Boards and sustainability: from aspirations to action

N. Craig Smith, Ron Soonieus

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Boards of directors are vital to firms taking substantive action on sustainability. While prior research has suggested that boards pay little attention to the topic, a recent survey by Board Agenda suggests that many individual board members have ambitious aspirations for sustainability. Unfortunately, respondents also feel that their companies lack the people, knowledge, and tools to take action. We interviewed twenty-five directors from the boards of well-known firms, examining the obstacles to greater board engagement with sustainability, including board members’ characteristics. In analyzing interview responses, we found five distinct archetypes of board member behavior. These profiles help explain the divergence between the attitudes of board members toward sustainability and the frequently inadequate action of the board as a whole. Our findings suggest ways to motivate each type of board member and the value of auditing the knowledge and mindset of board members toward sustainability, offering six approaches to strengthening board engagement with sustainability. While the eco- nomic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic might appear to reduce businesses’ ability to become more sustainable, we believe the wise course is to focus on the longer-term trend toward meaningful action. We are confident that many board members will agree.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)101-109
Number of pages9
JournalManagement and Business Review
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 31 Jan 2021


  • Boards
  • Sustainability


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