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Sustainability 2018, 10(11), 4142; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10114142

Article
Understanding Perceptions of the Bioeconomy in Austria—An Explorative Case Study
1
Institute of Systems Sciences, Innovation and Sustainability Research, University of Graz, Merangasse 18/1, 8010 Graz, Austria
2
Institute for Food and Resource Economics, University of Bonn, Nussallee 19, 53115 Bonn, Germany
3
Institute of Marketing and Innovation, University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Feistmantelstraße 4, 1180 Vienna, Austria
4
Wood K plus—Kompetenzzentrum Holz GmbH, Altenberger Straße 69, 4040 Linz, Austria
*
Authors to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Received: 14 September 2018 / Accepted: 5 November 2018 / Published: 11 November 2018

Abstract

:
The bioeconomy provides new approaches to deal with environmental challenges by substituting fossil fuels for sustainable, renewable resources and fuels. In Europe, this process and discourse has mainly been driven from a strategic top-down level. This leads to a lack of inclusion of societal actors, which can consequently lead to reduced acceptance and engagement. Henceforth, in this study, we focus on exploring how the bioeconomy is perceived, understood and evaluated by a wider audience. Through convenience sampling, 456 interviews conducted with students, employees, farmers and pensioners living in Austria provide the database for the study. Due to the novelty of the study’s objective and the consequentially explorative research approach, qualitative and quantitative social science research methods are applied. The results indicate that the bioeconomy concept is associated with various themes and visions. These associated topics also have negative or positive implications. Furthermore, a division between two visions of the bioeconomy, a technology- and industry-driven vision and a vision defined by regional environmentalism, can be observed. The feasibility of a future bioeconomy identifies as the most critical aspect. Sustainable consumption was mentioned as an important topic of the bioeconomy by the participants, a result that could be of particular interest when creating an inclusive bioeconomy, since it calls for active involvement of consumers. The study also shows that responding farmers tend to believe that the bioeconomy will lead to more inequity.
Keywords:
bioeconomy; societal perception; laddering; survey

1. Introduction

Bioeconomy, as defined in the EU’s 2012 Bioeconomy Strategy is “(…) the production of renewable biological resources and the conversion of these resources and waste streams into value added products, such as food, feed, bio-based products and bioenergy” [1]. Terms such as bioeconomy or bio-based economy refer to political-economic concepts that postulate the substitution of fossil resources by bio-based ones, e.g., [2,3] to support economic and environmental targets [1]. The latter are required for economic cohesion in light of consumption-driven environmental pollution and resource depletion. Worsening environmental conditions call for an urgent transition to environmentally friendly production as well as consumption practices [4].
For the bioeconomy to be successful, socio-political aspects need to be considered, as de Besi and McCormick [5], p. 10462 argue, “[…] transition described for the bioeconomy and post-carbon strategies and pathways will require system-wide changes involving society, governments and industry.” Meyer [6] argues that the acceptance of the bioeconomy could be compromised if its policies continue to ignore the ongoing societal debates on agriculture and food, hinting at their relevance in light of consumption ethics. For example, the new bioeconomy value chains could trigger societal conflicts if resource efficiency gains, cascading use, residue use and sustainability certification are insufficient to ensure a sustainable supply of biomass [6]. Existing studies, e.g., [7,8] highlight the importance of future research on the economic and societal implications of the bioeconomy, and consequently observe an imbalanced focus on technology and science-based concepts of the bioeconomy in policy and research narratives that neglect socio-political aspects. The narrative about the bioeconomy and its implementation has placed a strong focus on industry and policy [9,10]. As a result, the ongoing bioeconomy discourse paints an image, which center on technological capabilities of using bio-based resources as replacements for fossil-fuel-based ones, whereas the role of the public and consumers appears to have been of minor interest.
Therefore, this study places a focus on initially investigating how the bioeconomy is perceived, understood and evaluated by members of different societal groups in Austria. The following research questions are addressed:
(1)
How is the political vision of a future “bioeconomy” perceived on societal levels in Austria?
(2)
What expectations, or fears arise and are associated with the vision of a bioeconomy?
(3)
What tendencies or phenomena can be observed in relation to these fears or expectations?
(4)
How are these expectations and fears linked with ethical consumption behaviour?
To capture a wide range of different views, interviews were conducted with members of four different societal target groups: students, pensioners, farmers and employees. Due to the novelty of the study’s objective and the consequential need to implement an explorative research approach and to ensure that no important aspects were overlooked, this study explicitly used mixed methods with qualitative and quantitative social science research methods. On a scientific level, the findings will serve to understand how the bioeconomy is perceived by a wider audience and, in particular, by people other than the highly involved policymakers and industrial actors. On a practical level, the findings lead to policy implications and recommendations that strengthen the societal inclusion.

2. Theoretical Background

According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [11], p. 22, the concept of the bioeconomy can be “[…] thought of as a world where biotechnology contributes to a significant share of economic output […]. A bioeconomy involves three elements: biotechnological knowledge, renewable biomass, and integration across applications”. Similarly, based on an analysis of the literature, Bugge et al. [7] delineated several leading conceptualizations of the bioeconomy and identified three main visions:
(1)
a biotechnology vision, which focuses on technological implementations;
(2)
a bioresource vision, which tries to enhance the application of raw materials through research, development and demonstration; and
(3)
a bioecology vision, which seeks to promote change in regional processes and systems to improve the usage of resources.
All three visions, but especially the bioresource vision, show a strong focus on bio-based product innovations which aim to replace fossil resources by renewable and bio-based feedstock for energy, chemicals and materials. Its overall idea and concept can contribute to solutions for current environmental problems. By facing environmental challenges, the bioeconomy is intended to also have socioeconomic benefits, such as fostering economies’ competitiveness, stability and meeting the rising demand [1].
However, the integration of the bioeconomy on a societal level has not yet received much attention in research. According to [12], normative issues have to be discussed at the societal level before or during the development of an innovation, especially if bioeconomic inventions are to be used in a way that enhances people’s welfare. A recent article investigating the bioeconomy concept from a political discourse standpoint [10], concludes that citizen participation has not yet been addressed sufficiently in public discourses. Furthermore, Dupont-Inglis and Borg [13] recommended improving the public perception of the bioeconomy in Europe. Similarly, McCormick and Kautto [14] pointed out the role of social perceptions, as social perceptions, market developments and political positions affect each other. Moreover, Mustalahti [15] argued for a need to include citizens in a responsive bioeconomy, as awareness alone may not lead to the required change in behaviour.
The lack of inclusion of the perspectives of societal actors can lead to a lack of acceptance and engagement with the concept of bioeconomy on a consumer or citizen level [10,16]. The concept of bioeconomy then can easily be rejected by the society and thereby become meaningless. From a political perspective, knowledge about the societal perception of the bioeconomy is crucial for an appropriate governance process.
Bioeconomy is a concept relying on sustainable consumption behaviour: perceptions of the bioeconomy as “green”, “sustainable” may—on the long run—lead to consumption of bio-based products. However, persuading consumers to act in a sustainable manner—in the context of a bioeconomy buying bio-based products—remains a challenge, as only a small share of consumers show a willingness to buy “green” or “sustainable” products and sales of these products fall short of expectations, e.g., [17]. However, the societal acceptance of bio-based products resulting in a willingness of consumers to pay for these products is central for their diffusion and market penetration [18] and, consequently, the overall mainstreaming of the bioeconomy in the economic system.
From a consumer perspective, knowledge, perceptions and resulting attitudes, are important antecedents for future decision-making processes, such as the acceptance and purchase of products, e.g., [19]. There is a small, yet growing body of research regarding the societal perception and/or acceptance of bio-based products. For example, a lack of societal acceptance has been reported for biofuels [20] or genetically modified food [21] leading to limited market performance. Likewise, consumers have shown skepticism regarding environmental benefits of bio-based products and little recognition towards new bio-based products and technologies, like nanocellulose products, composites and building materials, e.g., [22,23,24].
In the context of a bioeconomy, Boehlje and Bröring [25] pointed out that the difference between business-to-business and business-to-consumer becomes even more relevant when innovations are adopted. For example, biotechnology faces multiple barriers, including perceived risks and distrust, which can hinder successful adoption [26]. In this regard, Verbeke [27] investigated consumers’ acceptance of the use of biotechnology in the field of biorenewables and found that socio-political factors strongly drive the perceived risk of technological innovation, rather than the direct safety evaluation of the respective product.
Summarizing, scientific studies on the bioeconomy have rarely engaged with societal matters and, thereby, have contributed to the exclusion of societal issues from the agenda and in relation to the bioeconomy. Despite the fact that research exists on the perception of products and topics related to the bioeconomy, e.g., [28,29], research is lacking on the societal perception of the bioeconomy as a social-economic concept. Therefore, societies’ prevailing associations with the bioeconomy need evaluation. The challenge faced, overall, is to engage and combine societal, industrial and political expectations.
This suggests that perceptions of the bioeconomy may relate to citizens’ expectations regarding its economic and environmental performance and may vary significantly between different societal groups. Therefore, the aim of this study is to research the societal perceptions of the concept of the bioeconomy from the perspective of four different societal groups. The analytical approach of the study is an explorative mixed-method setting using a qualitative method—the Laddering Technique —in a quantitative approach. From a marketer perspective, knowing the consumer perception of the bioeconomy is substantial to make assumptions about its acceptance and develop measures to foster the diffusion of bio-based products.

3. Material and Methods

3.1. Research Design

Perception can be defined as “the process by which an individual selects, organizes and interprets information inputs to create a meaningful picture of the world” [30], p. 94. Kotler [30] additionally clustered perception into three stages: (1) to sense, (2) to organize and (3) to categorize. Aside from these categories, other factors such as attitudes, credibility, or norms are known to influence the decision processes of consumers [31]. Research on perceptions has been underrepresented compared to other research endeavors on the topic of the bioeconomy. Results from previous surveys indicate several reappearing themes, such as an optimistic outlook, concerns over risks, general lack of knowledge and mixed attitudes regarding bio-based products, e.g., [14,22,23,24].
This study explores the participants’ perception of the bioeconomy by providing a stimulus (i.e., a definition) and then asking questions using the laddering method to elicit attributes and values. According to Fishbein and Ajzen [32], “an attitude represents a person’s general feeling of favourableness or unfavourableness toward some stimulus object”. The operationalization of the stimulus and reaction towards the bioeconomy in this research design is based on the stimulus-response theory. According to Kotler [30], the stimulus-response model is the starting point for understanding consumer (buying) behavior. This model assumes that consumers’ behavior is influenced by external factors, which could be of a cultural, social, personal, or psychological nature. Figure 1 depicts the stimulus-response model based on Kotler [33]. As adapted for this study, the definition of the bioeconomy serves as a stimulus for the laddering method [34], which gains insight into the participants’ attributes and values associated with the bioeconomy. We assume that the stimulus evokes a reaction from the participants, influenced by the abovementioned external factors represented as “environmental stimuli”, which are considered to vary between societal groups.
The study consists of a qualitative pre-study and a quantitative main study, carried out to determine and explore the participants’ attributes and values towards the bioeconomy in Austria (see Figure 2). In the pre-study, an adapted hierarchical value map (HVM), cf. [35,36] is created using the laddering method. In the main study, the HVM is used for a quantitative laddering method.
In general, the laddering method bases on a qualitative interview technique, in which enquiries about consumers’ understandings of and associations with a product are repeatedly made [34]. Mainly by asking iterative counter questions such as “why”, the participant is encouraged to express his or her thoughts on the subject matter more deeply. For example, the laddering method has been extensively applied to food choice research, e.g., [37]. As the purpose of the study is to investigate attitudes towards the concept of a bioeconomy and not—as it is often the case—towards a product, the means-end-theory is adapted to suit this purpose. The subdivision of some properties into attributes (1st level) and consequences (2nd level) seems arbitrary and inexpedient. Therefore, instead of dividing the properties into attributes and consequences, they are organized into different topics as in Huber et al. [36].
In the pre-study and main study, four societal groups—students, employees, farmers and pensioners—are covered. In total, 32 individuals were surveyed in the pre-study, and 456 individuals were surveyed in the main study.

3.2. Pre-Study

In order to develop the HVM for the quantitative survey in the main study, a laddering approach is applied in the form of a pre-study. The participants of the preliminary study were selected with convenience sampling in Austria, whereby an attempt was made to obtain an equal number of participants in all four targeted groups (students, employees, farmers and pensioners). The sampling strategy was based on the formation of these four different professional groups because they are considered to represent the most important societal groups relevant to a bioeconomy (i.e., future decision-makers, consumers and producers respectively). In total, 32 qualitative and explorative interviews were conducted in spring 2017.
The laddering interviews were structured in the following way: first, a shortened and adapted version of the EU definition of the term bioeconomy [38] was read to the participants by the interviewer (see Table 1 for the full definition used). Second, the participants were asked to describe the perspectives, hopes, fears and expectations they associated with the provided definition. After their responses had been given, the interviewer asked, in an iterative manner, response questions such as “Why is this aspect important to you?”, cf. [36]. Finally, these answers were categorized and arranged to form a hierarchical value map, depicting a range of attributes mentioned during the interviews. To structure the attributes, a value matrix based on that of Vringer et al. [39] was applied. See Figure 3 for a graphical representation of the value dimensions used. The resulting hierarchical value map (see Figure 4) was used as a tool to quantify hopes and fears towards a bioeconomy in the survey later on.

3.3. Main Study

Based on the data gathered in the pre-study, the interviews were conducted in a semi-structured manner, allowing for a collection of qualitative and quantitative data. The interview was structured into several modules, and an overview of these and the related questions can be found in Table 1. To determine the participants’ attitudes towards sustainable consumption, their ethically minded consumer behavior (EMCB) was measured by applying the EMCB scale (see module 2 in Table 1) of Sudbury-Riley and Kohlbacher [40]. A higher score indicates a greater level of self-reported, ethically minded consumer behavior. The sample was separated into the first quantile, median and third quantile, whereby the first quantile represents the highest level of self-reported, ethically minded consumer behavior (very high level of EMCB ≥ 39, high level of EMCB = 39–35, low level of EMCB = 35–30, very low level of EMCB ≤ 30).
In addition, socio-demographic data such as age, gender, employment status, level of education and place of living were collected.
Due to the mostly nominal scaled data, Chi-square tests were applied for testing the independence between laddering themes and target groups and attributes and EMCB levels.
Socio-demographic variables, such as age, employment status, and highest level of education, were surveyed to gain a more precise description of the sample. Since the goal of the sampling procedure was to describe and compare perceptions of members of different societal groups, the sampling strategy was not focused toward creating a representative sample.
During May and June 2017, 456 interviews were completed. The participants were selected through convenience sampling, and their working status served as the major selection criterion (students, pensioners, farmers, employees) through the personal networks of the interviewers. Table 2 shows the distribution of the sample, indicating that farmers are the smallest group. Furthermore, many participants were relatively young (the median age of all groups, except pensioners, is between 25 and 34). In contrast, participants with an age between 37 and 58 are underrepresented. Additionally, the sample consists of a high number of participants with a high degree of education. Thus, the sample represents the general Austrian population to a limited extent. The high education level of farmers as well as the rather high age of students is likely to be the result of the sampling procedure conducted at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU), covering individuals who may be e.g., agricultural students and farmers at the same time. The number of farmers in the sample living in rural areas seems to be relatively low; in addition to the stated 66% living in rural areas, a further 14% live in suburbs. The remaining 20% of the farmers live in cities; however, Vienna has, especially at the outlying districts, some agricultural areas. Vice-versa, many employees in the sample live in rural areas. This may be due to the high number of commuters in Austria—statistically one out of two persons do not work in the municipality where they live [41].
Nonetheless, as we did not aim to provide representative results for the Austrian population in the current study, a representative sample was not required. Due to the group sizes, the sample is suitable for comparison of the different target groups. However, the four societal groups are not necessary homogenous and representative of the societal/professional group they are representing. However, using these four groups enables initial segmentation of respondents according to their professional background, which allows investigation on how they perceive the bioeconomy concept depending on education, employment or consumer behavior.
Looking at the values in Table 2, the median age of students being 25 years is somewhat surprising in the international context. However, taking into account vocational schools (one additional year) and military service (one additional year for all males) as well as the relatively high share of part time students (part-time working), the value is explainable.

4. Results

4.1. Pre-Study: The Hierarchical Value Map

Based on the responses gathered during the pre-study, a hierarchical value map was created, which served as a structural tool for the analysis of the main survey results. The results indicate that the perception of a bioeconomy is situated between the two value dimensions: negative and positive scales, as well as individual and societal levels. Figure 4 shows the results with the four dimensions: “Chance and Participation”, “Belief, Equity and Altruism”, “Criticism and Doubts” and “Fear, Change and Renunciation”.

4.2. Main Study: First Associations with the Term “Bioeconomy

The initial question was designed to capture potential and initial associations with the term ‘bioeconomy’; hence, asking this question allowed us to identify primary themes and topics as formulated and described by the respondents. Participants could give several answers; therefore, the absolute amount of answers was greater than the total sample size. Figure 5 illustrates the results based on two types of categorizations (theme and corresponding attitude). The corresponding attitude was assessed based on how the topic was described (positive/neutral/negative connotation) by the participants. Overall, it can be observed that the primary associations with the term bioeconomy were dominated by positive connotations (403 in total).

4.3. Attributes of the HVM

When being confronted with the stimulus and the sub-sequential questions using the Laddering Technique, every participant mentioned seven laddering themes per interview, on average. The attribute, which was mentioned most frequently, was environmental awareness (46%), as almost every second participant referred to it. More than one-third (38%) stated that they believed that a bioeconomy would lead to more sustainable consumption. One out of three commented that a bioeconomy can do something positive; these results suggest that the participants had an optimistic outlook on it. The results indicate two visions of a bioeconomy: an economy that is based on regional and organic agriculture (e.g., reflected through the items “regionalism”, “back to nature”) and an economy that is characterized through technical developments and industrialized production (e.g., reflected through the item “exploitation”). On the other hand, doubts on the feasibility of a bioeconomy were mentioned by 44% of the participants, and doubts about the system and governance of a bioeconomy were also expressed by one out of three participants. Table 3 provides an overview of all laddering attributes and how often they were mentioned. Overall, the table shows that the majority of associations pertain to the positive dimensions of “Chance and Participation” and “Belief, Equity and Altruism”.

4.4. Attributes of the HVM by Different Societal Groups

Potential differences between societal groups and mentioned laddering themes were analyzed using Chi-square tests. Significant results regarding the frequency of mentioned attributes by societal group are listed in Table 4. These distributions suggest that students had stronger individualistic viewpoints and were more interested in a bioeconomy than other target groups. Farmers appeared to be the most critical group, as they mentioned themes such as doubts, equity and effectiveness rather frequently. Students expressed fears about the own existence less frequently than employees and farmers. Overall, pensioners mentioned positive viewpoints more often than other groups, with themes such as back to nature and quality of life.

4.5. Attributes of the HVM by Sustainability Groups

To test the differences between the attitudes towards sustainable consumption (measured with the EMCB scale), the sample was clustered into four groups according to the classification explained in Section 3.3.
Employees and farmers are nearly equally distributed in all four EMCB groups (see Figure 6). Relatively more pensioners and fewer students are found in the group with the highest EMCB compared to the other groups.
Investigating whether the attributes mentioned differed between the sustainability groups, Table 5 shows that participants with very high and high EMCBs had more positive viewpoints towards the definition of the term ‘bioeconomy’. More precisely, themes such as optimism, sense of responsibility, equity, sustainable consumption and quality of life were mentioned with relatively high frequencies; these frequencies decline with decreasing levels of EMCB. Vice versa, participants with a very low EMCB showed a high level of attributes regarding doubts about the realism of a bioeconomy.

4.6. Attitude Chain

To evaluate the attitude chain, an implication matrix was created based on the frequency of the mentioned themes. The attitude chain shows the combination of items mentioned during the interviews in a compound manner. The 10 most frequently mentioned connections between two laddering themes were taken into consideration, resulting in the identification of eight topics. This number of connections was chosen considering clarity and a meaningful graphical representation. The number and thickness of lines connecting two themes indicates how often the two themes were mentioned in juxtaposition to one another; see Figure 7 for a graphical representation. As can be seen, environmental awareness has the most connections and the strongest connection to other topics. The attitude chain indicates that respondents associated the provided definition of the term ‘bioeconomy’ with environmental awareness and sustainable consumption, which leads to lower environmental pollution. Simultaneously, environmental awareness (as a positive attribute) was often mentioned together with doubts about the feasibility of a bioeconomy.

5. Discussion

The concept of a bioeconomy has recently received an increasing amount of attention in sustainability-related research across disciplines. The importance of perceptions and the inclusion of citizens has been highlighted by several authors, e.g., [6,7,8,10]. This study investigates how Austrian citizens perceive the general political vision of a bioeconomy. It, therefore, provides an important starting point for further research on the societal perceptions of a bioeconomy and supplements studies made on the perception of a bioeconomy by members of the industrial sector [42,43] and those only addressing bio-based products, e.g., [22].
However, the study is also subject to several limitations, in particular regarding the snowball sampling procedure and the resulting sample composition. For example, the sample consisted of a high number of younger and older respondents, consequently, certain age groups were underrepresented in this sample. Another distinct characteristic of this sample was the high level of education of the participants. Hence, the sample was not designed to be strictly representative for the Austrian population, but instead constructed to investigate four societal target groups (students, farmers, employees and pensioners). Nevertheless, the selected sample is not representative of the four selected “societal groups”, as it does not entirely reflect the structure of the respective group. At this point we further note, that “employees” as well as “students” or “pensioners” can be considered inhomogeneous as they represent people with different educational background and occupation. In addition, the selection of the sample through the public networks of the authors at the University represents a bias. In the main study, the interview items and topics of the HVM were prescribed to the participants, leaving little room for individual responses. Despite these drawbacks, we argue that our results provide valuable insights into the Austrian population and reveal some potential differences between different societal groups. Our study thereby contributes to a rapidly changing research field by showing the diversity of topics respondents associate with a pre-given definition of bioeconomy.
The findings for the four dimensions of the HVM as well as individual topics correspond with the findings of Pfau et al. [44], who reviewed trends and the most important issues regarding the perception of bio-based products. They found perceptions of bio-based products to have a global and individual, as well as positive and negative, dimension. In the context of economic issues, the positive connotations were related to global advantages (e.g., economic growth), while the negative ones were related to personal concerns (e.g., higher prices).
Overall, the perceptions of a bioeconomy in the sample appear to be associated mainly with positive, instead of negative expectations. Similarly, in a Swedish study [45], actors of three different groups (Environmental Non-governmental Organisations (ENGOs), industry and forest owners) were interviewed, and the authors found that there was no clear distinction between the groups in terms of how the concept of bioeconomy was used. They saw it as a “bridging” concept, bringing the actors’ interests closer to each other. Furthermore, the positive perception of the term bioeconomy among ENGOs (idem.) resonates with the positive perception of a bioeconomy by respondents who had a positive attitude towards sustainable consumption (very high and high levels of EMCB) found in this study.
“Sustainable consumption” was found to be a prominent attribute. As consumers judge sustainable products to have superior performance, e.g., in terms of safety or health [17], decision makers should consider pursuing strategies for bio-based products that benefit the most from the associations with these product attributes.
Regarding the different perceptions of different societal groups, the results show that the higher the level of sustainable consumption behavior, the more positive expectation toward the bioeconomy exists. Furthermore, farmers showed most skepticism in the form of negative expectations towards a bioeconomy.
From the observed laddering themes, different visions of a bioeconomy were observed among this sample. The identified visions of Bugge et al. [7] were partly reflected in the results of the laddering themes. On the one hand, participants associated the definition of bioeconomy with organic products, which are produced and distributed on local and regional levels. This perspective of a bioeconomy can be linked to the bioecology vision as defined by Bugge et al. [7]. On the other hand, participants indicated that they considered bioeconomy to be a concept driven by technological development and advances, a view similar to the bio-technology vision described by Bugge et al. [7]. This perspective bases on critical views about the bioeconomy industry and its implementation. Our results did not specifically reflect the “bio-resource vision” described by Bugge et al. [7]; however, we consider this vision to base on an underlying assumption that influences the other two identified visions. These categorizations reveal the general existence of a divide in the participants’ connotations; the technology-based visions may appear to be associated with negative attributes, whereas the vision based focusing on ecological issues may be romanticized and highlights primarily positive aspects. These results indicate that different visions of a bioeconomy do not only exist in the scientific and policy-based discourse, but also that societal perspectives can be divided by different perceptions of and associations with the term ‘bioeconomy’. However, according to Hausknost et al. [8], Austrian stakeholders are more moderate in their views on economic growth and biotechnology than the authors of the existing policy papers. More precisely, the majority of business associations pertain to the vision of an economic growth paradigm and (bio-) technological development, whereas NGOs and scientists hold a more critical stance. Overall, the vision of bioecology—as also expressed by participants in this study—is treated as marginal in official policy papers [8].
The respondents’ negative perceptions were mainly related to the feasibility of the concept of a bioeconomy and financial losses that might result from reduced economic growth or a lack of jobs. These fears are considered to be related to the economic visions of a bioeconomy as proclaimed by the OECD [3]. The concept of a bioeconomy has become an important component in innovation and economic policies within G7 states, involving measures to promote technological innovation, economic growth, ecological sustainability and resource efficiency [46]. Because policy-makers commonly take these technical and economic stances, the societal fears communicated during this study should be critically examined to defuse potential societal barriers. In this context, the results can also be understood as a societal response to new concepts and political ideas such as “sustainable development” or “circular economy”, indicating skepticism towards the claims made by political institutions.

6. Conclusions

The fact that the societal perception is normally not addressed in research about and policy implementations related to the bioeconomy has driven this study, as previous studies have pointed out the necessity to include society and societal actors. This study revealed perceptions about bioeconomy by Austrian individuals from different societal groups for the first time. The evaluation of the different groups showed that farmers appeared to be somewhat more critical towards the provided definition of the term ‘bioeconomy’ than members of other groups, whereas individuals with strong attitude towards ethical consumption were the most positive. Therefore, we argue that the perceptions of the applied definition of the term ‘bioeconomy’ are considered to be strongly related to respondents’ expectations regarding its—not only environmental—performance and can vary significantly between different societal groups and hence consumer segments as a result of psychographic and societal group (socio-demographic characteristics). Furthermore, knowledge about individuals’ political preferences and attitude towards other future-oriented topics (e.g., globalization, biotechnology, internet of things) will be interesting for future research.
Future discourse needs to address these different perspectives of a future bioeconomy: one driven by a view based on regional environmentalism, and the other, driven by a technological and industrial view. These different views are also associated with different perceptions, hence, different barriers related to the consumer acceptance of products and services.
Based on our results, we expect a generally positive perception and acceptance of a future bioeconomy. However, we obtained specific insights from the results that require consideration by future policymakers:
  • The feasibility of a future bioeconomy is identified as the most critical aspect. Therefore, communication needs to focus on transferring examples that demonstrate the possibilities, potential and realities of a bioeconomy.
  • Sustainable consumption was mentioned as an important topic of bioeconomy by the participants, a result that needs further exploration. This issue could be of particular interest when creating an inclusive bioeconomy, since it calls for the active involvement of consumers.
  • Highly educated, young adults like students present a constructive target group for discussions on bioeconomy with regard to communications. In contrast, the employees’ and farmers’ perceptions were observed to be overshadowed by personal fears and concerns about the risks associated with change.
These findings highlight the need to study which technologies may result in the inclusion or exclusion of different societal groups. More precisely, this study shows that responding farmers tend to believe that the bioeconomy will lead to more inequity. Therefore, members of this group, as the suppliers of a future bioeconomy, should be carefully addressed in future research and policymaking.
From a scientific perspective, these results provide the first glimpse into how bioeconomy can be perceived by a wider audience and, in particular, by people other than the highly involved policymakers and industrial actors. Due to the mostly nominal data, the qualitative and descriptive nature of the results, the study provides a starting point for future investigations. Note, the lack of representativeness of the sample and the potential bias carried through the sampling method. Nevertheless, the results provide valuable insights into the societal perception of the bioeconomy.

Author Contributions

T.S. had the initial idea for the paper. T.S., L.R., F.H. and P.S. designed the data collection and wrote the paper. R.S. and U.P. analyzed the data, created visualizations and wrote the paper.

Funding

The study was partly funded by the Austrian Research Promotion Agency (FFG) under the COMET program grant number 844608. The authors acknowledge the financial support by the University of Graz to publish open access.

Conflicts of Interest

No conflicts of interest occurred in this study.

Data Availability

The datasets analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Figure 1. Kotler’s stimulus-response model (adapted from [33]).
Figure 1. Kotler’s stimulus-response model (adapted from [33]).
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Figure 2. Research design based on a pre-study and a main study.
Figure 2. Research design based on a pre-study and a main study.
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Figure 3. Value matrix and applied value dimensions, adapted from Vringer et al. [39].
Figure 3. Value matrix and applied value dimensions, adapted from Vringer et al. [39].
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Figure 4. Mentioned attributes clustered by value dimensions (N = 32).
Figure 4. Mentioned attributes clustered by value dimensions (N = 32).
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Figure 5. Thematic coding and attitude (i.e., neutral/positive/negative connotation) towards the definition of the term bioeconomy with the absolute frequency of mentioned topics given in brackets (N = 456).
Figure 5. Thematic coding and attitude (i.e., neutral/positive/negative connotation) towards the definition of the term bioeconomy with the absolute frequency of mentioned topics given in brackets (N = 456).
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Figure 6. Distribution of the four target groups in the four EMCB groups (N = 456).
Figure 6. Distribution of the four target groups in the four EMCB groups (N = 456).
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Figure 7. Attitude chain of the top 10 connections mentioned by all participants; the thickness of the lines represents how frequently associations were mentioned, and the shades indicate the dimensions of the HVM (N = 456).
Figure 7. Attitude chain of the top 10 connections mentioned by all participants; the thickness of the lines represents how frequently associations were mentioned, and the shades indicate the dimensions of the HVM (N = 456).
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Table 1. Set of questions and items used in the interviews.
Table 1. Set of questions and items used in the interviews.
ModulesQuestions
First association: “the starter question”What do you associate the term “bioeconomy” with?
StimulusA bioeconomy is a type of economy that relies on renewable natural resources to provide food, energy, products and services. It can contribute to a reduction in our dependence on fossil fuels, to the development of innovation and economy and to the creation of new jobs.
Reaction (Module 1)After you heard the definition of the bioeconomy, I would like to know your thoughts on the bioeconomy.Why is this aspect important to you? (follow-up questions using Laddering Technique)
Attitude towards sustainable consumption (Module 2)If I have the choice, I choose the product with the lowest environmental impact.
Because of environmental issues, I have already switched to another product.
I do not buy a product if I know something about the potential environmental impacts.
I do not buy household products if they have negative impacts on the environment.
If possible, I buy products that are packaged in reused or recycled material.
I try to buy paper products made of recovered paper.
I do not buy a product if I know that the producing firm acts in a socially irresponsible way.
I do not buy products from firms if I know that they have been produced under poor labour conditions.
In spite of cheaper alternatives, I paid more for environmentally friendly products.
In spite of cheaper alternatives, I paid more for socially responsible products.
Table 2. Sociodemographic statistics per target group (N = 456).
Table 2. Sociodemographic statistics per target group (N = 456).
Target GroupTotalWomenMedian AgeLiving in Rural AreaA-Levels or Higher Level of Education
n%n%n%n%
Students12628645125584612196
Employees15333533534936110669
Farmers671533493344664872
Pensioners1102452476652475348
Sum/average45610020245332475432871
Table 3. Frequency of attributes mentioned by at least 5% of the respondents, sorted by value dimensions; attributes in italics indicate new topics that emerged from the survey (N = 456).
Table 3. Frequency of attributes mentioned by at least 5% of the respondents, sorted by value dimensions; attributes in italics indicate new topics that emerged from the survey (N = 456).
Value DimensionsAttributesAbsolute FrequencyRelative Frequency
Chance and participationOptimism15233%
Sense of responsibility13029%
Regionalism12327%
Possibilities10122%
Curiosity/interest10723%
Personal ethics8519%
Enjoyment194%
Health7516%
Bioeconomy instead of machines317%
Belief, equity and altruismEnvironmental awareness20946%
Sustainable consumption17538%
Environmental pollution12227%
Back to nature10623%
Quality of life7116%
Fair distribution6514%
Joined-up thinking6614%
Equity5312%
Humanity as unity286%
Renewable energy vs. fossil fuels225%
Critics and doubtsDoubts about feasibility19944%
Doubts about the system/government14031%
Doubts about realism10523%
Doubts about effectiveness7516%
Doubts about honesty7216%
Doubts about sustainability and equity of a bioeconomy7015%
What is the meaning of “organic”?4811%
Sense of something new?4911%
Inequity5011%
Scepticism towards globalization429%
Unclear future/necessity276%
Unclear definition255%
“Be different” with a small production235%
Fear, change and renunciationDoubts about transformation9721%
Exploitation7015%
Frugality4911%
Renunciation429%
Jobs409%
Hindering economic welfare388%
Costs388%
Scientific foundation?286%
Fear for own existence245%
Table 4. Significant differences in frequency of attributes by target group (N = 456).
Table 4. Significant differences in frequency of attributes by target group (N = 456).
Laddering ThemeTarget Groupχ2(df)p Value
Students (n = 126)Employees (n = 153)Farmers (n = 67)Pensioners (n = 110)
Curiosity/interest34.92%20.26%22.39%15.45%χ2(3) = 14.0550.002
Back to nature15.08%18.30%34.33%32.73%χ2(3) = 16,9610.001
Quality of life8.73%17.65%11.94%22.73%χ2(3) = 99440.016
Doubts about sustainability and equity of a bioeconomy8.73%15.69%26.87%15.45%χ2(3) = 14,8960.009
Doubts about effectiveness16.67%10.46%31.34%15.45%χ2(3) = 11,1010.002
Inequity5.56%10.46%20.90%11.82%χ2(3) = 10,6670.012
Fear for own existence0.00%9.80%7.46%3.64%χ2(3) = 14,5610.002
Table 5. Frequency of select mentioned topics by the four EMCB groups (N = 456).
Table 5. Frequency of select mentioned topics by the four EMCB groups (N = 456).
AttributesLevel of EMCBχ2(df)p-Value
Very High EMCB (n = 114)High EMCB (n = 114)Low EMCB (n = 114)Very Low EMCB (n = 114)
Optimism45%32%32%25%χ2(3) = 10.8160.013
Sense of responsibility41%29%19%25%χ2(3) = 14.6760.002
Health23%9%16%18%χ2(3) = 8.6010.036
Justice18%14%9%6%χ2(3) = 8.7750.032
Sustainable Consumption44%45%36%29%χ2(3) = 7.9660.047
Quality of life25%17%12%8%χ2(3) = 14.5970.002
Doubts on realism16%23%22%32%χ2(3) = 8.1540.043

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