Sustainable development: a vague and ambiguous “theory”

Yvon Pesqueux (CNAM, Paris, France)

Society and Business Review

ISSN: 1746-5680

Publication date: 2 October 2009



The notion of “sustainable development” has had a short and tumultuous history, including a departure from economic reductionism by focusing on a multidimensional aspect and addressing the issues of its scope across many disciplines. It has become a project enabling a rethinking of capitalism based on the concept of a reformed type of capitalism. The purpose of this paper is to study this issue.


The paper is based on the following arguments: the presentation of sustainable development as a “vague” theory, an empirical proof of this vagueness with regard to corporate actions whose justification is based around the notion of sustainable development, and finally the ambiguities of the notion.


The notion of sustainable development raises the question of an apparent consensus on its correlates: solidarity, responsibility, equity, etc. It tends to establish a protean sense of the firms' responsibility, particularly the larger ones. The largely political dimension of the notion has today consequences on its usage. Sustainable development as addressed in the firm tends to take on the dimension of a management issue, which is likely to persist due to its larger political dimension.


The paper provides insight on the catch‐all dimension of the notion and its appealing rhetorical character and bases the ambiguity related with references to an “in‐between.” On the institutional level, it refers to a social and fair economy that stands arguably in between the state and the market. On the methodological level, it refers to heuristics of fear and hope.



Pesqueux, Y. (2009), "Sustainable development: a vague and ambiguous “theory”", Society and Business Review, Vol. 4 No. 3, pp. 231-245.

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