Abstract||A growing knowledge of the human impact on the environment has led to widespread dissatisfaction with the current relationship between industrial societies and the nature that sustains them. From within this milieu, sustainable development has emerged as a term that describes an appropriate relationship in the context of the present time and culture. Although it has been widely adopted by many individuals and organisations, there is little agreement as to what it means and entails.
Business has been attributed a significant role in achieving sustainable development. Many have joined the sustainable development debate and received both accolades and critique for their endeavours to interpret and implement the concept within the business sector. Consideration of the prominent and influential role of business in industrial societies, and the lack of definition, elicits the question: what do those people who have taken up the challenge of applying the principles of sustainable development to the business sector think the term means?
In response, I have explored participants’ subjective knowledge of the meaning of sustainable development within the broad context of humanity’s relationship with nature. In this context, sustainable development is just one of many views of the ’proper’ relationship incumbent within environmentalism, and which variously critique industrial society’s relationship with nature. A cognitive approach was adopted that suggests how a society views and uses nature arises from its culture; and that an individual’s vision of nature is influenced by their personal environmental worldview, encompassing fundamental beliefs regarding the underlying nature of reality and guidelines for living.
The views of forty-eight individuals active in New Zealand’s ’sustainable business arena’ were investigated. Participants were drawn from businesses purported to be adopting the principles of sustainable development and organisations assisting in this endeavour. Their knowledge was explored by means of cognitive mapping, semi structured questioning, and Q Methodology.
Not surprisingly, participants held a variety of normative and subjective understandings of sustainable development that appear to have arisen from ’life in general’ rather than any external source. Although humanity, the environment, and change were considered central to sustainable development, beyond this were contested notions and priorities as each participant described their vision for the future, each challenging various aspects of our industrial society, to varying degrees. Five ideal-type views were characterised and termed the Societalist, Individualist, Ecologist, Realist, and Futurist views. The five ideal-type views are presented as a typology, constructed from relevant and prioritised worldview beliefs, that highlights the major contradictions. Considered in this way, consensus on the meaning of sustainable development seems unlikely. And perhaps sustainable development is not one thing but instead a reflexive culture of change such that we question how we live.
Hitherto, extant sustainable development literature has highlighted the power of business over society. In contrast, in this research, participants reported their attempts to implement sustainable development within business were constrained by society’s requirements and institutions. Further, understanding of sustainable development was observed to be learnt from our culture, highlighting at a more fundamental level, the sway of society on sustainable business.