Stakeholder Value Creation: Legitimating Business Sustainability
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The purpose of this chapter is to examine how business sustainability is considered and legitimated in stakeholder value creation studies. Based on a review of stakeholder value creation literature, a stakeholder value creation typology is presented. The typology consists of four categories, which are (1) focal firm orientation with economic value perspective, (2) stakeholder orientation with economic value perspective, (3) focal firm orientation with multiple value perspective, and (4) stakeholder orientation with multiple value perspective. Each category tells a somewhat different story of what the purpose of business is, who are the important stakeholders, what role does sustainability play in business, and how business sustainability is legitimated. A closer analysis reveals that the category of stakeholder orientation with a multiple value perspective shows the most potential to build the legitimacy of business sustainability on the profound meaning of sustainability with economic, social, and environmental dimensions. In this category, business sustainability is legitimized in terms of cooperative stakeholder relationships, continual negotiations, and collective efforts, where versatile value is created for various stakeholders, including values related to sustainability. The recommendations for future research draw attention to versatile and broad understanding of value, stakeholders, and value creation and dynamic, systemic, and multilevel stakeholder relationships and collaboration as subjects to understand the legitimation of business sustainability.
The ways of doing business are under increased societal scrutiny, and in order to legitimate business sustainability, firms should meet the social, environmental, and economic expectations of various stakeholders. Often the mainstream management literature, however, falls short in acknowledging the numerous stakeholder responsibilities of business. Especially, as the importance of creating versatile value beyond economic measures has become more and more important in legitimating business sustainability. As sustainability is a complex concept to incorporate into business context, management theorists seem to lack a systematic examination of the premises of business sustainability (Gallo and Christensen 2011; Starik and Kanashiro 2013).
Stakeholder theory has been suggested as a management theory of this century as it serves well in understanding and redefining the role of business, value creation, and sustainability (Freeman 2010; Hörisch et al. 2014). However, research on stakeholder value creation is still rather fragmented, and few scholars have attempted to advance a general framework for combining stakeholder theory, sustainability management, and business legitimacy. Stakeholder approach has also been criticized for not addressing true sustainability challenges, as the basis for the stakeholder approach is mainly anthropocentric and emphasizes the focal firm view (e.g., Banerjee 2000; Clifton and Amran 2011). To promote sustainability in mainstream management literature, it is essential to increase our understanding of how sustainability and stakeholder value creation are connected and how business sustainability is legitimated in stakeholder literature (Hörisch et al. 2014).
This chapter argues that recognizing stakeholder responsibilities and understanding stakeholder value creation are an important part of legitimating business sustainability. The chapter builds on an increasing amount of literature on how organizations are applying the ideas of stakeholder value creation. The purpose of this chapter is to provide a structure for current work on stakeholder value creation, to examine how business sustainability is considered and legitimated within stakeholder research, and to identify ideas for future research. By examining the linkage between stakeholder value creation, sustainability, and business legitimacy, this chapter advances a general framework on stakeholder theory and sustainability management.
The rest of the chapter is organized as follows. First, the concepts of sustainability and legitimacy as basic concepts for discussing business legitimacy will be introduced. In the next section, stakeholder value creation research is structured according to four key categories. Then the chapter discusses how business sustainability is legitimated in each of these four categories. The chapter is concluded by discussing topics for further research within the fields of stakeholder value creation and business sustainability.
The Concepts of Sustainability and Legitimacy
Sustainability in its most profound meaning refers to meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” and consists of environmental, economic, and social dimensions (United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). Business sustainability should consider and meet the requirements of these three dimensions, too (Bansal 2005). In a business context, however, sustainability often does not cover all dimensions and usually concerns the “economic and/or ecological and/or social aspects of the relationship between business and society” (Gallo and Christensen 2011: 316). This casts a doubt on how well business organizations consider sustainability after all.
The use of the sustainability concept varies to a great extent both in breadth and depth in stakeholder literature, and there is a difference between the explicit and implicit use of sustainability. Explicit sustainability refers to studies that mention sustainability or sustainable development explicitly, whether as the main focus or in the form of random allusions or case examples (e.g., Pinkse and Kolk 2012; Sharma and Henriques 2005; Stubbs and Cocklin 2008). Implicit sustainability, in turn, refers to the use of sustainability or sustainable development as an indirect concept, for example, by addressing social dimensions, environmental dimensions, or both (e.g., Berman et al. 1999; Jawahar and McLaughlin 2001). This chapter considers the ways by which business sustainability is argued for and legitimated both explicitly and implicitly.
The concept of legitimacy refers to “a generalized perception or assumption that the actions of an entity are desirable, proper, or appropriate within some socially constructed system of norms, values, beliefs, and definitions” (Suchman 1995: 574). Legitimacy is considered a central concept in management and organization studies, and many efforts have been placed in examining and explaining its effects on organizational behavior. Despite these efforts, the concept and its use remain ambiguous, and different configurations prevail to date (Suddaby et al. 2017).
Suddaby et al. (2017) recognize three distinct legitimacy configurations within the management research: legitimacy-as-property, legitimacy-as-process, and legitimacy-as-perception. The first perspective, legitimacy-as-property, perceives legitimacy as something measurable and stagnant an organization must acquire and maintain in relation to its external environment (ibid.). The second perspective, legitimacy-as-perception, concentrates on individual-level cognitive processes in legitimacy evaluations (ibid.). The third perspective, legitimacy-as-process, focuses on legitimacy construction in interaction between different parties giving agency to various actors at multiple levels and emphasizing continuous and active negotiations among social actors about what is socially legitimate within the context in question (ibid.). In the legitimacy-as-process perspective, legitimacy construction is thus perceived to occur in cooperative stakeholder networks.
Business Sustainability in Stakeholder Value Creation Research
With the stakeholder value creation typology, this chapter will organize the most important work in the field of stakeholder value creation into four categories: (1) focal firm orientation with economic value perspective, (2) stakeholder orientation with economic value perspective, (3) focal firm orientation with multiple value perspective, and (4) stakeholder orientation with multiple value perspective. The various categories of this typology have, obviously, some intersection, and their distinction is superficial to some extent. However, each category shares similar interests and themes, telling a certain type of a story about stakeholder value creation and business sustainability. In the following, each of these categories is examined in more detail.
Focal Firm Orientation with Economic Value Perspective
The first category in the stakeholder value creation typology, focal firm orientation with economic value perspective, emphasizes economic value predominance within the current economic paradigm. In this category, economic value creation is considered as the primary function of business organizations, and basis of business legitimacy lies on financial performance, while business sustainability is treated as secondary to traditional performance measures (e.g., Choi and Wang 2009; Garcia-Castro and Francoeur 2016). The main stakeholders engaged in the negotiations about the business sustainability and legitimacy are those who profit from the firm’s economic performance, such as shareholders, or are of utility for a firm, such as suppliers. Focal firm orientation combined with economic value perspective may reinforce organizational behavior that neglects broader societal values and cooperation regarding sustainability and build the legitimacy of business sustainability on economic value creation solely.
Studies representing the focal firm orientation and economic value perspective rationalize that giving primacy to economic value creation function is the most beneficial approach to all stakeholders at the end. Furthermore, stakeholder approach is criticized for being too vague a guideline in managerial decision-making, which often requires trade-offs between stakeholder interests (Jensen 2002; Sundaram and Inkpen 2004.) Therefore, the primary corporate objective function is suggested being the firm’s long-term value maximization (Jensen 2002) or shareholder value maximization (Sundaram and Inkpen 2004). However, some studies examine how the interests of shareholders and stakeholders could simultaneously be met, showing evidence that it is possible to meet the expectations of different stakeholders without negative impacts on shareholder value (Ogden and Watson 1999).
Instrumentality and economic value creation emphasis are also present in this category. The focus is on how stakeholder management contributes to firm performance, showing both positive (e.g., Choi and Wang 2009; Hillman and Keim 2001) and negative effects (e.g., Garcia-Castro and Francoeur 2016). Additionally, the motivation to address stakeholder concerns is linked to positive effects on financial performance (e.g., Berman et al. 1999). Jawahar and McLaughlin (2001) argue that the motivation and interest to manage stakeholders depend on the correspondence between the firm’s life cycle stage and stakeholders’ utility for the firm within that stage. Rowley (1997), on the other hand, argues that the firm’s stakeholder management activities (resisting or more cooperating) depend on a firm’s stakeholder network density and the firm’s own negotiating position within it.
To sum, the category of focal firm orientation with economic value perspective represents stakeholder research, which builds on the primacy of organizational interests and business value before other value considerations and focuses on examining instrumentally whether or not various stakeholder issues should be attended to. Hence, the efforts regarding different stakeholders are made in relation to potential benefits for the focal firm and its performance, and business sustainability is legitimated with economic values and financial performance from the focal firm’s point of view.
Stakeholder Orientation with Economic Value Perspective
While still leaning on the economic or business value predominance, the category of stakeholder orientation with economic value perspective tells a story in which stakeholder relationships and cooperation are viewed necessary for value creation. By acknowledging cooperative networks as important for business success, broader interests of different stakeholders become under the organizational scrutiny. However, the focus on business performance defines the setting instrumentally, leading to a limited approach to value creation compared with a broader sustainability view.
Orientation toward a wide set of stakeholders is expressed in many ways in this category. Considering the importance of different stakeholders and their cooperation for a firm’s success, Garcia-Castro and Aguilera (2015) argue that the stakeholders should profit from the created economic value proportionally related to their efforts, such as the resources and capabilities they have provided for value creation. In addition, the role of trust is discussed in many studies, especially in relation to instrumental stakeholder theory. It is argued that trusting cooperative relationships lead to organizational wealth and competitive advantage (Jones 1995; Preston and Donaldson 1999; Wicks et al. 1999) and that different dimensions of trust are important for different stakeholders (Pirson and Malhotra 2011). Coff (2010) points out that the bargaining power of certain stakeholders may influence firm performance negatively. Moreover, the theme of blurring organizational boundaries draws attention to different internal and external stakeholders, and it is argued that stakeholders should be given more attention than is usually done in the value creation processes (Henisz et al. 2014; Korschun 2015; Schneider 2002).
To sum, the main focus in the category of the stakeholder orientation with economic value perspective is on those stakeholders, who can affect business performance. Therefore, business sustainability is legitimized by creating economic value in the stakeholder network and by negotiating with those stakeholders who are important within the firm’s cooperative stakeholder networks and central for the financial performance of business organizations.
Focal Firm Orientation with Multiple Value Perspective
In the category of focal firm orientation with multiple value perspective, sustainability issues are increasingly present, either explicitly or implicitly. However, there seems to be no shared conception of sustainability, as some studies discuss mainly environmental (e.g., Driscoll and Starik 2004) and others mainly social issues as sustainability matters (e.g., Jones and Felps 2013). Some scholars criticize that stakeholder theory is based on an anthropocentric, Western economic paradigm, which does not adequately consider the broader environmental and social sustainability issues such as the needs of marginalized stakeholders (Banerjee 2000; Gladwin et al. 1995). Especially, the traditional corporate social responsibility (CSR) approach is criticized, as it is regarded as something separate from a firm’s value creation disconnecting the social responsibilities from the economic ones (O’Riordan and Fairbrass 2014; Sachs and Maurer 2009).
A firm-centric approach is well present in the studies interested in stakeholder identification and management. For example, Mitchell et al. (1997) contend that stakeholders are perceived important by managers based on three attributes possessed by stakeholders, that is, power, legitimacy, and urgency. Bundy et al. (2013), on the other hand, argue that stakeholder issues become salient in relation to the organizational identity and the strategic frames that managers follow. In effect, organizational aspects and managerial cognitions are seen to be affecting the stakeholder management practices firms adopt (Crilly 2013; Crilly and Sloan 2012).
Some studies are interested in reconceptualizing value creation. For example, Haksever et al. (2004) direct attention to managerial decision-making, which has potential to either create or destroy value for different stakeholders. Additionally, Jones and Felps (2013) present that firms should follow the objective function of stakeholder happiness enhancement instead of shareholder wealth maximization.
Studies focusing on environmental and sustainability management expand the view of value creation by explicitly connecting sustainability to business. Driscoll and Starik (2004) ascribe the environment status of the most important, or primordial, stakeholder. Many studies are interested in what makes firms adopt environmental or sustainability management practices. For instance, Sharma and Henriques (2005) contend that firms adapt sustainability practices in relation to the influencing capacity and resources of their social, ecological, and economic stakeholders. Industry, ownership and firm size (Gallo and Christensen 2011), and institutional factors (Bansal 2005) are seen to affect firms’ sustainability performance, too. Additionally, the cognitive frames of managers are argued to have an effect on managers’ sustainability sensemaking (Hahn et al. 2014).
To sum, in the category of focal firm orientation with multiple value perspective, sustainability is perceived as an essential part of business, and it is argued that sustainability should have a place on every firm’s agenda. A wide variety of stakeholders are identified, and their concerns are included in managerial practices and decision-making. The main emphasis in this category is on firm-centric, managerial approaches. However, some studies shed light on the potential flaws of the firm-centric approach especially in the context of sustainability and argue that firms should improve their sustainability practices and see the environment as one of the stakeholders.
Stakeholder Orientation with Multiple Value Perspective
The category of stakeholder orientation with multiple value perspective starts to tell a new kind of story of stakeholder value creation and business sustainability. This story is built on the firm’s purpose and responsibility to create value beyond economic measures with and for all stakeholders (Freeman 2010), emphasizing the importance of cooperation as well as multiple value considerations. In this category, business sustainability is related to multi-stakeholder settings tackling “wicked” socioeconomic problems, to the ecological orientation of firms, and to sustainable business models. For example, Shrivastava (1995) presents an approach of eco-centric management, in which stakeholder welfare, the quality of life, and sustainability are seen as the main goals for business organizations. More recently, Pinkse and Kolk (2012) assert that multi-stakeholder partnerships are of utmost importance addressing the complex climate change and sustainability issues. Moreover, addressing sustainability issues and especially environmental sustainability as one of the main business goals is justified with the systemic view where both the society and the firms are dependent on the environment (Marcus et al. 2010).
Studies on sustainable business models place sustainability and multi-stakeholder collaboration in the center of business organizations. Sustainable business models require correspondence of internal structures and cultural capabilities (Stubbs and Cocklin 2008) and transformational value creation logics (Schaltegger et al. 2016). Hence, complex sustainability challenges are seen to touch both business organizations and management theories to an extent that they need to adapt or transform accordingly (Derry 2012; Hahn et al. 2010).
More traditional research on stakeholder value creation presents principles and conceptions to promote stakeholder orientation and multiple value creation. One of the main principles (“The Principle of Stakeholder Cooperation”) emphasizes voluntary, cooperative stakeholder networks, where all stakeholders can jointly satisfy their needs (Freeman 2010; Freeman et al. 2007). By managing the multi-attribute utility functions of stakeholders and their synergies, firms can enhance value creation possibilities and find new, innovative ways to create value for all stakeholders (Harrison et al. 2010; Tantalo and Priem 2016). Furthermore, trust and justice are seen to nurture value creation possibilities and reciprocal stakeholder relationships (Bosse et al. 2009; Harrison et al. 2010; Jones and Wicks 1999; Myllykangas et al. 2011). In effect, stakeholder theorists have devoted a lot of effort to advance responsible business, drawing attention to the inseparable pair of business and ethics (Freeman 2000).
Just recently, stakeholder theory has been strengthened regarding sustainability by Hörisch et al. (2014), who argue that firms should try to make sustainability a shared value for their stakeholders. Yet, there is no common conceptualization of value within stakeholder value creation studies. What is of value has been defined, for example, with regard to perceived utility by a stakeholder (Harrison and Wicks 2013) or with the concept of stakeholder capability, for instance, the capability of being green (Garriga 2014). Despite the lack of common conception of value, stakeholder approach serves well in addressing the economic, social, and environmental values that are important for different stakeholders due to the similarities of sustainable development and stakeholder relations management approaches (Steurer et al. 2005).
To sum, the category of stakeholder orientation with multiple value perspective goes beyond the traditional single value, focal firm perspective and perceives business inherently consisting of the collective efforts of different stakeholders and versatile value creation. While the studies within this category do not share a similar approach to sustainability, it is increasingly perceived as one of the most important values of our times (e.g., Hörisch et al. 2014). Accordingly, business sustainability becomes negotiated within stakeholder relationships and is continuously constructed and legitimized in the dialogue between different environmental, social, and economic stakeholders and the focal firm.
Legitimacy Views of Business Sustainability
Legitimacy views of business sustainability summarize the results of the qualitative content analysis of stakeholder value creation literature and the legitimacy views they represent in relation to business sustainability
Categories of stakeholder value creation typology
Legitimacy views of business sustainability
Focal firm orientation with economic value perspective
Legitimation is built on the primacy of economic and shareholder value maximization resulting in benefits for all stakeholders
Legitimation is built on stakeholder management contributing positively to financial performance
Legitimacy is built on the changing importance and salience of stakeholders in relation to a firm’s needs and situation
Stakeholder orientation with economic value perspective
Legitimacy is built on cooperative stakeholder relationships and sharing the created economic value between different stakeholders
Legitimacy is built on giving importance to a broader set of stakeholders
Legitimacy is built on trusting, cooperative stakeholder relationships creating competitive advantage
Focal firm orientation with multiple value perspective
Legitimacy is built on expanding the environmental and social responsibilities of a firm
Legitimacy is built on the abandonment of the anthropocentric, Western economic paradigm that serves poorly the sustainability considerations
Legitimacy is built on analyzing the saliency of stakeholder issues that depend on organizational structures and individual-level perceptions
Legitimacy is built on the expanded conceptualization of value creation taking care of various stakeholders and their well-being
Legitimacy is built on perceiving environmental and sustainability issues as firm responsibilities
Stakeholder orientation with multiple value perspective
Legitimacy is built on placing sustainability issues in the center of business organizations and value creation
Legitimacy is built on cooperative stakeholder networks and value creation processes, in which what is of value is negotiated and constructed continuously; focus is on creating as much as value as possible to all stakeholders
Bosse et al. 2009; Freeman 1984; Freeman 2010; Freeman et al. 2007; Garriga 2014; Harrison and Wicks 2013; Harrison et al. 2010; Hörisch et al. 2014; Jones and Wicks 1999; Myllykangas et al. 2011; Steurer et al. 2005; Tantalo and Priem 2016
In the first two categories representing the economic value perspective, legitimacy is built on shareholder value maximization, firm financial performance, and creating competitive advantage. While some studies acknowledge the importance of wider stakeholder networks, the economic value is still the most important focus, and stakeholders are engaged to create competitive advantage and improve financial outcomes. In this line of thinking, there is a risk to reinforce the economic value creation function of firms at the expense of environmental and social sustainability. The requirements of three business sustainability dimensions may not be met, as economic value overrides social and environmental values. Moreover, the future orientation of sustainability thinking may be forgotten, and the short-term economic outcomes override the long-term sustainability goals. These views can be seen to represent legitimacy-as-property perspective (Suddaby et al. 2017), as they legitimize business sustainability with the end result of business actions, i.e., something quantifiable and stagnant business organizations must gain and retain in order to survive. In this approach, the efforts to influence business organizations by stakeholder groups representing social and environmental issues become important in advancing sustainability issues.
The last two categories representing multiple value perspective combine the economic and social responsibilities of the firms more tightly together. However, there is no consistent view about what business sustainability is truly and how it should be strived for in business organizations. The category of focal firm orientation with multiple value perspective follows the idea of legitimacy-as-perception (Suddaby et al. 2017), as business sustainability is legitimized in individual of firm-level processes analyzing and conceptualizing stakeholder salience and environmental responsibilities. Again, broad stakeholder engagement and cooperation would be needed in order to reinforce sustainability views in business and to allow for different stakeholders to participate in negotiating about what is of value and how to enhance sustainable value creation.
While all the approaches presented in Table 1 have their place and rationale, the last category of stakeholder orientation with multiple value perspective is the only one to consider business sustainability and its three pillars equally. Abandoning a firm-centric, economic view leads to recognizing the broader social and environmental issues that concern all of us and requires cooperative efforts of businesses, stakeholders, and society-at-large. This approach perceives business legitimacy in terms of cooperative stakeholder relationships, which through continuous negotiations and collective efforts create versatile value for all stakeholders. While sustainability issues are not always considered explicitly, there is an increasing interest to expand stakeholder considerations to consistently include sustainability matters and to perceive sustainability as one of the main goals of business organizations. From the legitimacy point of view, business sustainability is built on addressing sustainability issues as an essential part of business organizations and their value creation processes. Moreover, legitimacy is constructed in a continuous dialogue between the firm and its stakeholders on what is of value to whom and how to develop collaborative stakeholder value creation processes. Such approach relates well to the legitimacy-as-process view (Suddaby et al. 2017), as legitimacy is constructed in interaction between different parties and in continuous and active negotiations among various stakeholders and refers to the legitimacy construction in cooperation with different social actors. The participating actors and the context in question influence how complex sustainability issues without the right answers are addressed.
Avenues for Future Research
As the premises of stakeholder value creation and legitimating business sustainability have become more explicit and clear in this chapter, some recommendations for future research can be suggested supposing that sustainability issues matter for management theories and business. Regarding the study premises, future research should make the conceptual foundations of stakeholders, value, and sustainability more visible by explicitly stating which paradigm and presumptions the research setting is built on and which discussions it wants to participate in. This is important especially regarding the lack of consistency in the use of sustainability concept within the stakeholder research. As building business sustainability requires reconsideration of the purpose and role of business in society, it would be useful to define and strengthen a shared understanding of the concept itself to start with.
Furthermore, future research could elaborate on the ideas of business sustainability presented in the category of stakeholder orientation with a multiple value perspective further. For example, examination of cooperating stakeholder networks presents itself as an interesting research avenue in order to better capture how sustainability as one value perspective is negotiated about and how value creation and value can be understood broadly. Future research could also focus on multi-stakeholder settings instead of emphasizing the focal firm activities, as business sustainability is regarded requiring collective efforts. In essence, dynamic, systemic, and multilevel stakeholder cooperation between different constituencies remains an interesting research area. Quite a recent research stream on sustainable business models, in particular, shows potential to examine current business practices and needed changes from the sustainability view. In effect, truly sustainable business models lack both real-life examples and research to date.
To conclude, this study examined how business sustainability is considered and legitimated in stakeholder value creation studies. Close examination revealed a great variance within stakeholder value creation studies and in their approaches to sustainability. Depending on how stakeholders and value were understood, the legitimation of business sustainability followed either the legitimacy-as-property, legitimacy-as-perception, and legitimacy-as-process views. However, studies emphasizing the importance of stakeholder cooperation and value beyond economic measures provide us with valuable conceptual constructions, where the future story of business sustainability can be built on. The recommendations for future research draw attention to versatile and broad understanding of value, stakeholders, and value creation, as well as on dynamic, systemic, and multilevel stakeholder relationships and collaboration. The conceptualization of sustainability within stakeholder value creation and the elaboration on the purpose and role of business with regard to sustainability serve as interesting focus areas for future research, too. This calls for explicit statements about the role of sustainability in our thinking, values, and consequent management theories.
This work was supported by the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland as part of the project CICAT 2025, Circular Economy Catalysts: From Innovation to Business Ecosystems (Grant number: 320194/320206).
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