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On the path to sustainability: integrating social dimensions into the research and practice of environmental management

"The theme of the Tenth International Conference of the Greening of Industry Network in Göteborg, Sweden, was focused on exploring the social dimensions of sustainability. This focus is timely because extant research and practice in sustainability has emphasized the environmental dimension. The UNWCED definition of sustainable development as ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ is clear about the integration of the economic, ecological and social impacts of development (UNWCED, 1987, p. 43). As underlined by UNWCED, sustainable development refers to the concept of ‘needs’, but limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organizations on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs are also a central concern. Lafferty and Langhelle (1999) suggest that sustainable development must be treated as an ethical code for human survival and progress, and it is on a par with other high-minded ideas such as democracy, freedom and human rights. The ‘openness of meaning’ of such concepts can never be closed and the fruitfulness of the concept of sustainable development is linked to continued political discourse on the concept's content and future goals and to the continuing debate about the instrumental implications of its normative aspirations (Lafferty and Langhelle, 1999, p. 26). The tenth GIN conference with its explicit focus on the social dimensions of sustainability facilitated the continuation of this discourse. Just as scholars and practitioners concerned with sustainable development have focused mainly on environmental management, those concerned with corporate social responsibility (CSR) have focused on social and ethical issues such as human rights, working conditions and philanthropy. The social principles of justice and inclusiveness embedded in the concept of sustainable development have entered the corporate or research agenda to a very limited extent, even among firms making promising environmental efforts at a global scale (Ruud, 2002a). Promoting sustainable development requires that governments incorporate these principles into designing holistic policies that motivate and enable firms to develop more sustainable strategies (Roome and Cahill, 2001). This was also underlined by the chief executive officer of the Volvo group during the first plenary session of the GIN conference in Gothenburg. We begin by examining to what extent the social aspects of sustainability have been integrated into public policy and government regulations and then into organizational research and practice. We then examine the extent to which the best representative papers in this volume from the tenth GIN conference have been able to achieve the integration of social and environmental dimensions. We conclude with some thoughts on future directions for sustainability research. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd and ERP Environment."
Sanjay Sharma, Audun Ruud