Sustainability first-movers refer to enterprises that are among the first to introduce sustainable products with sustainable materials or sustainable technologies into the marketplace. Successfully launching new products, first-mover or otherwise, is critical to the sustainability of any enterprise development, including new and established enterprises. It is also the most important decision for sustainable enterprises. The literature suggests that executives who are concerned about sustainability issues spend most of their time and resources developing their first product and making market-entry decisions. Kuhlman and Farrington described sustainability as being “concerned with the well-being of future generations and, in particular, with irreplaceable natural resources—as opposed to the gratification of present needs which we call well-being” [1
]. Therefore, sustainable enterprises not only have to strive economic viability of their product choice decisions, they also have to simultaneously strive for environmental protection, social welfare, and the timing of product introduction.
Managerial mindfulness in decision making enhances innovation, impacting sustainability and sustainable development. In their study, Li and Zhao [2
] “provided evidence for the First-Mover Advantage theory from the information spreading point of view.” Developing first-mover new market opportunities in a rapidly changing market environment is an important strategy for sustainable business development. In a comprehensive review of sustainability business models in the literature, it was found that firms that pursue first-mover advantages can gain sustainable competitive advantages that enhance the sustainable development goals of the firm [3
]. Indeed, firms that pursue sustainability first-mover strategies have gained competitive advantages in many industries [11
], such as in e-commerce platforms and social commerce contexts [2
]. However, more research is needed to identify the advantages and disadvantages that are experienced by sustainability first-movers. Therefore, the first two research questions can be developed.
The organizational imprinting theory suggests that the structure, characteristics and decision-making of start-ups are difficult to change. Based on their prior experience and perceptions of the environments, executives prefer certain specific structures, behaviors and characteristics. This imprinting effect is difficult to change even when the environment changes [12
]. Previous empirical research has demonstrated that effects of imprinting theory on sustainable organizational development has empirical validity. Studies have found that the start-up conditions shape the characteristics of managerial actions, strategy, structure [15
], and performance [18
]. Start-up conditions also have lasting influences on the future development track and survival of enterprises. Similarly, first-mover advantages in launching sustainable products have imprinting effects on the sustainable development of new and existing enterprises.
Cross-national studies have found that some first-mover advantages may universally be considered important, others may be perceived differently in different countries, and still others may be seen as applicable only in some countries [8
]. These studies have found that executives make first-mover entry decisions based on their personal knowledge and beliefs [10
]. Scholars have called for more large-scale empirical studies to further examine cross-national similarities and differences in these first-mover advantages [8
]. However, to date, few studies have provided empirical evidence on how executives who are concerned about sustainability issues in different countries perceive sustainability first-mover advantages and disadvantages due to the difficulties of collecting large-scale multiple-country data (see [11
] for a study of “sustainability pioneers” in the information technology (IT) hardware industry). Therefore, we developed third research question for this study.
RQ3: What are the cross-national similarities and differences in sustainable advantages and disadvantages between Asian countries and Western countries?
Why is it important to study perceptions of sustainability first-mover advantages and disadvantages in different countries? First, the literature on mental modeling suggests that executives make important decisions based on their own perceptions of reality, regardless of whether their perceptions have external validity [20
]. Second, literature in management and marketing suggests that executives make first-mover decisions by simplified mental models of the perceived advantages and disadvantages of being a market pioneer [8
]. Third, executives in different countries may perceive their relative first-mover advantages differently depending on the mental model they use [20
]. Fourth, cross-national studies have also suggested that executives from different countries differ on how they process information [22
] and how they make first-mover decisions based on their mental models [10
]. Therefore, to understand managerial actions and gain insights into likely future sustainability first-mover strategies, it is important to investigate the particular mental models that are used by executives from different countries and to understand the way their perceptions of reality are formed [21
]. This understanding will advance the literature on sustainable entrepreneurship.
In this study, we aim to fill these gaps in the literature by proposing seven hypotheses regarding a cross-national comparison of sustainability first-mover advantages and disadvantages and by testing them by using data collected from 1437 senior executives from seven countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore). To advance the theory of sustainable development, the chosen empirical contexts are five key industries that advance the sustainable development goals: food, beverage, and consumer goods; healthcare and life sciences; industrial manufacturing; transportation; and energy, natural resources, and chemicals. This study uses Duncan multiple-range tests examine cross-national similarities and differences.
This study contributes to the sustainability and management literature in several ways. First, it answers the call for cross-national research to investigate whether executives who are concerned about sustainability issues in different countries perceive sustainability first-mover advantages and disadvantages differently. Second, the empirical findings suggest that executives who are concerned about sustainability issues from these seven countries employ different mental models of sustainability first-mover advantages and disadvantages; therefore, they make different sustainability first-mover decisions. Third, executives who are concerned about sustainability issues from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Japan assign different levels of importance to sustainability advantages and disadvantages than executives from China, South Korea, and Singapore do.