Bath Business and Society

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

Tagged: sustainability

How too much information can stop people from being sustainable consumers

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📥  Consumers, Environment

 

Writing for the Conversation, Dr Peter Nuttall and Prof Avi Shankar consider the challenges of becoming a "sustainable consumer".

Most people would agree that living more sustainably is something to strive for. With £13bn worth of food being wasted each year in the UK and global temperature records being broken every three years, being green is more important than ever. But it’s a lot easier said than done. The Conversation

For the vast majority, trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle is restricted to the weekly recycling of bottles, paper, plastics and food waste. And consuming less also represents a tricky issue for governments when consuming more this year than last year drives economic growth.

An enduring issue remains: what actually is “sustainability” and what does “consuming sustainably” mean in the first place? As David Harvey has pointed out, it can mean almost anything people want it to mean.

In its simplest form, though, sustainable consumption asks that people consider the impact their choices (when it comes to buying things or using energy) will have on future generations’ ability to make their choices. Sadly, the likelihood of the majority acting in this way is small. Most of their everyday consumption choices are made habitually or emotionally and not rationally. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman noted, people are prone to think fast, driven by our habits and intuitions – and not slowly or thoughtfully.

Information overload

So: how can governments, NGOs – even businesses themselves – encourage people to consume in a more sustainable manner? Currently, the dominant logic is to provide people with more information so they can make more informed decisions about what they spend their money on.

While this may succeed for a minority, in this view information is assumed to be a precursor to changing people’s attitudes and – in due course – their behaviour. The problem is that there is little evidence that information provision does this at all.

It’s also problematic, as people suffer from information overload. Too much information can cause confusion and, if it’s not relevant to them, people will simply ignore it.

However, even people who’ve taken on board the sustainability message find difficulty in practising it. This finding emerged from data collected by one of our former PhD students Cristina Longo (now a researcher at the University of Lille’s business school). To understand the trials and tribulations of trying to live more sustainably, Longo conducted an ethnographic study and embedded herself in the local Transition Network community, a movement that promotes sustainable living.

She spent two years hanging out with people already highly knowledgeable and committed to living a sustainable lifestyle. She attended talks and meetings, and participated in guerrilla gardening, taking care of neglected public spaces, before interviewing members of the community.

Our analysis of these interviews highlighted some major problems when it comes to living out sustainable values – even when you’ve got the best intentions. The paradox of sustainable consumption appears to be that the more you are aware of the issues at stake, the harder you find it to actually live out your values.

Dilemma, tension, paralysis

The more knowledgeable people become with regard to the myriad issues surrounding sustainability, the more this knowledge becomes a source of dilemma. For example, Tessa, a member of the Transition Network with a longstanding interest and understanding of sustainability issues, told us of her “green beans from Kenya dilemma”. For her, green beans from Kenya were definitely a no-no, because of the food miles incurred in flying the beans over. However, she found the clarity she had on this position was undermined when she learned of the social and economic benefits of growing green beans for the local Kenyan farmers.

Also, for those already committed to sustainability ideals, not being able to live up to them becomes a source of considerable tension. Veronica, for example, recounted a story about a talk she’d given on reducing carbon footprints. Afterwards, she drove past a family who’d been at the meeting, who were cycling. Being confronted with not practising what she was preaching was very disconcerting for her. Irene, too, wants to eat locally sourced organic food whenever possible, but on her limited budget finds it expensive to do so. This existential tension that both Veronica and Irene experience is in large part self-inflicted.

We’ve found that the more knowledgeable people become, the more it can result in paralysis or the inability to act on one’s sustainability ideals or goals. One informant Kate described a knowledge tipping point. As she accumulated more and more knowledge that she attempted to put into practice, she also experienced an awareness that her efforts would ultimately be unsustainable. Judith experienced something similar too but saw her failure – in her case to not buy anything shipped over from China – as part of an overall learning process.

Clearly, being a sustainable consumer is problematic and embedding sustainable ideals into everyday life is fraught with difficulties. Until society’s obsession with growth is addressed at a much wider level, sustainable consumption remains a fantasy.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image: Recycle by Mike

 

Business students need a new perspective not a new framework

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📥  Business and society, Education

 

Two current students on the University of Bath’s MSc in Sustainability and Management, Sanum Jain and Elliot Johnston, discuss the impact that business ethics and sustainability modules have had on their business education. They pose the question: can we talk about business ethics being as important as business economics as part of a management degree?

Management students have the opportunity to sit an array of compulsory and elective courses during their time at business school. As sustainability students, the business ethics module was a mandatory requirement for us, whilst few traditional management students saw this course as an attractive elective. However, it soon became apparent that this course would shape the way we navigate business in a way we think is important for every management student, regardless of specialism.

We became well-versed in the theories of business ethics and came to understand how sustainability needs to be considered as integral to strategy rather than a side-lined marketing tool. Furthermore, we were exposed to the factors that could affect our ethical decision making as agents within a company. Now we field questions about profit making in the face of sustainability limitations, as if we are living in a world where ethical decision making and profit making are mutually exclusive. Our peers in other classes may often label us ‘idealists’ for voicing a perspective we have gained through business ethics. We can't help but wonder if this would be the case if business ethics was compulsory across the School.

Within the first week of studying at Bath, we were introduced to a variety of frameworks upon which we were to base our understanding of business. Most notably, in business economics, we were introduced to Michael Porter’s Five Forces Framework and his Theory of Competitive Advantage. The theory of competitive advantage teaches students about low cost strategies and product differentiation strategies to maintain a focus on profit maximisation, with the end goal of achieving a larger market share. This theory provided the backbone of business strategy from which many other concepts have branched. But not for us.

Our module in business ethics introduced us to a deeper perspective, challenged us to ask more existential questions about business and to understand the ‘why and the how’ behind profit. However, this was not a prescriptive course. We weren’t provided with a specific framework to follow. We engaged in case studies that explored the actions of individuals just like us who had behaved unethically for the benefit of their employer. We delved into the problems created by globalisation, analysed the responsibilities of corporations in the modern world, and looked at the theories we might use to understand how complex ethical problems can be approached in a business environment.

We didn’t just gain a perspective through which to view the business world. Business ethics added a dynamic to the content we were introduced to in our other courses. We were encouraged to question our own values and the way we might view decision making in other realms such as marketing and operations. Furthermore, it led us to understand who we are personally, in relation to the corporations who may hire us in the future.

As sustainability students, we are not alone in our way of thinking. Indeed, Michael Porter himself is now an advocate for sustainable development created through business. In his recent TED talk, he called for commercial organisations to address social issues with alternative business models in order to create “shared value”. At the same time, he called competitive advantage seeking differentiation factors “trivial” in the face of greater challenges.

“Shared value is capitalism, but it's a higher kind of capitalism”, Porter said. “It's capitalism as it was ultimately meant to be, meeting important needs, not incrementally competing for trivial differences in product attributes and market share. Shared value is when we can create social value and economic value simultaneously.”

This isn’t a debate as to which framework should be taught in lieu of another. Michael Porter’s business theories are undoubtedly imperative to a management student’s education. However, even Porter recognises the need to change the perspective from which we learn and operate. Knowing what we know, it is the responsibility of business schools to ensure that the next generation of the workforce are equipped to tackle the ethical challenges they might face. We know from research conducted in our own School that this is starting to happen, but more could be done. Conventional management frameworks should be taught through the perspective of business ethics in order to create managers of the future who can successfully contribute to a sustainable world.

Image: businessmen by David Drexler