The Meta-Governance of Voluntary Sustainability Standards

By Prof. Dr. Pieter Glasbergen (Maastricht University), Boudewijn Derkx
02:40 PM, July 08, 2015

Related tags

VSS, Governance, , Standards

There has been a surge in the popularity of the private standards-setting approach to social and environmental governance in recent decades. A single economic sector may now literally feature dozens of competing voluntary sustainability standards. Emerging gradually as a result of the uncoordinated efforts of various independently operating (coalitions of) actors, the rise of voluntary standards-setting has been largely spontaneous and unplanned. The resulting system of governance is generally characterized by the absence of strategic linkages between the various standards initiatives. Although this multiplicity does have its advantages, the relatively uncoordinated coexistence of multiple competing schemes also results in an unnecessary duplication of efforts and may undermine the stringency of standards programs, lead to consumer (and producer) confusion and skepticism, and exacerbate third-party concerns regarding the credibility and legitimacy of (private) voluntary sustainability standards and certification schemes.

Overall, although degrees of multiplicity and fragmentation differ considerably across the sectors and issue areas that have been subject to voluntary standards-setting, the negative consequences of fragmentation have considerably hampered the effectiveness of the voluntary standards-setting approach to sustainability governance. One way to analytically approach the search for solutions to this fragmentation is grasped with the relatively new concept of “meta-governance.” Loosely defined as “the organization of self-organization” or “regulation of self-regulation,” the meta-governance concept refers to an indirect form of governing that is exercised by influencing various processes of self-governance and is aimed at enhancing coordinated governance in a fragmented regulatory system.

In political science, meta-governance has mainly been attributed to governmental authorities. However, since the start of the millennium, a number of voluntary standards setters have – with or without the support of UN agencies – started to address the need for meta-governance as well. Their efforts generally entail the coming together of a number of frontrunner schemes and the organizations backing them to jointly address the challenges that their self-created regulatory systems face and produce greater coherence among their efforts.

The reality of private meta-governance

Although the private meta-governance concept can also be used in other contexts, we use it here to draw attention to a fairly narrowly defined set of goal-directed and collaborative efforts aimed at enhancing coherence in the voluntary standards landscape. Specifically, we look at the coalitions of private standards initiatives and the organizations backing them that have come together in a number of different fields to explore opportunities for mutual learning and closer cooperation, agree on benchmarks for convergence, and develop mechanisms for furthering such convergence.

Arguably the most ambitious and high-profile instances to date of such meta-governance have been orchestrated in the realms of sustainable tourism, organic agriculture, fair labor, and voluntary standards scheme credibility, more generally.

Global Sustainable Tourism Council
The tourism industry harbors more than 100 (mostly small) sustainability certification programs, most of which work with their own standards and sets of certification procedures. In 2007 the United Nations Foundation, in collaboration with a number of large private-sector partners, convened the Partnership for Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria to develop a set of baseline criteria to come to a common understanding of how sustainable tourism can be defined and operationalized. Concluding an extensive consultation process, the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria were officially launched in October 2008, after which the Partnership turned to develop educational materials and technical tools to promote awareness and guide implementation of the criteria. In 2010 the Partnership merged with another meta-governance effort – a coalition working to establish a global accreditation system for sustainable tourism standards initiatives – to form the Global Sustainable Tourism Council (GSTC). Combining the efforts of its predecessors, its key tasks are to manage and periodically revise the Criteria and to launch and operate an accreditation system. The Council also engages in a number of other work streams aimed at championing the business case for sustainable tourism (certification), creating a realizable market incentive, and developing a variety of education and training materials to facilitate the transition to sustainable tourism practices.

International Task Force on Harmonization and Equivalence in Organic Agriculture
In addition to more than 100 different private standards and conformity assessment bodies (which actually have been fairly well-coordinated due to the influence of the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) umbrella organization), the organic agriculture sector also counts a gradually increasing set of (mandatory) government regulations and accreditation systems. In 2003, IFOAM, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, and the UN Conference on Trade and Development jointly convened the International Task Force on Harmonization and Equivalence in Organic Agriculture (ITF) to develop efficient mechanisms to overcome the trade barriers arising from the many different standards, technical regulations, and certification requirements that function in the sector. Bringing together a large group of stakeholders in the field – including governmental, intergovernmental, civil society, and private sector experts – the ITF developed minimum baseline requirements for organic certification bodies and a tool for regulators and private standards setters to use when establishing and recognizing the equivalence of other standards with their own. The ITF’s successor, the Global Organic Market Access project (GOMA, 2009–2012), has taken up the stewardship, promotion, and implementation of these outputs, as well as facilitating concrete regional initiatives for cooperation on harmonized standards development and equivalence determination.

Joint Initiative on Corporate Accountability and Workers’ Rights
In addition to numerous company-specific codes of conduct and industry initiatives, there are six key civil society and multistakeholder organizations regulating labor practices in the apparel industry. In 2003, these six organizations established the Joint Initiative on Corporate Accountability and Workers’ Rights (JO-IN) to reduce duplication of efforts and jointly identify best practices. Following extensive negotiations, they developed a consensus reference code of labor practices combining the provisions of their six standards. In an attempt to come to a joint understanding as to the optimal design of a code implementation system, they also conducted a trial project – in cooperation with multinational buyers, factories supplying these brands, trade unions, NGOs, and industry and employers’ associations – exploring the effectiveness of different approaches to the implementation and enforcement of this code “on the factory floor.”

International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance
As a membership-based association uniting leading private standards organizations from across different sectors, the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL) is the first major meta-governance initiative operating at the level of the private standards-setting system as a whole, rather than working with standards initiatives targeting one particular sector or sustainability issue. Aiming to promote private standards as effective governance mechanisms and credibly establish its members as frontrunners in their respective fields, the majority of ISEAL’s work programs revolve around the development, implementation, and stewardship of internationally applicable good practice guidance on the implementation of credible standards systems. The most high-profile examples of this have been the Codes of Good Practice it developed for standards setting, impact assessment, and compliance assurance (certification and accreditation). As well as serving as benchmarks that standards organizations can refer to when developing or improving their systems, these codes also provide third parties with a means to differentiate credible standards initiatives from their less credible counterparts. ISEAL has also developed and shared good practice guidance in a number of other areas of relevance to its members, including accreditation, auditor competence, the accessibility of certification for developing-country producers, and the governmental use of voluntary standards. Furthermore, ISEAL engages with members to develop common policy positions and serves as an advocate for the voluntary standards movement in the wider policy environment.

These four cases illustrate some of the characteristics that instances of this particular brand of private meta-governance have in common.

• Rather than ad hoc processes of cooperation, all four cases show examples of institutionalized and formalized collaboration – if not as autonomous arrangements, then at the least as sustained platforms for collaboration with their own formalized structures.
• Instead of relying on top-down hierarchical controls, these are all bottom-up processes of voluntary collaboration. In the absence of private actors with sufficient authority over the other standards initiatives in their fields to effectively orchestrate meta-governance unilaterally, these private meta-governance efforts all feature genuine cooperation between multiple standards initiatives.
• As the decision to jointly pursue convergence invariably precedes a consensus on the benchmarks around which to converge, these private meta-governance attempts are all deliberative, sense-making enterprises. Private meta-governance efforts unfold as processes of intensive interaction and communication, in which the involved actors first aim to create a common view in their issue area around which to then pursue convergence.
• These meta-governance attempts are intentional and goal-directed processes of convergence. Although the gathering together of these coalitions of actors pursuing greater coherence may be a gradual process – and the specific convergence goals may not be known from the outset of this process – these initiatives are conscious and deliberate attempts by the actors involved to tackle fragmentation-induced challenges and increase regulatory coherence.
• These meta-governance attempts are transformative; their objective is not only individual change but also, and more specifically, systemic change. The result of the meta-governance should be a new governance model for the issue area as a whole.


Meta-governance in the realm of voluntary sustainability standards can have many different faces, depending on the regulatory context within which it is being pursued and the specific weaknesses in the governance system it aims to address. It can take the form of an internally oriented collaboration between a limited number of like-minded peers (JO-IN), a very inclusive process aiming to bring together and influence a subset of standards initiatives and other stakeholders in a particular industry (ITF, GSTC), or a collaboration between frontrunners from a variety of different fields (ISEAL). Nevertheless, more in-depth study of the four meta-governance ventures briefly outlined above has revealed some general lessons and insights about the politics and practice of meta-governance. We outline six of these below.

1. On the whole, meta-governance initiatives can be seen to concentrate their efforts on two distinct objectives. Firstly, they aim to impose some common goals and priorities on (a subset of the) standards initiatives. These efforts generally involve the negotiation of a common “consensus standard,” which may then be integrally adopted by standards organizations or used as a reference point in standards revisions and the development of new standards. Secondly, meta-governance aims to enhance the capacity of individual standards initiatives to bring about, verify, and reward compliance with these standards. This will often entail the identification and dissemination of best practices with regard to the “technical” dimensions of standards programs, and a more or less deliberately orchestrated convergence around these benchmarks. Such technical aspects may include the legitimacy of the standards-setting process, the design of audit procedures, and mechanisms for tracking certified products along supply chains, capacity-building programs, and many more. In the final analysis, whether implementing content-based or more procedural harmonization, meta-governance efforts are ultimately hoped to enhance the effectiveness with which standards initiatives can improve the sustainability performance of the targeted economic sector(s), either by boosting the gains in sustainability per certified operator or by increasing the number of certified operators.

2. Although one might have feared that when a number of private regulators come together to agree on some kind of common baseline standard or set of procedural guidelines that the outcome of such “negotiations” would merely reflect a lowest common denominator, the meta-governance initiatives studied have (where they managed to come to a consensus) actually developed very strict reference standards. In fact, the meta-governance attempts had to be careful not to be overly ambitious when developing their benchmarks and had to be aware that reference standards that are too stringent may result in a limited response in the issue area.

3. Given their voluntary nature and the lack of capacity for coercive enforcement, meta-governance efforts focus very much on further improving already credible standards initiatives rather than on addressing instances of greenwashing, malpractices, and anti-competitive practices, which also characterize the realm of voluntary sustainability standards. All the case study initiatives attempt to increase the market share of credible initiatives with stringent programs at the expense of their less credible counterparts. By manipulating market dynamics in favor of the “best” schemes, they thus attempt to enhance the overall public interest, legitimacy, and/or goal attainment capacity of the standards fields they meta-govern without having to engage directly with the “weakest links.” In the long term, however, it is hoped that raising the bar for the frontrunners in the field – while simultaneously increasing their efficacy vis-à-vis their less credible counterparts – will inspire a certain “pull” on laggards and the mainstream to also implement (more incremental) improvements.

4. Great importance should be attached to the meta-governance initiatives’ relationship and trust-building dimension and its effects on the potential for future collaboration among those involved. Apparently, given current levels of fragmentation in the voluntary standards field, the need for enhanced relationships, trust, and understanding among the various regulatory actors involved is so big that these secondary effects of meta-governance initiatives are often considered just as important – if not more important – than the actual official outputs these processes generate. Moreover, as well as being an important outcome of the process in and of itself, they are also a prerequisite for meta-governance processes to move forward successfully. Because meta-governance initiatives really do require a certain level of trust, mutual understanding, and a willingness to make concessions, tangible progress is generally slow until a sufficient level of mutual trust and understanding is present. Accordingly, the first meta-governance efforts in a sector are often – to a large extent – about laying the groundwork for future cooperation, and the speed with which meta-governance initiatives progress toward their substantive goals usually increases once this foundation has been established.

5. The regulatory system’s pre-existing level of institutionalization has considerable influence on a meta-governance initiative’s ambitions and effectiveness. It is often easier for a meta-governance initiative to fill a regulatory gap than it is to introduce regulatory innovations that serve to replace or otherwise undermine existing mechanisms or institutions. High levels of institutionalization causes inertia among standards initiatives and tends to do so the most with regard to those aspects of their systems that they consider to be most “defining” of their programs. Still, at the same time, some degree of maturation is necessary, as there is also the risk of launching a full-blown meta-governance effort too early on in the development of the practice of standards setting and certification in a sector. Attempting to orchestrate convergence before a certain foundation of operational standards initiatives and market interest in certification is established will probably result in slow progress and limited initial impacts, and may even undermine the momentum on which the gradual mainstreaming of voluntary standards ultimately depends.

6. Voluntary sustainability standards fields virtually always have strong linkages with (the regulatory efforts of) governments and intergovernmental agencies. Accordingly, the public sector generally has considerable influence over the effectiveness of (even the private) voluntary standards-setting and certification efforts. Although often in the background, in all our cases government or UN funding played a role in stimulating the attempts of meta-governance in the private sphere. Moreover, the involvement of public-sector actors can often play an important role in ensuring that meta-governance indeed enhances legitimacy and public interest. Ultimately, how exactly to balance the public and private sector contributions to meta-governance in a particular realm is in large part dependent on the nature and extent of the linkages between private standards-setting efforts and public-policy mechanisms, the actor constellations in that particular regulatory field, and the relevance of the sector in question to public-policy objectives.

About the Authors
Glasbergen, Pieter

Honorary professor Governance for Sustainable Development, Maastricht University, Emeritus professor Utrecht University and the Netherlands Open University, Chair Maastricht, Utrecht, Nijmegen Programme on Partnerships (

Derkx, Boudewijn

Boudewijn Derkx studied at the Universiteit Utrecht / University of Utrecht

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect CSR Manager's editorial policy.
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