Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Sustainability Initiatives Succeed with Good Storytelling


Mayor McGinn - Sonic Bloom_9 - CC BY 2.0 crop2

At the recent climate talks in Paris, 195 countries adopted a universal climate deal for the first time ever, key parts of which are legally binding. This is a stunning success and highlights how urgently the world’s nations, backed by their citizens and businesses, are seeking new ways to thrive while also addressing the challenges of climate change. As they strive to reach emissions targets over the next 15 years, organizations will also gradually realize that sustainability is no longer a trendy choice or moral imperative, but a reality in need of focused, persistent attention—and a good roadmap. Organizations must integrate sustainability into every strategic plan and action, yet few know how to turn the global goals of climate change mitigation into the kinds of activities they report to stakeholders.

At first, developing a sustainability plan may seem an easy task. There are numerous books and articles about the business case for sustainability, as well as inspirational memoirs, case studies, and articles claiming to jumpstart sustainability in your company. Most, however, are dominated by checklists, audits and sustainability reporting (eg, the Global Reporting Initiative). Of course these measurements must be addressed, but there is a long road that precedes measurement and reporting, and little guidance for how to travel it.

Frequently, organizations don’t properly articulate their sustainability goals, which complicates the search for useful, actionable insights. They also run into trouble by adopting sustainability initiatives without organizational buy-in – a quick way to make employees feel judged, disenfranchised and burdened. Even defining sustainability and translating it into actionable goals is difficult when there are multiple interested parties. The term sustainability is often used in a fast and loose manner, referring to anything from global warming and climate change to tyrannical dictators, poor working conditions in clothing factories, fair trade coffee and chocolate, or triple-paned windows and bamboo flooring. This confusion impedes companies’ attempts to figure out what sustainability has to do with them, or how they might begin their own efforts.

Sustainability is often connected to auditing and reporting. In practice, this means that sustainability initiatives trickle down as a series of tasks disconnected from the ideals driving them; ideals such as environmental improvement, worker health and safety across the supply chain, fairness and equity, and a desire to change the world for the better. Organizations need sustainability initiatives with benchmarks and achievements that are audited and reported. But how do you create a sustainability initiative that everyone wants to contribute to, one that can be embraced to the point where it is reflected throughout the organization?

Ethnographic research can help articulate and disperse sustainability agendas by identifying the origin stories that connect to organizational and individual values. In more market-y terms: a good story helps get the message out, across the organization and out to stakeholders, and ethnographers can help in its telling. From a sociocultural perspective, ethnographers know that stories aren’t merely anecdotes or inspirational tag lines. Stories also articulate and maintain relationships between people, express ideas and values, and create the context for making sense of our activities, and ultimately our jobs.

Over the past several years my colleagues and I have collected and analyzed data from seven multinational companies to learn how each one develops and maintains its sustainability agendas, builds legitimacy for sustainability within the organization, extends that legitimacy to suppliers, and works with buyers. Because sustainability efforts often cross departments and involve people with a variety of titles, we interviewed organizational members from departments including supply chain, operations, corporate social responsibility, sales, and communication. We also interviewed across hierarchical positions ranging from coordinators, category managers and department heads to managing directors and members of the executive office.

When it comes to sustainability, each of these companies has a story and each has developed their story to align with the way they address sustainability. Smaller firms tend to have an origin story that everyone knows and can repeat, sometimes using the same turns of phrase. Larger firms have stories that tend to focus on sustainability as an integral part of the company, rather than something that had an origin. In these firms informants use catchy phrases to talk about sustainability and often refer to reports that are available on the company website. We found three common kinds of stories.

Stories of Passion and Initiative

The first type of story is the origin story that stems from one employee’s passion for some element of sustainability. Protagonists in passion stories endure as sustainability mascots in these organizations, whether or not the real employee remains. The protagonist’s initiative and dedication to ideals are held up as a driving force, and everyone is invited to be a part of that team—the one that steps up and gets things done.

For example, one company’s origin story begins when police show up to question an employee about stealing computers. It turned out the employee had been taking paper, not computers, home to recycle. When colleagues asked why he was being questioned, he said that he was asked to stop recycling paper. Outraged and amused, several of them got together to discuss how to start a recycling program in the office, and sustainability efforts snowballed from there. This story is well known throughout the organization. People think it is funny and ridiculous and everyone wants to be the protagonist in the story.

These stories work to align employee behavior, and create an environment where everyone is invited to voice their passion for sustainability and to question the status quo. Passion stories act as a conduit for employees to connect with organizational values, and develop a shared understanding of the organization’s sustainability goals. Strategic plans, and ultimately guidelines, are created from this point of commonality, giving them a greater chance for internal compliance and excitement, rather than resentment, around new operational realities. Such stories also sway buyers. Whether or not buyers/customers are concerned about product sustainability, the origin stories are a quick way to communicate where the organization stands and how far they are willing to go, in order to meet, exceed, and in many cases, create product and worker safety standards.

Ah-ha Stories

Ah-ha stories are stories of disclosure in which the company was caught off guard when questioned: not internally by employees, but externally by buyers, end consumers, NGOs or media groups. These stories highlight how unprepared the organization was to answer detailed questions about business practices, especially as they extended into their global supply chain. The epiphany that the organization must know details about product origins and business practices throughout the supply chain is repeated as the driving force behind the sustainability initiative. Employees are invited to adopt this stance of curiosity and questioning as their normal way of being.

For example, one company described their sustainability journey as starting with a phone call from a newspaper reporter to the marketing director, asking where certain products came from. When the marketing director asked purchasing, he found out they knew where some, but not all of these products came from. The reporter responded, “if you don’t know, you don’t care,” which struck the marketing director deeply because he did care and he believed his company cared.

These stories highlight how many companies still operate: they have a lot of knowledge, and also a lot of black boxes. In a business environment where sustainability is an innovation driver and scandals around unsustainable products and practices regularly smear corporate reputation, these stories light a fire of fear. The fear is around organizational reputation, but often it is just as much around personal reputation by association—the fear of being a bad person out of ignorance, or doing something horrible because you did not pursue a line of questioning that no one in your organization had ever asked.

This particular company has taken this origin story and used it to motivate employees to ask questions and welcome feedback from outsiders (even in the form of public criticism), believing it can help them prepare for the future. The firm has developed purchasing guidelines and now helps suppliers understand and achieve their standards. This means working with suppliers in developing countries to improve the social and environmental situations where raw materials come from. This can mean creating training programs and establishing probationary periods where they spend time onsite. Working with factories includes understanding the capacity of the factories and not overtaxing them. In addition, it includes understanding that business always moves, so it pays to ask questions about current and potential products, and to open conversation with potential suppliers sooner rather than later. They welcome questions from their stakeholders (e.g., customers, buyers, NGOs, media), embracing the opportunity to have vulnerabilities revealed to them.

It’s in Our DNA

Some larger companies have no origin story. Rather, the story presented is that sustainability “is in our DNA,” and hence has no identifiable origin. Companies with these stories have several things in common. First, their sustainability initiatives tend to be top-down. The stories surrounding executive-level sustainability statements add dimension and nuance that help employees link the organization’s sustainability goals with their personal values, and incorporate them into their own work.

“Our chairman…talks very openly about who we are, what kind of business we are, what matters, what is important…and there are some very subtle messages there that if you don’t identify with who we are you shouldn’t be here… there is a common set of values that is increasingly starting to come out in what we do and it almost creates…an intuitive sense of what the firm would want to do and very often senior people are always talking about what the firm wants to do and what is inline with the firm’s view of things.”

The struggle for these organizations is disseminating their goals and messages internally, and ensuring people feel included. As the above quote mentions, this is often accomplished by hiring to the “common set of values,” by seeking employees who are already aligned with established organizational goals. Such new hires can more easily pick up on what “the firm’s point of view” is, or more practically speaking, on how they can enact sustainability in their jobs.

Second, these companies emphasize delivering on their goals: “not only our financial goals but obviously also our social community and environmental goals.” Often, their stories help build a connection to foundational values. For example, they may provide a link to early corporate commitments to ideals such as serving the community through volunteer efforts, and being at the forefront of innovation around efficiency.

Finally, stories in these organizations tend to focus on sustainability’s benefits—for the bottom line, the ability to attract and keep talented employees, as a way to mitigate risks in global supply chains, and as a way to gain competitive advantage. Employees in these companies often refer the goals, audits and reports available on their websites to back up their claims.

While stories in these organizations try to close the gap between the executive vision and employee action, they can lack the emotional hook that the first two types of origin stories have; they can seem more like small anecdotes than passionate struggles. In addition, the tendency of these companies to rely on the audit model, rather than tell a story with an emotional hook and inciting declaration, presents an extra challenge when communicating their sustainability goals to stakeholders.

Bringing it Together

In presenting these three types of stories and their uses, my main goal is to advocate for the power of stories to build legitimacy for sustainability initiatives in organizations. While stakeholders may ask for and should receive audits and reports, these should not be delivered at the expense of stories. Successful sustainability initiatives work with the two in tandem—stories provide a platform for understanding why so much time, money and energy are going to measuring and reporting, and they provide a more personal, perhaps more believable kind of transparency (see Press and Arnould [2011] for a discussion of narrative transparency).

Stories are an effective, inclusive way to communicate the “what and why” around sustainability goals. They provide material about corporate values and expectations that employees can compare themselves against and incorporate into their own actions. Eventually, the stories help employees coalesce around sustainability goals, which allows firms to create sustainability policies to measure and enforce the goals. Stories are also used to communicate sustainability goals across the whole company, and to develop policies and plans for working with supply chain partners.

Crafting stories that connect with a variety of stakeholders requires someone who can understand a variety of perspectives and relationships and find ways to integrate them. This is yet another place where business and ethnography can work together for lasting results.


Press, Melea and Eric J. Arnould (2014), “Narrative Transparency,” Journal of Marketing Management, Volume 30, Issue 13-14.

melea pressMelea Press, PhD is a research fellow at Hanken School of Economics and a marketing strategy consultant. Her research focus is marketing strategy innovation, market transformation and sustainability initiatives in supply chains. She has worked with small- and large-scale agricultural producers in the US and East Africa, examined issues surrounding women and market access in rural Bangladesh, looked at demand-side energy issues, and studied sustainability in MNCs. Her work has been published in peer reviewed journals including Journal of Marketing, Journal of Consumer Research, and Journal of Public Policy and Marketing.


Concreting Sustainability: Renewing the Cement Industry through Sustainability Implementation, Laura E. Resendez De Lozano

People and Energy: A Design-led Approach to Understanding Everyday Energy Use Behavior, Dan Lockton et al.

Corporate Care Reimagined: Farms to Firms to Families, J.A. English-Lueck & Miriam Lueck Avery



Melea Press, Hanken School of Economics