Building Sustainable Organizations: the Human Factor

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Academy of Management Perspectives










Building Sustainable Organizations: The Human Factor
by Jeffrey Pfeffer

Executive Overview
Although most of the research and public pressure concerning sustainability has been focused on the effects of business and organizational activity on the physical environment, companies and their management practices profoundly affect the human and social environment as well. This article briefly reviews the literature on the direct and indirect effects of organizations and their decisions about people on human health and mortality. It then considers some possible explanations for why social sustainability has received relatively short shrift in management writing, and outlines a research agenda for investigating the links between social sustainability and organizational effectiveness as well as the role of ideology in understanding the relative neglect of the human factor in sustainability research.


here is growing public and business interest in building sustainable organizations and increasing research and educational interest in the topic of organizational sustainability. The Academy of Management has a division called Organizations and the Natural Environment, and there are numerous journals and research papers concerned with ecological sustainability. There are growing numbers of higher education programs focused on sustainability and an Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (Fountain, 2010). Marcus and Fremeth (2009) noted that this enthusiasm for what they called “green management” came from people’s expectations for how managers and the organizations they lead should conduct their business to protect the environment. As

I gratefully acknowledge the advice, encouragement, and inspiration of Nuria Chinchilla from IESE, who encouraged me to think about the issue of human sustainability in both societies and companies. The helpful comments of the editor and the reviewers substantially clarified the arguments.

Ambec and Lanoie (2008, p. 46) noted, “Firms are facing growing pressure to become greener.” As it is operationalized in the literature, sustainability is defined in part by an effort to conserve natural resources and avoid waste in operations. Conservation and the more efficient use of resources naturally lessen the burden of economic activity on the environment and help to ensure that the activity can be sustained over time because the resources required will not be exhausted. Sustainability also appears to encompass activities that renew and recycle what is used, once again with the goal of ensuring that the ecosystem that supports life and lifestyle can and will be preserved. Other aspects of sustainability include preserving what is—as in preserving threatened plant and animal species and, in cultural sustainability, preserving the values, arts, culture, and food of “communities threatened by globalization and modernization” (Navarro, 2010, p. 20). In the physical sciences, much of the research on sustainability has focused on the amount of stress an

Jeffrey Pfeffer ( is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University. Copyright by the Academy of Management; all rights reserved. Contents may not be copied, e-mailed, posted to a listserv, or otherwise transmitted without the copyright holder’s express written permission. Users may print, download, or e-mail articles for individual use only.




ecosystem can tolerate as well as principles for restoring ecological balance. In management, research attention has focused on the possible links between profitability and sustainability as well as the factors that cause organizations to pursue different sustainability strategies (e.g., Ambec & Lanoie, 2008). Although sustainability clearly could encompass a...
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