Issue opacity and sustainability standard effectiveness

Frank Wijen, Mallory Flowers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


Many voluntary sustainability standards govern opaque environmental and social issues, which are difficult to understand and address. Extant studies show mixed evidence around the effectiveness of such standards. We develop a theoretical framework that relates different degrees and types of opacity to standard effectiveness. Systemic opacity results from issues embedded in complex, diverse, and dynamic settings, whereas behavioral opacity stems from human challenges in interpreting and acting upon focal issues. Rigid sustainability standards, oriented toward compliance, are effective for addressing issues that are transparent or enshrouded by behavioral opacity, but are counterproductive for issues with systemic opacity. The trade-off between rigidity and flexibility leads to optimal effectiveness when standards governing systemically and behaviorally opaque issues are moderately rigid. Our ideas are illustrated with two leading sustainability standards in the fisheries and real estate sectors, which effectively address transparent issues but show limited success when facing opacity. We conclude that unpacking issue opacity is instrumental in designing and implementing more effective sustainability standards.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)772-790
Number of pages19
JournalRegulation & Governance
Issue number3
Early online date18 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are grateful to the insightful guidance by Editor Eva Thomann and three anonymous reviewers throughout the process. We also value the constructive suggestions in early stages by Thijs Geradts, Elisa Giuliani, Verena Ohms, and Patrick Reinmoeller.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors. Regulation & Governance published by John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.


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