Research Symposium on Sustainability 2015


The issue of sustainability has been recognised as important for UABS in educating students for the future, undertaking relevant and high quality research, meeting institutional obligations and contributing to business, public policy and the well-being of society. Work on a Sustainability Programme was initiated in March 2015, led by Barry Coates.

This Symposium was an important step towards developing coherent clusters of research within the broad range of the sustainability theme. Academic staff, PhD candidates and professional staff from the Business School were invited, along with selected staff from other faculties. The response was good with around 70 participants.

The Symposium aimed to explore the strands of work in thematic clusters of research related to sustainability (broadly defined). It provided an opportunity to share relevant research across disciplines as a base for improved understanding and potentially for future collaboration, funding and publications.

The Symposium revealed far more research on sustainability than was apparent from available sources of information, greater depth in research and exciting areas of innovation. There was positive feedback from the Symposium, including the observation that this was the first cross-disciplinary overview of research related to sustainability, and highly relevant for academics.

In some cases, the clusters of research have provided opportunities for follow up work, but more generally they have helped build individual relationships between academics. The Symposium has helped build a broader community of researchers on sustainability issues within the Business School, with links across the University.

The Symposium also played a role in preparing a subsequent dialogue with businesses, institutions, foundations and government agencies to provide a snapshot of the Business School’s capabilities and to listen to external perspectives and needs. This is planned for 26 July 2016.


A welcome to participants was provided by the Deputy Dean of the Business School, Professor Jilnaught Wong. He provided a challenge to extend research on sustainability into new areas as part of the research programme, but also to integrate sustainability into courses. He encouraged the development of a capstone course in sustainability at the undergraduate level.

The rationale and structure for the workshop was explained by Barry Coates, the MC for the Symposium. For each of the research clusters, the facilitator gave an overview of the issues, introduced the strands of research being undertaken, and chaired the follow up round table that was held after the presentation. The round tables were held to provide an opportunity for participants to ask questions, discuss the issues and explore future implications.

The following provides a short summary of the round table discussions, as well links to download the speaker’s presentations. 

Consumer dynamics


  • Associate Professor Denise Conroy, facilitator
  • Dr Amabel Hunting
  • Dr Mike Lee
  • Miram Siefert

The discussion of presentations covered three themes:

  1. The younger generation are mindful consumers, care about the way products are produced and will be looking to choose fair trade and sustainable products.  If companies don’t change their practices they may miss out on a large consumer segment. 
  2. Companies are vulnerable to consumer pressure and adverse publicity. There is an opportunity to put pressure on the global fishing industry and their unsustainable and exploitative practices through labelling/certification of products and encouraging consumer mindfulness. 
  3. More advanced labelling, which is currently used in Germany, could provide consumers with detailed information such as fair trade and country of origin.  This would put pressure on manufacturers to change.

Businesses will need to change with the change that is occurring in society. How do we support and encourage this change?

Supporting documents:

Supply chains


  • Professor Tava Olsen, facilitator
  • Dr Maureen Benson-Rea
  • Dr Christina Stringer
  • Dr Rick Starr

The discussion opened with a reminder about the need for synthesis, linkages, obtaining funding for collaborative research, and for multi-disciplinary research. There was a discussion of the difficulties in undertaking and publishing multi-disciplinary research, including the dominance of discipline-specific funds and publication outlets.

There was discussion on what we mean by sustainability and the degree to which the dominant social paradigm is being challenged in seeking transformative rather than incremental change. The dominant paradigm favours homogeneity (e.g. globalisation) rather than diversity. Concern was expressed over whether the University is a fully functioning component of the current paradigm (i.e. part of the problem) and whether that would inhibit opportunities to be part of the solution.

A road map for academic progress on sustainability may be required including sector-specific issues (agriculture, health, education) to encourage buy-in by staff and students, and to break down a very large and unwieldy idea into more digestible segments.

It was noted that students are very amenable to sustainability focused content and projects, with the possible exception of Executive MBAs. There is plenty of potential to integrate sustainability more formally into teaching activities rather than current ad hoc approach.

Internal change is seen to be important but it is also challenging in the current institutional environment which is focused on research funding and student numbers, rather than social issues. We questioned whether we have ‘stepped off the curb’ and are heading in the right direction to fulfil our social contract as a University.

Supporting documents:

Sustainable energy


  • Professor Basil Sharp, facilitator
  • Stephen Polletti
  • Kiti Suomalainen
  • Milad Maralani

Presentations covered:

  • Changes in the concept of sustainability over the years, influenced by political attitudes and new evidence
  • The structure of electricity supply and demand, including the uncertainty associated with Tiwai Point (14% of electricity demand)
  • Energy efficiency potential and solar photovoltaic potential in Auckland

The discussion looked at the problem of the low variable cost of wind compared with its high capital cost, noting that there have been long periods of zero spot prices, and the problems of supply management in winter and during peak demand. Storage will be a crucial issue but batteries are relatively high cost and not environmentally sustainable.

There is potential for more distributed generation from wind and solar, particularly once there is infrastructure for charging electric vehicles, and EV ownership grows rapidly as it has in other countries. 

Technological advances depend on investment in infrastructure, disruptive technologies and market design, but the institutional side of energy management, political economy and feed in tariff rates will also be important. 

Supporting documents:

Social enterpise


  • Deb Shepherd, facilitator
  • Jamie Newth

The round table began with a discussion around the multiple definitions of what a social enterprise is and what is meant by a traditional not-for-profit enterprise. Questions that were asked included:

  • What are the drivers behind such an organisation?
  • What is the role of volunteer labour?
  • How can these organisations ensure sustainability?
  • How do such enterprises raise capital?

It was also discussed how multiple co-existing business models can exist in any organisation and the complexity that can result regarding how people in an organisation work with multiple, and sometimes competing, business models. Sometimes, stakeholders cannot operate in a multiplicity structure in terms of decision-making. What are the implications of this?

In terms of innovation, donor organisations and other stakeholders may be focused on a particular value proposition and not on innovation. For example, a micro-finance bank is profit-driven on one level but operates as a social enterprise on another. This can lead to a reaction by stakeholders. The round table discussed the challenges of multiple stakeholders for social enterprises. Further, when an enterprise attempts to shift from a not-for-profit to a more profit-focused enterprise or propose a value proposition, the reaction from stakeholders can be significant.

When meshing business models the key for enterprises is to move beyond profit maximisation.  For example, OOOOBY are endeavouring to hold a strong business model (in order to compete and return value to the growers) and equally not lose sight of their greater social purpose reason for being (create a more sustainable supply/value chain within the food industry).  The importance of ‘community,’ as suppliers, as consumers, as investors, as societal members, is a key part of OOOOBY’s approach to reconciling this business model within a social purpose organisation. 

Supporting documents:

Indigenous economic development


  • Associate Dean Chellie Spiller, facilitator
  • Sisikula Sisifa
  • Mariaelena Huambachano
  • Associate Professor Manuka Henare

Short presentations covered a diverse range of related issues:

  • Sisi’s research in the Pacific
  • Marialena’s work on food security and sovereignty from an Indigenous Andean view
  • Manuka’s precis of research projects currently underway, emphasising the need for comprehensive research on the Māori economy.

The Māori Economy is valued well over $46b, with some Māori entities now having assets in excess of $1b. This “economy” is a complex mosaic of different types of organisations and ranges across many industries but with substantial assets in the primary sector.  A recent report by ANZ showed Māori businesses have significantly higher levels of optimism and stronger profit growth than other businesses. Supporting social objectives is the number one reason Māori are in business, and their role as intergenerational custodians is a key concern to Māori leaders. In a recent study, 53% of Māori identified succession as an issue, rising to 72% for Māori trusts and other entities.

Chellie noted that, whilst research is being conducted on Māori economic activity, there are significant opportunities for researchers of sustainability in many areas such as succession planning, intergenerational strategy development, governance and leadership decision-making, developing collaborative ventures, property and land issues, and indigenous social enterprise to name a few.

There is a growing awareness that being a Māori business can be a significant benefit, if it can be leveraged effectively. The opportunity for the Business School is tremendous. We have a strong cohort of Māori, Pacific and indigenous staff and upcoming PhDs to collaborate with our colleagues across different fields of expertise. The new Māori and Pacific Island strategy aims to attract Māori and Pacific academics or postdoctoral fellows into all departments, increasing the Business School’s capacity to conduct research and attract postgraduate students. 

Supporting documents:

Responsible leadership


  • Professor Kevin Lowe, facilitator
  • Dr. Rachel Wolfgramm

The round table discussion started with the role of leaders and leadership in moving complex institutions from espoused values to actual sustainability practices, from embodying to enacting sustainability. It was recognised that leaders have an important role in ‘backcasting’ – visioning sustainable futures.

Questions were raised about the degree to which leadership on sustainability was achieving real change, rather than greenwashing. Businesses and their shareholders have a stake in the future, beyond shareholder value. Businesses need to be sustainable because they rely on the planet and the resources it produces.

Questions were posed as to what is at the heart of responsible leadership, whether consumers can really make a difference, the role of active global citizens and issues of leadership and identity. There was discussion of the example of the fisheries industry, which was perceived to have moved toward being more responsible in the 80s but then moved towards a profit-driven model more recently.

The round table observed that organisations invest in symptoms (eg. crisis hotlines, cherish your life rallies, suicide nets) rather than causes (working conditions that are hostile).  Suicide in the Business School building was used as an example to ask whether University investment in putting up chicken mesh was seen as more responsible compared with a greater emphasis on counselling and supporting students. The notion of visionary-normative appealed as a design thinking element.

Supporting documents:

Systems approach to sustainability


  • Associate Professor David Sundaram, facilitator

An inter-disciplinary course on a ‘Systems approach for sustainability’ was suggested, along with the use of game theory to teach a systems approach, with examples of multi-period games from the Netherlands, games on Balanced Scorecard and a Democracy and Big Pharma game under consideration for INFOSYS courses.

Models were considered useful for systems thinking, and David Sundaram talked about the use of models at the macro level (organisation and supply chain level) as well as at the micro level (individual behavioural change). Many of the macro level concepts and models could be easily transferred and applied to the meso and micro levels.

Certification around the various sustainability dimensions was discussed in the context of models for supply chains as well as organisations. Roadmaps for sustainability would encourage supply chain participants to go beyond compliance and certification to higher levels of sustainability.

Adaptive Enterprises was a focus of discussion, with an understanding that there needs to be research on cybernetic systems – systems within systems. A challenge for the Business School research cluster on systems is to deepen understanding of complex adaptive systems that can learn and evolve and survive when the environment and conditions change.

Supporting documents:

Performance measurement and accounting


  • Professor Paul Rouse, failitator
  • Lily Chen
  • Caroline Bridges
  • Ramona Zharfpeykan

The round table started by examining why a survey indicated the percentage of businesses using sustainability reporting dropped after 2012. It was noted that there had been a change in standards set by the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) from G3 format to G4, as well as an increased interest in the use of an integrated reporting format. There is now a standard format that can use used by forms for integrated reporting. The round table discussed research that has been undertaken in the effect of the adoption and use of integrated reporting on capital market valuations.

In discussion it was noted that there are difficulties in providing consistent information from the survey for sustainability performance. These include the low response rate to the survey, the large number of indicators which makes the survey very long, difficulties in understanding some GRI indicators, and the fact that not all the indicators are used by firms.

The workshop concluded with a discussion of other reporting frameworks for business performance on sustainability, including the reports on carbon emissions and sustainability, verified by external agencies such as Instep.

Supporting documents:

Examples of sustainability initiatives in other UoA faculty

  • Dr. Lesley Stone, Programme Manager for Sustainability and the Environment in the Vice-chancellor’s office
  • Niki Harre, Faculty of Science Associate Dean for Sustainability

Lesley gave a brief overview of her activities in providing coordination for sustainability across the University, welcoming the specific faculty initiatives in Science and the Business School. Niki outlined the approach in the Science Faculty, which has emphasised community-building amongst academics, with regular meetings to discuss research and current issues of interest. 

Potential sources for funding research into sustainability

  • Kirby Hallum, Resources Development Manager at the Business School

Kirby introduced herself, as a newcomer to the Business School, and made suggestions about potential ways that research on sustainability could be supported through the traditional and newer sources of research funding.

Closing and next steps

Barry Coates, Sustainability Programme lead, thanked presenters and facilitators and outlined the next steps. The research presented at the Symposium is of interest to external audiences, but we rarely have an opportunity to present the findings and our capabilities to those interested. A follow-up seminar will be held, aiming to explore opportunities for partnership with business, public sector and NGOs; attract non-traditional funding to support our research; inform business audiences and others about key issues; and build public awareness about the quality of research in the Business School.

There will be encouragement to move forward with work on the clusters, and some seed funding is likely to be available for work on sustainability as part of the Strategic Research Themes. In parallel, the Sustainability Programme will aim to strengthen sustainability in the curriculum and teaching practice. An inaugural Sustainability Week will be held in the week of 4 April 2016, with a range of exciting events planned to involve students and help build a community on sustainability across academics, professional staff and students. Current plans are for the Business School’s Sustainability Programme to officially launch late in 2016.

He concluded with the message that we face unprecedented challenges to our climate, our environment and the welfare and rights of vulnerable people in the years ahead. Hopefully, research undertaken at the Business School will be at the forefront of solutions to build a more sustainable future.