After I completed my education in marketing, consumption and brand management at LUSEM, I was offered an opportunity to join a research project as a PhD student to explore how retail organization work to communicate sustainability. Evidently, I am primarily steeped in marketing lines of thinking, so when I first started working on this project, I was interested in understanding how consumers viewed, or perhaps evaluated or even judged, companies as ethical or not, as morally legit or not, as sustainable or not. Quite early on, it appeared to me (rather unsurprisingly perhaps) that a lot of it had to do with the ethical conduct of those companies, and the people “in” them. In light of this realization, I started to become more interested in understanding what went on within corporations. How did they work to rally their troops and ensure the ethical conduct of their employees?
With this backdrop, I decided to write a thesis that explored the communicative aspects of transitioning towards more sustainable development within retail organizations. Large retail organizations play an important role in bringing about more sustainable development, as well as in sustaining unsustainable development, primarily through their position between production and consumption in many different value chains. This position permits them to exercise a great deal of communicative power in shaping how different actors choose to talk about, and hence engage with, the transition toward more sustainable ways of being. It is therefore crucial to understand and critically reflect on how these organizations talk about sustainability as they make it into a legitimate feature of what they do.
By studying the empirical case of IKEA’s sustainability journey (1992–2017), using qualitative methods such as interviews and document studies, my thesis shows how sustainability talk (and the perspectives on reality it enables) over time is made into a legitimate feature of retail talk. Including potential challenges in, and implications of, undertaking such journeys. Something I argue is a far more difficult, complex and problematic endeavor for retailers to undertake than most previous research on the topic would have us believe. The purpose of my thesis is to reveal what some of these previously overlooked complexities and problematic aspects might be. My approach is to complement and combine previous research on more sustainable retailing and CSR talk theorizing by providing a more nuanced understanding of the kind of work that goes into making retailing more sustainable, and for sustainability talk to occur throughout an organization over time.
The findings indicate three overarching complexities and problematic aspects of legitimizing sustainability talk in retail talk. The first is the challenging task of ensuring continuous talk about sustainability within retail organizations over time, something that requires the development of Corporate Sustainability Discourse (CSD), integrated forms of sustainability talk, as well as enabling and identifying business hooks. The second involves recognizing and dealing with how more sustainable retailing may also entail more political retailing, which brings back the moralizing nature of sustainability talk to CSR talk theorizing by providing new empirical insights into the topic. Lastly, the study also shows some of the internal mechanisms that force retailers to discursively repackage sustainability talk into something that entails selling more, not less. This reveals the near impossibility for retailers and their sustainability talk to escape a potentially unsustainable status quo paradigm of sustainable development. All three insights leave us with food for thought concerning how more sustainable retailing can be understood and pursued.