Enterprises for Sustainable Development

[In a recent article “‘Rhetoric mix’ of argumentations: How policy rhetoric conveys meaning of entrepreneurship for sustainable development” published in Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice, Virva Salmivaara and Ewald Kibler from Aalto University in Finland explore the complexity of the European Union policy discourse and the different roles of entrepreneurship in sustainable development.]

What motivated you to pursue this research?

Policy-makers increasingly call upon the private sector to take part in solving the greatest economic, social and environmental challenges of our times. The European Union’s most recent ten-year strategy ‘Europe 2020’ aims for of economic, social and environmental sustainability, and highlights the role of entrepreneurship and SMEs in the pursuit of these goals.

We believe that the argumentation used by policy-makers plays a vital role in defining priorities and motivating action for sustainable development. However, we know little about the underpinnings of the policy rhetoric: What do policy-makers expect from enterprises, and why and how do they assume enterprises to contribute to sustainability efforts?

We wanted to dive deeper into the assumptions embedded in the policies, and to scrutinize how the meaning of enterprises for sustainable development might emerge from what is not said—or is said only between the lines.

Were there any surprising findings?

We identify three divergent roles assigned to entrepreneurship. Enterprises are seen as economic beneficiaries of the shift towards sustainability; pro-social contributors active in finding innovative, sustainable solutions; or opportunistic operators whose business interests simply collide with those of broader society. These portrayals differ from the ways in which entrepreneurs present themselves, and they offer a fresh base from which to understand societal position of sustainable entrepreneurship.

It is somewhat surprising that our findings reveal varying beliefs within an entrepreneurship policy discourse established by a single powerful institution. This means that a policy institution, such as the European Union, uses several types of argumentations to highlight multiple priorities and necessities of sustainable development, and to assign different responsibilities for entrepreneurship.

In what ways is your research innovative, and how do you think it will impact the field?

The key contribution of our work is to introduce a framework of ‘rhetoric mix’ that offers a novel, structural perspective towards understanding policy rhetoric. The framework explains how policy rhetoric conveys meanings of sustainable entrepreneurship through the interplay of argumentations, and shows how the taken-for-granted assumptions further frame entrepreneurship policy discourse. This can have grave implications on public opinions and acceptance of policy agenda.

We also hope that our work provides contributions beyond the academia. We show how to reveal the underlying beliefs of policy rhetoric, and wish this to inspire more critical discussions about the proposed solutions for the pressing ecological and social challenges.

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