Facilitating Interdisciplinary Corporate Sustainability Research: The SMART Research Guide

By Beate Sjåfjell, University of Oslo, and Hanna Ahlström, Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences

15 June 2020, SSRN


This Research Guide was originally developed to give the team of scholars in the now concluded project Sustainable Market Actors for Responsible Trade (SMART, 2016-2020) a common frame of reference. The overarching objective of the SMART Project was to do research to facilitate market actors’ contribution to a sustainable development within planetary boundaries, with greater policy coherence for development as a common thread throughout the project.

SMART undertook a systemic, thoughtfully structured and coordinated mapping and analysis, identifying regulatory barriers and possibilities for market actors’ contribution to sustainability. This analysis identified gaps and incoherencies in the regulatory complexity on the international, EU and jurisdiction-specific level. We performed a detailed hotspots analysis of two product groups, clothing and mobile phones, findings that were included in a comprehensive regulatory analysis, enabling a multi-level analysis. Further, we undertook research to produce a science-based framework for analysing the extent to which businesses are operating sustainably. Drawing on this multi-level analysis, we translated the concept of sustainability into innovative proposals for legal and policy reforms, to realise the potential of European market actors for creating sustainable value.

The aim of this revised and updated open access version of the Research Guide is to inspire and help scholars that would like to develop and integrate an interdisciplinary and systemic approach to research on corporate sustainability similar to that of SMART. We do so by sharing our framework and outlining how we undertook interdisciplinary corporate sustainability research in practice, leading to the transdisciplinary outcomes notably of research-based reform proposals. While SMART concentrated on the EU in its research, similar research can of course be done with a different geographical scope as well as with focus on different actors.

In Section 2, we introduce the overarching goal of sustainability, as it was defined and implemented in the SMART Project. Within the framework of this concept of sustainability, we give in Section 3 an overview of the legal and high policy level framework for sustainability, drawing on international sources and EU sources, and highlighting its inadequacy in light of the overarching goal of sustainability.

In Section 4, we introduce systems thinking, as the methodological overarching approach we employed in SMART, the ‘regulatory ecology’ approach, which facilitated our interdisciplinary regulatory analysis, and the comparative regulatory analysis that we undertook within this approach to identify barriers to and possibilities for corporate sustainability.

In Section 5, we give a brief overview of the results of the SMART Project, as a basis for reflecting on the usefulness of employing the overarching combined approaches that we did in the Project. We conclude in Section 6, with inviting sustainability-oriented scholars to engage with us in our further work.

University of Oslo Faculty of Law Research Paper No. 2020-16. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3626903
Published July 1, 2020 4:19 PM - Last modified July 1, 2020 4:19 PM