Business and Society 58 (8):1533-1571 (2019)

This research explores the field dynamics that facilitated the emergence of a dominant understanding of business’ role in sustainable development. Based on a study of the U.N. Earth Summits, we examine how actors meet every decade to battle for definitional control of what SD means for business, and what business means for SD. Through a discourse analysis of texts from business, policy, and civil society actors during each Summit, we illustrate how an ensuing discursive struggle shifts the role of business in SD from being largely undefined in 1992, to being considered an SD partner in 2002, and finally to becoming a driver of SD by 2012. We contend that these shifts occurred largely due to two field dynamics: rearranging of field boundaries and forming of a discourse coalition. Accordingly, our study highlights how disparate actors coalesce around a shared-meaning system and collectively shape the role of business role in SD. However, we argue that despite the allure of a unified meaning-making process between once antagonistic actors, business–SD relations are underpinned by politicized interaction where certain actors come to dominate, and, in doing so, marginalize others.
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DOI 10.1177/0007650317701884
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