Sustainability superheroes? For-profit narratives of “doing good” in the era of the SDGs

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As a consequence of the UN’s promulgation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the concept of development is being redefined and revitalized. Development is being turned into “doing good” by anyone and anywhere, and relevant for everyone and everywhere. Furthermore, business has been bestowed with a significant role in this process. What are the consequences for imagining and practicing development when development has been reconceptualized, operationalized and marketed by businesses? Drawing on text analysis and event ethnography at business conferences on sustainability held in a frontrunner SDG country, Denmark, this article identifies three key trends as for-profit narratives of doing good gain prominence. First, doing good is increasingly defined in terms of the SDGs, but businesses strategically emphasize specific goals, thereby compromising a more integrated substantive approach to sustainability grounded in the needs of those affected. Second, profit-making and doing good are often presented as symbiotic, and doing good as part of core business. The idea of transformational partnerships between for-profit and non-profit actors, resulting in organizational changes by all involved, is also part of this trend. This leads to a problematic blurring between the categories of for-profit and non-profit. Third, for-profit narratives of doing good are marketing business endeavors by invoking “nearby sustainability superheroes” (individuals, e.g., consumers or employees, performing heroically nearby). In contrast, non-profit narratives of doing good have traditionally justified interventions by evoking a “distant other in need” (a suffering, socially and geographically distant, individual or social group). The implication that the distant other is passively waiting to be saved is problematic, but so is encouraging individuals to put themselves into the picture as what can be termed “selfie-humanitarians.” By foregrounding their own reflection, these (apolitical) heroes can easily lose sight of the historical–geographical structural issues that perpetuate inequality.
TidsskriftWorld Development
StatusUdgivet - jun. 2021


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