Sustainable research across disciplines 

By Karen Herland

Stephanie Berger applied a variety of disciplinary tools to address the case study developed for her doctoral research. Magnifying glass

Stephanie Berger applied a variety of disciplinary tools to address the case study developed for her doctoral research.

Students in HENV 615 were curious about sustainability-themed research beyond their own work in the graduate seminar, so they put out a call for poster presentations across the university.

The result, an interdisciplinary event called Perspectives on Sustainability: Current Research at Concordia, was held on April 7.

“We wanted to know what was going on right now,” said student Andrew Ross, adding that most research takes about a year to appear in publications. Poster presentations provide a more immediate snapshot of current work. “The results are inspiring.”

This is the first year students in Damon Matthews’ seminar organized an event beyond the confines of their own classroom. Matthews’ colleague Pascale Biron was also involved in the class’s efforts.

Although the posters were primarily from graduate programs within their Department of Geography, Planning and Environment they represented numerous approaches and subjects of study. “We have displays of work from a range of fields; habitats, business and urban development,” says Ross.

Ross himself is using mathematical models of probability to explore different scenarios related to climate warming. By changing variables like ocean heat uptake, he is able to generate probable temperature fluctuations based on varying conditions.

Stephanie G. Berger’s PhD presentation in Management applied a range of approaches including psychology, business concepts and sustainable development to her analysis of the impact of an organizational misfit in corporate culture.

She developed a fictional scenario involving George — a company man for Shell, the fourth generation of his family to work for the corporation. But, he also has personal reservations about society’s over-reliance on fossil fuels. Using this example, she analyzed the organizational and individual factors that might lead to long-term corporate value shifts.

The link to the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability-themed research and the JMSB did not rest solely with Berger. Organizers also invited JMSB Dean Sanjay Sharma to speak. Sharma has a long history in organizational sustainability. Currently he is exploring sustainable business models at the base of the economic pyramid — to empower women and minorities and build economic capacity for those who earn less than a dollar a day.

Sharma’s presentation on business sustainability research outlined the range of disciplines that the field draws on for theoretical perspectives. “The environment of business doesn’t just concern the natural environment, but recognizes the embeddedness of organizations in society,” he said. “As is evident in the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development, unless you eliminate poverty, you can’t protect the environment.”

Sharma argued that addressing these questions depends on a cross-theoretical approach “that requires a deep understanding of each theory in its original context and the ability to interpret and apply it in a business context.”

Among the disciplinary fields he listed as contributing to sustainable business research were sociology, economics, psychology, anthropology, political science, ethics, and mathematics. These theories are integrated into traditional business disciplines of accounting, finance, marketing, operations management, organizational behaviour, organizational theory and strategic management.

Anticipating that some corporate leaders might dismiss sustainable solutions because they argue the economic downturn necessitates a cautious approach, Sharma emphasized that sustainability represents a tremendous opportunity for invention and discovery, pointing out that sustainability holds the key to “the jobs of the future.”

For instance, once companies have made the easy changes by plucking the low hanging fruit of eco-efficiency (material and energy savings or reducing their carbon footprint by sourcing local materials instead of shipping them from great distances) he suggested that more radical changes in business models via redesigned processes, products and business models are possible. Citing the toothpaste tube as an unnecessary landfill staple since the product it contains is used up in a few days, he pointed to a new technology developing a bio-degradable tube made from corn starch.


Concordia University