Bath Business and Society

Research, analysis and comment on the role of business in society from Bath's School of Management

Topic: Research

Corporate environmental impact - why self regulation isn't enough

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📥  Business and society, Environment, Research


Globalisation, the demise of the state and rising stakeholder expectations have resulted in the proliferation of  a self-regulatory approach to managing corporate environmental impacts. Self-regulation is now a major feature of environmental protection and is largely synonymous with the management of corporate environmental responsibility. In this piece, Kostas Iatridis questions the wide belief that environmental self-regulation represents an effective means of addressing environmental challenges, and suggests this can be achieved only through a collaboration between public and private bodies.


The rise of self-regulation

The prevalence of neo-liberal economic views in running the economy, along with the transformation of our world into a global village, have promoted environmental self-regulation as an effective means of dealing with increasing environmental challenges. State regulation has been criticised as ineffective, non-flexible and costly. Instead, voluntary action has been used to advocate a market-fundamentalism that puts the workings of the market first. Environmental laws and institutions are expected to conform to the laws of the market in order not to restrain trade and economic profitability.

This shift towards market autonomy has resulted in new, prosperous markets. This in turn has facilitated the proliferation of voluntary self-regulatory tools for environmental protection (e.g. ISO 14001 and EMAS). Such tools have been endorsed by armies of consultants, policy makers, and auditors as a panacea to harmful environmental practice. Governments too have supported self-regulatory approaches as a means of facilitating corporate responsibility and some have even declared their incapacity in dealing with environmental issues.

Following the wide endorsement of self-regulatory tools, one might expect to find a positive relationship between their adoption and improvements in corporate environmental performance. Yet, studies have questioned the effectiveness of environmental self-regulation by suggesting that its adopters might not necessarily perform better than non-adopters. Critics highlight the commercial relationships formed between self-regulating firms and external auditors, as well as a lack of knowledge amongst auditors, as particularly problematic. They take the view that due to these issues, auditing mechanisms might not always be as robust as they should be, enabling firms to behave opportunistically and in their own interests.

Furthermore, the tendency of earlier studies to focus on firms’ motives for adopting such self-regulatory approaches, along with a belief that environmental certification is synonymous with improvements in environmental performance, have offered limited views on the real potential of self-regulation to reduce environmental impact.


Does self-regulation mean better environmental performance? 

It is only recently that discussions have moved towards the effectiveness of self-regulation in safeguarding environmental performance. Interesting views have emerged suggesting that the latter might depend on the institutional environment. In particular, it is suggested that stringent external environmental regulation might discourage firms from adopting environmental self-regulation in the first place. This is because, in such institutional contexts, the marginal gains in efficiency and strategic differentiation associated with environmental self-regulation are very small. In contrast, when firms operate in the weak institutional environments often found in developing countries, and seek to export to countries characterised by strong institutional regimes, they tend to adopt and substantively implement environmental self-regulation because of strong motivations to improve their internal efficiency.

These are important insights, making us think differently about environmental regulation. Self-regulation alone might not always serve the common interest, thus state regulation has a role to play. The times in which we live are challenging for governments, as globalisation has transformed many states into little more than transit stations in the world-wide trade of goods administered by multinational corporations. In many instances, states have lost the power to define the conditions that affect economic activities within their own territories. As a result, we have seen states retreating and, in the name of efficiency and cost cuts, passing more responsibilities over to the private sector. However, phasing out state regulation, as has been advocated by supporters of market autonomy, cannot ensure effective environmental protection. No single governance actor, private or public, has the independence, expertise or operational capacity to pursue effective environmental regulation. What is needed is cooperation between the public and private sectors.


Public-private cooperation

The big question is whether public governance actors have an appetite for taking this on. Recent developments, such as Trump’s decision to withdraw from Paris’ climate agreement, contrasted with Senate’s recent approval to fund the United Nations’ climate change body, not to mention Brexit as well as several geopolitical tensions, send contradictory messages and, in some instances, question whether environmental issues should even have a place on the international agenda.

To sustain the momentum of action for environmental protection, business leaders, academics, policy makers and civil society organisations need to acknowledge the questionable outcomes of environmental self-regulation and engage in discussions that promote collaboration. The recent crossing of the northern sea route without ice breakers signals the undisputable significance of environmental challenges and the necessity for finding the right mix of state and self-regulation to address them.


Image by Kris Krug


Social Media: Risky (Research) Business?

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📥  Research


Social media present valuable opportunities for management researchers, but also risky terrain for publication in mainstream journals. As the British Academy of Management kicks off this week with a pre-workshop on this very topic, Dr Sarah Glozer reflects on the risk of social media research and considers how it might be overcome.


Social media researchers within management spend a large portion of their time thinking about the risk to knowing (and unknowing) participants when designing their studies. Whilst preventing harm towards research participants should always be a priority in academic research, I would like to present a different contention: why are we not thinking about researcher risk? In a world of rising academic publishing expectations, this article considers if social media settings present risky contexts for management researchers.


Why research social media?

Social media, defined as Internet-based applications that build on the interactional capacity of ‘Web 2.0’, are proliferating day by day. A recent estimate suggests that there are around 400 global social media platforms, and that around one-third of the world’s population are now active social media users. Consequently, academic interest in social media continues to soar across disciplines, as seen in recent papers published in Business and Society, and a special issue announced by the Journal of Business Ethics.

Social media, then, present valuable opportunities for conceptual, empirical, technical and methodological research. Yet, despite nearly two decades since the first social media sites came to fruition, research within and into social media is still a niche pursuit within mainstream management journals, particularly that of a qualitative nature.


What is risk?

It is widely appreciated that research should not pose any risk of harm to participants. Harm can be psychological (e.g. embarrassment), economic (e.g. loss of property) and at the worst, physical (e.g. threat to life). The risk of harm is greater when social media users’ privacy/anonymity is breached, or when the nature of the data being handled is ‘sensitive’ (e.g. related to health issues). It is argued that within any research project, the potential for risk/harm should be minimised and the benefit to research maximised, with accepted ethical procedures designed to protect participants and researchers from harm. But what does risk look like in a researcher capacity?


What is researcher risk?

Back in July, I co-organised an event at The University of Nottingham with Dr. Chris Carter on publishing social media research. The event brought together social media researchers from across fields of accounting, computer science, employment relations, information systems, marketing, management, communication studies/corporate social responsibility and psychology. Through our conversations, three types of researcher risk came to light:

  • Technical risk related to procedural difficulties with using social media technology to collect and analyse data. Researchers voiced difficulty in maintaining research projects in the face of fluid and evolving ‘live’ social media settings (research has a ‘shelf-life’) and frustrations when large volumes of data crashed software programmes and information was lost.


  • Social risk related to the personal consequences of researching social media. Here researchers discussed the challenge of spending many hours immersed in online fora to develop deep, emic insights (to the detriments of personal relationships) and the pain of observing ‘hate speech’ (or even being on the receiving end of this).


  • Professional risk related to the challenges of being identified as a social media researcher; still arguably a niche pursuit in mainstream management research. It was within this category that researchers shared difficulties in navigating the complex milieu of Institutional Ethics Review Boards, journal reviewer/editor comments, ethical guidelines and legal precedent in order to get social media research ‘out there’ and published.


It is on this latter point that the risk of being a social media researcher became clear: there was a general feeling that we still need to legitimise social media research within the broad management discipline.


How can we reduce researcher risk?

As identified in a forthcoming chapter by Dr. Rebecca Whiting and Dr. Katrina Pritchard, we are in a state of flux and uncertainty regarding digital ethics. This has a clear impact on how social media research is judged, particularly given that there is still little consensus on what constitutes best practice across disciplines and institutions. Turning to published research often only fuels this confusion with topics such as participant anonymity being handled very differently by various journals; some advocate anonymity, others do not.

So where does accountability lie in reducing researcher risk? We are hoping to bring together researchers, reviewers and editors within management to regularly discuss and debate these issues and to reduce the ‘risky’ business of publishing social media research. There are number of ways you can join the debate:


Image by Ian Clark