Rival private governance networks: Competing to define the rules of sustainability performance

Timothy M. Smith, Miriam Fischlein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

100 Scopus citations


Private governance of environmental and social performance of organizations, processes and products is gaining prominence in market and policy arenas, and thus, increasingly influencing sustainability outcomes. This study presents a concept of rival private governance where multiple initiatives compete for rule-setting authority. Specifically, we argue that heterogeneous actors organize in network form to establish legitimacy of new sustainability governance fields. In an effort to preempt threats from these new fields of governance, nonparticipating actors create rival private governance networks and compete based on each network's ability to access unique relational assets from participants. Based on the cases of carbon off-set standards, green building rating systems and sustainable forestry certifications, we suggest that this competitive market vetting results in pressures toward the convergence of governance rules over time, but not a single winning set of rules. Our findings illustrate that multiple and competing networks can provide innovative, legitimate and dynamically evolving governance of sustainability, while presenting new challenges for public and private sector actors.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)511-522
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
In the U.S., the U. S. Green Building Council (USGBC) emerged in 1993 with support from key individuals of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Rocky Mountain Institute, a small group of architects, builders and construction engineers, and federal funding through the National Institute for Science and Technology and the Department of Energy. Initially, USGBC pursued the development of its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) building rating system through two national standard bodies, the American Society for Testing and Materials and the American National Standards Institute. However, the time consuming due process driven consensus requirements of standards development proved to be problematic for USGBC, as stated by co-founder David Gottfried, “a single dissenter with ample funds and time could put things on hold virtually forever” ( Hart, 2009 , p. 8). Therefore, the LEED rating system, launched in 1998, was introduced independently from the national standard bodies and through a process explicitly excluding the largest dissenters from participating - industry trade associations. In addition, while LEED referenced other well established standards within their system, they also chose not to incorporate the leading green building system at the time, BREEAM. Over the coming decade, USGBC would grow to more than 10,000 members, expand into 24 additional countries, and certify more than 1462 projects ( USGBC, 2008 ).


  • Carbon credits
  • Environmental certification
  • Environmental governance
  • Environmental standards
  • Green building
  • Private governance
  • Sustainable forestry


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