Abstract: The conceptualisation of sustainability by tomorrow’s managers by Christine Parkin Hughes. Sustainability is an emerging field, a knowledge frontier. However, the conceptualisation of what sustainability is, and what it means in theory and practice remains unsettled. Scant attention has been paid to how future managers make sense of sustainability, representing a significant gap in the literature. The overarching aim of this thesis is to explore how the polysemous phenomenon of sustainability is conceptualised by the next generation of managers. It explores how they made sense of sustainability; the drivers behind their sensemaking; whether there is a skew within their conceptualisations in favour of environmental explanations; and, whether the pilot of the UN Sustainability Literacy Test impacted on how they perceive sustainability. Drawing on 485 surveys, 7 semi-structured interviews and 3 focus groups, this was achieved through the theoretical lens of sensemaking, employing an inductive case study approach with elements of survey analysis, obtained from students at Plymouth Business School. The interpreted findings show that participants made sense of sustainability in various ways, mostly espousing a long-term/intergenerational view, with explanations principally couched in single-dimensional environmental terms, thereby demonstrating the sustainability skew. Education appears to be the main driver behind their sensemaking, although the media and conformity/socialisation also had an important part to play. The sustainability literacy test seems to have broadened perspectives and increased understanding of sustainability and for the vast majority of participants, the interest-levels following the test remained the same or increased. This study joins the ongoing conversation by providing an original contribution, both theoretically and empirically, to the contentious, complex and multifaceted notion that is sustainability, both in the wider sense and more particularly from the perspective of future managers. This is important because how future managers make sense of sustainability will ultimately structure its reality.

Document Type


Publication Date