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A Reflection on the Relationship Between Business and Sustainability: Managing my Own Tensions

Written by Priya McQuaid

Business & Environment

Initially, I was critical of business engaging in sustainability. I saw CSR as a gateway to reducing the role of the state (Hanlon & Fleming, 2009) and having potential to allow unlimited growth, both economically and technologically (Heikkurinen, 2016). Having previously been influenced by concepts such as steady-state economics (Daly & Farley, 2011) and Degrowth arguments (D'Alisa et al. 2014), the idea that CSR is shaped by business (or profit-making) interests (Banerjee, 2008) was particularly worrying to me.

However, engagement in further perspectives on the relationship between sustainability and business has made me think about the capacity business has to make a real change. Studying and discussing literature on organisational change management and the development of standards and certifications has taught me about how business can empower individuals. With papers such as Chapman (2002) discussing how true transformational change comes from involving all participants and Nelson & Tallontire (2014) showing the resistance of traditional power dynamics in value chains, I am beginning to think that stakeholder interest has the potential to influence business more than the relentless pursuit of profit.

Although I still have reservations about a financial ‘price’ being put onto social and environmental issues (Beder, 1994), it seems to me that business can play a huge part in improving sustainability issues. With this in mind, I find myself in a constant state of managing the tensions between my own ideology and the business case for sustainability.But maybe both are equally as valid as each other.



Banerjee, S. B. 2008. Corporate social responsibility: The good, the bad and the ugly. Critical sociology.34(1), pp.51-79.

Beder, S. 1994. Revoltin’ Developments: The Politics of Sustainable Development. Arena Magazine June-July.11(1). pp.37-39.

Chapman, J.A. 2002. A framework for transformational change in organisations. Leadership & Organisational Development Journal. 23(1), pp.16-25.

D'Alisa, G., Demaria, F. & Kallis, G. eds. 2014. Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era. New York: Routledge.

Daly, H.E. & Farley, J. 2011. Ecological Economics: Principles and Applications. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Hanlon, G. & Fleming, P.P. 2009. Updating the critical perspective on corporate social responsibility. Sociology Compass3(6), pp.937-948.

Heikkurinen, P. 2016. Degrowth by means of technology? A treatise for an ethos of releasement. Journal of cleaner production.[Online]. [Accessed 11 December 2017]. Available from:

Nelson, V. & Tallontire, A. 2014. Battlefields of ideas: changing narratives and power dynamics in private standards in global agricultural value chains. Agriculture and human values.31(1), pp.481-497.


Priya McQuaid

MSc Sustainability and Consultancy 2017/19