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Business sustainability – Finding the common good within organisations

In his chapter "Business sustainability as a context for studying hybridity", Esade’s Tobias Hahn examines the way firms simultaneously address economic, ecological, and social concerns under the umbrella of business sustainability. He explains how hybridity, that is, firms bringing together elements that would not conventionally get together, translates in the context of business sustainability, as it combines different potentially competing organisational elements.

The chapter is part of volume 69 – Organisational hybridity: perspectives, processes, promises – of research in the sociology of organisations, a comprehensive series of academic books focusing on the history, ideology, sociology and other organisational aspects of firms. 

There are, Hahn writes, four different forms of hybridity in business sustainability. These four forms depend on the degree of integration, that is, how strongly sustainability is integrated with core business activities, and autonomy, that is, to what degree sustainability initiatives are pursued in their own right.

4 forms of hybridity in business sustainability

Hahn distinguishes between the four types of hybridity in business sustainability as follows:

  1. Ceremonial hybridity: Sustainability initiatives are loosely integrated and are not autonomous and firms focus on conventional business priorities, with only an “impression” of sustainability.
  2. Contingent hybridity: Sustainability initiatives are strongly integrated but not autonomous and firms pursue ecological and social concerns only to the extent that they align with business goals.
  3. Peripheral hybridity: Sustainability initiatives are loosely integrated but highly autonomous and firms pursue sustainability initiatives independently of core business activities.
  4. Full hybridity: Sustainability initiatives are strongly integrated and also autonomous as firms place both business and sustainability at the core of the organisation, without emphasising one over the other. 

By characterising these different degrees of hybridity, Hahn has established clear pathways towards a better understanding of business sustainability, as well as opening further research opportunities.

While firms adopt different strategic postures toward sustainability challenges such as climate change, this posture can change over time

Hahn’s chapter illustrates how research on organisational hybridity and business sustainability can mutually inform one another. "Business sustainability offers a promising context for studying different degrees of hybridity as well as the dynamics of hybridity," he explains. "Hybridity can inspire research on business sustainability by offering a wider variety of pathways toward business contributions to sustainable development, including pathways that embrace tensions between different sustainability aspects."

Conceptualising business sustainability along a spectrum of organisational hybridity, he adds, can add to a better understanding of business sustainability and its different forms and degrees of implementation in business organisations.

Sustainability in practice: Starbucks and Heineken

"While firms adopt different strategic postures toward sustainability challenges such as climate change, this posture can change over time," writes Hahn. "Firms may move from wait-and-see responses to more proactive strategies. At the same time, business responses to sustainability are not monolithic but firms combine different responses with varying degrees of hybridity to respond to different sustainability challenges."

Two examples from the food and drink industry can be used to illustrate examples of such pathways.

In 2000, the global coffee chain Starbucks began to source fair trade certified coffee in response to external stakeholder pressure. Back then, this initiative started as a peripheral activity that was conducted in its own right but was not a core business practice. However, over time, this initiative helped Starbucks to serve and develop a conscious customer segment. It subsequently extended its capabilities for sourcing and marketing fair trade coffee, generating considerable commercial gains and fully integrating the practice within organisational goals and turning it into a contingent activity following a commercial logic at the heart of the business.

Starbucks green
In 2000, the global coffee chain Starbucks began to source fair trade certified coffee in response to external stakeholder pressure (Photo: Evergreen Tree/Getty)

"Trajectories can also take the opposite direction by starting out with contingent hybridity and developing into peripheral and/or full hybridity," Hahn notes. "The engagement of multinational firms to fight HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa can serve as an example here."

At the same time as Starbucks began to source sustainable coffee, the beer brewer Heineken was experiencing significant impact from the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Half of the brand’s employee deaths in Africa were AIDS related, so it began to offer its employees and dependents highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which turns AIDS from a fatal into a chronic disease. This initiative yielded strong net financial benefits for the firm in terms of healthy and productive employees with cost savings far outweighing treatment costs.

Business responses to sustainability are not monolithic but firms combine different responses with varying degrees of hybridity to respond to different sustainability challenges

Over time, Heineken developed this contingent activity into a fully hybrid one by extending HAART treatment to patients other than their employees, establishing HIV/AIDS clinics in Africa to improve community access to healthcare. This initiative not only makes the HAART programme economically viable, but also results in strong, healthy and productive employees

"Business sustainability offers a context to study cases where organisations need to combine and balance competing yet interrelated ecological and social challenges or different competing but interdependent ecological crises," writes Hahn.

Opportunities for future research

Hybrid organising, which is defined as "activities, structures, processes and meanings by which organisations make sense of and combine multiple organisational forms," offers a lens through which both commercial and non-commercial aspects of organisations can be studied. 

"Sustainability offers a rich context for doing so because it simultaneously builds upon different dimensions that can constitute hybridity," he explains. "As business sustainability simultaneously refers to a multiplicity of concerns at the systems level with a long-term horizon, it comprises different sources of hybridity. Future research could therefore use business sustainability as a context to study the interrelations and interplay of different sources of hybridity and its consequences for how organisations implement and enact hybridity.

"Overall, organisational hybridity and business sustainability are two related fields of research that can fruitfully inform and inspire one another," Hahn concludes. 

"The identification of different forms of hybridity in business sustainability provides a useful perspective to broaden our understanding of different pathways beyond the dominant business case approach to achieve more substantive business contributions to sustainable development."

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