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What motivates ecopreneurs?

Half a century ago, India, Mexico and a host of countries had a green revolution. A combination of high-yielding seeds, fertilizers and irrigation combined to boost crop productivity sufficiently to feed a fast-growing population. Now the organic farming revolution is trying to turn things on its head. After 50 years, why would farmers want to go and stop using high-yielding seeds, fertilizers and herbicides? The answer is all around us, from collapsing biodiversity to the negative impact of pesticides on human health.

Pastakia (1998) was one of the first to use the term “ecopreneurs”, referring to entrepreneurs who are sensitive to ecology. Well-known examples including the Body Shop and Ben and Jerry’s. The motivations vary, but can include wanting to create value for society or preserve the environment or animal life.

With the growing awareness of climate change since the 1990s, its links with natural and humanitarian catastrophes, and the urgent need for sustainable development, change is in the air. According to the Pew Research Center, there are now more than 14,000 organic farmers in the United States. In France, more than 5,000 farms switched to organic methods in 2018, a record, and nearly 10% are now certified organic.

There’s also a social movement toward consuming less, as indicated by the literature on degrowth (Bloemmen, Bobulescu, Le, Vitari, 2015). Somewhat paradoxically, this could translate to a huge demand for, say, electric vehicles and organic food. But would consumers be willing to pay more? Research indicates that some consumers may perceive organic products as being lower quality.

From the producers’ point of view

Together with researchers Priyanka Jayashankar and Howard Van Auken of Iowa State University, we took a step in the other direction, looking at producers rather than consumers. If producers are rational and if efficiency, productivity and economies of scale all argue for commercial farming in continuation of the so-called green revolution, then why would ecopreneurs switch to organic farming? Are they irrational, or do they feel that there is a niche of customers who would pay more for bio and that this would allow them to prosper?

Our literature review showed five possible sources of motivation for ecopreneurs:

  • Economics: they feel that a profitable niche market exists.

  • Environment: a desire to promote biodiversity or save the soil, for example.

  • Socio-ethical values: wanting helping the community.

  • Structural pressures: from the community to the entrepreneur.

  • Social support: to help other organic farmers.

Ecopreneurs, organic farmers in particular, were interested in creating impact by adding value – economic, social, and environmental, as well as to livestock. To understand what motivations determines if ecopreneurs are successful in creating impact, we contacted organic farmers in Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Kansas, and Missouri, and obtained 113 usable responses. The average farmer of our sample was 50 years old had been using organic methods for 13 years on average.

Diverse motivations, unexpected results

The results, published in December 2018, were unexpected.

  • All five motives were important to different farmers. However, the “social support” motive was the most important, followed by socio-ethical values and economic motivations. Ironically, the environment came fourth, just ahead of community pressure.

  • When we asked what kind of impact they were creating, once again they replied that they were creating value for the society. What is puzzling is that they did not think they were having much impact on the environment or livestock. Yet they seemed to make good money.

  • The relationship between motivation and perceived value creation was not always as expected. For example, we thought that people who were environmentally motivated would feel they are making an impact on the environment. Such a simple relationship true only in one case, however: organic farmers who stressed socio-ethical motives felt they were creating social impact. Unexpectedly, only farmers who emphasized economic motives felt they were creating environmental impact. So without being motivated by the environment, they feel they are helping it.

Finally, all the other motivations do not influence the perception of the organic farmers that they are adding value. For example, those with financial motivations do not seem to feel they are getting better profits. The case for organic farming may still be the domain of mavericks.

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