Claims about resource sustainability abound in business communications. Yet, little do we know about how such claims are enabled amidst ongoing controversy of industrial and organizational benefits. Here, we propose to approach these claims through the concept of organizational sustainability identities (OSIs), which are claims serving as sustainable identifiers, and whose meanings are co-constructed by stakeholders. We assess how a new voluntary sustainability standard (VSS) of the metals industry is driven by a mission to enable an OSI for the product of its members, such as that their metal ‘is’ ‘responsible’, and how the members attain this through the structural conditions set by the new scheme. We present an exploratory case study that is based on data from a content analysis of standards texts and thematic analysis of stakeholder interviews. We find that VSS enable OSIs through a) an advanced performance rationale, b) the creation of a community of practice, c) members' perceptions of altered power relations among value chain stakeholders, and d) the facilitation of a platform to keep defining the ‘responsible metal’. We contribute to the discussions of VSS emergence and their effectiveness, for which we highlight the prolificness of the OSI concept and introduce a novel comparative method of provision type analysis to capture the developments of performance rationales.
Claims about natural resources ‘being’, for instance, ‘responsible’ abound as a part of the public relation strategies of contemporary business. Examples of such claims are descriptions of metals as ‘green’, ‘eco-friendly’, ‘responsible’, or ‘sustainable’. The making of such claims usually presupposes that businesses follow practices understood by stakeholders to represent a state-of-the-art for social and/or environmental engagement (Tröster and Hiete, 2019). There is also widespread acknowledgement that claims about the responsible nature of business result from negotiations and contestations between stakeholders (Azevedo, in press; Frostenson et al., 2022; Hatch and Schultz, 1997, 2002; Kennedy et al., 2012; Kouamé et al., 2022; Levy et al., 2016; Scott and Lane, 2000), while such claims affect an organization's strategy and legitimacy building (Huemer, 2010; Napier et al., 2023). What is further noteworthy is that there has been a change regarding the foci of such claims; from an emphasis on major upstream resource producers to a value chain perspective that includes also downstream processors and traders (Bleischwitz et al., 2012; Deberdt, 2022; Liu et al., 2022; Mancini et al., 2021; Sauer and Seuring, 2017; Tröster and Hiete, 2019). Yet, what has remained so far underexplored is the role of mediators among stakeholders, such as voluntary sustainability standards (VSS), in the enabling of claims of ‘being’ ‘responsible’ of natural resources, and how that enabling role constitutes the added value of a new VSS for its adopters.
In this article, we approach the phenomenon of claims about metals ‘being’ ‘responsible’, and their enabling by VSS, through the conceptual lens of organizational sustainability identities (OSIs). OSIs are a recent emerging concept within management and organization studies (Bouncken et al., 2022; Frostenson et al., 2022; Hamilton and Gioia, 2009; Imbrogiano and Steiner, 2022), that directs scholarly attention to the understanding of ‘sustainable’ ‘being’. OSIs are presented as a positive state of an organization regarding perceived or actual environmental or social effects of operations or products (Imbrogiano and Steiner, 2022). OSIs are thus focused on the organizational level, yet also apply to statements about a state of ‘being’ of an organization's product(s), as these statements principally serve to respond to questions about ‘Who are we as an organization?’ or ‘(As) Who do we want to be (seen) as an organization?’ (Albert and Whetten, 1985; Gioia et al., 2000). As we will highlight in this study, VSS are indispensable for metals ‘being’ (seen as) ‘responsible’. While VSS and reasons of their emergence have been studied from multiple angles in the governance literature, their centrality in providing the grounds to enable ambiguous OSI claims has not yet been raised.
This paper set out to explore how VSS enable the use of OSIs for business communication, in spite of a diversified field of already existing standards with a similar portfolio of sustainability ambitions. Our study of a new VSS in the metals industry reveals four structural conditions that enable OSIs: the support for industry stakeholders in creating a community of practice; the perceived alterations of power relations within the value chain; the promotion of a renewed performance rationale for the sustainability ambitions of the industry; and the provision of a discursive platform that supports the ongoing translation of OSI into business practices. These findings are important for any new attempt of VSS emergence, as leaving one of these structural conditions apart could undermine the effective establishment of OSIs for industry.
The nature of our study also provides opportunities for researchers and practitioners to revisit and expand its findings. Firstly, due to this research being focused on a singular case, there is value in taking a broader look at the continuing fragmentation of VSS in the metals and other industries. Secondly, we have focused our analysis of stakeholder perceptions and experiences mainly on the context of European businesses of the metal value chain. Samples with more intercontinental representation, or foci on other regions of the world, could add further novelties to apprehending standard emergence and their OSI enabling role amidst crowded standard fields, as well as the dynamics these amidst public pressure. Thirdly, in terms of the interpretation of the data, we remained concentrated on the data and its applicability to the MSS case in the analysis of stakeholder perceptions. Regarding the findings of changing performance rationales and MSS constituting a discursive platform for the industry, there are potential opportunities in taking rather sociological perspectives on the creations of OSI meanings for sustainable development and the altering of performance rationales globally (Imbrogiano, 2021). Lastly, we see also, a need for ethnographic insights on VSS emergence, as such observer and participant accounts are scarce (e.g., Hopkins and Kemp, 2021), yet it would help us further in understanding the internal dynamics behind the formulation of provisions, their implementation, and verification of OSIs.