By Thomas P. Lyon
Corporate sustainability is entering an important new phase, a crucible if you will, that will take us another step towards maturity as a research area. The most powerful nation in the world is in the midst of an almost unprecedented retreat from environmental progress, one that is arguably even more radical than the retreat orchestrated by Anne Gorsuch (mother of the newest Supreme Court justice) and James Watt during the Reagan Administration. From pulling out of the Paris Agreement to abandonment of the Clean Power Plan to rejecting the Waters of the USA program, the federal government is retreating on many fronts at once.
This development worries many who care about the natural world around us, the source of the fundamental resources that make our modern world possible. Yet it also offers an opportunity to the private sector to demonstrate its capacity to lead on sustainability issues. Many companies have stepped up, joining campaigns such as the We Are Still In movement. With over 2,300 members (more than 900 of them from the business sector) and $6.2 trillion of economic might, We Are Still In is the broadest cross-section of the US economy ever assembled in support of climate action. By some estimates, even without federal action it is possible to still meet 100% of US Paris commitments.
This historical moment offers many opportunities for research. How much of the Paris Agreement commitments will non-federal efforts actually provide? How much of that will be attributable to corporate sustainability leadership, and how much to state or city policies? Which companies will step up to advocate for more sensible public policy? Will they speak out on climate change per se, or will they feel a need to couch their views in terms of the more politically palatable issues of renewable energy and energy efficiency? Will they actually walk the talk? How will members of the public respond to CEO advocacy on renewable energy and climate change? Will the corporate sector speak up on behalf of watersheds, as well as renewable energy and climate protection?
A related question is how scholars can act to make a difference on sustainability issues about which they are passionate. Most of us will end up having our greatest impact through our communications with others---fellow academics, our students, the media, our political representatives, our clients, the public. What unique knowledge do we, as members of ARCS, have to contribute to these conversations?
Our distinctive expertise as a research community lies in understanding corporate sustainability behavior. We know much about what motivates business firms to invest in sustainability beyond the level required by law, and the impacts these investments have on profits, people and the planet. We know much about how stakeholder pressure can influence business sustainability decisions. We are making progress understanding whether corporate sustainability initiatives spark complementary public policies or substitute for them, and whether corporate sustainability efforts go beyond reducing the firm’s environmental and social footprint to help lead systemic change.
These answers can help managers make decisions that will raise profits while making the planet more sustainable. They can also help policymakers leverage their scarce resources to have the greatest possible impact. And they can help NGOs identify the pressure points that will best bring about change. The need for ARCS research has never been greater.
I am already looking forward with excitement to discussing these and other issues with you in June at MIT, for the 10th Annual ARCS conference. In response to the overwhelmingly positive response to the PhD Workshop at the Rotterdam School of Management, the MIT meeting will again feature a PhD workshop the day before the main conference begins. Please submit your best corporate sustainability research for the conference, and encourage your colleagues and students to do so as well!
Thomas P. Lyon holds the Dow Chair of Sustainable Science, Technology and Commerce, with appointments in both the Ross School of Business and the School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). His book Corporate Environmentalism and Public Policy, published by Cambridge University Press, is the first rigorous economic analysis of this increasingly important topic.