It is encouraging to notice that the combined focus on sustainability and innovation is clearly intensifying. This is more than logical since behaving sustainably requires innovation, and innovation is no good if it creates problems of any kind, including those related to sustainability. But reaching logic is sometimes quite demanding!

Since so much depends on how entrepreneurial we are, it is essential that entrepreneurs (being able to find the ways to resolve their challenges) exclude any approach which would generate issues for any of the three aspects of sustainability – because that would not be a solution, but a new problem. This is of course the global, responsible approach, also the only socially responsible one. But in everyday reality, we often tend to think in terms of solving “our problem” and take advantage of “our opportunities” – ignoring problems of “others” and “the environment” – as if we would be living on another planet.

The concept of sustainopreneurship – introduced in 2000 – is purposefully combining, or rather integrating the three aspects, and reminding us simultaneously of the critical importance of all of them in order to achieve the legitimate, desired goals. One could actually ask the question as to why it took so long to come to this obvious conclusion about civilized behaviour. And the answer is not so difficult to find: as long as the legislation and unregulated free market allowed us to think and operate on this logic, only a few odd individuals did contemplate beyond their own interests. Gradually, societies have understood that rules and regulations have to remind us that we are only members of a bigger community and that we should behave accordingly. If not, society has to correct us, preventing or at least reduce any destructive, anti-social behaviour.

History teaches us that societies are as successful as they have managed to build a system in which people are appreciated and rewarded for what they have created and contributed to the society, and not by what they may believe they are entitled to take for themselves. Based on evaluation of reality, social anthropology claims that closing the gap between the two categories remains a demanding task for any democratic society, since the second group normally has more influence on government – and penetrates its structure – much more than the first one.

What is sustainopreneurship?

Entrepreneurship and innovation for sustainability or so-called sustainopreneurship is a concept that has emerged rather recently from the earlier concepts of social entrepreneurship and ecopreneurship. It means using creative business skills to solve problems related to sustainability, and create social and environmental sustainability as a strategic societal objective and purpose of economic activity. Also, it involves respect for the boundaries set in order to maintain life support systems. Shortly, it is the type of business with a cause – where our problems are turned into business opportunities through sustainable innovations.

Sustainopreneurship is the concept of using business organising to solve problems related to social and environmental sustainability, whilst simultaneously respecting the boundaries set in order to maintain steady profitable life support to the respective venture.

Here, we have to distinguish between sustainable and sustainability entrepreneurship. The use of entrepreneurial activity in a determined action orientation towards solving a sustainability-related problem with business organizing as a means to solve the problem – business with a cause: to turn business activity from a part of the problem to a part of the solution. Sustainable entrepreneurship is just a generic entrepreneurial process that takes into consideration the boundaries set by sustainability, and does not address where to and why, the destination, the purpose or the aim of the venture. Sustainability entrepreneurship, in contrast, takes as its root of existence and strategic aim to solve a sustainability-related problem. This means: to take a sustainability innovation to the market through creative organizing with respect for life-supporting systems in the process.

Let us also mention ecopreneurship - the term started to be widely used in the 1990s, referred to as environmental entrepreneurship. In the book Merging Economic and Environmental Concerns Through Ecopreneurship, written by Gwyn Schuyler in 1998, ecopreneurs are defined as follows:

Ecopreneurs are entrepreneurs whose business efforts are not only driven by profit, but also by a concern for the environment. Ecopreneurship, also known as environmental entrepreneurship and eco-capitalism, is becoming more widespread as a new market-based approach to identifying opportunities for improving environmental quality and capitalizing upon them in the private sector for profit.

The three dimensions of the concept

The definition of sustainopreneurship needs to be highlighted by three distinguishing dimensions with all three being simultaneously present in the applied (inter)action it reflects. The first is oriented towards "why" – its purpose and motive. The second and third are reflecting two "how"- related dimensions – its process.

1. Sustainopreneurship consciously sets out to find and/or create innovations in order to solve sustainability-related problems

The conscious mission that guides the action is to deliberately find practical and innovative solutions to problems related to the sustainability agenda. This is the main key to distinguish this category of entrepreneurial activity and behaviour labelled sustainopreneurship from generic entrepreneurial activity: the cause-oriented intention that places the core motive, purpose and driving-force of the business activities. The following list, derived and synthesized from these sources, lines up areas with associated problems to solve, goals to reach and values to create:

  • poverty;
  • water and sanitation;
  • wealth;
  • education/illiteracy;
  • sustainable production and consumption patterns;
  • climate change and energy systems;
  • chemicals;
  • urbanization;
  • ecosystems, biological diversity and land use;
  • utilization of sea resources;
  • food and agriculture;
  • trade justice;
  • social stability, democracy and good governance;
  • peace and security.

2. Sustainopreneurship means getting solutions to the market through creative organizing

It is of core importance to take the agenda as entrepreneurial challenges – to view problems as possibilities, obstacles as opportunities, and resistance as a resource, whatever the nature of the resistance. If the solution is generated by creativity, it is equally important to take it to the market in a creative and innovative way. In this dimension there is nothing that really differs from the generic entrepreneurial description, but this comes natural since sustainopreneurship is a conceptual extension and development from the social phenomenon named entrepreneurship, and thus inherits one of its perceived key dimensions, 'entrepreneurship as creative organizing'.

3. Sustainopreneurship in process adds sustainability value with respect for life support systems

The awareness that the market is an embedded sub-system in the "socio-sphere" which is, in turn, a part of the 'biosphere, is made explicit. This awareness naturally and self-evidently makes the sustainopreneurial team maximize harmony with life support systems in the process. With joy and pride the epitome of the generic definition of "sustainable development" lives in business venturing.

Successful examples

As everywhere, also in this domain things are not to be viewed only in white & black perspective: most cases are a mixture, but what matters is that the overall picture is not good enough. Therefore, good practice cases are a good source of inspiration and learning.

According to Veronika Taranzinskaja, teaching expert and Head of PASCH South Asia, at Goethe Institute, sustainopreneurship may bring about necessary transformations to current products, processes and behavioural patterns and help face the challenge of reducing the negative environmental and social impact of current unsustainable business practices. Despite its relevance and conceptual appeal, the conditions, processes, features and outcomes that define this form of entrepreneurship are yet to be defined.

Some examples of really successful sustainopreneurship are1:

  1. OceanEthix: is a seafood firm in Hong Kong that produce and sell seafood that are guaranteed to be free from contamination by hormones or antibiotics. They also ensure the consumer that the technology used to preserve the reef from which they harvest the seafood is green technology.
  2. Elvis and Kresse: founded on the concept of reusing and recycling, they re-use old fire hoses from the London Fire Department, which would otherwise be buried in landfill, and made luxury products such as belts and bags. 50% of their profits are given to charity, displaying true environmental and social Sustainopreneurship.
  3. Xinca: is an Argentinian company that manufactures sneakers and sandals with rubber tire recycling and reuse of fabrics of different origins. One of the workplaces of the brand is the prison of San Felipe in Mendoza, where 32 inmates are trained to make sport shoes, and so when they finish their sentence, they can continue to work for the company. This business venture is designed not only to protect the environment, but to enable employment of those who have had problems with the law, and are later usually rejected in most jobs.
  4. gDiapers: The business dedication is based on making our habitat greener, keeping it healthy into an ecofriendly committed diaper company. They sell two options: one reusable cloth diaper and a biodegradable disposable diaper. gDiapers is about people and the place where they live, our planet. And the company cares about specially children. It is known, parents need time off to care for their children, as well as be present at important moments of their lives. Therefore, workers of gDiapers enjoy excellent pay for overtime, they have flexible working hours, and the company offers financial assistance to pay for daycare for their children within the same workplace of the parents.

Challenges and opportunities

Today’s youth population is larger than ever, with 1.8 billion people between the ages of 10 and 24, of whom approximately 90% live in developing countries. The 2030 Agenda recognises that young people have a strong ability to drive change, and more than one-third of the SDGs’ targets involve youth explicitly or implicitly. Also, this is often the group most affected by changes within their communities. Given that young people are the guardians of the planet’s future, it is imperative to listen closely to their concerns and take heed of what they have to say, according to Veronika Taranzinskaja:

Since the idea of sustainopreneurship is based on innovative ideas about how to create a more sustainable way of living, it is necessary to listen to what young people and entrepreneurs have in mind and the action plan that they propose. Currently we cannot rely just on NGOs, government agencies and other organisations to take action towards sustainability. Disjointed efforts like small science projects or recycling drives at schools, are no longer enough. Sustainability has to be made a valuable part of standard curricula, and the metrics of good teaching need to reflect this inclusion. Adjusting from the micro to the macro will not only bring people’s world into immediate focus but will also spread the understanding that we do not exist in a vacuum. In a global society, sustainability is a macro-scaled issue that supersedes the boundaries of specific study areas.

Let us point out that the curriculum at higher educational institutions must have subjects that revolve around sustainability and address issues like ‘how we can live and operate sustainably in the future and make current global issues such as environmental pollution, discrimination, fair working and living conditions the reason for our economic action’. To make a change, not only should sustainability be brought into the school curriculum, but students should also be given opportunities to work with experts and change-makers.

Closing thoughts

Undoubtedly, the potential benefit of sustainopreneurship is enormous, in many ways: by preventing development of expensive, wasteful and ecologically unacceptable technologies, by helping to optimize businesses in terms of capacity, use of inputs, including human capital, as well as by supplying customers optimally - without wasteful and non-recyclable packaging. This all represents saving lots of energy, material costs and labour – in the total value which is very hard to estimate, but could easily reach in the next 10-15 years between 30-40% of global GDP. There is no doubt that this deserves to be humanity’s priority number one!

Though it will take decades and generations to be fully implemented – it is worth every effort, as it will improve quality of life for every person on the planet, increase our productivity and efficiency, as well as make societies more stable and peaceful. When it comes to business, we shall understand that it is not just about “making money”, but addressing properly a need in society, and being rewarded for doing it in a sustainable way.

One of the key conditions to move closer to sustainopreneurship is of course education, since everything starts with values which we adopt in our youth. For this strategically important task, it is important to enable and motivate the teachers and professors. They can be successful in this effort only if and to the extent to which they will accept and adopt these values themselves. The best way to be convincing is of course to comply personally, because students are not only listening, but also observing their teachers and parents. And by doing so, they spot the discrepancies immediately, and obviously take deeds more seriously than words!

The other equally important condition for implementing sustainopreneurship is the consistency of the entire regulatory and innovation ecosystem. It has to guide, support and encourage the proper behaviour and discourage and – when necessary – punish wasteful and socially irresponsible behaviour of organisations and individuals. Only if this is done effectively, things will move in the right direction. Very few countries have reached or are close to this stage (again the Scandinavian 5, Switzerland, Singapore, New Zealand, Canada) – and the results are very convincing and tempting.

(Prepared by the KEN Secretariat: prof. dr. Ajda Fošner and prof. dr. Boris Cizelj).

1 Taken from Sustainopreneurship and Sustainopreneurship: The Mix Between Entrepreneurship and Sustainability.

Sources used and further reading:

Abrahamsson, A. (2006) Sustainopreneurship – Business with a Cause. in Science Sustainable Development – Starting Points and Critical Reflections, Uppsala: VHU – Föreningen Vetenskap för Hållbar Utveckling (Swedish Society for Sustainable Development), pp. 21-30.
Abrahamsson, A. (2007) Researching Sustainopreneurship – conditions, concepts, approaches, arenas and questions. An invitation to authentic sustainability business forces. Paper presented at the 13th International Sustainable Development Research Conference, Mälardalens Högskola, Västerås, 10-12 June, 2007.
Gerlach, A. (2003) Sustainable entrepreneurship and innovation, Centre for Sustainability Management, University of Lueneburg, Conference Proceedings of Conference Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management 2003 in Leeds, UK.
G. Greco, G. de Jong, Sustainable entrepreneurship: definitions, themes and research gaps, 2017.
Schuyler, G. (1998). Merging Economic and Environmental Concerns Through Ecopreneurship.
Hockerts, K. (2003) Sustainability Innovation: Ecological and Social Entrepreneurship and the Managing of Antagonistic Assets, PhD Dissertation, University of St. Gallen, Schweiz.
V. Taranzinskaja, Into a world of sustainable innovations, December 2020.
Google Scholar Search on Sustainopreneurship.
Sustainopreneurship Research – Publications on Scribd.
ÆREAS(i) – Association of Enactive Research, Education and Application for Sustainopreneurship.
Notes from a Sustainopreneur | on Sustainability Entrepreneurship.
Sustainopreneurship: The Mix Between Entrepreneurship and Sustainability.