Sustainability Standards - a knowledge-based, transnational perspective

Annika Surmeier

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis


This thesis addresses the question how private standards can promote sustainable development processes within Global Value Chains (GVC) and Global Production Networks (GPN). Voluntary standards have gained in importance in addressing social and environmental concerns in the global economy. By translating the abstract concept of “sustainability” into formulated rules and organisational practices that can be implemented at the firm level, standards have the potential to drive organisational change and enforce sustainable management practices (Barrientos & Smith, 2007; Nadvi, 2008). However, most sustainability standards are still developed in the Global North and the influence of actors from the Global South in standard setting processes remains limited (Fransen, 2012; Ponte & Cheyns, 2013). Empirical research revealed that when standards are not embedded into local institutional contexts, their legitimization and implementation is often hindered (Dannenberg, 2008; Nadvi, 2008), and many violations of private standards have been observed (Ponte, 2012; Bair, 2017). In tourism, additional challenges for standard setting result from the integration of customers within this service industry. As it is difficult to standardize social interaction processes, most sustainability standards in tourism focus on the environmental dimension of sustainability (Font & Harris, 2004). How to develop sustainability standards with a focus on the social dimension of sustainability that adequately address local and global concerns and promote sustainable development processes in the global economy is currently underexplored. With the aim to address this research gap, the thesis applied a novel approach. Conceptually, micro level approaches from innovation studies and organisation theory were integrated into the research on GVCs and GPNs to enhance the current understanding on how the development path of a standard influences its intra- and inter-organisational impacts and implementation within GVCs/GPNs. Empirically, the focus was put on South African tourism and the case of the sustainability standard “Fair Trade in Tourism”. This case was chosen due to a number of reasons: Firstly, it focuses on the social dimension of sustainability with the large majority of its criteria being social criteria (Spenceley & Seif, 2007). Secondly, as opposed to most other sustainability standards the FTT standard has been developed by actors from the Global South (Mahony, 2007). Thirdly, the FTT standard has a high reputation in the global tourism industry. Methodologically, a longitudinal case study approach with a mixed-methods design was employed to analyse the time-spatial development path of the “Fair Trade in Tourism” standard. The findings of the thesis underline the multi-scalar nature and the important role of combinatorial knowledge dynamics within the evolutionary development paths of sustainability standards. The creation of innovative, context-adapted sustainability standards requires the collaboration of various public and private actors from different institutional contexts and spatial scales. Knowledge combination within these processes is a complex issue, and many barriers have to be overcome. Bridging not only geographical but also relational distances (Boschma, 2005) and the integration of symbolic knowledge bases (Asheim, 2007) was essential to develop context-relevant standards that can be embedded into multi-layered place-specific institutional environments, and concomitantly address global concerns for sustainable development processes within GVCs/GPNs. The findings further illuminated the important role of a special type of organisation, knowledge-intensive intermediaries, in mediating between the interests of various actors across borders and scales. These actors contributed to gradual transformative institutional change within place-specific institutional environments and were able to bring in Southern actors’ demands into transnational and global standard setting processes.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Philipps-Universitat
  • Strambach, Simone, Supervisor, External person
Publication statusPublished - 2018

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Global Development Institute


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