The Legitimacy of Sustainability Standards: A Paradox Perspective

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This conceptual paper discusses the diffusion-impact paradox of sustainability standards. While standards need to diffuse quickly to create perceptions of success and inevitability (cognitive legitimacy) and hence often have incentives to set low entry barriers, they, at the same time, also have to ensure that participants do not greenwash and create high levels of impact (moral legitimacy). We unpack this paradox and show that its salience for standard setters differs depending on (a) the growth trajectory of a standard and (b) the perceived intensity of the demands underlying the paradox. Based on this, we outline five response strategies that standard setters can use to cope with the paradox. We illustrate our theoretical remarks through a detailed case study of the UN Global Compact. Our arguments contribute to the literature on sustainability standards as well as the scholarly discussion of legitimacy in the context of socioenvironmental governance.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the Eighty-First Annual Meeting of the Academy of Management
EditorsSonia Taneja
Number of pages6
Place of PublicationBriarcliff Manor, NY
PublisherAcademy of Management
Publication date2021
Article number43
Publication statusPublished - 2021
EventThe Academy of Management Annual Meeting 2021: Bringing the Manager Back in Management - Online, Virtual, Online
Duration: 29 Jul 20214 Aug 2021
Conference number: 81


ConferenceThe Academy of Management Annual Meeting 2021
CityVirtual, Online
Internet address
SeriesAcademy of Management Proceedings


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