Business and Sustainability: New Business History Perspectives

by Ann-Kristin Bergquist

Overview — This paper provides a long-term business history perspective on sustainability, arguing that it is now matter of urgency to make sustainability a mainstream topic in business history.

Author Abstract

This working paper provides a long-term business history perspective on sustainability. For a long time, the central issues in business history concerned how business enterprises innovated and created wealth as well as patterns of success and failure in that process. There now exists, after a lag, a compelling stream of research focused on the environmental consequences of that growth. This working paper reviews this new stream of research, which focuses on two related but distinct themes. The earliest theme to be explored, in a literature dating from the 1990s, is the story of how and why some conventional industries sought to become less polluting. Research has dated this phenomenon back to the late nineteenth century, showed it gained momentum from the 1960s, and resulted in a mainstreaming of sustainability rhetoric, and sometimes practice, in large corporations from the 1980s, primarily in Western developed countries. A more recent research theme is the story of how for-profit entrepreneurs developed new product categories such as organic food and wind and solar energy, which explicitly focused on sustainability. Again this process has been traced back to the nineteenth century. With the rise in green consumerism and public policy support in some Western countries for sustainability during the 1990s, these two historical trends met, as the concept of sustainable development spread to large conventional corporations, and visionary green firms scaled or were acquired by conventional big businesses. The concept of sustainability became socially constructed in a sufficiently broad fashion as to permit even the most unsustainable and dirty industries. This working paper concludes that the emergent business history needs to be more fully incorporated in wider management and economics literatures on sustainability, while calling for the mainstreaming of the subject in the discipline of business history.

Paper Information

  • Full Working Paper Text
  • Working Paper Publication Date: October 2017
  • HBS Working Paper Number: HBS Working Paper #18-034
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