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Critical analysis of sustainability terminologies

  • School: Nottingham Business School
  • Starting: 2021
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Self-funded


The concept of sustainability became prominent in the early 1980s, initially in an attempt to address environmental problems engendered by economic growth. Since then, multiple iterations of the term have not only problematized its primary association with “green business”, but has also led to a series of conceptual slippages that require interrogation (Bonefac, 2010; Kambites, 2014). Nearly four decades later, scholars and practitioners in the field are still discussing how to operationalise and assess the concept of sustainability (Fischer, 2017). Over the last decade, sustainability has become an umbrella term incorporating the whole series of ESGE (environmental, social, governance and ethics) issues that businesses face (Painter et al, 2019). This has been largely the case because of the emergence of the need for enhanced corporate responsibility through triple bottom-line reporting, i.e. reporting to stakeholders on economic, social and environmental performance (Hartman & Painter-Morland, 2007; Painter-Morland, 2006, 2008; Kolk, 2008).

Paradoxically, what could have been a meaningful broadening of sustainability beyond environmental responsibility towards integrating social responsibility, good governance and indirect economic benefit to society (Painter et al, 2018), seems to have instead led instead to a narrow instrumentalism that further problematizes the relationship between business and society. Indeed, for many critical scholars, sustainability is either an idealised illusion that does not have any real impact or, at best, have a trivial impact on what businesses are doing in practice. This is precisely reflected in the widespread cynicism about corporations’ use of the term (Banerjee, 2003). The whole debate around sustainability, seems to be directed towards maintaining ‘a particular social order rather than a debate about the preservation of nature per se’ (Harvey, 1996, p. 148 quoted in Banerjee, 2008, p. 65). Banerjee elegantly summarises that ‘rather than reshaping [neo-liberal] markets and [capitalist] production processes to fit the logic of nature, sustainable development uses the logic of markets and capitalist accumulation to determine the future of nature’ (2003, p. 153). Ten Bos and Bevan’s (2011) readings of Shell and Exxon-Mobil cases actually show that the concept of sustainability rather corresponds to Derridean (Derrida, 1997) ‘non-concept’.

The purpose of this study would be to interrogate the meaning(s) of the term sustainability from a philosophical, socio-political and linguistic perspective in order to challenge both scholars and practitioners to engage in a more nuanced conversation about its operationalisation in practice.


Banerjee, S.B. (2003). Who sustains whose development? Sustainable development and the reinvention of nature. Organization Studies, 24, 143-180.

Banerjee, S.B. (2008). Corporate social responsibility: The good, the bad and the ugly. Critical Sociology, 34, 51-79.

Bonevac, D. (2010). Is sustainability sustainable? Academic Questions, 23(1), 84-101. doi:10.1007/s12129-009-9152-4
Derrida, J. (1997). Politics and friendship. London: Verso.

Fischer, D., Haucke, F., & Sundermann, A. (2017). What does the media mean by 'sustainability' or 'sustainable development'? an empirical analysis of sustainability terminology in German newspapers over two decades. Sustainable Development, 25(6), 610-624. doi:10.1002/sd.1681

Hartman, L.P., & Painter-Morland, M. (2007). Exploring the Global Reporting Initiative as a model as for triple bottom-line reporting. African Journal of Business Ethics, 2, 49-57.

Kambites, C. J. (2014). 'Sustainable development': The 'unsustainable' development of a concept in political discourse. Sustainable Development, 22(5), 336-348. doi:10.1002/sd.1552

Kolk, A. (2008). Sustainability, accountability and corporate governance: exploring multinationals' reporting practices. Business Strategy and the Environment, 17, 1-15.

Painter-Morland, M. (2006). Triple bottom-line reporting as social grammar: Integrating corporate social responsibility and corporate codes of conduct, Business Ethics: A European Review, 15, 352-364.

Painter-Morland, M. (2008). Business ethics as practice: Ethics as the everyday business of business. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Painter, M., Pouryousefi, S., Hibbert, S., & Russon, J. (2019). Sharing vocabularies: Towards horizontal alignment of values-driven business functions. Journal of Business Ethics, 155(4), 965-979.

Ten Bos, R., & Bevan, D. (2011). Sustainability. In M. Painter-Morland and R. Ten Bos (Eds.), Business ethics and continental philosophy (pp. 285-306). New York: Cambridge University Press.


Professor Mollie Painter

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Mollie Painter