Legitimizing sustainability talk in retail talk : The case of IKEA’s sustainability journey

Sammanfattning: By looking at the empirical case of IKEA’s sustainability journey (1992-2017), using qualitative methods such as interviews and document studies, this thesis shows how sustainability talk over time is made into a legitimate feature of retail talk. Something I argue is a far more difficult, complex and problematic endeavour for retailers to undertake than most previous research on the topic would have us believe.The purpose of this study is to reveal what some of these previously overlooked complexities and problematic aspects might be. It does so from a theoretical perspective focused on the performative qualities of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) communication, or CSR talk. Inspired by blind spots in such theorizing, I incorporate the processual concept of legitimation and ground its thinking in an empirical study of how sustainability talk is made into a legitimate feature of retail talk, throughout a retail organization. My approach is to complement and combine previous research on more sustainable retailing and CSR talk theorizing by providing a more nuanced understanding of the kind of work that goes into making retailing more sustainable, and for CSR talk to occur throughout an organization over time.The findings indicate three overarching complexities and problematic aspects of legitimizing sustainability talk in retail talk. The first is the challenging task of ensuring continuous talk about sustainability within retail organizations over time, something that requires the development of Corporate Sustainability Discourse (CSD), integrated forms of sustainability talk, as well as enabling and identifying business hooks. The second involves recognizing and dealing with how more sustainable retailing may also entail more political retailing, which brings back the moralizing nature of sustainability talk to CSR talk theorizing by providing new empirical insights into the topic. Lastly, the study also shows some of the internal mechanisms that force retailers to discursively repackage sustainability talk into something that entails selling more, not less. This reveals the near impossibility for retailers and their sustainability talk to escape a potentially unsustainable status quo paradigm of sustainable development. All three insights leaves us with food for thought concerning how more sustainable retailing can be understood and pursued.

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