Generation Nachhaltigkeit

Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin | Generation Nachhaltigkeit | Konferenz 2010 | Programm | Abstracts | The Silent Revolution: How Individuals Quietly Change Multinational Corporations towards Sustainability

The Silent Revolution: How Individuals Quietly Change Multinational Corporations towards Sustainability

Freitag, 18.06.
14.15 - 16.15
Sektion: Ökonomie
Block: Wirtschaftsethik

Jonas Gebauer, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


A specter is haunting multinational corporations – the specter of sustainability. The current economic and sustainability crisis is forcing a rethinking of our economic system. These days, it is more important than ever to understand possible mechanisms to reform some institutions and organizations. How do corporations change? Although the corporate responsibility literature is full of copious analyses about the influence of external pressure and demands, like the influence of social investment, corporate scandals or NGO campaigns, we know surprisingly little about interorganizational processes in this context. We know that we have to change corporations but we don’t know how change towards sustainability can be internally initiated. This becomes even more important if we bear in mind that many people are employed in large companies but only a minority is actively engaged in NGOs. How do individual actors initiate change towards sustainability in multinational corporations?

I open the black box of corporations to analyze internal organizational processes. By focusing on processes rather than outcomes of institutionalization, I explore how individuals initiated change towards sustainability over a period of four years. My paper is based on a longitudinal case study at a large German electronics company. I incorporated three main sources of data into my qualitative analysis – semi-structured interviews1, participant observation2 and archival documents. The corporation is well-known for its bottom-heavy middle management and the present CEO declared several times they need to “clear away the dead wood”. Moreover, the corporate responsibility managers had neither access to sufficient resources nor were their efforts considerably supported by the management board. How were they nevertheless able to initiate change towards sustainability? Instead of pressing for direct change, the CR managers influenced and manipulated officially guiding documents like parts of the non-financial annual report, goals in sustainability reports and code of conducts over a long period of time. This strategy of small wins works under the radar and is therefore an appropriate means to initiate change towards sustainability in highly contested surroundings. It remains largely unnoticed by potential defenders of the status quo and is therefore less threatening than typical change management projects. This silent revolution comes on soft paws, subtle but irresistible.


Organizational Change; Social Institutional Entrepeneurship; Sustainability