Call for papers: Social justice, business and the pursuit of sustainability

We invite proposals to be presented at the SMART conference Social justice, business and the pursuit of sustainability, exploring the complex , interconnected questions concerning social justice and human rights, with a particular focus on business. The Conference will be held at the Faculty of Law, University of Oslo, 2-3 December 2019.

The adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 have given new impetus to the debate on how to achieve sustainability. This has been accompanied by a sharpening in the debates about how to achieve it. Questions of social justice have a prominent place in this discourse. Despite widening understanding of the challenges at a popular level, there remains a significant risk that the pursuit of sustainability will fall victim to vested interests, negatively impacting on industrial development in emerging economies, or fail to effectively navigate the emerging political struggle, including over the social impacts implied by the transition to sustainability. This conference will explore the complex, interconnected questions concerning social justice and human rights with a particular focus on the role of business and of state regulation of business.


Planetary boundaries and social foundation. Source: Raworth 2017


A safe and just space for humanity

Our starting point is to define sustainability as securing the social foundation for humanity everywhere now and in the future while staying within planetary boundaries: ensuring a ‘safe and just operating space for humanity’ (Leach, Raworth & Rockström). The conference aims to interrogate the role of business and business regulation in securing the social foundation. What does the ‘just’ part of the ‘safe and just’ space for humanity entail? What is the role for business in achieving and maintaining this just and safe space? What is the role of regulation in securing this contribution?

Division of labour between states and private market actors

The discussion of the role of business in securing the social foundation for humanity within planetary boundaries goes to the heart of the discussion of the division of labour and responsibility between states, domestically and internationally, on the one hand, and private actors, on the other. While states have an overarching responsibility in setting domestic and international frameworks to protect the environment and human rights and secure the social basis for their peoples, well-known gaps and incoherencies in the regulatory framework, inform the recognition that we cannot rely solely on a compartmentalised and fragmented regulatory framework to promote contributions to sustainability by international businesses.

There is also no clear public/private distinction between the state and business. In some instances, states and other public bodies are directly involved in business, notably as controlling shareholders and as institutional investors. Conversely, there are prominent cases of strong corporate influence and outright corporate capture of legislation and of regulatory enforcement. More benignly, companies also provide public services. A holistic perspective, encompassing public, private and hybrid forms of business, must therefore inform a discussion of the contribution of business to sustainability.

The interconnected issues of planetary boundaries…

‘Planetary boundaries’ and the ‘social foundation’ are not two separate and disconnected aspects. Rather, the social foundation is the minimum that we must seek to achieve for humanity while the planetary boundaries represent the limits for how much pressure we can put on our ecosystems to accomplish this. Starting out with ‘planetary boundaries’ as the outer framework for the pursuit of sustainability, drawing on state-of-the-art of natural sciences, emphasises that there are literal ecological limits formed by complex interactions between planet-level environmental processes.

This also gives rise to the question of what role there is for a rights-based approach to social justice within these ecological constraints. Further: what does the aim of social justice means for the division of responsibility and possibilities between the industrialised countries and the emerging economies, for transnational business and for national business regulation?  

… and the social foundation for humanity

The concept of a ‘social foundation’ is a short-form for a range of interconnected issues. The social issues highlighted in the ‘safe and just space for humanity’ are illustrative, based on social goals included in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (Raworth 2017). The minimum requirement intrinsic in securing the social foundation of humanity now and in the future is that of ensuring the realization of basic human rights. Yet, a pervasive question is whether attempting to secure human rights leads to social justice, or whether a different approach is needed. Should we be looking beyond human rights to a more ambitious goal of human flourishing?

Environmental, social, cultural, economic and governance aspects of sustainability are interconnected, as we see through the common social justice issues of urban inequality; of people without access to clean air and water, safe and healthy food (Boyer et al 2016). The question of how these various ways of framing of social challenges relate to efforts to respond to business impacts on social sustainability, respect for human rights or the struggle for social justice. This is a question of conceptualization and definition that has direct consequence for strategies seeking policy or political change.

Fundamental risks posed to social justice

Inherent tensions lead to three fundamental risks to the achievement of social justice as an intrinsic element of global sustainability:

  • There is no guarantee that social justice can be achieved within planetary boundaries or that we will manage to stay within planetary boundaries in the battle between social goals. Political struggles unleashed by poorly managed transition, or trade-offs between various sustainability goals, may undermine the movement towards a safe and just space for humanity, with greater deprivation for those most vulnerable, including through labour exploitation and repression of labour or social mobilization.
  • There is risk that the most marginalized groups will continue to be left behind, including migrants and indigenous peoples. Arguable, such groups have not been sufficiently integrated to the negotiation of the SDGs. For example, cultural rights of indigenous peoples have often been ignored in the debates concerning sustainable development, or companies have been allowed to commercialise and misappropriate these rights (Collins 2018; Christensen 2019).
  • The political risks arising from the continual undermining of the economic bases for our societies, the increasing inequality between and within countries, and the rise of populism and the risk of societal instability that this entails. Some of the most disturbing trends in major industrialised countries reflect such a lack of social stability. Business is integral in this.

Abstracts are welcome from around the world and from all relevant disciplines

With this backdrop, we invite scholars from around the world and from various disciplines (and working across disciplines) to submit proposals within or across these themes:

  • Conceptual or theoretical contributions discussing fundamental aspects of sustainability including but not limited to the understanding of:
    • contradictions between infinite growth and planetary boundaries;
    • tension between shareholder primacy and corporate sustainability;
    • the relationship between social justice and free trade;
    • the role and limitations of human rights in the pursuit of social justice;
    • what the social foundation entails;
    • how to fully include marginalised groups;
    • the significance of gender issues; and of inter- and intra-generational perspectives.
  • Policy coherence for global sustainability, with contributions identifying and interrogating barriers, gaps and incoherencies, and discussing how to mitigate these, including but not limited to the role of the European Union as a global actor.
  • The role of business and business regulation in securing the social foundation for humanity within planetary boundaries, with emphasis on social justice and human rights.

Accepted papers will be invited for presentation at the conference in Oslo on 2-3 December 2019. Timely submission of draft papers is a prerequisite for presentation at the conference.

Timeline and practical information

  • Deadline for submitting abstracts of maximum 500 words: 19 August 2019. Earlier submission is encouraged.
  • Response will be given by 26 August 2019.
  • Working papers to be submitted by 16 October 2019. Earlier submission is encouraged.
  • Presentation of papers at the conference 2-3 December 2019.

Publication of the presented papers is envisaged, with high-level journals or as an edited volume with a high-level publisher. Please indicate in the comments field when you submit your abstract whether you are interested in having our your paper considered for publication, or whether is already published or planned published elsewhere.

The organisers are not able to generally offer funds for travel or accommodation. However, no registration fee is charged for conference participants; refreshments and lunch will be provided for all participants, and presenters will be invited to a speakers’ dinner, free of charge. Further, a financial hardship application may be made to the organisers, to contribute to or cover the travel and accommodation.


Published June 3, 2019 2:40 PM - Last modified Aug. 12, 2019 3:01 PM