A recent study has discovered three distinct ways in which the European Union defines what entrepreneurs means for sustainable development, producing a blurry message of the role entrepreneurs and business owners have to play in dealing with the global issue.

A postdoctoral researcher at Aalto University in Finland and the lead author of the study, Virva Salmivaara, said that if sustainable development is a serious matter and the end goal is to have an effect across 28 nations indeed, EU policy needs more focus.

Among national and multinational companies that call the EU home are more than 20 million small and medium-sized businesses that make vital entrepreneur drivers for economic growth, innovation, and employment across the region.

The recent in-depth analysis reveals that when it comes to sustainability, entrepreneurs and small businesses are seen in EU policy in three diverging ways: economic beneficiaries of the shift towards sustainability; pro-social contributors active in finding innovative, sustainable solutions; or opportunistic operators whose business interests collide with those of broader society.

Assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Aalto University, Ewald Kibler, said that the EU policy-makers' rhetoric paints a very ambiguous picture of the role businesses plays in the sustainability shift. When policy says that entrepreneurs can take advantage of the growing demand for eco-friendly products and services, it ends up suggesting that sustainable development is not, in fact, a pressing problem that businesses need to deal with, but rather, a positive change that offers new business opportunities. There are two different understandings of what entrepreneurs can, and should, do.

With all the studies on the policies, sustainable development seems to be urgently needed when it could improve the business environment for entrepreneurs. Taking a sustainable approach, however, is framed as a voluntary option for the entrepreneurs, something entrepreneurs can do now or later.

Salmivaara explained that based on their discoveries, EU policymakers often portray enterprises as passive players when it comes to sustainability. Accordingly, it seems that EU states are indeed expected to prioritize enterprise development over sustainable development. If the aim is to develop a more sustainable economy and society, the EU policy needs to engage in a more profound debate and address how to balance both business interests and sustainable development.

The research involved more than 40 critical EU policy documents released in 2010 and 2017, stemming from the Europe 2020 strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth.