Sustainable Business Model Research –Time to Leave the Twilight Zone

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By Dr. Florian Lüdeke-Freund.

Research on sustainable business models, or “business models for sustainability (BMfS)”, is still a niche topic in both the business model and sustainability communities. BMfS researchers often find themselves in a twilight zone, not knowing whom to address with or involve in their research. After one decade of BMfS research, it is time to develop a joint agenda to strengthen and shape this interdisciplinary field.

Leaving the Twilight Zone

Looking at seminal articles, we see that early work on BMfS deals with organisational and cultural preconditions of business models that contribute to corporate sustainability. Analysing business models is also seen as a means to overcome the technology bias of traditional eco-innovation approaches and move towards system level innovation, e.g. through product-service systems. Others see business models as tools to re-scale and re-localise monolithic industrial infrastructures, while again others investigate the links between business models and business success through corporate sustainability. Research on BMfS is often rooted in ecological sustainability, but some scholars see BMfS also as a means to address social issues.

These perspectives and topics clearly show that we need multiple disciplines, theories and methods to properly study BMfS. But reviewing the BMfS literature, which we have done in different projects and articles (Boons & Lüdeke-Freund, 2013; Schaltegger et al., 2016; Lüdeke-Freund et al., 2016), shows that we, as BMfS researchers, tend to talk to our “sustainability peers” only, in terms of how we frame and work on research problems and the journals we publish in. At the same time we are sitting somewhere in between. We are neither pure management scholars nor ecological economics veterans. We are in a twilight zone.

After one decade of BMfS research, it is time to step back and reflect on the topics we have studied, the theories we have used and developed, and the methods we have applied. We should ask ourselves, who – from outside our community – could help with the problems we are studying? Obviously, this is a multi- and interdisciplinary effort. Therefore, a joint, multi- and interdisciplinary research agenda and mutual exchange are required.

Towards a Joint Research Agenda

Our recent Organization & Environment special issue on BMfS covers a broad range of entrepreneurial, managerial and innovation issues. However, a lot remains to be done with regard to theory development and management support. Here, the original business model and the diverse sustainability communities could and should work together, develop projects and write articles that contribute to theory development and management support and are acceptable to their various audiences – including their respective journals.

The following exemplary research problems were identified in the editorial article of our special issue and could serve as a starting point for a joint research agenda for the original and the sustainability-oriented business model communities:

Theory development

  • How can theories on the organisational level (e.g. dynamic capabilities), individual level (e.g. responsible leadership) or on both levels (e.g. organizational learning) help explain green and social business model transformations?
  • How do BMfS co-evolve and trigger industry transformations both via market interaction and system transitions (e.g. evolutionary economics)?
  • Which learning-action networks and collaborations, but also power struggles between stakeholder groups, are involved in the creation of BMfS (e.g. stakeholder theory)?

Management support

  • Which management frameworks and instruments enable the management of and transition to BMfS (e.g. change management)?
  • Which frameworks and instruments can support innovation (e.g. design thinking, The Natural Step) and strategy implementation (e.g. Business Model Canvas) for BMfS?
  • How can performance and societal impacts be measured and managed on the business model level (e.g. balanced scorecard)?

These are just a few exemplary topics. But it is a starting point. It is also, or even much more, an open invitation to scholars from fields such as entrepreneurship, innovation, design, policy, and transition research, and many more, to develop a joint agenda that allows for true multi- and interdisciplinary BMfS research.

Our dynamically growing communities – e.g. Business Model Community, Sustainable Business Model Blog, Strongly Sustainable Business Model Group, Sustainability Transitions Research Network, Inno4SD – could benefit from such an agenda to progress in a more synergistic way, combining the best of these worlds: up-to-date knowledge about business model and sustainability research.

Such an agenda would shed some light on the twilight zone of BMfS research and would help to establish it as a research field in its own right.

Let’s start the conversation – now.


Florian Lüdeke-Freund is a senior research associate at the University of Hamburg, Germany. He is a research fellow at the Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM), Leuphana University, and the Governing Responsible Business Research Environment at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. His research deals with sustainable entrepreneurship, sustainable business models, and innovation. Florian founded www.SustainableBusinessModel.org as an international research hub addressing sustainability, business model, and innovation topics.

Pic by Rod Serling’s classic anthology, The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1961)

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3 Responses

  1. Peter Wells says:

    Good call Florian… though perhaps some caution also is needed. I am reminded of the old debates on the political left of the virtues or otherwise of reformism versus radical change. In the quest to gain power and influence a more pragmatic and collaborative stance emerged in which the end result was Tony Blair (in the UK) – something so far removed from socialism that it had entirely lost its sense of purpose. To me the fundamental question remains: is business actually the social innovation that can deliver sustainability? Much of what is out there now seems to be about eco-efficient business, without the truly critical stance on what business produces, for whom, and at what social, environmental and economic cost.

  2. Peter, thank you so much for this comment, which is an important reminder that SBMs are – and should not be – just about business cases. And that we need hybrid/radically different/socially-grounded (business) organisations. I fully agree that caution is needed when we merge, or at least get into contact, with the traditional BM field. But on the other hand, SBM research could also be inspirational for the traditional field – change from within? That’s why we should also aim for traditional journals, to discuss with colleagues from the many “non-sustainable” disciplines. I also fully agree that we need to look at the drivers of both SBMs and traditional BMs. Here, VALUES are crucial. If we better understood the underlying values and normative orientations of business and further societal actors, we could better answer your question whether “business [is] actually the social innovation that can deliver sustainability?” A great question that we should explore, together, thank you.

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