Sustainability standards have proliferated widely in recent years but their legitimacy remains contested. This paper suggests that sustainability standards need to cope with an important but unexplored paradox to gain legitimacy. While standard setters create low entry barriers and requirements for adopters so that standards can diffuse quickly and achieve a status of cognitive legitimacy, standards also need to ensure that adopters create high levels of impact, thereby acquiring moral legitimacy. While the need for diffusion and impact occurs at the same time, they cannot be achieved simultaneously. 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 for diffusion and impact. We outline five response strategies that standard setters can use to tackle the diffusion–impact paradox and illustrate our theoretical considerations through a detailed case study of the UN Global Compact. Our paper advances scholarly understandings on how sustainability standards gain legitimacy and sheds light on the complex and inherently paradoxical nature of legitimacy. We derive implications for the literatures on sustainability standards, legitimacy, and paradox management.
- Sustainability standards