Unsustainable business models-Recognising and resolving institutionalised social and environmental harm

Nancy M. P. Bocken*, Samuel W. Short

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Academic and business interest in sustainable business models (SBMs) as a potential solution to pressing global sustainability issues has grown significantly over the past decade. Yet, to date sectoral progress on business model innovation has been insufficient to address much of the social and environmental harm caused by, or facilitated by industry, and progress against the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) has been disappointing. This study investigates the following research question: What are the dominant “unsustainable business model” types per sector that institutionalise social and environmental harm, and hold back progress on the SDGs, and what are the potential sustainable business model responses? This paper first investigates the dominant unsustainable business model types and potential sustainable business model solutions per key sector. Based on this analysis, a comprehensive overview of nine dominant unsustainable business model (UBM) archetypes and potential sustainable business responses are developed. The UBM archetypes are: 1) Environmental resource exploitation and waste; 2) Human resource exploitation and waste; 3) Economic exploitation; 4) Unhealthy or unsustainable offering; 5) Quantity over quality and value; 6) Addictive consumption pattern; 7) Complex opaque global value chain; 8) Short-term shareholder – not stakeholder value and 9) Financing and supporting unsustainable practices. Furthermore, a hierarchy of sustainable business model responses is introduced, showing the need for business to develop multiple initiatives, and a recognition that the focus for SBM innovation should be to some extent sector specific. Finally, directions for future research to transform dominant unsustainable business models are provided.
Original languageEnglish
Article number127828
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Publication statusPublished - 20 Aug 2021


  • Sustainable business models
  • Unsustainable business models
  • Business model transformation
  • Sustainable development goals (SDGs)
  • Sustainable business model archetypes
  • Materiality


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