A conceptual framework of sustainability in project management

Marly Monteiro de Carvalho
Associate Professor

Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo, Production Engineering Department


Sustainability is increasingly perceived as a necessary tool for understanding the social, economic, and environmental consequences associated with projects and project management. However, the lack of a common structure and language for analyzing sustainability in projects as well as the absence of specific tools mean the lack of a framework that can be useful and applicable to projects. This study aims to systematize a conceptual framework of sustainability factors in project management. Bibliographic research and systematic literature review were the research methods used. A sample of publications was obtained from searches in academic databases and through cited references from the articles found in the databases. The results show that the study of sustainability is still dominated by economic and environmental perspectives at the expense of social perspective, with the triple bottom line (TBL) perspective applied in less than half of the publications in the obtained sample. In addition, the analysis revealed that TBL sustainability in project management represents a major research gap. Furthermore, this research contributes to understanding, develops sustainability in project management, and presents a conceptual framework of sustainability (economic, environmental and social) in project management.

Keywords: sustainability; sustainability evaluation; corporate social responsibility; sustainable development; triple bottom line


Practices of project management are becoming an important way of developing and attaining more efficiency in projects. According to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Fifth Edition, project management is “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to a program in order to meet the program requirements and to obtain benefits and control not available by managing projects individually” (PMI, 2013, p. 9), and project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. The temporary nature of projects indicates that a project has a definite beginning and end” (PMI, 2013, p. 3).

At the same time, the need to integrate sustainability in project management has emerged. The concept of sustainability has three dimensions: environmental, economic, and social (Gimenez, Sierra, & Rodon, 2012), i.e., sustainability based on the triple bottom line concept (Elkington, 1998; Labuschagne, Brent, & Van Erck, 2005; Savitz, 2006). Under the triple bottom line vision, organizations that seek to achieve a standard of excellence must develop ways of reducing their negative social and environmental impacts. However, according to Elkington (1998), guiding companies toward sustainability requires drastic changes in the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of these companies.

According to Mitchell, Curtis, and Davidson (2007), to be sustainable, companies must think beyond the economic bottom line because maintaining financial security will not be adequate to guarantee future success. For organizations to continue to operate in the long term, they must take measures to ensure that they contribute to the sustainable management of natural and human resources and contribute to the well-being of society and the economy as a whole. Thus, organizations can incorporate principles of sustainability into their activities in the following ways: by considering sustainability during the preparation and review of business strategies, by supporting new agreements and negotiations that promote sustainable practices, by developing new projects driven by sustainability principles, and, finally, by broadening their vision of sustainability beyond the limits of the company (Labuschagne et al., 2005; Araújo, 2010).

In addition, Carvalho and Rabechini Jr. (2011) argue the need for the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of sustainability to be incorporated into project management. This need has prompted a discussion of how to increase sustainability in project management. According to Silvius, Schipper, and Nedeski (2013), the relationship between project management and sustainable development has been gaining attention among professionals and scholars. The study of the integration of the concepts of sustainability into project management is considered an emerging field. To date, empirical studies that can be used to understand how the concepts of sustainable development are implemented in the practice of project management are lacking.

Project management and sustainability have been addressed by countless studies, but few studies have focused on the intersection of these two topics. Some initiatives aiming to integrate these two themes are already underway (Anning, 2009; Bernhardi, Beroggi, & Moens, 2000; Bodea, Elmas, Tănăsescu, & Dascãlu, 2010; Fernández-Sánchez & Rodríguez-López, 2010; Hartig, Hartig, Lesh, Lowrie, & Wever, 1996; Jones, 2006; Mulder & Brent, 2006; Raven, Jolivet, Mourik, & Feenstra, 2009; Turlea, Roman, & Constantinescu, 2010; Vifell & Soneryd, 2012), but much additional research is needed to develop tools, techniques, and methodologies (Singh, Murty, Gupta, & Dikshit, 2012; El-Haram, Walton, Horner, Hardcastle, Price, Bebbington, Brown & Frame 2007; Thomson, El-Haram, & Emmanuel, 2011) that can be applied in project management to assess sustainability at the project or organization level (Carvalho & Rabechini Jr., 2011; Cole, 2005; Deakin, Huovila, Rao, & Sunikkamand, 2002; Thomson et al., 2011).

The need for studies on the converging themes of sustainability and project management, coupled with the growing importance of both topics in the current business context, drove the development of this study, which aims to contribute to a better understanding of the theme of sustainability in project management.

Including this introduction, this paper is structured in four sections. In section 2, the research methodology is presented. In section 3, a literature review is described, the results are discussed, and a theoretical model of sustainability in project management is presented. Section 4 describes the final conclusions. The acknowledgments and the references used in the study are included at the end of the document.

Methodological Approach

This research is considered to be of an exploratory nature, and as such, it is intended to further our understanding of a given phenomenon (Selltiz, Jahoda, Deutsch, & Cook, 1967). The methodological approach used was bibliographic research, which “is developed from already prepared material, consisting mainly of books and scientific articles” (Gil 2006, p. 65). The advantage of using bibliographic research is that it allows the researcher to address a much more extensive range of information than he could obtain directly.

Thus, in this study, a systematic literature review was employed with the objective of locating and synthesizing the existing literature on a particular theme, using organized, transparent and replicable procedures at each step of the process (Littell, Corcoran, & Pillai, 2008). To analyze and summarize the various models of sustainability in project management described in the literature, the Sphinx software tool (Freitas & Janissek, 2000) was used to visualize and group sustainability variables related to project management as well as to analyze the content.

Systematization of the Literature Review

A literature review was performed using five steps. Several of the publications evaluated were articles with a triple bottom line approach to sustainability. First, a previously completed systematic review of the literature on sustainability in project management by Martens, Brones, and Carvalho (2013) was used. This review was conducted by means of a search in the ISI Web of Science database (Thompson Reuters) of articles published over the last 20 years (through April 2012) using the key words “sustain* and project management,” “sustainability in project management,” and “sustainability and project management.” Through a content analysis, sample of 23 articles in relevant journals were examined.

In the second step, the study given by Morioca and Carvalho (2012) was used for compiling articles about sustainability. Using bibliometric and content analysis, these authors created a list of articles with or without information about the triple bottom line approach in project management. The search, through April 2011, was conducted in the ISI Web of Science database. Articles that addressed the TBL vision were overlapped with the results of the Martens et al. (2013) study, resulting in more publications related to a TBL vision for project management.

The third step used to obtain models for sustainability in project management involved a new search with the same key words used by Martens et al. (2013) and Morioca and Carvalho (2012) (e.g. “sustain* and project management,” “sustainability in project management,” “sustainability and project management”) in the ISI Web of Science database. However, the period of time covered by the searches was extended through April 2013.

The fourth step used to obtain publications from a greater number of academic databases was to perform searches in additional databases, such as Scopus, ScienceDirect and Scielo, while keeping the same search pattern with the same key words used by Martens et al. (2013) and Morioca and Carvalho (2012). The fifth step consisted of extending the search to include additional articles via a content analysis, and an analysis of the bibliographic references of previously accessed articles. After identifying new articles in the previously accessed articles, the new articles were accessed in the cited databases or by Web search. This final systematic search was not restricted by certain key words or sustainability themes in project management. The publications compiled with this method could include scientific journals, books, book chapters, proceedings of conferences, dissertations, and doctoral theses. Because of financial limitations, some publications were not accessed.

The topic areas considered in the compilation of bibliographic references took into account the study of sustainability, the integration of sustainability into project management, and sustainability models in general. These sustainability models may or may not have been related to project management, but they included constructs or sustainability factors related to the TBL concept and could be applied to future modeling and research about project management.

Using the search methods described above, which were intended to develop a theoretical framework for the study, the total number of compiled publications was 149. Studies with a triple bottom line general focus accounted for more than 50% of the total sample of publications.

In the total sample of publications obtained through searches of scientific databases, the journals with the largest number of publications were the Journal of Cleaner Production, Ecological Indicators, the Journal of Green Building, the Journal of Construction, and Management and Sustainability Science, totaling 18.75% of the articles. The 15 most cited journals accounted for 38,25% of the publications in the sample.

An analysis of the chronology of the publications showed major peaks in 2005, 2010, and 2012. Even so, publications from the last five years represented 45.63% of the total of the total number of publications. In addition, it should be noted that under the scope of this study, the bibliographic review is current, but the author will also periodically conduct new searches in academic databases with the goal of keeping the literature review up to date.

More than 60% of the publications were either case studies or theoretical conceptual studies. In addition, survey research methods have only recently been used in this field. These results show that the study of sustainability in project management is still in the exploratory stage, which is consistent with Silvius et al., (2013), Valdes-Vasquez and Klotz (2013) and Singh et al. (2012).


In this section, current concepts in the field of sustainability in project management are presented, and the need for more studies on this subject is discussed. Various models of corporate sustainability and project management, especially those with a triple bottom line vision of sustainability, are presented here.

The Need for Sustainability in Project Management

Sustainability is increasingly perceived as a necessary tool for understanding the social, economic and environmental consequences associated with the way projects and their support systems are designed, constructed, operated, maintained and eventually eliminated (El-Haram et al., 2007; Thomson et al., 2011). However, the lack of a common structure and language for analyzing and assessing sustainability, and the absence of a tool for integrated assessment, means the lack of a method that is useful and applicable to projects (Cole, 2005; Deakin et al, 2002; Thomson et al., 2011).

Despite this, Pope, Annandale, and Morrison-Saunders (2004) and Wilkins (2003) argue that the evaluation of sustainability has a fundamental role in the creation of an environment where interested parties (stakeholders) are forced to rethink their priorities through the analysis of the potential impact of their projects on sustainability. Sustainability assessments require tangible information about the main aspects of sustainability in projects, thereby providing guidance during the decision-making process in a manner that is transparent and inclusive of all involved parties (Mathur, Price & Austin, 2008; El-Haram et al., 2007; Thomson et al., 2011).

The implementation and measurement of sustainability principles remain in the early stages, and many technical and conceptual issues have not yet been addressed (Singh et al., 2012; El-Haram et al., 2007; Thomson et al., 2011). Tools and practices to support decision-making are necessary for systematically including sustainability criteria in project evaluation, production and processes, and in-project selection. In addition, the development of greening tools, which have objectives such as pollution reduction or continuous improvement, must be transformed into sustainability tools that focus on final objectives or outcomes, such as ensuring health and ecosystem integrity (Gladwin, Kennelly, Krause, and Kennelly, 1995). These greening tools, in other words, move organizations towards sustainability. According to the World Bank, by 1992, the achievement of sustainable development was the greatest challenge for the human race, and it remains so today. The transformation of theory into management practices contributes positively to the process of sustainable development and to sustainability (Gladwin et al., 1995).

According to Bebbington et al. (2007) and Singh et al. (2012), there is a widely recognized need for people, organizations and companies to obtain models, metrics and tools to define and quantify sustainability through systematic forms and procedures. To achieve progress in sustainability, the development of sustainability indicators must be systematically monitored, measured, quantified and interpreted (Zdan, 2010). Although much research has been carried out in the area of sustainability metrics, there is still ample room for additional research in the domain of sustainability because the sustainability field is diverse and complex, especially with regards to certain countries or organizations (Welsch, 2005; Singh et al., 2012).

Similarly, according to Labuschagne et al. (2005), there is a lack of systems in place for measuring performance towards sustainability in operational practices. According to these authors, sustainability has typically been thought of mostly in institutional and strategic terms, without giving appropriate consideration to the economic-operational side of manufacturing activities. Few indicators have been applied to measure the efficiency of operations, and existing indicators are too focused on the environmental side and are fundamentally oriented towards product development.

The motivations that drive companies to develop sustainability projects are not solely based on solidarity. Studies have demonstrated that the benefits of sustainability are not confined to environmental and social benefits. Sustainability also enhances the economic value of organizations (Fiksel, McDaniel, & Mandenhall, 1999). In addition, in the modern era, it is impossible to think of economic development without the parallel construct of protecting the environment and the mutual benefits to society. According to Schwarz, Beloff, and Beaver (2002) and Araújo (2010), a central premise of sustainability is that economic well-being is inextricably linked to conservation of the environment and the well-being of human populations.

In this context, Porter and Linde (1995) showed that the most competitive companies are those that best utilize their resources. The most competitive organizations are not those that utilize lower-cost resources but those who employ the most advanced technologies and the best methods for controlling their resources. Thus, there is demand for a business management model that makes the connection between value creation and ecological and social compatibility and unites these two ideas in a balanced equilibrium (VDI 4070, 2006; Araújo, 2010).

Organizations are increasingly aware that the choices they make about products and processes can have profound environmental and social implications (Sarkis, Meade, & Presley, 2012). Within this evolutionary context, decision-makers within private companies have been burdened with a multitude of pressures from interested parties, including pressures from environmental agencies and the social conscience of workers, consumers and communities. These pressures must be weighed alongside the need to provide a guarantee of a reasonable return on investment and the long-term viability of the company-to-company shareholders. Thus, some companies have taken the initiative to identify opportunities to capture value through the concept of sustainability (McMullen, 2001).

At the organizational level, corporate social responsibility helps to improve ecological and economic performance. At this level, a tridimensional vision (economic, environmental and social) becomes increasingly feasible and necessary. Some studies have shown that socially responsible organizations also take action, at least in the short term (Chemical Industry Education Center [CIEC], 2005; Pearce, 2003; Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors [RICS], 2004). Furthermore, it is expected that these organizations will continue to be socially healthy in the long term.

Thus, it is important that the three metrics of the triple bottom line are put into a framework of constructs, factors, or variables that can be used as a decision model by organizations that wish to improve their sustainability. The principles of environmental economics and associated processes have been well established, and environmental actions have been seen to substantial growth (Chau, Yik, Hui, Liu, and Yu, 2007; Chen, Li, & Wong, 2005; Matar, Georgy, & Ibrahim, 2008). Well-established standards, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) requirements (Green Building Council Brazil [GBCB], 2013), are well known in the building industry.

However, the implications of implementing a social sustainability perspective have rarely been discussed. Valdes-Vasquez and Klotz (2013) argue that a truly sustainable construction project, for example, must include social considerations about the end users, as well as considerations of the impacts of the project in the community with regards to the safety, health, and education of people involved. Integration of all of these considerations would improve the performance of long-term projects and the quality of life of people affected by those projects.

Thus, according to Sarkis et al., (2012), the main aspects of the triple bottom line approach must be further discussed, modeled and understood. When a triple bottom line approach is used, the economic, environmental and social aspects of a project are better integrated. A set of sustainability variables and indicators is required to make this integration more feasible (RICS, 2004; Labuschagne et al., 2005; Presley, Meade & Sarkis, 2007; Sarkis et al., 2012).

According to Silvius et al., (2013), the relationship between project management and sustainability is rapidly gaining interest from professionals and academics. Studies on the integration of sustainability concepts into the management of projects generally address the topic from a conceptual, logical or moral point of view. Given that the relationship between sustainability and project management is still an emerging field of study, these approaches make sense. However, the findings of the above-mentioned study do not negate the need for more empirical studies to understand how the concepts of sustainable development can be implemented in project management.

Likewise, authors such as Fernández-Sánchez and Rodríguez-López (2010), have analyzed current problems in sustainability practices. They identify a need to establish a method for identifying and selecting a set of indicators that include all participants involved in the life cycle of a project to find an appropriate balance between all involved actors. Sustainability is proposed by these authors as an opportunity for improvement throughout a project.

There are considerable challenges in developing resource-related projects that meet the ideals of sustainability. The principles and policies of corporate sustainability are difficult to integrate into project management systems (Corder, McLellan, Bangerter, & van Beers, 2012). In addition, existing systems do not easily provide innovative solutions for dealing with key goals of sustainability, such as significantly reducing carbon emissions and minimizing environmental impacts while maintaining license to operate in society.

Business sustainability involves the incorporation of the objectives of sustainable development, social equity, economic efficiency, and environmental performance into the operational practices and projects of a company. Companies that compete globally increasingly need to commit to being informed about the global sustainability performances of operational initiatives. The current frameworks of variables and indicators available to measure the overall sustainability of business do not deal effectively with all aspects of sustainability at the operational level, especially in developing countries (Labuschagne et al., 2005).

With regards to these challenges of identifying appropriate sustainability metrics and introducing them in project management, Bebbington et al., (2007), cited by Singh et al. (2012), reinforce the importance of including sustainability variables in planning, monitoring, evaluation, and decision-making to facilitate collaboration and improve the quality of projects.

Thus, the gaps in knowledge exposed in this section demonstrate the importance of incorporating the theme of sustainability into project management and, more specifically, the importance of identifying sustainability constructs or variables that can be used in project management and are of real importance in an applied context.

Models of Corporate Sustainability and Sustainability in Project Management

A survey conducted in 2002 by PricewaterhouseCoopers on sustainability, cited by Carvalho and Rabechini Jr. (2011), showed that the incorporation of sustainability aspects into projects represents a large gap in the management of organizations. The need to work towards sustainability by introducing the three dimensions of sustainability (environmental, social and economic) into project management at a functional level is clear (Singh et al., 2012; Labuschagne et al., 2005; Carvalho & Rabechini Jr., 2011; Silvius et al., 2013). These authors report that the social and environmental dimensions of sustainability are sometimes neglected, but it is the social dimension that is most often neglected.

According to Shenhar and Dvir (2007), the economic dimension of sustainability is important because it protects the investor's capital. However, in this context, the environmental and social dimensions should also be promoted. For example, the application of these two dimensions may increase project efficiency through better purchasing, more effective use of resources, the use of clean technologies and renewable energy, reducing the use of fossil fuels, etc.

Thus, project management when it involves sustainability results in the production of goods and services that are suited to the reality of stakeholders (Carvalho & Rabechini Jr., 2011). Sustainability of an enterprise depends on the competent management of its natural complexity, as well as its ability to consider in business plans the legitimate interests of its various stakeholders and the impacts on the environment.

In contrast, sustainability in project management can be exploited in several ways, and companies that view sustainability as a fundamental element in their business and that work sustainability into the development and management of projects should be mindful of the following best practices: making sustainable purchases, developing an analytical structure of projects, using life-cycle analysis, performing risk management of enterprises, and considering sustainability elements in the project solution (Carvalho & Rabechini Jr., 2011).

Based on this line of reasoning, studies that promote the integration of the concepts of sustainability into project management through modeling of factors that relate to project function and the use of assessment systematics are increasingly necessary in an enterprise environment. Several sustainability approaches and models are listed here with the goal of systematizing a set of constructs or variables that can be used in project management. As seen in the list of models compiled from the literature review (Table 1), models of corporate sustainability and models of sustainability for project management, through content analysis, contributed to develop the framework presented in the next section.

Table 1 Summary of sustainability models

table 1 table 1 table 1

Corporate Sustainability Model*; Sustainability Model for Project Management**

Source: Elaborated by the authors

Summary of the Conceptual Framework of Sustainability in Project Management

The corporate sustainability models and the sustainability models for project management with triple bottom line vision presented in the previous section formed the basis for this study. Through the review of international literature, several models of sustainability for project management were identified, although these models were spread across different industries and professional fields, e.g., engineering and administration. A computerized tool called Sphinx (Freitas & Janissek, 2000) was used to visualize and group sustainability constructs and sustainability variables for project management.

After identifying various categories of sustainability variables, elements of sustainability models that were repeated in the literature were identified for each dimension of sustainability. Subsequently, in some cases, through a content analysis, variables that were referenced less often in the literature were also included in the theoretical model based on the criterion of their importance in project management. Based on the results of these content and grouping analyses, the authors of this paper determined that some models did not contribute to meaningful sustainability constructs to the theoretical model, and this situation can be a limitation of this study.

Analyses were carried out separately for each dimension of sustainability. The construct for the economic dimension of sustainability was composed of a total of 158 different constructs, variables, and aspects from the models in the literature. For this dimension, the main concerns related to sustainability were the survival of the organization, cost management, relationships with interested parties, and the well-being of the organization's employees. Table 2 shows the summary of the final construct of economic dimension, composed of 13 variables.

The construct for the environmental dimension of sustainability was built from a total of 248 different constructs, variables and aspects from the models in the literature. The majority of the models in the literature considered air, water, energy, soil, waste generation, and the consumption of materials as fundamental items for environmental sustainability in project management. There were also concerns about complying with existing regulations, issues related to global warming, noise production, and the development of environmental policies, as well as ideas about expanding environmental education and training. Table 2 shows the summary of the final construct of environmental dimension, formed by 11 variables.

The construct for the social dimension of sustainability was composed of a total of 270 different constructs, variables, and aspects from the models cited in the literature. While this dimension had the highest number of variables, this dimension warrants more attention from researchers, according to Singh et al. (2012) and Labuschagne et al., (2005). As shown in Table 2, the main concern was the well-being of the people involved in the projects. In addition, other concerns were related to appropriate labor practices for employees and contractors. Similarly, it was evident that there was a great concern about the engagement of stakeholders, relationships with the neighboring community, and child labor. Additional concerns included human rights, the impacts of products and services, the financing of social actions, and the impacts of company operations on social systems. The summary of the final construct of the social dimension was composed of 13 variables.

In conclusion, a theoretical framework of sustainability variables with a triple bottom line focus (economic, environmental and social sustainability) for project management is shown in Table 2. To build this comprehensive theoretical framework of constructs, variables, and aspects of sustainability, some tools were used to identify the main variables pertaining to economic, environmental, and social contexts. First, Pareto's concept was used, in which 20% of the items represented 80% of the main items in the analyzed context. This type of analysis was used in a study by Araújo (2010). As already cited in previous section, the software Sphinx was used to summarize the number of constructs. In addition, content analysis was also used in this study, which resulted in, for instance, adjustments in the naming of variables and the inclusion of additional variables into the summarized framework.

Table 2 Framework of constructs, variables or aspects of sustainability in project management

table 2 table 2

Final Considerations

This study aimed to remedy a gap in the literature at the intersection between project management and sustainability. The literature review identified 29 models related to the research theme. These models were analyzed in terms of their components and relationships, resulting in a summarized model (Table 2).

As suggested by Welsch (2005) and Singh et al. (2012), there is a large amount of room for additional research in the area of sustainability in project management. The systematization process also revealed that, in recent years, the number of studies about the research topic have grown but remain dispersed across different fields. This was the motivation for building a comprehensive model of constructs and variables that could be applied to project management.

This study aimed to contribute to the development of sustainability in project management. As a theoretical contribution, this study provided a summary of concepts that provide initial insights for subsequent theoretical modeling about sustainability constructs and variables for project management and inform methodologies for future research. This study was part of the author's doctoral thesis project, which focuses on research at the nexus of the two themes of sustainability and project management with the objective of modeling sustainability in project management.

As a practical contribution, this study showed that the literature review revealed a series of models with various applications in different professional sectors. Due to the summary completed in this study, the major concepts from these models may now be studied, parameterized or customized in project management or other endeavors by organizations seeking sustainability.

Finally, future research focusing on the validation and structuring of sustainability constructs and variables within a triple bottom line framework would be useful, especially the use of case studies or surveys that examine project management and other key operations within organizations.


This research was supported by grants from the Brazilian Federal Agency for Support and Evaluation of Graduate Education (CAPES), and from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq).


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Mauro Luiz Martens is a PhD candidate in the Production Engineering Department of the Polytechnic School at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. He holds a master's degree in production engineering from the Federal University of Santa Catarina in Brazil.

Marly Monteiro de Carvalho is an associate professor in the Production Engineering Department of the Polytechnic School, at the University of São Paulo in Brazil. She is the coordinator of the Project Management Lab (http://www.pro.poli.usp.br/lgp) and the Quality and Product Engineering (QEP) research group of the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq). She holds a production engineering degree from the University of São Paulo, as well as a master's degree and a PhD in the same area. Her master's degree is from the Federal University of Santa Catarina, and her PhD is from the post doctoral program at the Polytechnic of Milan. Her work is within the area of quality management, project management, and innovation management. She has published 12 books and a number of articles within the same areas.

©2014 Project Management Institute Research and Education Conference



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