I.4. Current sustainability research – and where it comes to an end

Franzisca Weder and Marte Eriksen

While CSR research is pretty established especially with Business Ethics as highly institutionalized research area, with publications, chair, University programs and experts, the so called ‘sustainability studies’ are less established or do have a different character as research program or field.

The lady…

Maybe sustainability can’t be studied, I thought to myself. Of course it’s easy to philosophize about responsibility or ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior; but how can we study something like sustainable development which basically describes a potentially well needed change process of the society or mainly our economic system?

The lady opened her colorful bag that she had put next to a tree at the sidewalk. She fetched a book called “The Climate Book“, written and edited by Greta Thunberg.  Dark and light blue stripes on the cover slowly morphed into dark red stripes, signaling a certain urgency. “This one is a great example of how important it is to complement different perspectives on a crisis to be able to speak not only about the problems but also about the solutions. Academic research, great theories, scientific data – that all well needed. But by the same time we need to think about what we do with this data, how to manage change. Not only you or I, but also politicians, countries, communities and organizations of all kind and shape.”

I sighed, “apparently sustainability is nothing that can be explained from one perspective nor is there a specific answer to the question of  how to get to a more sustainable future – neither by one specific field, academic discipline, political party or economic actor”.

Sustainability, and Sustainable Development, have become core issues in several fields across the globe. Environmental management and urban / regional planning are some examples of areas where sustainability has become a key consideration (Mog, 2004). The growth of sustainability and sustainable development is relatively recent, primarily occurring over the past three decades, as mentioned in chapter 1.2. It began early in the 1990s, as the new millennium approached (Mensah, 2019).

What fueled the growth and spread of the idea of sustainability? Lam et al. (2014), Purvis et al. (2019), and Mensah (2019) argue that it was ushered in by multiple key initiatives implemented by the United Nations, and an interwoven crisis of global concerns. This larger crisis is made up of various crises including, but not limited to, climate change, human rights issues, economic inequality, and the gradual depletion of the world’s resources.

In 1983, Gro Harlem Brundtland was tasked with establishing and chairing the World Commission on Environment and Development. The Commission’s work over four years culminated in the development of the “Our Common Future” report, which was released in 1987 (Purvis et al., 2019). With hindsight, this report had a clear, traceable influence throughout multiple key initiatives and events spanning decades of sustainable development efforts and research. Firstly, it established a clear definition for sustainable development, which was later adopted widely by the international community. This allowed a consensus to be reached in future events and initiatives as to what the aim of sustainable development would be. Secondly, it laid out the core pillars of business and policy decisions – but also for related academic research and an institutionalization of sustainability related studies.

Let’s go back to the definition, outlined by the Our Common Future report was as follows:

Sustainable Development 

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (United Nations Documents).

The definition of sustainable development was adopted by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992. Furthermore, the recommendations forming the basis of discussion and debate at the conference and beyond – in business practice, political discourse and academic research. This resulted in several supportive outcomes for the promotion of sustainable development, including the so called ‘Agenda 21’ (Jain & Islam, 2015) which states: “Sustainable Development should become a priority item on the agenda of the international community” (United Nations). The impact of which was key to the acceleration of sustainability and sustainable development research and business / policy adoption in the following 20 years (Hadorn et al., 2006).

With this in place, discourse in various sectors of society grew and evolved while slowly shifting from a focus of the environmental impacts of human activity to an increasing focus on social impacts (Seuring and Muller, 2008). In 2015, the UN introduced the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). As described in chapter 1.2, the SDGs are clustered in 17 ‘goals’ that are to be achieved in the span of 15 years, from 2015 to 2030. Still, 2030 is the ‘deadline’ communicated for many projects in organizations, communities and in the corporate world in particular.

The SDGs were created in accordance with opinions and knowledge of governments, institutions, organizations, and international experts and researchers, as well as the submissions and opinions of millions of people around the world. Not only do the SDGs set the global standard for sustainable development, but they also set the standard in closely related fields, including CSR frameworks and plans.

The SDGs were established to address the complex, and interwoven current and future issues facing the globe. In this, they also address the same overarching goals of CSR, which is the welfare of society as a whole and the responsibilities that are allocated from certain groups of the society to institutions, organizations and especially business.

The Climate Disclosure Standards Board (CDSB), the Community Development Program (CDP), the International Integrated Reporting Council (IIRC), and The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) all utilize the SDGs as their foundation; we will further elaborate on these guidelines in chapter 3 when we talk about CSR and Sustainability Reporting and communication of sustainability (Shayan et al., 2022).

For the considerations in this book at hand, the development of the SDGs over the past decades shows that dealing with sustainable development and the future of our society in a multiple crisis situation is always ‘transdisciplinary’, which means at the intersection of research, conceptualization, change development and framework building on the one hand and an application in organizations or the realization of related projects and activities within and through organizations, institutions and corporates. The following Case Study is one example for the collaboration between industry, political institutions and academia.


Case Study

One example of a global issue related to sustainable development is that of methane production from cattle farming. In Australia, methane emissions emitted by livestock is estimated to be around 10% of Australia’s total greenhouse emissions (CSIRO, 2022).

Future Feed Pty Ltd is an Australian organization established by CSIRO with funding support from a variety of Australian industrial and commercial partners. Future Feed holds the global IP rights to an innovative feed technology using a specific type of seaweed, known as Asparagopsis, to reduce methane production from cattle (Future Feed, 2021).

It was developed following a discovery by a farmer in Canada that his cattle were feeding on seaweed. Dr Rob Kinley and his team at CSIRO, in collaboration with Meat and Livestock Australia, and James Cook University worked together to create the method for producing this new type of feed (CSIRO, 2022). It is a great example of business and research organisations combining to develop an innovative solution to a global problem.

But how to ‘study’ sustainability?

As mentioned before, alongside to countless reports, conceptual papers, industry communication efforts and policy documents, sustainability was increasingly discussed, researched and theorized in academia. The search for research approaches dealing with sustainability lead to the so called ‘Sustainability Studies’ (see Meyers 2012; Lam et al. 2014). After years of various disciplines dealing with sustainability and sustainable development, ‘Sustainability Studies’ were introduced around 2000 as specific discipline to explore the concept of sustainability; related University programs or schools looks at sustainable development, ethics and business ethics (see chapter 1.3.) in particular, regional planning and climate change, poverty and development as well as social change.

The most interesting development that happened with the introduction of ‘Sustainability Studies’ as demarcated research and academic field was that it brought along a paradigm change towards human-nature relationships. This means that all research and theorization happens in relation to societal, cultural and ecological crises, particularly the climate crisis, and always with an inter- and transdisciplinary character, which means following an “integrated approach to cooperative problem-solving“ (Godemann/Michelsen 2011, S. 5; Krainer/Weder 2011).

Connecting this with the considerations related to sustainable development always linking industry, political institutions, communities, civil society and academia, we can also state that sustainability also links various disciplines and research areas within academia: from business and economics, to geography and tourism, environmental management and media and communication studies; sustainability studies as such remind researchers of all academic and methodological backgrounds that dealing with sustainability always needs inter- and transdisciplinarity, which is briefly defined in the following:


Interdisciplinarity means that multiple academic disciplines are combined to explore a certain phenomenon or are involved in a specific research activity (project). Knowledge, concepts and theories from several fields (economics, psychology, sociology etc.) are combined and schools of thought are overcome.


Transdisciplinarity means research strategies that do not only cross various disciplines but also focus on problems articulated from the practice, or, vice versa, aim for having an impact on a specific field of practice or research. Transdisiplinary approaches enable input across scientific and non-scientific stakeholder communities and focus on the implementation of research actions based on capacity building to do so, which is also part of the approach


However, similarly to CSR research, sustainable studies only rarely include interactions on an individual level and communication – neither communication processes nor related structures, like the media. Even if sustainability studies try to explore and find ways to improve the social capacity to guide human-nature interactions and relationships toward a more sustainable future, the (key) role of communication in social change and learning processes has not been discussed so far – at least not enough.

Communication on an interpersonal, group intergroup, organizational and mass communication, media level needs to be taken into consideration. Therefore, in the next chapter, we will elaborate on basic principles of and perspectives on communication before we then bring sustainability, CSR and communication together in part 3.


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CSR Communication and Cultures of Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Franzisca Weder and Marte Eriksen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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