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Towards a post-anthropocentric stakeholder theory for sustainable business model research integrating non-human animals

Published onJun 21, 2023
Towards a post-anthropocentric stakeholder theory for sustainable business model research integrating non-human animals
Michaela Hausdorf1,*
1Faculty of Business, Economics and Social Sciences, Department of Socioeconomics, Hamburg University, Hamburg, Germany
* [email protected]

Extended abstract

Stakeholder theory is one of the most widespread theoretical lenses in sustainable business model (SBM) research (Dembek et al., 2018; Norris et al., 2021; Stubbs & Cocklin, 2008), as SBMs strive to propose, create, and deliver value to all stakeholders beyond organisational boundaries (Bocken et al., 2014; Freudenreich et al., 2020; Lüdeke-Freund & Dembek, 2017; Schaltegger et al., 2016; Stubbs & Cocklin, 2008). The focus on stakeholders builds on the assumption that a business models’ capability to create value relies on successfully harmonising stakeholders’ interests (Schaltegger et al., 2016) and that stakeholder engagement is a central factor in implementing business models that considerably contribute to societal sustainability transformations (Stubbs & Cocklin, 2008).

However, stakeholder theory in SBM research is mainly anthropocentric, as it emphasises human stakeholders, such as customers, suppliers, employees, partners, shareholders, investors, or local communities (Freudenreich et al., 2020; Norris et al., 2021; Stubbs & Cocklin, 2008). Thereby, SBM research fails to acknowledge the role and impact of non-human animals as stakeholders (Tallberg et al., 2022). Although SBM scholars increasingly consider nature as a non-human stakeholder in their research (e.g. Fobbe & Hilletofth, 2021; Lüdeke-Freund et al., 2020; Velter et al., 2020; Vladimirova, 2019), animals have to date received scarce attention in SBM research, or have merely been considered as resources (Bos et al., 2013; DeMello & Shapiro, 2010; Tallberg et al., 2022).1

This is surprising, as non-human animals play an active role in business: Each year, European slaughterhouses kill about 360 million animals (Dodkin & Jayne, 2017), around 20 million cows contribute to milk production (European Commission, 2023), and the pure economic benefit of bees is estimated at around 265 billion euros worldwide (Gradziuk et al., 2021). Moreover, animals are indirectly affected by current ways of doing business: By logging forests, destructing living spaces, and using poisonous pesticides to produce animal food, the meat industry fosters the extinction of hundred thousands of species (Bristow, 2011; DeMello, 2021; Machovina et al., 2015; Subak, 1999). According to Bocken and Short (2021, p. 5), “industrial-scale farming based on extensive use of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, monocrops, and extensive animal husbandry” belong to the most unsustainable business models.

Hence, I argue that researchers and practitioners must consider animals as stakeholders in SBMs in order to enhance business models’ contribution to sustainability transformations. This essay takes a first step to developing a post-anthropocentric stakeholder theory for SBM research that considers non-human animals. I start by elaborating on the societal construction of the separation between human animals and non-human animals through anthropocentrism (Borland & Lindgreen, 2013; DeMello, 2021; Norton, 2007; Tallberg et al., 2022) and speciesism (DeMello, 2021; Horta, 2010; Singer, 2009; Steinbock, 1978). I outline how these belief systems led to the focus on human stakeholders in SBM research, as well as viewing animals as objects/resources instead of subjects/living beings (Kompatscher et al., 2021). After that, I propose to change the perspective towards acknowledging animals as equal stakeholders along four steps:

(1) Identifying non-human animals as stakeholders in SBMs. I argue that conventional business models and even many SBMs currently regard non-human animals as resources instead of stakeholders. For example, SBMs use animals as resources for the ‘production’ of meat or fish (Barbieri & Santos, 2020; Barth et al., 2017; Björklund, 2018; Chia et al. 2019; Long et al., 2018; Suckling et al., 2020; Tell et al., 2016; Velter et al., 2020), for the ‘production’ of honey, eggs, and dairy (Björklund, 2018; Fiore et al., 2020; Long et al., 2018; Tell et al., 2016), or for recreation services in zoos or horse riding (Reier Forradellas et al., 2021; Rantala et al., 2018). This first steps supports scholars and practitioners in becoming aware of non-human animals involved in or affected by value creation and their current roles (often as objects/resources) (Tallberg et al., 2022).

(2) Identifying human and non-human stakeholder needs. Second, although it is already difficult to identify the interests and needs of human stakeholders, a post-anthropocentric stakeholder theory is about understanding the needs of all stakeholders, including non-human animals. This is especially difficult because humans are naturally inclined to anthropocentric views. I introduce a variety of methods such as anthropomorphic anecdotes (Mitchell et al., 1997), multispecies ethnography (Kirksey & Helmreich, 2010), sensory ethnography (Fijn, & Kavesh, 2021), phenomenology (Lestel ettt al., 2014), kinaesthetic empathy (Parviainen, 2003), and interkinaesthetic comportment (Warkentin, 2010) that offer scientific approaches to understanding the needs of non-human animals (Kompatscher et al., 2021).

(3) Balancing human and non-human stakeholder needs. Third, a post-anthropocentric stakeholder theory challenges SBMs to align the interests of different human and non-human stakeholders. Thereby, SBMs should not rank incompatible interests, but balance the stakeholder interests in a way that leads to mutually valuable results (Bocken et al., 2021; Freudenreich et al., 2020). I argue that balancing and aligning human and non-human stakeholder interests requires the consideration of philosophical and modern animal ethics. Hence, I introduce the seminal work by Peter Singer (2009) and Tom Regan (2004), and discuss their implications for a post-anthropocentric stakeholder theory in SBM research. I conclude by calling on the human responsibility of stewardship for the well-being of all living beings as well as for the inanimate nature.

(4) Responding to human and non-human stakeholder needs. Fourth, I elaborate on how SBMs can respond to non-human animals’ stakeholder interests in concrete terms. I illustrate existing examples and methods, such as plant-based agricultural business models (Anders & Eisenbach, 2017) or the attempt by the German baker Volker Schmidt-Sköries to register bees as shareholders in his bakery chain (Stucki, 2021).

Consolidating these insights, this conceptual essay contributes to SBM research by developing a post-anthropocentric stakeholder theory that invites scholars and practicioners to transcend the human-animal divide and radically rethink the role of animals in SBMs. Thereby, the essay paves the way for SBM research to move beyond an anthropocentric worldview closely connected to social exploitation and environmental degradation. It outlines how SBMs can contribute to societal sustainability transformations by considering non-human animals as valuable and equitable stakeholders.


Business model, stakeholder theory, sustainability transformations, human-animal studies, animal ethics, speciesism


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