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Improving the Usefulness of Environmental Information for Decision Making in Organizations

  • Author(s): Perkins, Jessica
  • Advisor(s): Suh, Sangwon
  • et al.
Abstract

With the growing attention to environmental issues, knowledge in the environmental and sustainability sciences is increasingly needed to inform decision making in policy, industry and at the consumer level. At the same time, the tools and communication strategies produced by this scientific community have been criticized for their lack of practicability and usefulness. Many questions remain about the mechanisms that create these knowledge transfer barriers and the avenues that should be explored to find solutions. The following work analyzes three different case studies where environmental information has been criticized for its limited usefulness. The theoretical background and research methodologies used throughout the chapters draw from several disciplines across both the natural and social sciences: industrial ecology, life cycle assessment, organizational science, management science, communication studies, and behavioral psychology.

Chapter one considers the usefulness of life cycle assessment (LCA) results in aiding product developers and businesses in drawing comparisons and identifying hotspots of environmental impacts. LCA has been broadly criticized for both the degree of uncertainty introduced through data gaps and the use of input parameters of variable quality. This work evaluates the tension between improving the accuracy of LCA results by filling in data gaps and decreasing the precision by incorporating less certain inputs. Through a real-world case study, the uncertainty implications of the hybrid LCA approach is analyzed in this context of accuracy versus precision. For firms to manage the environmental impacts of their value chains, they first must be able to quantify those impacts. This study presents an iterative hybrid approach to LCA that allows industry LCA practitioners to efficiently identify which parameters are most critical to understand the impacts, facilitating an efficient data collection process and an improvement to both the accuracy and precision of the quantified impacts used to support decision-making.

Chapter two focuses on an organization’s internal knowledge about chemical risks in consumer products and the mechanisms that prevent this information from being used to educate the public. Companies are taking proactive approaches to mitigating the risks of chemicals in their products, but new chemical risk identifications and removals are done quietly and rarely promoted to the public. Through an experimental survey design this study analyzes how consumer behavior is affected by a company’s voluntary disclosure of these proactive actions, and special attention is payed to the influence of media on the consumer response in these scenarios. This work examines the mechanisms that drive consumer response and the incentive that consumer behavior creates for companies to stay silent. Consumer trust in the information source helps to explain why the same information can be interpreted and acted upon very differently depending on where the information is coming from. Understanding the negative implications of voluntarily disclosing these positive actions offers insights into how creative solutions, such as disclosure through information intermediaries or third-party certifications, might be necessary for firms to retain consumers’ trust.

The last chapter focuses on the challenge of integrating knowledge generated within an organization’s sustainability function throughout an entire organization. Sustainability is an increasingly adopted practice within present-day organizations; however, very little research has empirically studied the micro-level process through which it is implemented and adopted by employees. Research on the decoupling of policy from practice in management programs – often brought on by external pressures – sheds light on the initial adoption of sustainability within organizations. This work examines individual employee behavior and the different motivations that may drive ceremonial adoption of sustainability versus actual integration of knowledge and practices. A survey completed by 886 employees within a Fortune 500 consumer goods manufacturing company based in the United States was used to measure employee characteristics, attitudes and both formal and technical sustainability-related behaviors. Employees’ perceptions of the business value of sustainability and their own personal sustainability interests may act as drivers of sustainability adoption throughout the organization. This study examines the relationship between these potential drivers and the prevalence of sustainability communication and information seeking behavior. This work offers insights into how management strategies can be employed to increase the technical adoption of sustainability, not just the expansion of a formal rhetoric.

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