sat-
isfactory employment and income, and continuous education, to name just a few (Hitchcock &
Willard, 2009; Hutchins & Sutherland, 2008). What is suggested here is that the advancement of
theories of sustainability management could promote innovations, conversations, decisions, and
actions about overall, multilevel improvement of human civilization, both in the environmental
and socioeconomic realms.
What Are the Current Realities and Possible Future Developments of a
Theory of Sustainability Management?
One of the main advantages of developing, implementing, and evaluating theories of sustain-
ability management is that a number of individuals, organizations, and societies around the
world have at least begun moving in the direction of advancing sustainability for at least several
decades, indicating that the overall concept and practice of long-term environmental and socio-
economic quality of life is not completely alien or novel.
Many individual opinion-leaders through time have advocated for greater human concern for
the natural environment, as well as for various socioeconomic reforms and innovations. One set
of prominent examples are the “fellows” of Ashoka, social entrepreneurs who are provided sev-
eral years of salary by this organization to champion various social and environmental causes in
their home countries (Bornstein, 2007). At least as far back as Aristotle lamenting the loss of
trees around Athens, Greece, individuals and communities, both traditional/indigenous and mod-
ern, have practiced (some experimentally) restorative agriculture, reuse of materials, and ethics
of sufficiency and frugality (Diamond, 2005).
Organizations have developed policies and practices that at least partially help to advance
either environmental or socioeconomic or both types of sustainability. As early as 1975, for
instance, Minnesota Manufacturing and Mining (better known as 3M) promoted an environmen-
tal policy that included environmental and socioeconomic commitments to responsibility, com-
pliance, and innovation (Starik & Carroll, 1992). Many other organizations have developed
sustainability plans, programs, and reports (Blackburn, 2007), but these and most other organiza-
tions have appeared to be in the very early stages of producing sustainability results (Herman,
2010) and have found some aspects of putting sustainability into practice more challenging than
others (Humes, 2011).
And, societies, again whether traditional, indigenous, or modern, have initiated climate, biodi-
versity, peace, and human rights practices or programs, whether on a global, multinational,
regional, bilateral, or local community basis (Hawken, 2008). The proto-theory of sustainability
management proposed in this article would both reflect the recent past and present reality of mul-
tilevel sustainability initial and incremental efforts and help point the way toward more effective
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24 Organization & Environment 26(1)
and substantive long-term quality of life improvements in the future. We also are attempting to
unfold the near-obvious concept that individuals, organizations, and societies are intertwined and
mutually dependent on both the natural and socioeconomic environments, and, therefore, sustain-
ability prescriptions need to encompass this multilevel embedding phenomenon.
Regarding the future development of one or more theories of sustainability management, this
article proposes that more frequent, broader, deeper, genuine, competent, and systems-oriented
conversations be initiated among both academics and practitioners (and between these two stake-
holder groups) on how such theories of sustainability management could be further specified and
improved and, just as importantly, how they could be tested and implemented more effectively
and efficiently on a wider and more urgent and systematic basis than is typical of most traditional
management theories. Whether these theories of sustainability management would be more
appropriately and alternatively developed as descriptive, instrumental, or normative might be a
direction for future research, as might be increased attention to the integration of environmental
and socioeconomic sustainability. Of course, like most human concepts, sustainability para-
doxes, inconsistencies, and anomalies likely exist and will be uncovered, so these too have a role
in improving the understanding of sustainability management (Krueger & Gibbs, 2007). But,
given the urgent multilevel set of challenges that confronts our species, we hope that our profes-
sion quickly and genuinely becomes more aware of these environmental and socioeconomic
quality-of-life challenges in order for us all to better understand and address these crises in time
to prevent them from becoming catastrophes.
A special set of considerations for the development of sustainable management theories could
be identified in several questions posed in the Call for Papers for this and future issues of
Organization & Environment. Most obviously, the Call question “How have researchers in sus-
tainability helped advance sustainability at one or more levels of human organization?” relates to
the multilevel aspect of our sustainability management proto-theory. The question ‘What are the
antecedents and outcomes of organizational and inter-organizational sustainabilty capability gen-
eration at regional, national, and global levels?’ speaks to both our multi-system and our multi-
level aspects of sustainability management theory. In addition to exploring those two questions
more broadly and deeply, we recommend future researchers consider investigating the major Call
question—“How can social and environmental sustainability management phenomena be inte-
grated for ‘total’ or ‘holistic’ sustainability approaches, whether through integrated sustainability
indicators, approaches, policies, values, strategies, programs, or results?”—since, as can be seen
from our article’s title onward, we are interested in an integrated approach to sustainability man-
agement, including in the development, testing, and application of theories related to it.
Summary, Concluding Observation, Limitations, and
This article highlighted the important role of sustainability management as an academic and
practical concern for individuals, organizations, and societies. It has also identified some desir-
able features or criteria of a proto-theory of sustainability management and employed these and
the authors’ understandings of sustainability and management in advancing the need for and a
preliminary statement of one possible proto-theory of sustainability management. In doing so,
the article identified how some of the best-known management theories do not explicitly
acknowledge the biophysical bases of both human existence and the interaction of human natu-
ral environment qualities with those of other entities in Earth’s ecosystems and with human
socioeconomic phenomena. The general scope of the proposed proto-theory and the many
human potential values that underlie this and other possible theories of sustainability manage-
ment have also been described. Finally, the article listed some of the potential applications of
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Starik and Kanashiro 25
the proposed proto-theory and some suggestions on the future development of this and other
theories of sustainability management.
For sustainability to make a significant impact on human and planetary well-being in the next
several decades, humans appear to need to be immersed in the rationales for environmental and
social sustainability and how sustainability can be practiced in virtually all of our species’ activities—
professional and personal, public and private. Sustainability may need to be infused throughout
our daily lives, from birth to death, similar to other all-encompassing desirable human values,
such as health, freedom, peace, and affiliation. When cognitive, emotional, and physical codes
are perceived, encouraged, and practiced on a frequent basis (incorporating the other features of
our proto-theory) by as many humans as possible, we can potentially be said to be approaching
a sustainability culture. Such a culture appears to need to be widely and immediately developed,
initiated, and advanced to significantly address the ever-worsening challenges of climate disrup-
tion, biodiversity extinction, ecosystem “toxification,” and the ongoing human tragedies of all
forms of poverty, inequality, exploitation, enslavement, and violence. Such an immersion
approach has been a key factor in numerous individual, organizational, and social change efforts,
including foreign language acquisition, habit alteration, athletic skill development, manufactur-
ing quality, and religious and sustainability education (Bodyscott, 2001; Maser, 2012; McKenzie-
Mohr, 2011).
This immersion approach to sustainability-related behavior change follows previous research
on the need for a change in human sustainability directions and on numerous change suggestions
at multiple levels, in multiple systems, advancing multiple sustainability values. What an immer-
sion approach contributes to those imperatives, considerations, and (hopefully) actions is the
potential of scaling each of those in every “direction”: up, down, in, and out. That is, sustain-
ability via immersion could be initiated at any level of human experience or organization, by any
individual, organization, or society, and “infect” other individuals, organizations, and societies to
widen and deepen its perception, consideration, practice, and, hopefully, positive impact. In this
way, sustainability can become a “viral” change in human psyches, households, communities,
organizations, and societies, helping affect entire cultures to begin to feel, think, and act in more
sustainable ways. As these changes begin to permeate human values, attitudes, and behaviors, we
can expect to see changes in sustainability indicators, such as increased human health and eco-
system resilience and decreased carbon and other harmful footprints and negative social sustain-
ability metrics. If these indicators trend in socially desirable directions for lengthy enough time
periods, their associated practices may become self-reinforcing, creating positive feedback
loops, helping to advance sustainability to ever greater levels, which, at this point in time, appears
to be a highly desirable future.
Of course, given the breadth and depth of the factors involved in sustainability immer-
sion, numerous caveats need to be considered. These warnings range from the necessity of
promoting the approach to adopt an acceptable pace, of using appropriate means to encour-
age the changes, and of exercising collectively diligence and flexibility in both means and
ends. Many potential value and logistical conflicts, some major, some minor, can be fore-
seen, and, of course, success (however defined) is not guaranteed. But the scope and imme-
diacy of human and planetary challenges may be perceived as salient and obvious by
enough decision-makers and action-takers to warrant moving forward in the direction a
sustainability immersion. The time may be approaching in which we, as a species, may not
have any other choice.
A number of limitations of the proposed proto-theory of sustainability management have
already been identified in this article, including that it does not focus on the short term, on human
beings only, and on unlimited economic growth, as do many other management theories, or on
perfection, as some readers might perceive that a theory of sustainability management, even a
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26 Organization & Environment 26(1)
preliminary one, may involve. All these characteristics probably portend that the acceptance of
such a theory may itself be a long-term proposition.
Given that sustainability management is a broad, multifaceted concept and that we are sug-
gesting that it applies to multiple levels and involves multiple systems elements, the exact limits
are still to be determined. However, broadly speaking, sustainability management may be limited
in providing more than the minimal amount of long-term quality of life to its stakeholders, at
least in the foreseeable future. Similar to the practice of first aid, the best that might be expected
of researching and practicing sustainability management in the near-term is to address the least
sustainable phenomena first and, to whatever extent is possible, move to focus attention on
more restorative environmental and socioeconomic phenomena. Another potential limit is the
extent of human knowledge, at any given time, about sustainability management challenges and
solutions and the realization that both human and nonhuman evolution requires learning and
adaptation, and some learning and adaptation will likely occur after disappointing and perhaps
painful lessons learned.
The authors welcome the suggestions of other scholars (and practitioners) in the development
of one or more theories of sustainability management, since this article appears to be one of the
earlier attempts to advance such a theory. Additional advantages, disadvantages, justifications,
and characteristics, as well as scope and value elements, can certainly be identified, developed,
and critiqued, and eventually, some researchers may want to test the resulting theory(ies) for
future refining and more efficacious application. We extend our figurative hands to our col-
leagues and other readers of this article to make the conceptual connections necessary to advance
what may be the most vital management theory of our careers and, in practice, of our own, our
children’s, and our grandchildren’s lifetimes. We invite our colleagues to contact us personally,
to respond to this article with another submission to this same publication, and/or to engage us
and the topic in relevant public settings, such as future Academy of Management meetings.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or
publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publications of this article,
but thank their respective institutions and networks for providing the opportunity to develop the ideas
herein collegially and collaboratively.
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Author Biographies
Mark 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.
Patricia 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.
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... A long history of definitional debates has resulted in organizational sustainability being used interchangeably with other terms such as corporate sustainable development, business sustainability, sustainability management, and sustainable operations management. In its most basic conceptualization, organizational sustainability can be framed as the capacity to maintain, implying that sustainability is merely a matter of preserving the status quo of an organization (Starik & Kanashiro, 2013). However, organizations can only realistically maintain their existence by anticipating and meeting their present and future needs. ...
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... Sustainability management is a concept that resulted from continuous progression and collective silence of the idea and practicality of sustainability among societies, organizations and people across the world, driving towards development (Starik and Kanashiro, 2013). The goal of sustainability management is the sustainable development (Nawaz and Koç, 2018) that encompasses the growth of both the organizations and the nations through ensuring environmental sustainability, economic sustainability and social sustainability (Nawaz and Koç, 2018), (Tarnovskaya et al., 2022). ...
... Sometimes, stakeholders' interests conflict with one another and are incompatible with the interests of shareholders. Thus, Starik and Kanashiro (2013) demonstrate that conflicting demands arise from diverse stakeholders with paradoxical demands. The potential for conflict in the realm of sustainability seems high, given the nebulousness of the concept, and so does how each stakeholder will perceive how organisations perform according to their interests and demands (Fiedler and Kirchgeorg, 2007). ...
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... According toBos-Brouwers (2010), sustainability orientation involves the improvement of products, services, and organisational processes by achieving economic performance and enhancing social innovation performance in the short and long term. Managing social responsibilities and business goals is an ongoing challenge for organisations today(Kuckertz & Wagner, 2010;Starik & Kanashiro, 2013). A sustainability orientation may lead to superior social innovation performance, enabling organisations to develop sustainable practices and develop appropriate new processes(Hagedoorn et al., 2023;Salim Saji & Ellingstad, 2016). ...
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... É necessária mais investigação de casos semelhantes, bem como um melhor acesso dos investigadores às organizações multinacionais, para relatar estruturas, progressos, obstáculos, soluções práticas existentes, etc. Maiores estudos podem contribuir para mudança da realidade atual das organizações, onde são adotadas apenas as obrigações legais em termos de maternidade (Santos & Hilal, 2018), endereçando assim políticas e estruturas de apoio à maternidade como parte da responsabilidade social e corporativa, em direção a um desenvolvimento sustentável (Starik & Kanashiro, 2013). ...
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Resumo Investigamos a relação entre parentalidade e carreira em uma corporação norueguesa no Brasil, pelas lentes da teoria das Organizações Generificadas de Joan Acker. A estrutura de Acker, especialmente o Processo 4: “o trabalho mental interno de indivíduos dando sentido ao seu lugar e oportunidades na organização generificada” é útil nos níveis social, organizacional e individual. Desenvolvemos a estrutura comparando o trabalho mental de homens e mulheres em relação à parentalidade e oportunidades de carreira. Os resultados mostram que as mulheres querem licença maternidade mais longa, sabendo que a maternidade é um obstáculo. Os homens não querem licença paterna mais longa e não veem a paternidade como obstáculo. No entanto, ambos concordam a respeito do apoio da empresa à vida familiar. Questionamos a ideia de “escolhas” para as mulheres, uma vez que a maternidade é central quando se analisam os obstáculos à carreira. A discriminação é direta; as mulheres veem, mesmo que não saibam exatamente como funciona. “Ter Tudo” é um tema central da insatisfação das mulheres, tanto no Brasil quanto em outros lugares. A exportação de igualdade de gênero no contexto desta empresa multinacional pode ser mais uma expectativa, percepção e/ou mito do que uma realidade, apesar dos discursos oficiais. Uma análise das pesquisas de Acker e autoras brasileiras aponta a necessidade de abordar organizações/carreiras x família considerando parentalidade e trabalho do cuidado, ao invés de maternidade apenas. Este trabalho oferece contribuições práticas para a discussão da diversidade e sugerimos, para estudos posteriores, a inclusão de raça/etnia, orientação sexual e classe.
Social responsibility issues keep reoccurring despite the popularity of numerous approaches perceived widely as adequate. In this paper, the authors conducted a systematic literature review to explore this phenomenon from a systems thinking standpoint. The findings revealed that each approach is founded on a different systemic paradigm, makes different assumptions on the nature of social responsibility issues, and has different objectives when resolving them. Therefore, employing any of these approaches alone will certainly fail given their underlying systemic limitations. The findings also revealed that these approaches are complementary from a critical systems thinking perspective, hence, researchers and practitioners can use their tools and methods together in the form of tailored interventions to better address efficiency, subjectivity, and fairness when resolving social responsibility issues. This paper concludes by proposing a practical framework based on critical systems practice which encompasses four systemic paradigms allowing the inclusion of a spectrum of perspectives, and assumptions.
This study addresses an existing research gap on individual green competences (GC) and their application in business settings, and discusses the concept GC in the context of a firm's organizational sustainability (OS). Namely, the study aims to examine the importance of organization members' (managers' and employees') GC for advancing a firm's OS. The theoretical grounding is exemplified by the empirical study based on individual interviews with managers. Study results explain how managers understand GC and how they see GC's role in enhancing companies' OS, as well as what are crucial barriers encountered in this process. The results show that GC, from a managerial perspective, are seen through the lens of people's pro‐environmental awareness and knowledge followed by behaviors related to environmental protection. They indicate the economic, environmental, and social benefits of GC development, required for a firm's competitive advantage. The research contributes to the studies on GC being a significant antecedent of achieving the desired business results in terms of OS.
Modern management theory is constricted by a fractured epistemology. which separates humanity from nature and truth from morality. Reintegration is necessary if organizational science is to support ecologically and socially sustainable development. This article posits requisites of such development and rejects the paradigms of conventional technocentrism and antithetical ecocentrism on grounds of incongruence. A more fruitful integrative paradigm of “sustaincentrism” is then articulated, and implications for organizational science are generated as if sustainability, extended community, and our Academy mattered.