Why Do Companies Engage in Sustainability? Propositions and a Framework of Motivations.

AutorSimoes-Coelho, Marco F.


The current article's objective is to analyze the primary motivations for corporate engagement in the sustainability agenda along time and across different geographies of the world, proposing a conceptual framework that encompasses these concepts. Most of the motives for change seem to be external to the business (Lozano, 2015; Pless, Maak, & Stal, 2012) as companies need a solid push to leave their inertia. The mining and heavy industry sectors, for example, soon adopted the idea of a 'social license to operate' as their reason to invest in a more sustainable business model (Sustainable Business Council, 2013). However, since the early studies on corporate motivations for becoming more 'green' in the 1990s (Dillon & Fischer, 1992; Lawrence & Morell, 1995; Suchman, 1995; Winn, 1995), internal or competitive motivations have also appeared as potential drives for change.

This discussion on the endogenous or exogenous character of corporate sustainability motivations leads to a reflection that different motives may conduct to different implementation in distinct markets (regionally) while changing along the time (longitudinally). Thus, the present article's central research question is how corporate sustainability motivations arise through time and in different areas of the world, determining how companies address the issues related to sustainable development (SD).

Motivation literature is rooted in psychology, initially described by Sigmund Freud in his seminal study about the unconscious (Bargh & Morsella, 2008), and later extended to several different study areas. Many works have been systematized with a focus on motivational drives, or individuals' needs, as described by Maslow (Maslow, 1943). Sekhar, Patwardhan, and Singh's (2013) review on drivers demonstrates that they are directly linked to performance, first at an individual and only then at an organizational level. For them, each person's contribution toward an organization's goals helps form encompassing corporate motivations and allows it to succeed.

The present work narrows in on the corporate motivations for sustainability as systematized by a group of scholars (Windolph, Harms, & Schaltegger, 2014) after the work of several authors described in the Literature Review section below. It does not aim to focus on the description of drivers for sustainability, which are contained within the broad motivations and are studied by another group of authors, such as Hamidu, Haron, and Amran (2016); Lozano (2015); Lozano and Haartman (2017); Okereke (2007); among others. It is worth noting that the literature on corporate motivations for sustainability builds upon previous, and parallel, research on motivations for corporate social responsibility (CSR) as well.

There are also references in the literature to individual motivations of leaders--attitudes of top management, board members, or influential executives within corporations. However, this article concentrates on corporate motivations that are "generally relevant for business and potentially interesting to any company" (Windolph, Harms, & Schaltegger, 2014, p. 273) instead of decisions taken by powerful individuals. Although literature stresses the importance of management attitude and belief in improving a company's social performance (Garcia-Castro, Arino, & Canela, 2010), this paper focuses on corporate motivations only, not personal ones.

Thus, the literature on corporate motivations for sustainability presents a multitude of concepts in both theoretical and field studies. However, it lacks a discussion on the intensity of the motives in different geographies and the pace they appear along the time, as more deeply described and analyzed in the Literature Review and the Findings sections below. The present study aims to fulfill this central gap--the lack of a comprehensive model to examine business motivations for sustainability engagement, including regional and longitudinal differences.

Even the most recent literature has not addressed the corporate sustainability progression from a motivations' timing and regional perspective. The study developed by Windolph, Harms, and Schaltegger (2014) supported extensive corporate sustainability research, as companies accepted further responsibility for it and the topic became more and more prevalent (Epstein & Roy, 2003; Pless et al., 2012). Among different lines of research, work has been conducted on business involvement for companies that market to consumers or to other businesses (Johnson, Redlbacher, & Schaltegger, 2018), strategic modeling for the future (Rodrigues & Franco, 2019; Schaltegger, Hansen, & Ludeke-Freund, 2016), business motivations within a single country (Chen & Chen, 2019; Govindan, Kannan, & Shankar, 2014; Pureza & Lee, 2020), social exchange (Buhusayen, Seet, & Coetzer, 2021), corporate identity (Simoes & Sebastiani, 2017), and firm performance (Gupta & Gupta, 2020). Many of these studies recognize the need and suggest future research to address corporate sustainability with a longitudinal or regional perspective (Chen & Chen, 2019; Gupta & Gupta, 2020; Johnson et al., 2018; Pureza & Lee, 2020; Rodrigues & Franco, 2019), reinforcing the gap covered by the present study.

Below, in the Literature Review section, a list of motivations was compiled from the literature. It brings one additional concept that was not included in previous studies, that of Social Insurance, which appears as a financial dimension not adequately contemplated by the three other motivations discussed by the authors. In the Findings and Discussion sections, the article derives propositions and a framework from a comprehensive review of corporate sustainability field articles compiled by a systematic search of different world geographies.

For the operational use of this study, the terms 'sustainability' and 'sustainable development' will be used interchangeably as the latter is the former's end goal (Diesendorf, 1999) and as sustainability is commonly used as a short format for SD, especially in composed terms such as 'corporate sustainability.' Another operational term is 'macro-regions of the world.' This concept was created and delimited by the United Nations Statistics Division (2012) and comprises six regions: Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, Northern America, and Oceania. Those macro-regions were defined for statistical purposes and follow the continental borders to the maximum (Andel, Bicik, & Blaha, 2018). However, the UN strived to maintain a distinction between developed versus developing regions along with the borders (United Nations Statistics Division, 2012), as reported by the academic literature on inequality (Mann & Riley, 2007). Thus, it is possible to make inferences regarding regional development based on this concept with Africa, Asia, and Latin America/Caribbean as the less developed macro-regions on average. There is significant heterogeneity among and also within these macro-regions; thus, the word 'average' must be stressed in the previous sentence. It is, however, not within the scope of the present study to further discuss these differences.

The next section of this article recalls the SD concept's creation and evolution and dissects the extensive literature on corporate motivation. It also conciliates scholars' views on companies' motives to embrace the sustainable development agenda, compiling a list of motivations for corporate sustainability. The Method section explains the process used to conduct the field articles' review, necessary to construct the framework. The Findings and the Discussion and Propositions sections show the results of this study, develop the propositions, and propose an encompassing framework. The final section brings the conclusions and limitations of the present work and points out the gaps that researchers may explore further in this area of study.


The term 'sustainable development' was coined in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Commission, after its chairperson, Harlem Gro Brundtland, Norway's former prime minister. The Commission's final report defined sustainable development as development that "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (United Nations, 1987, p. 16). This definition aimed to go beyond the environment, also contemplating the social and the economic aspects of the development. It later inspired the creation of a global agenda that would go well into the 21st century, responding primarily to the concern of less developed countries. The Agenda 21, launched at the Rio de Janeiro 1992 UN Sustainable Development conference, recognized the significant difference in development and investment capacity between the world's macro-regions (Mann & Riley, 2007) and addressed the necessary mechanisms to reorient public policy toward SD, combat poverty, and improve the use of resources and the management of wastes and chemicals (Meakin, 1992).

Since the concept's launch, there have been three global sustainable development conferences--Rio 1992, Johannesburg 2002, and Rio+20 in 2012. Initially understood as a government-led initiative, sustainable development has grown to include every level of society, from individuals to NGOs, from governments to corporations, as it became clearer that sustainability cannot be realized without everyone's involvement, in particular that of companies (Benn & Dunphy, 2007; Blindheim & Langhelle, 2010). Corporations became relevant global players, and without their inclusion in the sustainable development efforts this change may not be possible (Pless et al., 2012).

But why would companies be motivated to participate in the SD effort? Most of them were created prior to the very conceptualization of sustainable development and functioned...

Para continuar a ler


VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT