Green growth and decoupling as legitimation strategies : How businesses manage the incompatibility of economic growth and corporate environmental sustainability
Abstract: International organisations and global businesses aim to achieve green growth through the decoupling of economic growth and environmental impacts. However, increased evidence calls into question the approach of green growth, that has been adopted by international institutions such as the UN and the OECD. The current indication is that there is no significant decoupling taking place and substantial theoretical barriers remain for it to occur. From that basis I investigate how businesses use narratives related to decoupling and green growth to manage legitimacy while pursuing the conflicting goals of both economic growth and environmental sustainability. This is achieved through document analysis and thematic analysis of sustainability reports from 50 of the world’s largest transnational corporations. The narratives are then analysed from the perspective of legitimacy theory. I identify seven narratives: i) Businesses recognise the problems, ii) Action is being taken, iii) Goals have basis in science, iv) Technology and innovation provide the solutions, v) Businesses offer crucial benefits, vi) Businesses are at the hands of demand and vii) External action is needed. These are then derived into strategies using legitimacy theory and two overarching themes are identified, the narratives mitigating businesses' negative ties to environmental impacts and communicate that businesses are conforming to societal expectations. The narrative findings and legitimacy strategies show similarities with previous research, while the latter also makes new contributions to the field. The novel findings that have not been discussed in the context of sustainability reports previously are customer demand, external action from governments, and the emphasis on technology and innovation paving the way for green growth. Furthermore, businesses are shown to pay little attention to barriers towards green growth and the findings give clear indication that companies are currently dedicated to the sustainability approach of green growth despite the lack of scientific evidence.
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