The Legitimacy of Sustainability Standards: A Paradox Perspective

Patrick Haack, Andreas Rasche

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaperResearchpeer-review


Sustainability standards have proliferated widely in recent years but their legitimacy remains con tested. This paper suggests that sustainability standards need to cope with an important but unex plored 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, stand ards also need to ensure that adopters create high levels of impact, thereby acquiring moral legiti macy. While the need for diffusion and impact occur at the same time, they cannot be achieved sim ultaneously. 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.
Original languageEnglish
Publication date2021
Number of pages44
Publication statusPublished - 2021
Event37th EGOS Colloquium 2021: Organizing for an Inclusive Society: Meanings, Motivations, and Mechanisms - Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands
Duration: 8 Jul 202110 Jul 2021
Conference number: 37


Conference37th EGOS Colloquium 2021
LocationVrije Universiteit
Internet address


  • Legitimacy
  • Sustainability standards
  • Paradox
  • Diffusion
  • Impact

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