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Activists and social entrepreneurs: shaping consumer culture for sustainability transitions

New research examines how change-makers create a protective space for sustainability transitions within the market for alternatives to animal products. Published in Business Strategy and the Environment, this study uncovers strategies and tactics employed to sway consumer behavior towards sustainable consumption.

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The power of push and pull

The study reveals a synergy between the strategies of social entrepreneurs and activists in influencing consumer culture. Activists predominantly employ a 'push' strategy, aiming to push consumers out of unsustainable practices by highlighting the negative impacts of their current behavior. They shock consumers with problematic news about the animal industry and give consumers reasons to problematize animal products.This leaves space for social entrepreneurs to share positive information and create alternatives for animal products without getting punished by consumers for being the bearer of bad news. They use a 'pull' strategy, enticing consumers towards sustainable consumption by presenting it as an attractive alternative. These strategies work in tandem, creating a powerful force that nudges consumers towards sustainable choices.  

Tactics for change

Within these overarching strategies, the study identifies four key tactics used by social entrepreneurs and activists:

  1. Connecting to values associated with sustainable consumerism
  2. Showing contrast with unsustainable practices
  3. Broadening consumers' connection to sustainable values
  4. Radical innovation

These tactics serve to deepen consumers' understanding of sustainability issues, challenge their existing consumption habits, and present sustainable alternatives in a compelling manner.

Creating a protective space for sustainability solutions

By influencing consumer culture in a market niche, social entrepreneurs and activists create a 'protective space' for new sustainability solutions. This space shields these solutions from market pressures, allowing them to mature and gain traction before they are scaled to the mass market. The study underscores the importance of this protective space in facilitating sustainability transitions.

Conclusion: a new perspective on sustainability transitions

This research offers valuable insights into the role of social entrepreneurs and activists in shaping consumer culture for sustainability transitions. It highlights the importance of their strategies and tactics in creating a protective space for sustainability solutions. By shedding light on these dynamics, the study contributes to our understanding of how bottom-up efforts can drive sustainability transitions in consumer markets.

Meet the researchers

This insightful research was conducted by:

  • Margo P. M. Enthoven, House of Innovation, Stockholm School of Economics, Stockholm, Sweden
  • Hendrik N. Thelken, Commodity Portfolio Manager, EWE AG, Germany
House of Innovation Entrepreneurship Sustainability Article Journal Publication Research