Even when restricting our observations to the business context, it is evident that the concept of sustainability is interpreted in quite different ways, which hinders the achievement of sustainability transitions. Approaching sustainability as an ‘essentially contested concept’, this paper unpacks it into three constituent, management-relevant dimensions – scope, substitutability, and goal orientation – and demonstrates how different conceptions within these dimensions result in hugely different, often incompatible, yet legitimate interpretations of sustainability, with significant consequences for management and with significant differences in their outcome promise. The end result is a novel typology for categorizing conceptions of sustainability into eight basic types. The theoretical value added of the analysis lies in the fact that it improves clarity around a key concept, adds structure to debates on sustainability in a business context, and is able to build a common frame of reference without having to select a single common definition for sustainability. The findings can help with strategic, operative, and communicational problems that practicing managers face with regard to sustainability. Researchers and managers are encouraged to be explicit about the conceptions of sustainability they themselves adhere to and show awareness of those of others. This will, in turn, improve future research on business sustainability and future management of sustainable businesses alike, thus enhancing our ability to contribute to the building of a more sustainable society.
- Corporate sustainability
- Essentially contested concept
- Sustainability conception