Which Factors Characterize Sustainable Behavior of Defense Forces?

By Reynir Smari Atlason, Wolfgang Gerstlberger

Which Factors Characterize Sustainable Behavior of Defense Forces?

Defense agencies are increasingly identifying the benefits of environmentally benign solutions on multiple types of operations. Energy use, material use, and environmental damage are factors that influence military operations in both the short and the long term. In this paper, we examine the behavior of 81 military forces with regard to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and sustainability reporting. Furthermore, the characteristics of militaries with a CSR/sustainability strategy are identified. By using hierarchical cluster analysis and exploratory factor analysis, we locate characteristics of militaries with medium or strong connections to sustainable behavior. The results of the analysis demonstrate which militaries are likely to engage in improvements with regards to CSR and sustainability, particularly in relation to the environment. The findings of this paper demonstrate which militaries have a CSR or sustainability strategy and what the perceived benefits of such strategies are. Furthermore, we have identified militaries that are likely to implement such strategies in the future.

Public pressure toward sustainable operations of large corporations is increasing on a global scale. Furthermore, large governmental organizations are meeting increased public pressure to organize their operations in a more sustainable way. Militaries, especially in Western democracies, are also experiencing this new societal and political requirement. Recent literature provides several reasons why it is increasingly important for military services to address the challenges of the sustainable development (SD) and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) concepts. For example, Saritas and Burmaoglu claim that drastically increased energy consumption, due to rapid technological development, is the main driver for the development of more sustainable and responsible military operations. This energy consumption–related argument is in line with new reports, e.g., about demonstration projects in the US army that are aimed at increasing energy efficiency in military operations. Other authors point, with similar arguments, to the strongly increasing material and water consumption of army organizations. Another angle in recent literature discussing reasons for the growing importance of more sustainable military operations deals with a changing regulatory framework. In recent years, some national governments and international organizations have modified their guidelines for public procurement by implementing new sustainability, mainly environmental, requirements. This recent development also affects military procurement. Although social requirements are also an important part of SD and CSR concepts, our literature review and empirical analysis have revealed that, to date, there are only a few social requirements.

In contrast to militaries, large corporations generally have profit as a main objective; nonetheless, they are increasingly attempting to create profits while also addressing the public pressure of sustainable and responsible operations. Research and development (R&D) and infrastructure projects of militaries function in a similar manner to comparable projects of large corporations but have a different objective. Rather than profits being the main objective, militaries focus on the defense of their respective sovereign state and engage in activities that are considered essential for the public by the ruling force of the respective nation. However, militaries, and large corporations alike, are beginning to realize the strong relationship between environmental and social efficiency and operational benefits. In the case of corporations, improved performance within the sustainability sphere produces various benefits, such as higher energy efficiency, reduced raw material costs, and increased worker productivity. Worker productivity often results from internal and/or external training activities in fields such as corporate compliance, quality, and resource management. All these benefits lead eventually either to increased profits or military efficiency.

Within the military realm, increased environmental and social efficiency leads to operational benefits, such as water and energy security, or a lower number of accidents, eventually providing the relevant military with increased potential to fulfil their assumed role. In all cases, both within large corporations and militaries, the environmental and social effects of solutions are considered secondary to the operational benefits that a given solution brings. Even though the environmental and social problems arising from mass production have received growing attention since the 1960’s, militaries have either mostly been exempted from those issues in their day to day operations or have reacted in a positive way to environmental and social problems. However, large militaries are increasingly adopting sustainable solutions and improving their sustainability efforts (e.g., Australian Government, 2015; UK Ministry of Defence, 2015; US Army, 2014).

Our findings indicate that countries with a strong regulatory environment, high Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, and medium to high military expenditures per capita seem to favor CSR and sustainability awareness within their militaries. For those countries, military CSR and sustainability strategies can demonstrate win-win situations, mainly due to lower energy and material costs on the one hand and reduced environmental impact on the other. However, countries with high military expenditures per capita but low GDP per capita and a loose regulatory environment seem to lack any CSR or sustainability commitment within their militaries.

The topic military CSR/Sustainability activities and reporting is a new, emerging research field and, therefore, there are still large research and policy awareness gaps in regard to this topic. To the best of our knowledge, this study is the first attempt to provide a systematic and quantitative worldwide overview of military CSR/Sustainability activities based on publicly available reporting. From our exploratory findings, we see a clear need for more in-depth quantitative and/or qualitative follow-up studies. This need has been formulated recently by scientists with an interest in this field, policymakers, and military practitioners.

Our study, which was aimed at identifying the main characteristics of militaries with CSR/sustainability engagement, has led to several important contributions to the still emerging literature on military CSR and sustainability. The first contribution is that countries scoring high on the Yale EPI index, with high GDP per capita and medium to low military expenditures per capita, seem to be more likely to focus, to some extent, on CSR issues in their operations. Sweden, France, the U.K., and the U.S. seem to be at the forefront when it comes to CSR within the armed forces. For those countries, military CSR and sustainability strategies represent win-win situations, mainly with lower energy and material costs, in addition to reduced environmental impact. As a second contribution, we can state that countries with high military expenditures per capita, low GDP per capita, and a loose regulatory environment seem to lack any CSR or sustainability commitment within their military organizations.

A third and at least partly surprising contribution of our investigation is that countries such as Denmark or Germany, which are often mentioned as global leaders in terms of corporate CSR strategies or national environmental policies, are not classified as leading military CSR nations in our study. Most militaries, however, do not focus on CSR issues. The characteristics of countries that do not focus on CSR are low GDP per capita, high military expenditure per capita, and an unstructured regulatory environment. There seems to be a vast amount of countries on the verge of implementing strong CSR/Sustainability policies, in which all pre-conditions described above are met by the national governments, and official documents mention some aspects of CSR.

Although this was not the focus of our study, the results point to the interpretations that international organizations, such as NATO, and, also, the United Nations (e.g., the UN Environmental Program UNEP) and the European Union, provide important platforms for the exchange of best practice CSR guidelines and experiences between national military organizations. On the level of single national military organizations, our study identified (i) politically supported (e.g., by legal rules) and formalized CSR guidelines and (ii) operationalized processes following procurement guided by CSR, investment decisions, technological standards, maintenance, and reporting as the most important success factors of military CSR policies.


This is an excerpt of the journal article: Reynir Smari Atlason, Wolfgang Gerstlberger, Which Factors Characterize Sustainable Behavior of Defense Forces?, Journal of Cleaner Production (2017), doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.06.161 (Courtesy of the authors). 

Reynir Smari Atlason
Assistant Professor

Dr. Reynir Smari Atlason is currently working with the Institute of Technology and Innovation of the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).

Wolfgang Gerstlberger
Associate Professor

Dr. Wolfgang Gerstlberger is currently working with the Centre for Integrative Innovation Management of the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).