Decent Work and Economic Growth

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Sustainable Entrepreneurship: Composing Individual Processes and Collaborative Transformations

  • Stefan SchalteggerEmail author
  • Matthew Johnson
Living reference work entry



Sustainable entrepreneurship has been broadly defined as a process of discovery, creation, and exploitation of business opportunities leading to sustainability innovation, value creation, and transformation of mass markets and societies (Cohen and Winn 2007; Dean and McMullen 2007; Pacheco et al. 2010). Following the established Brundtland definition of sustainable development, Shepherd and Patzelt (2011) define sustainable entrepreneurship as “the preservation of nature, life support, and community in the pursuit of perceived opportunities to bring into existence future products, processes, and services for […] economic and non-economic gains to individuals, the economy, and society.”

Specific forms of sustainable entrepreneurship include social and environmental entrepreneurship, also referred to as ecopreneurship or green entrepreneurship. Social entrepreneurship can be seen as the application of the entrepreneurial approach (i.e., discovery, creation, and exploitation of opportunities) towards meeting societal goals and creating social value, usually in the form of a non-for-profit enterprise (Brinckerhoff 2000; Prahalad and Hammond 2002; Mair et al. 2005). Environmental entrepreneurship has a strong focus on creating opportunities that minimize the venture’s impact on the natural environment, which is typically through for-profit enterprises (Gast et al. 2017; York et al. 2016). Nevertheless, hybrid forms of entrepreneurial ventures are emerging to incorporate all three sustainability dimensions – social, environmental, and economic (York et al. 2016).


Sustainable development requires sustainability-oriented managers and entrepreneurs who achieve social, environmental, and economic goals with superior, innovative products or processes that are successful in the marketplace, and as one potential consequence, replace or upgrade existing unsustainable products and services. Process, product, and market innovations driving sustainable development do not occur automatically or by accident, but they have to be created by visionary leaders who put them into the core of their business activities. It is thus through their innovations and business ventures that sustainable entrepreneurs have the potential to shape markets and society substantially.

Deriving from the French word “entrepreneur” this phenomenon addresses the activity to take the initiative to bridge. Whereas all entrepreneurs deal with bridging activities between suppliers and customers to create and change markets, sustainable entrepreneurs also build bridges between environmental and societal progress and market success. Such boundary spanning often requires collaboration with a range of stakeholders, including societal actors, market associations, networks, and governmental institutions (Schaltegger et al. 2018b).

According to Joseph Schumpeter (1934) entrepreneurship can be described as creative destruction, which means to reform or revolutionize the patterns of production, including upstream and downstream value chains. Applying the notion of creative destruction in this context, sustainable entrepreneurs destroy existing conventional, unsustainable production methods, products, market structures, and consumption patterns, through their convincingly superior, high-quality, and sustainable offers. These more sustainable products and services replace the existing unsustainable offers by making them obsolete, which can also change the patterns of consumption while doing so. For example, entrepreneurial ventures behind the market proliferation of car sharing do not only change the way passengers look at personalized mobility, but it makes people critically reflect question the necessity of car ownership as well. This creative destruction of unsustainable products and services is the essence of the dynamics of sustainable development and the sustainable restructuring of markets (Schaltegger et al. 2016).

Sustainable entrepreneurship goes beyond the reduction of negative environmental and social burdens and the management of positive outcomes of existing businesses (Kuckertz and Wagner 2010). It surpasses the mere management of sustainability issues in corporations in several unique ways. Sustainable entrepreneurship investigates the formation of business opportunities to resolve current market and societal failures leading to environmental and social improvements (Dean and McMullen 2007). Schaltegger and Wagner (2011) view sustainability as comprehensively connected to the core business, where such entrepreneurs contribute to solving societal and environmental problems through the realization and exploitation of opportunities.

Sustainable entrepreneurship can describe various phenomena, which the general entrepreneurship literature has laid the foundation:
  • By emphasizing the process of a start-up company, entrepreneurs are seen as actors opening a new company. In this sense, entrepreneurship is the process of creating and establishing a new company, which is often unconventional compared to traditional incumbents in any given industry, including food, retail clothing, and energy utilities (e.g., Bennett 1991; Choi and Gray 2008; Hansen and Schaltegger 2013).

  • Aiming to contribute to sustainable development, sustainable entrepreneurs pursue missions and create solutions that are focused on social (e.g., Mair et al. 2005) or environmental problems (e.g., related to planetary boundaries; Schaltegger et al. 2018a). More recent developments focus on hybrid, or blended organizational forms, focusing on the triple-bottom-line and corporate sustainability (Schaltegger and Burritt 2005; Schaltegger and Wagner 2011; York et al. 2016).

  • Striving for growth is another aspect of entrepreneurship, which views actors who enlarge companies and expand businesses (Kyrö 2001; Gartner 1990). In sustainable entrepreneurship, the concept of upscaling for sustainable markets, or rather from the niche to massmarket, has emerged (Hockerts and Wüstenhagen 2010).

  • Sustainable entrepreneurship is also a social movement where entrepreneurs are actors changing existing consumption and production patterns through their initiatives (Pastakia 1998; Mair and Marti 2006) and engaging in co-evolutionary processes of transforming consumption patterns and life-styles (Schaltegger et al. 2016).

  • Sustainable entrepreneurship is mostly not only realized by one individual but characterized by collaborative efforts of various stakeholders, including societal stakeholders supporting innovation, legitimizing radically new approaches, and enabling the development and change of markets (Schaltegger et al. 2018b).

  • The capability to link inventions with market success and to innovate and to create competitive advantage is another feature which is associated with entrepreneurs (Schaltegger and Wagner 2011; Schumpeter 1934; Staber 1997; Wiklund 1999).

  • Capabilities and leadership characteristics such as alertness, ambition, team building, personal involvement, commitment, and resourcefulness are sometimes interpreted as entrepreneurial traits (Keogh and Polonsky 1998; Prahalad 2005, 2006; Seelos and Mair 2005).

As a notion and approach sustainable entrepreneurship combines these phenomena with sustainability. Sustainable entrepreneurship is characterized by some fundamental aspects of entrepreneurial activities which are less oriented towards management systems or technical procedures and focus more on the personal initiative and skills of the entrepreneurial person or team. For example, Parrish (2010) describes the trait of perpetual reasoning as a sustainability-oriented capability that can produce “benefit streams by enhancing and maintaining quality of human and natural resources for the longest possible time.”

Motivation and Actors

A typology of sustainable entrepreneurship has been developed to classify and distinguish different grades and directions of sustainable entrepreneurship (see Schaltegger 2002; Fig. 1). It distinguishes sustainable entrepreneurship from other forms of corporate environmental and social responsibility activities and is summarized with a positioning matrix which allows management to assess its state of environmental and economic activities in relation to others (see also Schaltegger and Wagner 2011).
Fig. 1

Perspectives and development of sustainable entrepreneurship (Schaltegger 2002)

Organizations in which sustainability issues are of low priority, and thus are administered rather than managed, see sustainability as a trustee duty and thus concentrate on the implementation of given regulations and standards. Environmental and social issues are left to the legal department and to bureaucracy, which administer the issues to fulfill formally defined rules and regulations.

Company leaders who consider sustainability issues as a supplementary aspect of business establish environmental, quality, and social management systems and departments which attempt to pilot and control impacts in the most efficient manner. Cost reduction, eco-efficiency, image campaigns, the differentiation of products and services, and the improvement of competitiveness are core goals of sustainability management.

Sustainability management becomes in its most advanced form sustainable entrepreneurship and fulfills both requirements, high sustainability performance, and a large influence on the mass market (upper right corner of Fig. 1). Sustainable entrepreneurs strive for business success through sustainability solutions for the mass market. Focusing on environmental aspects, “ecopreneurs” can be found close to sustainable entrepreneurship, but with a less strong focus of full sustainability performance as a core business goal.

The sustainable entrepreneurship challenge is to be economically successful through the economically successful supply of products and services which change consumption patterns and market structures leading to an absolute reduction of negative environmental and social impacts (Hockerts and Wüstenhagen 2010; Strothotte and Wüstenhagen 2005). As a difference, bioneers are niche market focused and often inventors. Instead of spending time in laboratories sustainable entrepreneurs search for inventions which they can further develop and place as innovations on markets to create turnover and influence market structures. The core activity of sustainable entrepreneurs is thus to search for business ideas to solve environmental and social problems, to identify the market potential of inventions, and to realize market success with them.

Opportunity Types

Mainstream entrepreneurship literature considers opportunity formation an essential part of entrepreneurship. As Short et al. (2010, p. 40) state, “without opportunity, there is no entrepreneurship.” Entrepreneurial opportunities can be described as the connection between an unfilled market (or societal) need and a solution that satisfies this need (O’Connor and Rice 2001). If successful, this primes the creation of new artifacts in the form of goods, services, and ventures (Shane and Venkataraman 2000).

Two main views have emerged in the field of sustainable entrepreneurship regarding opportunity formation and venture creation – discovery and creation. From the view of discovery, entrepreneurs are able detect environmental and social problems strongly related to market failures, including negative externalities, abuse of public goods, information asymmetries, flawed pricing mechanisms, and so forth (Dean and McMullen 2007). Such entrepreneurs are able to alleviate environmental and social ailments through the reconciliation of these market failures. This can lead to environmental and social improvements on the one hand and economic advantages through successful business ventures and institutional changes on the other hand (Cohen and Winn 2007). The discovery view is designates opportunities for sustainable entrepreneurship as exogenous to the entrepreneur, thus placing emphasis on surrounding environments and special qualities of the entrepreneurs, including advanced market knowledge (Shepherd and Patzelt 2011; Munoz and Dimov 2017) and alertness (Tilley and Young 2009). Alertness refers to the ability to recognize opportunities as quick as they emerge (Kirzner 1973). Moreover, it implies that sustainable entrepreneurship is a fairly predictable process by recognizing market failures connected to environmental and social problems (e.g., externalities, information asymmetry), and setting clear goals can be effective in overcoming these problems (Dean and McMullen 2007; Zahra et al. 2009).

From a view of opportunity creation, the literature describes opportunities as those originating from the individual and not from environmental stimuli (Sarasvathy et al. 2003). From this view, opportunities are not discovered, but instead they are manifested from the entrepreneur’s own experience, ingenuity, and given means (Sarasvathy et al. 2003; Alvarez and Barney 2007). These means include personal knowledge, skills, and networks that capture the theory of effectuation (Sarasvathy 2001, 2008). Studies taking a creative view of sustainable entrepreneurship focus mostly on outcomes stemming from creating opportunities, especially in areas of both high uncertainty and great potential for innovation and transformation towards sustainable development (Meek et al. 2010; York and Venkataraman 2010; Schaltegger and Wagner 2011). This provides insights on novel ways to address sustainability-related issues that are difficult to exploit in current markets, including many challenges presented in the sustainable development goals (SDGs).

However, discovery and creation are not irreconcilable opposites, but rather necessary complements in the entrepreneurial process (Sarasvathy 2008; Pacheco et al. 2010; Fisher 2012). Both stemming from process logics, they can be combined in an integrative way. This integrated view of opportunity formation actually reveals a natural cognitive process that most entrepreneurs experience in the development of new goods, services, and business ventures (Choi and Gray 2008; York et al. 2016). For example, an entrepreneur with a revolutionary new way to supply renewable electricity in a highly volatile market may embrace multiple perspectives simultaneously and over time. On the one hand, entrepreneurs may have the ability to create a new market with high uncertainty via the co-creation with key stakeholders and partners. On the other hand, entrepreneurs can additionally use existing marketing tools, such as market forecasts and segmentation to target key customers, to discover market-related opportunities to business venture. In other words, one approach does not necessarily cancel the other out.

Furthermore, several additional concepts can describe opportunity development in the context of sustainable entrepreneurship, including bricolage and the entrepreneurial spark. Bricolage relates to the creation of opportunities, and it means to generate something out of nothing, using only the very limited resources at hand (Dacin et al. 2010; Zhang and Swanson 2014). The “spark” pertains to “that moment of insight when the interesting idea surfaces for the potential entrepreneurs” (Corner and Ho 2010). This spark is independent of opportunity type, as it could be used from both the discovery and creation view. It simply signifies the moment in time when the entrepreneur has an initial idea stemming from previous personal experience, from various discussions and collaborations with others, and then finding solutions. In most cases, it sets off a continual looping process of problems and solutions until the opportunities are refined and manifested (Corner and Ho 2010).

Sustainable Entrepreneurship Forms, Processes, and Outcomes

Entrepreneurial Forms

Organizational forms in the context of sustainable entrepreneurship describe entrepreneurs’ primary objectives and missions in alignment for sustainability-oriented solutions (Nicholls 2006; Schaltegger and Wagner 2011). This ranges from non-for-profit to for-profit orientations, which entails various means-ends relationships. For-profit, sustainability-oriented ventures often have the aim of earning money (ends), but do so by solving environmental and social problems (means). Conversely, non-for-profit, sustainability-oriented ventures strive first to achieve social and environmental goals (ends) and must continually strive to secure funding via third-party donations and grants to achieve this (means).

These two organizational forms are often assigned to particular strands of entrepreneurship, i.e., environmental entrepreneurship is frequently connected with for-profit ventures, whereas social entrepreneurship is often labeled as having a non-profit orientation (Schaltegger and Wagner 2011). Nonetheless, recent literature reconciles these divergent views and presents a comprehensive form via logic hybridization, establishing a more inclusive spectrum from economizing to sustainability-centric (York et al. 2016). The priority of goals may furthermore change over time in unintended directions (York et al. 2016). Thus, the notion of blended enterprise emerges, finding a balance between profit orientation and sustainability considerations (Belz and Binder 2017; Stubbs 2017). Through hybridization, profit-seeking is given same precedence as the achievement of positive social and environmental objectives.

Entrepreneurial Processes

Processes that outline sustainable entrepreneurship deal with venture development on the organizational level fall into one or more of the following areas: evaluation, elaboration, branding, culture building, and venture innovation. According to Monllor and Attaran (2008), every stage of venture development should be evaluated according to the triple bottom line, including financial viability, environmental and social improvements, and maximization of sustainability gains. If deemed viable, this will move to business planning, marketing, and branding.

It is important that the new venture is able to create a discernable corporate brand and image in order to differ from low-cost alternatives and enable companies to grow profitably (Choi and Gray 2008). This can be done by highlighting the innovative, high-quality features of the products stemming from the new combinations of resources as well as devoted mission to sustainability (Larson 2000; Yunus et al. 2010; Zhang and Swanson 2014; Markman et al. 2016). These previous activities are strengthened through building powerful organizational cultures centered on sustainability goals, which include shared vision, employee well-being, and corporate volunteering programs (Austin and Leonard 2008; Choi and Gray 2008; Spitzeck et al. 2013; Schaefer et al. 2015).

Venture innovation plays a key role in the development of sustainability-oriented ventures. A form of business model innovation, venture innovation entails the ability to develop a value proposition that differentiates from the competition based on high-quality, superior sustainable products and services (Schaltegger et al. 2016). Business model innovation in the context of sustainable entrepreneurship is the ability to create new combinations of resources and suppliers to form new, sustainability-oriented value chains (Markman et al. 2016).

Outcomes of Sustainable Entrepreneurship

The outcomes of sustainable entrepreneurship are commonly divided into several categories, including value creation, institutional innovation, and scaling effects or impacts of entrepreneurial endeavors. Value creation in the context of sustainable entrepreneurship sorts out the cumulative value stemming from (multiple) venture developments, which can be viewed as social, mixed, and sustainable value creation. Social value creation does not only refer to social issues, but rather to positive externalities generated for a wider extent of society stemming from the venture activities (Seelos and Mair 2005). Mixed value creation always finds a combination of two aspects of sustainability, referring either to social and economic value creation or ecological and economic value creation. This is also referred to as “shared value creation” in the social context (Zahra et al. 2009; Pirson 2012; Rahdari et al. 2016). Sustainable value creation occurs when value is created for all sustainability dimensions simultaneously and integrating individuals and societies with both economic and noneconomic benefits (Shepherd and Patzelt 2011; Jolink and Niesten 2015).

Institutional innovation deals with market-based and social innovations. Market-based innovation witnesses superior ecological and social products and services replacing the conventional, unsustainable ones preceding those (Schaltegger and Wagner 2011). This had led to the emergence of socially and environmentally friendly technologies, including wind, solar power, and other renewable energy and clean technologies. Social innovations deal with radical corrections of societal infrastructure as well as new social arrangements, which are not just good for society, but also increase society’s ability to act on these arrangements.

Finally, scaling effects range from small niches to large institutional impacts. Small scale effects usually are limited to local or niche effects found in pockets of society and in niche markets, such as finding employment for people with disabilities by recycling office furniture (Hockerts and Wüstenhagen 2010). Conversely, a large scale effect witnesses a wide diffusion of sustainability solutions on a massive scale, such as an energy transition in Germany, microfinancing in Bangladesh and beyond, or the sustainability transformation of an industry (Yunus et al. 2010; Hansen and Schaltegger 2013). Some literature focuses on the upscaling of sustainability solutions, from niche to large effect. These articles frame the scalability from single entity’s effects for sustainability and a joint scaling with multiple new and existing ventures on entire markets as a co-evolutionary process (Hockets and Wüstenhagen 2010; Gibbs and O’Neill 2014; Schaltegger et al. 2016; Gasbarro et al. 2017).

Sustainable Entrepreneurship and the SDGs

The SDGs cover a wide range of sustainable development issues, including social advances (e.g., eliminate poverty, end hunger, reach gender equality, ensure healthy lives, and well-being), environmental protection (e.g., access to clean water, climate-neutral energy, and protection of life on land and the oceans), while promoting fair economic development, cooperation, peace, and prosperity as part of a positively transforming world (UN 2015). In order to achieve substantial transformations of these SDGs on a global scale, every nation, institution, organization, and individual must play its part. Entrepreneurial individuals and ventures with sustainability in its core value proposition may thus provide the stimulus for disruptive innovation and radical solutions to reverse the unsustainable trends of production and consumption, and move economies and societies closer towards reaching the SDGs (Hockerts and Wüstenhagen 2010; Gasbarro et al. 2017).

By introducing and communicating the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations have operationalized the abstract vision of sustainable development with a set of goals resulting from a multinational, multistakeholder participatory process. Although these goals are based on major global problems of unsustainability associated with negative situations and developments, they represent a broadly tangible set of objectives and desirable outcomes towards which nations and companies can create “positive” contributions. The UN SDGs thus translate the sustainable development vision into areas of action that may be appealing to sustainability innovations and entrepreneurs (Schaltegger et al. 2018b).

While the SDGs provide contextual foci for contributions to sustainable development, they are difficult to achieve with single actors and linkages and possible trade-offs between different SDGs must not be overlooked. Various social and sustainable entrepreneurs thus collaborate with multiple stakeholders, including major corporations, to create more encompassing and socially accepted solutions as well as to scale up necessary social and ecological innovations on a global level (Zahra et al. 2009). Given the complex and intertwined character of the UN SDGs, collaboration becomes a key characteristic of sustainable entrepreneurship (Schaltegger et al. 2018b), which may also be represented in the seventeenth SDG highlighting the promotion to participate in achieving the goals. From an institutional perspective, sustainable entrepreneurs can join forces with major nongovernmental organizations, such as Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund, to encourage political discourse supportive of reaching the SDGs (Meek et al. 2010; Shepherd and Patzelt 2011).

Recent Contributions

In recent years, sustainable entrepreneurship has focused on several major trends, including transformative outcomes of sustainable entrepreneurship via value creation, institutional transformations, and co-evolution, as well as logic hybridization.

Sustainability-oriented value creation shifts the concentration of conventional wealth generation to the inclusion of additional sustainability aspects (e.g., social value creation). This includes a mix and triple bottom line approach. Mixed value creation combines one additional sustainability aspect to wealth creation, combining either ecological-economic aspects or social-economic aspects, also known as “shared value creation” in the social context. Furthermore, balanced or triple bottom line value creation considers the value creation of all sustainability aspects simultaneously, and integrating these with economic and noneconomic benefits (Shepherd and Patzelt 2011; Jolink and Niesten 2015; Muñoz and Cohen 2017).

Sustainability-oriented transformations observe two distinct movements, including the transformation of institutions and the co-evolutionary process. Transforming institutions means changing the “rules of the game,” such as industry norms, regulatory laws, property rights, and market signaling (Pacheco et al. 2010). It also observes transforming conditions embedded in broader socio-economic constraints, reducing social and economic disparity, and boosting the overall quality of life on multiple levels – individual, economy, and society (Meek et al. 2010; Divito and Bohnsack 2017).

Co-evolutionary processes observe the competitive and collaborative interactions, including joint efforts between sustainability pioneers and incumbent firms engaging in sustainability improvements of entire markets. Such transformative processes have been witnessed recently in the energy, clothing, and automotive industries (Hockerts and Wüstenhagen 2010; Hansen and Schaltegger 2013, 2016) and are often linked to a transformation of business models (e.g., Schaltegger et al. 2016; Breuer et al. 2018). This literature discusses the move from single entity’s effects for sustainability to joint scaling with multiple new and existing ventures on entire markets as a co-evolutionary process (Gibbs and O’Neill 2014; Gasbarro et al. 2017).

Blending different perspectives has guided the focus on hybridization of organizations (York et al. 2016). To achieve social and environmental goals effectively and in an economic manner, some entrepreneurs have developed organizations with both a nonprofit and a for-profit part of their business which support each other. Logic hybridization focuses on the internal combination of social, ecological, and commercial logics to address sustainability and economic goals. Blended hybridization sets to balance the triple bottom line, where social and environmental objectives have equal precedence to earning profits, which can be found, for example, in “B Corps” (Stubbs 2017). Recent publications reflect the continuing interest of sustainable entrepreneurship research in the hybridization processes in sustainability-oriented ventures, particularly the implications it has for venture development and business.

Future Directions

Based on the classification of sustainable entrepreneurship and related forms of entrepreneurship and sustainability management research is challenged to identify processes, paths, and factors of success towards achieving sustainable entrepreneurship. Research is also needed to further explore successful and unsuccessful practices and how sustainable entrepreneurship could be supported. Is the knowledge and application of certain sustainability management tools used in SMEs (e.g., Johnson and Schaltegger 2015) also helpful to support sustainable entrepreneurship processes? Aside from analyzing case studies and comparing developments under different cultural, social, and policy circumstances, also questions of education, context, and policy design are still not convincingly answered. How can sustainable entrepreneurs be educated and what are the necessary skills and competencies? What contextual factors and circumstances promote and possibly hinder sustainable entrepreneurship? How can sustainable entrepreneurship be supported with encouraging policy and regulatory frameworks? This also provokes the question whether first incremental improvements driven by sustainability management are needed to create the basis for more radical and fundamental sustainable entrepreneurship or whether this actually inhibits such entrepreneurial endeavors.

While the focus has mainly been on single organizations, so far, the interaction between different entrepreneurial processes and actors in a market could been analyzed more deeply. The interplay between macrolevel institutions, mesolevel associations, and microlevel organizations has been addressed in parts for some links but not on a more systemic level addressing interlinkages between macro-, meso-, and microlevels and vice versa. This includes intrapreneurship on the microlevel of the organization where the role of single actors and groups in changing an organization has not been analyzed empirically in much depth. Similarly little research exists so far on examining the entrepreneurial approach of bringing actors together in networks (so-called “interpreneurship”) in order to foster sustainability transformations of markets and society.

Another topic which needs deeper investigation is how mergers and acquisitions of sustainable pioneers by large incumbents need to be managed to maintain the entrepreneurial spirit in the pioneering organization and how the incumbent can learn and transform towards sustainability. Sustainable entrepreneurship continues and expands in merger and acquisition cases only if the sustainability pioneer can influence the large company after acquisition.

A major area of research is in the linkage between innovation management and sustainable entrepreneurship. As innovations are key to sustainable entrepreneurship, new designs like open innovation processes and stakeholder involvement in innovation management become an important field of analysis. This goes along with the search for new innovative forms of ecopreneurship as well as social and sustainable entrepreneurship and the examination of why they occur and are successful in some industries and national markets, whereas they do not or barely exist in other industries and markets.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Sustainability Management (CSM)Leuphana University LüneburgLüneburgGermany
  2. 2.Faculty of Business, Economics and Social SciencesUniversity of HamburgHamburgGermany

Section editors and affiliations

  • Edurne A. Inigo
    • 1
  1. 1.Business Management & Organization, Social Sciences GroupWageningen University and ResearchWageningenThe Netherlands