Doctoral dissertation

Reframing the Role of Companies in Sustainability: Toward business sustainability transitions

Sonja Lahtinen
The ways in which companies address sustainability today shape the future for businesses, societies, and ecosystems at large. Yet, companies keep addressing the world’s most serious evolving challenges with varying degrees of concern, urgency, and strategic importance for as long as their role in relation to sustainability remains unclear.

To develop a broader business commitment to sustainability and participate in tackling grand challenges such as climate change, human rights violations, the widening wealth gap, and disease outbreaks, companies need to rethink their current role of being in relation with the world that is facing mounting environmental, social, and economic pressures.

The purpose of this dissertation is, therefore, to explore the role of companies in relation to sustainability from multiple viewpoints. The four articles comprising the dissertation represent such viewpoints—strategy, management, co-creation, and holistic—that, together with this introductory part, provide a broad and timely outlook on companies’ role.

Theoretically, this dissertation combines the previously disconnected fields of marketing and sustainability transition to create a lens through which companies’ role is explored.

Methodologically, the articles use different methods but are bound together by a social constructionist research philosophy and a qualitative research strategy. Altogether, the primary data were generated from interviews with 13 managers and top executives and 25 millennial consumers in the Finnish business environment. The secondary data consist of annual reports, sustainability documents, and other public materials.

Basing on the insights gleaned from the articles, this dissertation proposes reframing as a method for companies to break out of their old roles and enact new responses to sustainability. Reframing can expand horizons and capacity for action by bringing the two frames of business and sustainability together. Reframing—that is, making new interpretations of a current situation and creating novel responses—is suggested to be particularly useful in three organizational areas, namely business strategies, management activities, and co-creation practices.

By conceptualizing a new construct, business sustainability transition, the dissertation makes its main theoretical contribution to the sustainability transition literature. The new construct captures the fundamental, system-wide sustainability improvements that companies can initiate in their business environment through purposeful marketplace interactions.

The key managerial takeaways are provided in the form of the Reframing Cube. As a metaphorical tool, the Cube can help managers think and address sustainability in new ways that can readily be translated into actions. While letting go of the old ways of being in relation with the world is not easy, it is suggested that by reframing their role in sustainability, companies can reap strategic advantages while facilitating much-needed business sustainability transitions. Therefore, companies are key actors in shaping our common future for economically healthier, environmentally friendlier, and socially more balanced modes of production and consumption.

The doctoral dissertation of Sonja Lahtinen in the field of marketing titled Reframing the Role of Companies in Sustainability: Toward business sustainability transitions will be publicly examined in the Faculty of Management and Business at Tampere University in Pinni A building Paavo Koli auditorium, Kanslerinrinne 1, at 12.00 on Friday 26 June. The Opponent will be Professor Outi Uusitalo, University of Jyväskylä. The Custos will be Professor Hannu Kuusela.

Because of the coronavirus, Tampere University’s dissertation defences are not organised as normal onsite events. However, it is possible to follow the public examinations via a remote connection. (Meeting ID: 640 9776 0661,
Password: 559547)

The dissertation is available online at

Photograph: Jonne Renvall