Doing Time: Aligning Business with Sustainability Timescales

Sustainable Market Actors for Responsible Trade (SMART) welcomes proposals for papers to be presented at the global symposium 'Doing Time: Aligning Business with Sustainability Timescales’, to be held at the University of Oslo on 28-29 June 2018.

Image from "Tread and Pedals".

This global symposium convened by SMART will bring together business practitioners, policy-makers, academics, research students and other stakeholders to investigate the temporal dimensions of sustainability for the business sector — such as the future, the past, timing and the pace of time — in order to understand the obstacles to and opportunities for more environmentally responsible business, and to recommend law reform.

Sustainability often denotes a long-term approach to development through intergenerational prescience and precautionary measures. The long-term outlook is also increasingly hailed as fundamental for corporate social responsibility (CSR), with many commentators calling for investors and companies to emphasize long-term value preservation and creation. Another temporal dimension of sustainability, though often overlooked, is the past: it has relevance to historic environmental damage, such as pollution and resource depletion, and these implications for businesses such as potential liability for repairing past losses or future resource constraints. The past can also be relevant to the business community as a source of lessons to learn from, notably the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Another relevant temporal perspective is the pace of time, or more precisely the tempo of decision-making. From individual to system-level decision-making, impatient habits can undermine sustainability. The ‘Slow Money’ and ‘Slow Food’ movements are enlightened responses to this concern, promising more patient development that allows greater environmental due diligence and reduced ecological and social stress. Slowness, however, is not always appropriate when confronted with pressing environmental problems such as climate change that require urgent action. Slowness must thus be linked to knowing when to act, to ensure that the timing of environmental decisions dovetails with sustainability’s temporalities such as when to harvest natural resources or mitigate degrading impacts.

The temporalities of sustainability are not easily aligned with the business sector. Despite ubiquitous corporate jargon to be ‘future-focused’, ‘goal-oriented’, ‘forward-thinking’ and other vacuities, the business world has myopic habits, over-valuing the immediate or near-term and under-valuing the long-term. In addition to competitive market pressure, economic actors use cost-benefit-analysis that imports discount rates that reduce the present value of future costs or benefits.  Equally pernicious, the business sector can be just as oblivious to the past, in which historic ecological damage is struthiously denied as having any relevance to future business success. When news broke in 2015 that BP would incur the heftiest environmental fine in United States history to settle legal actions against it – some US$18.7 billion, due to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon catastrophe – the company’s share price rose on the ‘good news’ that it had settled the scandal. The cult of speed also is deeply embedded in business practice, in which time is compressed and accelerated though both ‘time saving’ technologies and economic methods derived from Taylorism and Fordism that intensify the breakdown of time into ever-smaller units in the quest for more efficient production and trade.

Both business law and environmental law are complicit in these temporal misalignments between the economy and the natural environment. The law compresses time through ‘fast-track’ legislation offering accelerated approval of new business developments. Also, the law suffers from temporal inertia, such as ‘grandfathering’ existing activities that reduce regulators' responsiveness to changing circumstances, such as climate change. Indifference to past ecological damage, and disregard of its restoration, are equally serious temporal flaws, as evident in the truncated scope of some environmental liability legislation. Similarly, corporate financial accounting and reporting regulations can squeeze out sustainability time-scales by rendering as 'material' considerations only those manifesting in the present or near-term.

By violating nature's temporalities, humankind has precipitated much time-distorted environmental decay and damage. Forests and fisheries have dissipated for short-term economic gains that stifle the regeneration of nature’s capital. Species extinctions have increased, reducing nature's future evolutionary complexity. Agriculture now depends on massive petrochemical inputs to enable production to ‘defy’ nature’s potentialities. Synthetic plastics designed for durability increasingly litter the oceans in ever-greater gyres. And greenhouse gas emissions are accumulating to the point where Earth’s climate threatens to shift abruptly, beyond natural permutations. And, of course, these changes threaten humankind itself.

Call for Presenters

This interdisciplinary symposium will feature a range of presentations and debate over one-and-half days that explore how the business sector and the economy more generally can be aligned with the temporalities of sustainability. In particular, the symposium will consider:

  • The nature of time and time in nature, as parameters of sustainability timescales.
  • The environmental impacts and costs associated with short-termism.
  • The cultural, organizational, legal and psychological impediments to long-term and patient economic activity.
  • The relevance of past environmental damage and business practice to sustainability.
  • Existing best practices in the business sector and lessons to learn.
  • Government legal and policy mechanisms, in the domestic, EU and international spheres, to foster behavioural change.

Within these themes, the symposium organisers welcome contributions on theoretical issues, empirical studies and/or reform proposals.

Practical information

Prospective presenters are invited to submit a proposal, comprising the title, an abstract of a maximum of 500 words, a brief biographical statement of up to 200 words, and the presenter's contact information. Submissions to this call for papers may be lodged at this website.

The submission deadline is Friday, 26 January 2018, although earlier submissions are encouraged.

  • The symposium organisers will respond no later than by 15 February 2018, though earlier responses will likely be given for early submissions.
  • A peer-reviewed publication is anticipated based on the presentations at the symposium.

The organisers are not able to offer funds for travel or accommodation. However, no registration fee is charged for symposium participants, whether giving a presentation or just attending. Refreshments and lunch will be provided for all participants, and presenters will be invited to a speakers’ dinner, free of charge.

Contact information

For any enquiries about this event, please contact the organisers:

Professor Beate Sjåfjell, Faculty of Law, University of Oslo;


Professor Benjamin J. Richardson, Faculty of Law, University of Tasmania;





Published June 27, 2017 11:41 AM - Last modified Jan. 23, 2018 2:16 PM