While stakeholders have long been at the forefront of sustainable development debates, the emphases have tended to be on different stakeholder pressures, or managing stakeholder expectations about controversial issues. In this paper we bring a fresh direction to these debates and ask in what ways different stakeholders can contribute to sustainable innovation in firms. Based on 80 semi‐structured interviews, we conduct a fine‐grained qualitative analysis of stakeholder activities in sustainability‐oriented innovation (SOI) processes in 13 different companies across Europe. Our analysis identifies eight roles that stakeholders play in SOI processes: stimulator, initiator, broker/mediator, concept refiner, legitimator, educator, context enabler and impact extender. More traditional roles such as legitimator and educator are less common in our cases. However, emerging roles such as stimulator, concept refiner, context enabler and impact extender are clearly identifiable and could be particularly valuable for SOI. We enhance a collaborative perspective of stakeholder theory, finding that stakeholders can play highly collaborative and proactive roles, and argue that secondary stakeholders may actually be more relevant for SOI than primary stakeholders.
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