Accepted Paper:

Corporate sustainability and the narrative of smooth transitions  
Matthew Archer (Graduate Institute for International and Development Studies)

Paper short abstract:

Corporate sustainability uses the language of "smooth transitions" to preclude critique while reinforcing the corporation's position at the center of neoliberal sustainable development. This paper explores the implications of—and alternatives to—the dominance of this transition narrative.

Paper long abstract:

Corporate sustainability—and the greener, richer, happier world it promises—is couched in the language of smooth transitions. Shell, the multi-national energy conglomerate, sees itself as a key player in what it describes as the "transition to a low-carbon future." The World Business Council for Sustainable Development similarly imagines how the cement industry, one of the most energy intensive industries in the world, can take a leading role in the "low-carbon transition." The language of transition, however, precludes the possibility of disruption and disjuncture, despite the reliance of transition narratives on investment in so-called disruptive innovations.

Drawing on fieldwork conducted in Geneva, Switzerland, between September 2015 and August 2016 among "sustainability professionals" working in different industries, this paper will examine how the notion of "smooth transitions" is used to neutralize critiques of corporate sustainability while concomitantly situating corporations and private financial institutions at the very center of global sustainable development. The language of transition quickly takes on a moral valence, with continuity becoming a normative goal, inhibiting the emergence of other, more radical possibilities by preemptively implying that other possibilities are unethical and chaotic. By documenting the way the calm and confident language of transition in corporate sustainability belies the necessity of systemic ruptures, disruptions, and disjunctures that just responses to climate change and other socio-ecological crises demand, this paper opens an avenue of critique from the inside out, that is, from within the centers of global economic and political power where the narrative of transition is produced and enforced.

Panel Pol01
From managed change to utopian disjuncture: socio-environmental transitions in a fluctuating world