2 November 2018

PhD defence Angela van der Heijden

Sustainability through support

How can you improve sustainability at a company in such a way that joint targets and ambitions are achieved? This question proves to be something of a brainteaser for many large organisations. PhD candidate Angela van der Heijden discovered that there is a common denominator in successful cases: one or more key figures within the organisation who are the driving force behind the process, and who help generate support. Ms Van der Heijden defends her doctoral thesis in the University Hall of Utrecht University on Monday, 5 November 2018.

Duurzaam ondernemen

In her doctoral thesis, Angela van der Heijden reveals that the social behavioural skills of key figures (‘change agents’) within an organisation are crucial for effectively embedding sustainability ambitions at companies. These key figures can come in many forms: they could be a director, for example, a marketing manager or a senior project assistant. Ms Van der Heijden shows how change agents generate broad support for sustainability, and which stimuli management use to support the change agents.

Greater impact with a sustainability officer

In practice, the front runners in the field of sustainable business operations place great trust in the available guidelines, manuals and external advisors. However, Van der Heijden’s research shows that introducing dedicated sustainability officers has greater impact. Embedding sustainability benefits from a less tangible approach that is focused on generating support. Such an approach requires people with knowledge and experience in the field of sustainability, and who know the organisation from the inside. These people have the necessary power of persuasion to involve others by functioning as ambassadors and translators.

Angela van der Heijden outlines strategies in her thesis that allow these change agents to make sustainability issues comprehensible and applicable in the context of their companies. She also shows that change agents require authority and scope in order to help everyone get to grips with sustainability.

Embedding sustainability benefits from a less tangible approach that is focused on generating support.

Pragmatic strategy

The key figures draw on three basic strategies in order to generate this support. Firstly, they develop a locally-applicable pragmatic or systematic strategy during the initial phase of corporate sustainability. Consider, for example, a pragmatically-geared Dutch branch of a multinational, at which sustainability priorities are quickly set. Staff consult informally with each other and launch a project to reduce litter. When launching corporate sustainability, this company selects an approach that is in line with their pragmatic culture.

This is contrasted by the systematic approach of an international manufacturer, where a great deal of time is spent considering sustainability targets in the initial phase, and a central strategy is rolled out from the headquarters. Both strategies result in the translation of sustainability concepts into company culture.

Duurzaam ondernemen

Commitment

In order to subsequently further disseminate these sustainability concepts, the change agents focus on a commitment strategy. This strategy is used to facilitate a more targeted translation of the notion of sustainability into organisational procedures and processes. At the manufacturer with the systematic approach, the notions of sustainability gained momentum when the local change agents were given authority and scope to act. They proved able to contribute expertise to production processes, to establish regional collaboration and to launch in-house sustainability training for company employees.

The opposite occurred at the pragmatic multinational previously mentioned: the Dutch branch was no longer authorised to take their own, informal approach to dealing with sustainability. They were obliged to work in accordance with head office guidelines. The Dutch change agents felt that their opportunities to give shape to sustainability locally were limited.

This doctoral thesis shows that progress is only made when there is support, and that this progress can gain momentum if the entire company fully supports it.

This is an apt illustration of the most significant stimulus for corporate sustainability: give change agents authority and the scope to translate sustainability to the local context. Angela van der Heijden reaches a similar conclusion in her analysis of the embedding of sustainability at chain level in the pig farming industry.

“The need for support within companies and organisations in order to set sustainability in motion was always a neglected aspect”, explains Professor Jacqueline Cramer, Angela’s supervisor. “This doctoral thesis shows that progress is only made when there is support, and that this progress can gain momentum if the entire company fully supports it”.