What We Talk About When We Talk About Economic Change: Organisational Visions and Strategies for a Sustainable Economic System

Kitty Ehn

Student thesis: Master thesis


This master’s thesis focuses on the environmental movement’s visions and strategies for a sustainable economic system. In recent years, the environmental movement has focused increasingly on climate change. As the link between economic status quo and climate change becomes more evident, the environmental movement faces a new challenge in addressing this issue. This paper presents a critical examination and theoretical discussion of the environmental movement’s approach to institutional change of the economic system, by asking how the organisations envision a sustainable economic system, and what their chosen strategies to pursue this goal are. It further uses theories of institutional change and institutional entrepreneurship, and social movement theory, as tools for explaining the environmental movement’s relationship to issues of economic change. These perspectives are complemented by Social Justification Theory as a mean for explaining the inherent contentions and impediments for actors seeking institutional change. Empirically, the analysis and discussion is based primarily on data collected from 12 semi-structured interviews with representatives from four of the world’s largest and most influential environmental organisations, WWF, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and 350.org. The empirical part of this study was conducted between April and August 2016.
On the basis of the analysis, the thesis reveals a significant gap between ambitions and actual visions and strategies for economic change of the targeted organisations. The thesis also concludes that social movements do not just differ in terms of strategies as defined by theory, and identifies several other organisational elements that can aid the understanding of this internal heterogeneity. Four key reasons for the lack of organisational visions and strategies related to economic change were identified: lack of competence and legitimacy; organisational legacy; dependency on the status quo, and; need for measurable results and wins. The thesis also identified four key factors that are needed to move forward on these issues: movement building; cross-sector cooperation; concrete alternatives and solutions to advocate, and; promote innovation and institutional entrepreneurship. The potential and contribution of this thesis lies in the addition of explanatory dimensions and factors to explain the internal heterogeneity of social movements. With regards to theories of institutional change, the inclusion of social justification theory constitutes a theoretical contribution to the understanding of contentions and impediments for actors seeking institutional change. For future research, the study of environmental organisations and other social movements seeking institutional change is a crucial field to gain knowledge of potential opportunities and obstacles for economic, societal and environmental development. By identifying and analysing the gap between required action and actual measures taken, research on institutional change and social movement theory can become essential tools for moving towards a more sustainable society.

EducationsMSc in International Business and Politics, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2016
Number of pages80
SupervisorsJasper J. Hotho