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Spanning Sustainability Management Boundaries through Transdisciplinarity

It is widely acknowledged that no single actor can ‘win the race against unsustainability’. Cooperation is necessary to tap diverse bodies of knowledge, bundle resources, include various parties, and thus ultimately create more sustainable and socially robust solutions. Transdisciplinarity in research offers a way forward.

Complexity and specialisation

Corporate sustainability as a contribution to sustainable development is a complex concept dealing with a multitude of more or (often) less specified sustainability issues in the organisation and beyond, including along the entire value chain and across various dimensions (economic, social, ecological). The response of most sciences to tackle the complexities of unsustainability challenges is specialisation. Even in relatively well-defined sustainability areas such as climate change, a wide range of disciplines and sub-disciplines investigate ever more detailed aspects of the phenomenon of unsustainability. This specialisation trend is also reflected in the emergence of new and specialised sustainability sub-disciplines (e.g. sustainability management as a sub-discipline of business administration), specialised concepts and methods (e.g. LCA) as well as scientific languages and theories (Figure 1).

An equivalent development can be observed on the organisational level of the business firm with an increasing specialisation of organisational functions (e.g. carbon accounting, stakeholder dialogue management, green marketing), professions (e.g. CSR manager, EHS manager, sustainability auditor) and sustainability management tools (e.g. sustainability report, fair trade labels, eco-indicators).

The increasing specialisation in research and practice is in line with Descartes’ approach to analyse complex phenomena by first splitting the problem into sub-problems and aspects and then investigating them separately in greater detail. However, the very benefits of specialisation create the corresponding challenge of re-integrating the scattered and often poorly compatible partial knowledge. In particular, disciplinary and functional specialisation fails to create a sufficient understanding of system dynamics, inter-linkages or overarching solutions.

Towards transdisciplinarity

It is widely acknowledged that no single actor can ‘win the race against unsustainability’ – cooperation is necessary to tap diverse bodies of knowledge, bundle resources, give voice to various parties, and thus ultimately create more sustainable and socially robust solutions.

While various separate approaches have been developed in management research to either increase interaction regarding disciplines (e.g. interdisciplinary research projects) or sectors (e.g. practice-oriented research, engaged scholarship, action research), one of the most ambitious endeavours for creating truly participative research processes has developed in the emerging field of sustainability science under the notion of ‘transdisciplinary research’ (Lang et al., 2012). Transdisciplinary research is understood as research method which combines interdisciplinarity and cross-sectoral participation (collaboration with other societal actors and practitioners) in order to become truly participative or even inclusive. In so doing, transdisciplinarity guarantees that all relevant knowledge is recognized in the process (particularly not limited to academic knowledge), it is worked on solution with a real potential of transforming practice and due to broad participation of different societal groups, solutions become more socially robust.

While transdisciplinarity has been described as an academic research process so far, it is by no means limited to academia. Rather, transdisciplinarity can also enrich corporate practice. It is the same problems within corporations that so often lead to unsustainable solutions. Only cross-disciplinary collaboration (e.g. through Sustainability Committees, interdisciplinary R&D or quality teams) and wider participation of external stakeholders (e.g. joint research projects with universities, dialogue with environmental and other pressure groups) are corporations more likely to develop sustainable solutions (Figure 2).

An example of the food industry

Given a specific management challenge in the food industry, such as to decide on which agricultural paradigm (organic agriculture, integrated production, conventional, genetically modified plants, etc.) to base production and products, the scientific research process for finding sustainable solutions is a challenging one. Taking a financial and narrow food security perspective, this may favour genetically modified (GM) plants based on the proponents’ arguments of increased crop productivity (at least in the short term) and its related positive social impact in the light of increasing world population. However, taking other disciplinary perspectives on board, totally different answers may appear. Agricultural studies would unearth questions of biodiversity, soil and ground water impacts (by pesticides applied to GM plants engineered to resists that same pesticide), and show the negative relative effects compared to other agricultural paradigms such as integrated or organic agriculture. Research in medical and health sciences can investigate variations in food nutrition values of GM foods and discuss scientific evidence about health risks. Insight from food economics show that the problem of world hunger are mainly linked to food distribution not food production.

Beyond this interdisciplinary integration of knowledge, truly transdisciplinary practices require also cross-sector participation, i.e. knowledge (or rather experiences) from various practitioners and societal actors. For example, lobbying organisations and professional associations, (critical) consumers, and environmental and other pressure groups could collectively contribute their voices and help to develop a joint answer to the problem. Overall, such a participative process is cumbersome and never satisfies everyone  to the same degree all the time, but it also yields high potential benefits, especially the development of a more sustainable and practicable solution that is also socially robust.

Research project: “Transdisciplinarity in Corporate Sustainability”Researchers involved: Stefan Schaltegger, Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM)E-Mail:; Tel.: +49 4131 677 2180Markus Beckmann, Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM)

From Nov. 2012, Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nurnberg

Dr. Erik G. Hansen, Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM)

E-Mail:; Tel: +49  4131 677-2260


Schaltegger, S., Beckmann, M., & Hansen, E. G. (2011): Transdisciplinarity in Corporate Sustainability. Business Strategy and the Environment, 20(5), 348–350.

Schaltegger, S., Beckmann, M., & Hansen, E. G. (forthcoming 2013): Transdisciplinarity in corporate sustainability. Mapping the field. Business Strategy and the Environment.

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