Step aside the entrepreneurs and innovators of industry. There is a new player emerging in the business world that is fast changing the rules of engagement and tipping a lot of industries up on end.

Enter the ecopreneur, a new, "greener" breed of entrepreneur who puts principles of social, environmental and economic sustainability before profits and growth.

Internationally, little is known about this emerging field of business, so two researchers from the University of Otago's School of Business saw it as a fertile area of study.

Dr Sara Walton and Dr Jodyanne Kirkwood believe New Zealand's reputation for a "clean, green image" and a Kiwi flare for entrepreneurial business practice offers the right climate for ecopreneurs to thrive.

The pair has completed a one-year, in-depth case study of 17 selected ecopreneurs running 14 companies in a broad range of industries in Wellington, Christchurch, North Otago and Dunedin. The study is the largest qualitative sample of ecopreneurs studied to date anywhere in the world.

Most ecopreneurs interviewed are founders of their own businesses, aged between 40 and 49, employ an average of five full-time staff and have annual sales under $1 million, although three have sales above that figure. Most of the companies approached are less than three years old.

"We concentrated on organisations which still have their founders in place," Kirkwood says. "They're the ones with a really strong environmental commitment and sometimes they only employ people with the same level of commitment."

The aim of the study was to find out what motivated people to become ecopreneurs and to understand how they balanced their green values against business objectives.

The aim of the study was to find out what motivates people to become ecopreneurs and to understand how they balance their green values against business objectives.

The three main ways ecopreneurs help the environment are by selling environmentally-friendly goods and services, running their businesses sustainably, and by educating their customers and industry by raising awareness of environmental issues.

One of the study's key findings, that is common to all ecopreneurs, is their overriding commitment to the environment, which outweighs business considerations.

Where entrepreneurs talk about making a profit and business growth, ecopreneurs have lower expectations. They are more interested in their business "just ticking over, earning a living and supporting a family".

The motivation for ecopreneurs to set up in business is quite similar to other entrepreneurs, but it is the type of business they want to set up that is the difference. They are still intent on making a profit, but not at the expense of their green values, Walton and Kirkwood explain.

In the past, green businesses may have been seen as representing a green, hippy fringe, but growing environmental awareness means that these companies are now being taken more seriously by business and industry.

Next year Walton and Kirkwood hope to expand their research across a broader range of ecopreneurs to get a wider view of this type of business.

Funding

University of Otago School of Business (Centre for Entrepreneurship)