Environmental Sustainability to Support Competitiveness: From Theory to Practice

Environmental Sustainability to Support Competitiveness: From Theory to Practice

Anna Mazzi (University of Padova, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-1419-1.ch006


The interest of scientists and companies in understanding the business implications of environmental commitments is timely; however, a dilemma remains at the firm level: is environmental sustainability a strategic factor for business competitiveness? The author contributes to this international end interdisciplinary debate through a double analysis, theoretical and empirical. Starting from a systematic literature review, the main correlations between environmental commitments and business performance are identified in a scholar's perspective. Based on the results from an Italian survey, the main added values associated with certified environmental management system are verified with a manager's perspective. Finally, the findings obtained from theoretical and empirical points of view are compared, to discuss confirmations or contradictions and underline questions still open.
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Since the 1980s the concerns of the international community linked to the consequences of an irresponsible development have determined the progressive affirmation of the concept of sustainability and the issue of environment is of great interest for companies today. Among scientists a lively debate concerning corporate sustainability has determined multiple epistemological and theoretical paradigms (Vildåsen et al., 2017). On the other hand, over the years the attention to environmental problems has grown in consumers, pushing companies to introduce the sustainability as strategic variable in their business (Roulet and Touboni, 2015; Xu et al., 2018). In order to answer the increasing pressure of legislation and market of environmental issues, many organizations are committed to reducing environmental impacts (Ren et al., 2019). To support the growing needs of sustainable management in many sectors around the world, the standards and guidelines have gradually multiplied in recent years (Toniolo et al., 2019/b).

To gain increase of market credibility and legitimacy, many organizations around the world have chosen to achieve voluntary environmental certifications, beyond the legal requirements (Chen et al, 2012; Neuteleers and Engelen, 2015; Wijethilake, 2017). The environmental management system is certainly the most widespread tool to improve the environmental performances of an organization; moreover, thanks to its applicability in all economic sectors, it represents the best-known environmental label on the market (Ni, 2018). However, in several cases the organizations not always are able to quantify costs and benefits related their environmental procedures and performances (Mazzi et al., 2016/b; Lee et al., 2017).

The focus of this chapter is the discussion about the relevance of the environmental sustainability (ES) in supporting the business competitiveness (BC). In the international debate this topic has already been widely discussed by many authors. The so-called “neoclassical” approach that considers the environment as a negative externality and focuses on the environment in terms of compliance with regulatory requirements is considered to be outdated (Bhat, 1998; Bithas, 2011). However, a dilemma thus arises: is it convenient for a company to invest in the environment? (Porter, 1991; Boons, 2002). The international debate concerning this question starts from the awareness of the complexity related to measure the relationship between environmental commitment and business success factors; in the last thirty years through empirical and theoretical studies the scientists come to conflicting conclusions. In other words, looking for an answer to this dilemma is “like finding the Holy Grail” (Boons and Wagner, 2009).

The chapter contributes to this long-standing question starting from a double perspective, theoretical and practical, and looking for a meeting point. From a systematic literature review, the theoretical evidences related the relationship on ES and BC are underlined and the scholars’ perspective is clarified. Through the investigation of the opinion of companies with ES commitments, the practical experiences related the relationship on ES and BC are verified. Finally, comparing the results derived by the literature review and the opinion of companies, the similarities and differences between theoretical and practical outcomes are underlined.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Environment: All of the natural materials and living things, which include air, water, sunlight and their relationships.

Survey Methodology: A research methodology that studies a sampling of individual units from a population through associated techniques of survey data collection, such as questionnaire construction and methods to ask one or more questions that may or may not be answered.

Environmental Management System: The framework that helps an organization achieve its environmental goals, reduce its environmental impacts and improve its environmental performance through systematic plans, effective processes and practices, consistent monitoring and evaluation, in a continuous improvement perspective.

Competitiveness: The set of strategies, policies and factors that determine the level of productivity of a company; competitive economies are most likely to be able to grow more sustainably and inclusively, meaning more likelihood that everyone in society will benefit from the fruits of economic growth.

Triple Bottom Line: An accounting framework with three parts, social, environmental (or ecological) and financial, adopted by organizations to evaluate their performance in a broader perspective to create greater business value coherently in the concept of sustainability.

International Standards: Technical or organizational rules developed by international standards organizations, with a large user base worldwide, to overcome technical barriers in international commerce caused by differences among technical regulations and standards developed independently and separately by each nation or industry.

Certification: The confirmation of certain characteristics of an object, person, or organization, provided by some form of external review, education, assessment, or audit.

Sustainability: The process of people maintaining change in a balanced environment, in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.

Circular Economy: An economic system aimed at minimizing resource input and waste, emission, and energy by slowing, closing, and narrowing energy and material loops; this can be achieved through long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling.

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