Buddhism and Sustainability-related Organisational Practices: A Sri Lankan Focus
This thesis investigates the potential and challenges of Buddhism in informing organisations’ pursuit of sustainability. Buddhism is argued to enable possibilities for sustainability on a more systemic and spiritual level than a view of economic rationality that tends towards an entity and a materialistic focus. With a predominantly Buddhist population base, Sri Lanka is the research context for the main empirical work presented in this thesis. Four related investigations are described below. The first investigation is a systematic review of the literature pertaining to Buddhism, sustainability and organisational studies. The review identifies a set of Buddhist principles and values appearing in this literature, defines research gaps, and delineates avenues for future research. The second investigation examines whether Buddhism is evident in corporate sustainability practices by analysing sixteen sustainability reports of award-winning companies. Little evidence of Buddhist principles and values was found in these reports which explicitly embrace global standards. The highly institutionalised sustainability reporting practice in Sri Lanka is argued to create a disconnect between Buddhism as a prevalent cultural tradition and corporate representations. The third investigation explores how Sri Lankan sustainability managers make sense of sustainability and how they see themselves as able to enact their private moral positions at work. Interviews with 25 sustainability managers reveals that Buddhist values that shaped managers’ private moral positions on sustainability tend not to be reflected in their workplaces. Typically, a measure-and-manage approach to sustainability prevails. Managers’ enacted morality was found to be based on economic prioritisation within their organisations, and the perceived importance of a secular view. Actual enactment of Buddhism in organisations was found to be problematic. The fourth investigation examines how Sri Lankan organisations with an openly Buddhist ethos perceive and pursue sustainability. Interviews and documentary evidence from two not-for-profit and two for-profit organisations self-identifying as Buddhist are analysed. Buddhist leaders are prominent in all four organisations. A more spiritual, systemic, and holistic approach to sustainability was found in the not-for-profits whereas the for-profits tended towards a stronger entity focus with a more managerially-oriented approach, engaging in symbolic actions in the application of Buddhism. From these investigations a key set of implications for practitioners is identified. Overall, the thesis signals that although Buddhism has potential in informing sustainability at a conceptual level, its application is complex and challenging for business organisations except for in rare cases, even in a predominantly Buddhist country-context. Academic contributions of the thesis include a multi-level and multidimensional approach to investigating Buddhism’s influence in organisations’ pursuit of sustainability, identification of specific challenges, and expansion of possible alternative interpretations of Buddhism. Practice contributions include the insight that tensions that might arise in the explicit recognition of Buddhism in mainstream organisations might be partially overcome by appeal to universal sustainability principles and values. The thesis also elaborates which Buddhist principles and values appear to have most traction in the organisational context.