Understanding Positive Contributions to Sustainability: A Systematic Review

Samanthi Dijkstra-Silva, Stefan Schaltegger*, Philip Beske-Janssen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Current approaches for measuring and assessing contributions of companies and their products to sustainability largely focus on reducing negative impacts. However, becoming “less bad” still means having adverse impacts on the environment. Various authors have therefore called for investigating how positive contributions can be made to further sustainable development. This systematic literature review explores how positive contributions to sustainability have been discussed in the environmental management literature dealing with sustainability performance measurement and assessment. Our review of 328 publications reveals an understanding of positive contributions to sustainability that is a mostly implicit or vague use. Inductive analysis, however, reveals three distinct understandings – an operationalization, a stakeholder and a transformation perspective – each of which is embedded in a different theoretical frame, namely decision, stakeholder and transition theory. These perspectives have so far been discussed separately in the literature. By drawing on theoretical foundations of performance measurement, we propose an integrated understanding of positive contributions to sustainability: A positive sustainability contribution has the goal of bringing about a sustainability transformation, considers the environmental, economic and social context through stakeholder participation, and is operationalized to facilitate decision-making and the implementation of effective sustainability measures. A clear definition is of key importance for both research and practice to both reduce negative and increase positive contributions to sustainable development.
Original languageEnglish
Article number115802
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2022


  • Sustainability management
  • Sustainability accounting
  • Measurement
  • Assessment
  • Performance
  • Corporate sustainability

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