Corporate Sustainability: A Strategy?

55 Pages Posted: 8 Jan 2019 Last revised: 4 Feb 2022

See all articles by Ioannis Ioannou

Ioannis Ioannou

London Business School - Department of Strategic & International Management

George Serafeim

Harvard Business School

Date Written: January 1, 2019


We explore the conditions under which firms maintain their competitive advantage through sustainability-based differentiation when faced with imitation pressures by industry peers. We document growing intraindustry convergence on sustainability actions over time for almost all industries in our sample and show that interindustry heterogeneity in the rates of intraindustry convergence is associated with (a) the importance of environmental and social issues relative to governance issues, and (b) the tone and volume of feedback received from stakeholders. Further, we find that actions characterized by low regulatory uncertainty are more likely to be imitated whereas those characterized by high novelty are less likely to be imitated. We then distinguish between common (i.e., imitated) and unique sustainability actions and evidence that the adoption of unique actions is significantly and positively associated with multiple measures of performance, whereas the adoption of common actions is not. Overall, we explore the role of sustainability as a long-term strategy under conditions of strong imitative forces, contributing to both the sustainability and the imitation literatures.

Keywords: sustainability, corporate social responsibility, strategy, strategic management, convergence/divergence, best practices, performance, sustainability strategy

Suggested Citation

Ioannou, Ioannis and Serafeim, George, Corporate Sustainability: A Strategy? (January 1, 2019). Harvard Business School Accounting & Management Unit Working Paper No. 19-065, Available at SSRN: or

Ioannis Ioannou

London Business School - Department of Strategic & International Management ( email )

Sussex Place
Regent's Park
London, NW1 4SA
United Kingdom
02070008748 (Phone)


George Serafeim (Contact Author)

Harvard Business School ( email )

Boston, MA 02163
United States


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