Purpose. The rising food demand around the globe goes hand in hand with the rapid development of the agriculture industry. However, this development at the same time has detrimental effects on the natural environment. Hence, promoting ecological strategies in agriculture is essential for environmental sustainability. This study aims to investigate the institutional determinants of ecological strategies adopted by agricultural exporting firms and how these strategies enhance the firms' competitive advantage and financial performance. Design/methodology/approach. A survey was conducted to collect data from 218 managers of agricultural exporting companies in Vietnam, which is a major exporter of agricultural products. The data were analyzed using different techniques including partial least squares structural equation modeling (PLS-SEM). Findings. The results reveal that market pressure, regulatory pressure and competitive pressure motivate the adoption of ecological strategies among the surveyed agricultural exporting firms. Furthermore, such strategies help these firms obtain competitive advantage, which in turn increases their export financial performance. In addition, larger firms, compared to smaller firms, are more likely to adopt ecological strategies. Originality/value. This study contributes to the literature by developing and validating a unique model examining the institutional pressures of ecological strategies and their outcomes in export markets. The study extends current knowledge about ecological exporting strategies for agricultural products, and its findings have several managerial and policy implications for promoting these strategies among agricultural exporting firms in emerging countries like Vietnam. © Emerald Publishing Limited.