What can be measured can be managed?: A transdisciplinary study in sustainability assessment and management: Dissertation

Research output: ThesisDissertation

Abstract

Lack of environmental data and proper measures for sustainability have been acknowledged as persistent challenges for sustainability management research. Management and organization studies have been criticized for ignoring the natural environment and focusing too much on the economic, organizational and social aspects of sustainability. This study contributes to existing literature on sustainability management by increasing understanding about practical challenges and constraints related to measuring sustainability and communicating the results. This is considered important, taking into account the central role that measurements and metrics play within the literature on sustainability management. Thus, the study addresses some of the fundamental challenges related to sustainability management. According to principles of transdisciplinary research, it uses methods that have been developed in the fields of engineering and industrial ecology, and builds on case studies that originate from the practice-oriented field of sustainability assessment. The specific focus of this study is on the use of product-based life cycle-based assessment methods and life cycle thinking.

This thesis includes four individual case studies that all deal with different sustainability aspects and aim to measure, prioritize or communicate information about sustainability impacts of products and technologies. Common aspects in the case studies include the use of analytic, quantitative research methods together with qualitative methods and data, and active stakeholder engagement. All case studies apply the principles of life cycle thinking, considering how the information created from the assessment should be communicated and used in order to minimize evaluated impacts or to prioritize future activities.

The results from this study indicate that sustainability assessment methods are useful for generating information and increasing knowledge about the studied system and related sustainability impacts. Thus, they could be used to address some of the shortcomings related to lacking environmental information in sustainability management research. Analytic methods are important for sustainability assessment, since their use makes it necessary to consider in detail all related issues (inputs, outputs, life cycle phases and actors along the life cycle). However, due to many choices that have to be made during the assessment, the results become (at least partly) socially constructed. This does not reduce the value of the assessments, but increases the need for transparency when communicating the results. In future, more discussion about social aspects related to knowledge production and interpretation in the context of analytic methods is encouraged.

Sustainability assessment has been criticized for focusing too much on comparing existing alternatives, instead of considering if the evaluated options could really contribute to sustainability. In addition, the focus of the field has been on the development of more precise methods and tools, rather than considering, how the methods could be used to support decision-making. In future, management theories could be applied in the context of sustainability assessment to increase understanding about the change processes that are required for implementing assessed activities, and considering, how the results should be presented to managers and other stakeholders.

Sustainability assessments may help in understanding the complexity that is related to sustainability, and identifying what needs to be changed or managed. However, both measuring and management require reductionism that makes complex issues easier to handle and to communicate. The study highlights how paradoxes and trade-offs are not only related to the concept of sustainability, but also on the many different methods that are applied for measuring it. Measuring is necessary for understanding sustainability challenges, but measuring is not enough to make sustainability manageable. It is argued that many of the existing challenges related to sustainability management cannot be addressed simply by developing more efficient metrics, but rather by increasing the understanding of the assessment process, and the kind of information the assessments are able to produce.

Practice-oriented transdisciplinary research provides a framework that allows combining methods and approaches that originate from different disciplinary practices. It acknowledges the paradoxes that are evident in both sustainability management and sustainability assessment. The study concludes that existing methods are useful for identifying trade-offs related to sustainability, but it is necessary to understand their limitations. Simply looking at measurable aspects may provide too narrow understanding of many sustainability impacts, and may hide important interlinkages, trade-offs and rebound effects. By extending the scope of the assessment from purely quantitative to more qualitative means, it is possible to increase understanding of the studied problem. At the same time, information becomes more fragmented and less specific, and more difficult to communicate. Consequently, one of the main challenges in sustainability assessment relates to balancing between comprehensiveness and simplicity of produced information. The more comprehensive the assessment is, the more difficult it is to provide simple guidelines. Yet many stakeholders would prefer to have simple guidelines about most sustainable options. It is proposed that future studies should focus on considering how organizations and individual decision-makers are able to use produced sustainability information for making more sustainable choices.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor Degree
Awarding Institution
  • Turku School of Economics
Supervisors/Advisors
  • Kallio, Tomi J., Supervisor, External person
  • Liikamaa, Kirsi, Supervisor, External person
Award date19 Feb 2021
Place of PublicationTurku
Publisher
Print ISBNs978-951-29-8346-9
Electronic ISBNs978-951-29-8347-6
Publication statusPublished - 19 Jan 2021
MoE publication typeG5 Doctoral dissertation (article)

Keywords

  • sustainability management
  • sustainability assessment
  • life cycle thinking
  • life cycle assessment
  • multicriteria decision-making
  • transdisciplinary research
  • sustainability science
  • paradox
  • trade-off

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