Incubator project: Conceptualising responsible business in sustainability governance

Background and rationale

Businesses have become key actors in transboundary sustainability governance. Many public authorities at national and international level expect business to play a key role in governing sustainability and have delegated or ‘outsourced’ governance tasks and authority to business. Increasingly, businesses are pro-actively taking initiatives to reduce social and environmental impacts of their direct and indirect activities and to mainstream sustainability concerns within their business and in inter-firm relationships. Various programs and projects at local, national and international level that seek to minimize the social and environmental impacts of business, mention “responsible business”. The term of “responsibility” is also used in academic and policy debates about “corporate social responsibility”, “responsible innovation” and the newly emerging debate on business and human rights.

However, the concept of “responsible business” has remained vague: what kind of business does it refer to: corporations, to small and medium scale private sector, or business activities, or both? Is responsible business referring to (compliance to) ethical practices, legal norms or the SDGs? Does it go beyond “business as usual”? Is responsible business about governing by business or governing of business? Does responsible business imply sharing or even transferring political authority from states to business? Who decides what is “responsible”? How can and is business held responsible? When and how is this assessed, and who is involved in doing this? What evidence is there on the impacts of responsible business practices? Is it a continuous process or a one-off?

Combining insights from different disciplines and debates, in this incubator project we will newly conceptualize responsible business in sustainability governance. For this purpose, we will review and synthesize insights on the role of business in sustainability governance from debates and research areas of the four chair groups. Second, we will engage with different stakeholders and develop a new interdisciplinary concept to better tackle pressing problems affecting people and the environment, contributing to the design and improvement of sustainability governance arrangements and practices in co-creation with stakeholders.


In this context, the project aims to conceptualize responsible business for the field of sustainability governance. It has three specific objectives:

  1. Add to scientific knowledge on responsible business, by bringing conceptual clarity across disciplinary silos.
  2. Provide a basis for further collaborative work within WCSG such as grant applications and joint publications.
  3. Raise WCSG’s national and international visibility on the business aspects of sustainability governance, with the view to encourage collaboration with outside partners from academia and beyond.

Timeline of the planned activities

Month 1: an incubator workshop for incubator’s participants only. Each team member will prepare and deliver a presentation on their own understanding of the concept of responsible business and related concepts. The goal is to identify the scope for a joint publication and possible further activities (obj. 1-2).

Month 2: hiring of a student assistant to conduct a literature review and assist with the organization of the workshops in month 3. The research assistant will support the development of the joint article by doing a literature review based on the identified scope in the workshop of month 1 (obj. 2).

Month 3: a stakeholder workshop by invitation only, with relevant stakeholders from corporations, NGOs, the OECD responsible business conduct team, UNDP Green Commodities programme, multi-stakeholder initiatives (e,g. RSPO Europe, IDH) and academics to engage with stakeholders on trends in the conceptualization of responsible business (obj. 1-3).

Expected output

The main output of this incubator will be a joint publication on responsible business in an interdisciplinary journal such as Globalizations, or the Business and Human Rights Journal.

However, given the aim of this incubator to act as a basis for further collaborative work on this topic within WCGS, plans for a joint grant proposal or contract research are also expected to emerge from this incubator.