Organizations and the Environment

Organizations and Environment

Michael L. Dougherty and T.W. Dondanville

Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Illinois State University, Normal, IL, USA


Bureaucracy; Climate change; Ecological modernization; Risk society; Sustainable development


Organizations – groupings of people in society that come together for specific purposes – have an impact on the natural environment and the natural environment, in turn, influences organizations.


Human society profoundly shapes the natural environment. We harvest natural resources, build elaborate urban settings, and deposit waste from economic processes back into nature. These processes produce deforestation, pollution, reduce biodiversity, and transform ecosystems. While it is common knowledge that human society influences nature, the converse is also true. The biophysical world shapes human society. Poverty and

abundance, family and industry, are impacted by the landscape, stocks of natural resources, and weather. Human settlements follow the contours of watersheds. Economies are differently endo- wed with natural resource riches. At its core, the scholarship of organizational and environmental studies is concerned with this reciprocal interplay between human society and nature.

When we speak of human organizations we mean something a bit narrower than society. Orga- nizations are companies, governments and other major subsocietal bureaucratic endeavors. Orga- nizational studies – made up of organizational sociology and management studies – is the study of bureaucracy, governance, and management of human organizations.

We live in a moment of environmental crisis. Climate change, resource scarcity, and “natural” disaster have come to characterize the global environment of the twenty-first century. It is more urgent than ever, therefore, to understand the interplay of organization and environment. This article lays out the chief intersections of organizational studies and environmental social science. In the next section, we discuss the central concepts in the field of organizational studies and the relevance of these concepts for environ- mental concerns. In the third and fourth sections, we hone in on the two most salient points of intersection for organizational and environmental studies – sustainable development and climate change.


Organizational Theory and the Environment


Organizational theory has been in fluctuation since its beginning. A variety of disciplines – from economics to business management to engineering – have made use of the concepts of organizational theory, each with their own unique application.

Organizational theory has its roots in the work of sociologist, Max Weber (1946), who, interested in the architecture of the modern capitalist econ- omy, focused on the multidimensional intersec- tions of social classes, status groups, and political parties. For Weber, these three dimensions were intricately attached to capitalism and operated within an organizational structure that both relied on and prolonged their specialized roles. Weber aligned the development of capitalism, and the subsequent division of labor, along with the devel- opment of bureaucracies and bureaucratization.

For Weber (1946), a bureaucracy is a closed hierarchy of levels of graded authority which cre- ate a system of super- and subordination. This hierarchy coincides with the money economy. The increased bureaucratization of capitalist economies – or rational delineation of specialized activities and actions – matches the accumulation of goods and capital. These processes, then, create social class divisions. This set of concepts over- laps with Emile Durkheim’s (1972: 143) notion of organic solidarity, where individuals in society become “co-ordinated and subordinated one to another around the same central organ which exer- cises a moderating action over the rest of the organism.”

Weber’s bureaucracy is still the basis for mod- ern organizational sociologists’ ideas about orga- nizations, firms, and institutions. Yet, important contemporary departures from classical organiza- tional sociology have emerged.

The first of these contemporary currents in organizational theory is a movement away from conceiving organizations as closed systems toward seeing them as open systems. Weber defined organizations as closed social relations with access granted only to specific individuals by a chief or director and an administrative staff

(Scott 2004). However, contemporary organiza- tions have more permeable, less fixed boundaries. For example, permanent workers have now been joined, sometimes even replaced, by temporary, part-time, and contract employees. Teams and project groups often include members from mul- tiple independent firms, and organizations down- size and/or work with partners and competitors (Kanter et al. 1992). Similarly, production and service systems now extend across networks of independent companies and agencies.

The notion of externalization is similar to that of organizations and open systems. Classic orga- nizational response to challenges (e.g., workers, technology, expertise) was to absorb and therefore mitigate these challenges by incorporating them into the bureaucracy. However, modern organiza- tional sociologists observe a process of externali- zation whereby organizations dispose of internal units and contract out functions that were for- merly performed in-house (Scott 2004). Along with the move toward open, flexible organizations comes a move toward horizontal systems of man- agement as a complement to the traditional verti- cal systems.

These new characteristics of organizations hold implications for the natural environment. First the consolidation of bureaucracy as described by Weber ushered in the era of indus- trial and capitalist excess and the rise of the city in the early twentieth century, which began society’s dependence on fossil fuels. This era of assembly lines and growing income disparities turned citi- zens into consumers and alienated workers. All of these qualities of twentieth century capitalism came part and parcel with environmental degra- dation. The sooty center cities of the mid-twentieth century and the minority groups that populated them comprised the first real cases of environmental injustice. Organizational theory, therefore, came of age in a moment and described a set of conditions that set society on the path to the acute environmental crisis.

The move in the late twentieth century toward open, flexible firms characterized by outsourcing and short-term contract work weakened organized labor and set the stage for the growth of precarious work. Organizations tend to pursue collective goals at the expense of individual goals (Coleman 1974). But the late twentieth century intensified the anomie experienced by individual workers. Scott (2004: 10) describes this phenomena writ- ing, “rather than organizations serving as agents under our control to assist us in pursuing our goals, we more often spend time and energy serving as agents of organizations as they pursue their specialized and limited ends.”


Technological innovations that came bundled with the advent of industrial capitalism (e.g., nuclear power, the medicalization of health, air travel, etc.) produce important social benefits but also represent serious risks. Organizational sociologists introduced the idea of “normal accidents” to explain these developments and their negative consequences (Perrow 1984). Perrow (1984) argues that the complexity and interdependence of parts is so sensitive that accidents must be expected. Modern society is a risk society where organizational breakdowns become common occurrences. Society employs advanced technologies to clean up or mitigate the risk of future disasters, which, in turn, introduces new sets of risks (Beck 1992).

A final consequence of the rise of the firm, vis-à-vis the natural environment, is the implication of decentralized management and silos of expertise for the system knowledge and application necessary to treat environmental problems. When no one limb of a firm knows what the other limbs are doing, holding companies accountable becomes difficult. Decentralized management allows firms to claim ignorance regarding ethical, environmental, and labor problems. See Dougherty (2015) as an example of this in the context of corruption in the mining industry.

Organizations and Sustainable Development

International organizations of governance, to a large extent, have established the contours of environmental discourse in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The predominant environmental discourse today is that of sustain- ability and sustainable development – a discourse

which seeks to preserve capitalist production and consumption and places human life quality at the center.

Sustainable development as a concept originated with efforts of the United Nations in the 1980s to address both environmental degradation and underdevelopment in the global south. The United Nations’ World Commission of Environment and Development, commonly known as the Brundtland Commission, took place in 1983. In 1987, the published report of that meeting, Our Common Future, introduced the sustainable development model as a solution to several global problems including food insecurity, uneven growth, and energy and resource scarcity. Our Common Future coined the definition of sustain- able development, still in wide use today: development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The Bruntland Commission laid the foundation for the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, formally known as the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. This meeting established specific mechanisms to achieve sustainable development. One major outcome was the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which laid out the Rio Principles as guidelines for sustainable development. The Rio Declaration shifted the discourse around solving environmental problems from one of government regulation to one of market forces. This gave further momentum to the concept of sustainability, rendering it the dominant environmental dis- course of the twenty-first century.

Twenty years after the original Earth Summit, in 2012, the United Nations hosted a follow-up conference entitled, Rio + 20. Like the previous meetings, this meeting was oriented towards mar- ket mechanisms to solve environmental problems, arguing that economic growth itself is the solution to environmental degradation.

Sustainable development appeals widely across the political spectrum, given its under- standing of environmental stewardship and economic growth as codependent. The term “sustainable,” as a result, is used to mean many different things and has become quite diluted in the process. As is pointed out by Humphrey, Lewis, and Buttel (2002: 224) no politician has ever claimed to be in support of “unsustainable development.”


Economist Herman Daly (2003) offers a more precise definition for sustainable development as an alternative to the United Nations standard- bearer. Daly suggests that when the stocks of resources extracted from nature and introduced into the economy are replenished, in like or greater proportion, we have achieved sustainability. He calls this the throughput definition – where outputs equal inputs. Where the United Nations definition takes human society as the focal point, the throughput definition takes the biophysical world as the centerpiece.

Corporations are aware of the contradictions between management and environmental goals. Organizations approach such contradictions from varying perspectives (Van der Byl and Slawinski 2015). Some suggest that there are “win-win” arrangements in which organizations can promote sustainability and profit through green consumer- ism and green production. This approach is embodied in policy circles by the notion of the “green collar economy” (Jones 2008) and in the scholarly literature by ecological modernization theory (Mol 2003). Other companies see this con- tradiction as a set of tradeoffs or zero-sum choices (Van der Byl and Slawinski 2015).

Sustainability has become a buzzword in organizational and management studies to refer to practices designed to achieve organizational health and growth. This literature is often divorced from the environmental dimensions of sustainability. Organizations are rightly concerned with efficient use of resources as an integral dimension of organizational sustainability, but more often than not environmental costs are externalized and not captured in this account- ing. For organizations to move closer to achieving sustainability in throughput terms, they must begin to internalize these environmental costs.


Organizations and Climate Change

The dawn of the modern corporation at the turn of the twentieth century institutionalized rational, utility-maximizing logic (Linnenluecke and Griffiths 2015). This rise of the firm and the organization and the concomitant intensified resource use has led to dramatic increases in greenhouse gas emissions and the unequal distribution of the costs and burdens of the effects of these emissions (Linnenluecke and Griffiths 2015). In 2010 alone, commercial and industrial sources in the United States emitted three times the CO2 of residential sources (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 2016). As a recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned, the increasing magnitudes of warming exacerbate the likelihood of severe, pervasive, and irreversible impacts (IPCC 2014). This is emblematic of Ulrich Beck’s (1992: 19) warning that “in advanced modernity, the social production wealth is systematically accompanied by the social production of risks.”

There is a disconnect also between the prescription for stemming the tide of climate change – individual changes in lifestyle and consumption habits – and the scale on which the inputs and outputs to and from organizational bureaucracies emit greenhouse gases and threaten the global climate. This phenomenon might also be described as a disconnect between “the limits of exponential growth modes and their impacts on natural systems” stemming mostly from their inability to match human actions and ecological timeframes (Linnenluecke and Griffiths 2015). The tendency of modern society is to individualize risks, hazards, and environmental “bads,” including climate change. Subsequently, the solutions or mitigation of such risks become individualized (Beck 1992). This characteristic dovetails with the tendency, described in the organizational studies literature, for organizations to externalize responsibilities onto the individual (Scott 2004). Maniates (2001) refers to this as the “individualization of responsibility.” In blaming individuals for environmental bads we give organizations a pass when they should be at the forefront of pro- posing and implementing solutions.


This individualization of responsibility exonerates organizations from responsibility and thus fails to countervail climate change. Climate change, therefore, is a global problem with its roots in the rise of the modern organization. Climate change requires solutions constructed on the same grand scale and according to the same organizational principles as modern organizations. This observation does not make individuals exempt from responsibility for their lifestyle choices but serves to remind us that the most effective efforts to mitigate climate change must come from the organizational level at which the systematic problems originate. Howard-Grenville et al. (2014: 615) petition management and organizational scholars to integrate climate change into their agendas. “Climate change is so pervasive that its causes and consequences show up at every level of analysis of interest to organizational scholars. . .climate change and responses to it will fundamentally reshape many of the phenomena, interactions, and relationships that are of central concern to management scholars.”


Organizations are agglomerations of humans within society that seek to accomplish specific goals. These can refer to organizations of governance at the local, national, or global level or can refer to private firms either with or without profit motives. Organizations are fundamental to modern human society and are the building block of the global capitalist economy. In this context, organizations to which conserving the biophysical world is external are likely to be in fundamental conflict with environmental goals. This is so despite the galvanized efforts, over the past 20 years, of organizations to support environmental goals through greening production and consumption and through corporate social responsibility programming. These efforts are known as greenwashing – claiming environmental contributions, which do not really exist, for promotional purposes (Lyon and Montgomery 2015).


As organizations move toward becoming ever more flexible and less centrally managed entities, their ability to work on behalf of the biophysical world is further diminished. The notion of sustainability and sustainable development, the dominant environmental discourse today, seeks to reconcile environmentalism with advanced capitalism in defense of consumer culture. This dis- course dovetails with organizational goals, broadly construed. To organize society for environmental protection and stave off the adverse impacts of climate change, we must move away from an anthropocentric sustainability discourse toward a biocentric discourse – one with ecosystems at the center. We must also work to convince organizations and their regulatory apparatuses to transform accounting practices and require that firms internalize the environmental costs of production and pass those costs on to the consumer.


▶ Bureaucracy and Capitalism
▶ Globalization and Organizations
▶ Max Weber and Organizational Theory

▶ Organizational Environment
▶ Risk and Organizations


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