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Corporations and the Discourse of Sustainability

Gollagher, Margaret (2006) Corporations and the Discourse of Sustainability. PhD thesis, Murdoch University.

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The contemporary notion of sustainability is emerging as a political response to ecological and social problems associated with human development. It is a contested concept - eco-modernists interpret it as a call to rethink or adjust industrial production systems while others interpret it as a fundamental challenge to the dominant development paradigm.

Corporations are playing a key role in shaping the discourse. Many argue that since corporations have enormous influence in the global political economy, they must take the lead in the search for sustainability. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) promotes eco-efficiency - an eco-modernist stance - as the primary business contribution to sustainability. However, the potential of the corporate focus on efficiency to contribute to sustainability is a subject of debate.

In this thesis, I use a heterogeneous methodological approach to explore the interaction between corporations (with a focus on multinational corporations) and the discourse of sustainability in order to identify the potential for positive outcomes. I consider the compatibility of aspects of corporate identity and organisational structure to the ethos of sustainability. This leads to an examination of the meeting between corporations and sustainability as a reflexive process, paying particular attention to the ways in which language and mythology serve to uphold or transform existing power relations. I also explore forms of knowledge relevant to sustainability, comparing those that are typically emphasized in corporate enterprise with traditional, Indigenous and local ways of knowing that are essential to sustainability. The knowledge of classical equestrianism is used as an example in this analysis. Practical ways of including all these essential perspectives in the discourse are considered.

The thesis concludes that certain aspects of corporate identity, structure and function are incompatible with the ideals of sustainability and that these disparities must be borne in mind as corporations attempt to embrace sustainability. I contend that sustainability requires network approaches that integrate strong and weak relations as well as diverse values and forms of knowledge. Sustainability can only be achieved with broad civic engagement that allows the synergistic combination of all values and knowledges relevant to sustainability. Furthermore, I argue that while corporations’ orientation towards market-based strategies has significant potential to support sustainability, it is limited since the market is fundamentally constituted by a network of weak ties. Therefore the thesis argues that while corporations can provide significant benefits in terms of sustainability, they cannot be expected to lead the sustainability agenda as it requires discursive plurality. The efficacy of the corporate contribution to sustainability will be greatly enhanced if companies are guided by strong democratic processes of deliberation and community engagement.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Sustainability
Supervisor(s): Marinova, Dora
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