Business and Sustainability: New Business History Perspectives

39 Pages Posted: 19 Oct 2017 Last revised: 7 Nov 2017

See all articles by Ann-Kristin Bergquist

Ann-Kristin Bergquist

University of Umea - Department of Geography and Economic History

Date Written: November 6, 2017


This working paper provides a long-term business history perspective on environmental sustainability. For a long time, the central issues addressed in the discipline of business history concerned how business enterprises innovated and created wealth, as well as patterns of success and failure in that process, but there now exists a compelling stream of new research focused on the environmental consequences of economic growth. The earliest theme to be explored, is the story of how and why some conventional industries sought to become less polluting. Researchers have dated this phenomenon back to the late nineteenth century, showed it gained momentum from the 1960s, and explored how it resulted in the mainstreaming of sustainability rhetoric, and sometimes practice, in large Western corporations from the 1980s. A more recent research theme has been the story of how for-profit entrepreneurs developed entire new product categories such as organic food and wind and solar energy. This process has also been traced back to the nineteenth century. With the rise in green consumerism and public policy support in some developed countries (primarily in Europe) for sustainability during the 1990s, these two historical trends met, as the concept of sustainable development spread to large conventional corporations, and visionary green firms scaled or were acquired by conventional big businesses. The problem is that the concept of sustainability became socially constructed in a sufficiently broad fashion as to include even the most unsustainable and dirty industries. The working paper concludes that the emergent business history literature needs to be incorporated in the wider management literatures on sustainability, and the issue of business and sustainability deserves to become a central issue, rather than a marginal one, in the discipline of business history.

Suggested Citation

Bergquist, Ann-Kristin, Business and Sustainability: New Business History Perspectives (November 6, 2017). Harvard Business School General Management Unit Working Paper No. 18-034, Available at SSRN: or

Ann-Kristin Bergquist (Contact Author)

University of Umea - Department of Geography and Economic History ( email )

Umeå, S-901 87

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