Heterogenous Interests and Ideas: Translating Corporate Sustainability Across Political and Economic Domains

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This dissertation examines the triadic relationship between international business, politics, and sustainability. Particularly, I explore how sustainability affects the relationships between private firms and transnational public governance institutions from a rule-based perspective.
Combining insights from political science and organization studies, I argue that private firms and other industry actors actively seek to change the rules in two ways: first, firms try to shape the rules before they are adopted by lobbying regulators. Second, firms try to refine the rules after they are adopted by strategically taking the rules. Sustainability then influences these practises through the sustainability of the firm, also known as corporate sustainability or corporate social responsibility (CSR), or if the rules incorporate sustainability policies that set the transnational rules on sustainability and development issues. To empirically study the role of sustainability in firms’ lobbying regulators and firms’ adapting new rules, I put the phenomenon at the core of the research design and combine both qualitative and quantitative data collection and analysis.

The dissertation is organized in two parts. Part I focusses on the interest intermediation of firms committed to corporate sustainability in EU decision-making processes. It encompasses the chapter titled “Soft Law Engagements and Hard Law Preferences: Comparing EU Lobbying Positions between UN Global Compact Signatory Firms and Other Interest Group Types.” In this chapter, I investigate if, and how, UN Global Compact signatory firms differ in their policy preferences on key EU proposals compared to other interest groups. I argue that although CSR has gone “mainstream,” the relationship between CSR and corporate political activities (CPA) has received little scholarly attention. This is problematic because firms potentially have a more sizable impact through their lobbying activities for socially and environmentally beneficial (or unbeneficial) public policies than through their own operations.
To capture state-of-the-art data on firms’ policy preferences, I draw from the INTEREURO database, which includes firms’ lobbying positions on forty-three directives and twenty-seven regulations covering 112 public policy issues in the European Union. Statistical results show that Global Compact signatory firms significantly lobby for stricter regulation than non- signatory firms and industry associations, however, their positions are still lower than non- business groups. These results are similar across various public policy issues and suggest that the regulatory preferences of firms’ participating in soft law CSR initiatives are more aligned with stakeholders’ interests. This chapter contributes to public policy literature exploring the relationship between hard and soft law as well as literature studying the political representation of divergent interest.

The next chapter, on the other hand, is titled: “How Political Actors Co-Construct CSR and Its Effect on Firms’ Political Access: A Discursive Institutionalist View.” This chapter shifts the focus from the firm to the relationship between political actors and firms. I explore how CSR can incentivize political actors to increase firms’ political access. Taking a discursive institutional perspective, I argue that how political actors co-construct the multiplicity of CSR meanings defines what type of access is granted. To study this process, I focus on the empirical case of the European Union (EU), offering a novel analysis of event observations, policy documents, and interviews with Commission officials, Euro-parliamentarians, and other stakeholders. I find that the value of CSR is highly contested in the EU political arena. I then elucidate four discursive strategies through which political actors interactively refined, reframed, and reinterpreted the meaning of CSR and its relevance for firm access in ways beneficial for their perceived interests. The findings highlight the importance for nonmarket strategy studies to consider political actors’ agency in the lobbying process and how they creatively use language to attach meaning to CSR.

Part II of the dissertation focusses on how a specific sustainability rule, in this case the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), got diffused and translated into the business context.
In other words, how firms took the SDGs as a new framework and applied them to their own reality. It includes the chapter titled: “Narrative fidelity: making the UN Sustainable Development Goals fit.” This chapter empirically examines how firms have discursively adopted (and adapted) the SDGs. More precisely, I study firms’ ability to constitute their organizational identity by way of associating their past, present, and future practices with the newly established Goals. By focussing on the temporal dynamics of change, this chapter provides analytical clarity on the role “narrative fidelity”. I collected all online available SDG- related communications, including financial and non-financial reports, of 29 large French multinationals throughout 2016 and 2017. These data were analysed using a systematic narrative approach incorporating open-ended coding cycles. Four narratives were distilled: the descriptive narrative, which promotes general knowledge; the past narrative, which reinterprets the organizational past by retelling and reviewing actions; the present narrative, which associates prevailing organizational strategies with new categories; and the future narrative, which articulates and prioritizes new ambitions. This study goes beyond future narratives and contributes to our understanding of the dynamic nature of temporal narratives (past – present – future). By building on narrative fidelity, I show how all four narratives are crucial, sequential steps that help build a new corporate identity.

The last chapter is titled: “The UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a North Star: How an intermediary network makes, takes, and retrofits the meaning of the SDGs.” In this chapter, my colleague Robyn Klinger-Vidra and I investigate how a network of informal intermediaries, including international organizations, consultancies, business alliances, and standard setters, has contributed to the persistence of the universalistic meaning of the SDG).
Based on our analysis of 26 interviews and 121 online resources produced by the 22 most prominent intermediaries, we find that SDG diffusion is distinct from linear depictions, such as the regulator‐intermediary‐target model. This is because the intermediary network acts via three dynamic mechanisms that lend to an inclusive meaning of the goals; the core intermediaries lead efforts to make the perspective one that can accommodate a range of different audiences and activities, then intermediaries who subsequently join the network accept that broad perspective. Concomitant to their making or taking of the perspective, each intermediary individually works to retrofit the SDGs onto their unique tools and activities and to create their spot within the network. The combination of perspective making and taking, and retrofitting, propels the persistence of the SDGs as a “North Star” rather than a more specific blueprint for companies.

Combined these chapters make two larger contributions to the business, politics and sustainability literatures. First, in contrast to the commonly held assumption that interests are single-peaked and rational, I show how both political- and industry actors have subjective and flexible interests. Particularly, I elucidate how divergent interests result in contrasting understandings of what the concepts of CSR, corporate sustainability, and SDGs mean. This finding further unpacks and brings analytical nuance to the “black box” of preferences in the context of sustainability and highlights the importance of temporality. Second, I illustrate the explanatory power of ideas and discursive interactions in business and politics inquiries.
Specifically, I explain that different ideas about CSR, corporate sustainability, and SDG across and between political- and industry actors are constantly refined, reframed, and reinterpret through auto-communication and social (discursive) interactions. This finding calls for more iterative and dynamic approaches that forefront language and social relations.
Date of Award11 Jan 2022
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAdam Chalmers (Supervisor) & Robyn Klingler-Vidra (Supervisor)

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