Oliver Balch tackles key topics in academic thinking and research on sustainability

Few ideas get closer to the heart of corporate capitalism than the notion of competitiveness. The brainchild of Adam Smith, competition is presented as the fuel that oils the wheels of efficient markets. Consumers want a sledge hammer or a 4x4 van or a super-sonic data processor, and companies will, via the market’s “invisible hand”, respond efficiently to that demand. The cheapest, most responsive and/or most attractive company wins the sale. Competition is cut-throat: for every winner, there’s a loser (or, more likely, several losers).

The relationship between corporate social responsibility and competitiveness is an intriguing yet not altogether smooth one. There’s the immediate issue of survival of the fittest. Where does that leave the minnows in the market, for instance? The opportunities for market incumbents or big players to nudge ahead of others for reasons other than their competitive qualities (read: political lobbying, personnel poaching, aggressive advertising, and so forth) are legion.

Or consider the societal effects of corporate competitiveness. Smith’s model ideally assumes perfect knowledge and fair terms. By meeting market demand, companies satisfy buyers’ needs (and, by extension the needs of multiple buyers: ie society), while meeting their own need for capital accumulation. But, in the...

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