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3.1.2 Discussing Sustainability Within and Between Institutional Fields

Traditionally, legitimacy research fits into one of two distinct groups: the strategic approach or the institutional approach (Suchman 1995). The institutional approach is interested in entire fields or sectors of organizations (e.g., all professional sports leagues). Studies based on the institutional approach investigate how sector-wide structural dynamics generate cultural pressures that go beyond a single organization's purposive actions. This approach downplays managerial agency and manager–stakeholder conflicts, focusing instead on societal or sector-level changes. The pattern of values and priorities in a particular institutional field influences the behaviors of managers and employees (Lammers 2009). This approach directs us to investigate how organizations address the environmentally related legitimacy challenges most relevant to their institutional field and how the institutional field's focus may shift over time.

WasteCap Nebraska and Institutional Change WasteCap Nebraska was developed by the Lincoln, NE, business community when, in the early 1990s, a federal law required communities to have an integrated solid waste management plan. WasteCap served as a liaison between businesses and recyclers to ensure fair and equitable services. Over time, business waste management plans became institutionalized and organizations with WasteCap's original goals were no longer needed. Today, the organization's services include providing education, assessment, and certification services to about 100 paying business members. Carrie Hakenkamp, the organization's executive director, explained how her organization was reinventing itself:

We've really been trying to define our role and who we are and what role we are going to play in sustainability. We determined that really what we do is look at sustainability through the lens of waste—wasting resources, wasting time, wasting energy, wasting water, wasting. Looking at it through the lens of waste gave us our starting point on what we intend to address.

Several theories can help us understand the WasteCap situation. Population ecology theory (Hannan and Freeman 1977) and resource dependence theory (Pfeffer and Salancik 1978) both focus us on how organizations must adapt to changing conditions in their institutional fields as well as in the broader institutional environment. Both have been important theories in guiding our understanding of macro-organizational phenomena since the 1970s. Population ecology scholarship investigates issues related to an organization's life cycle (i.e., birth, growth, and mortality) and the power of external forces. Salimath and Jones (2011) review the population ecology literature from 1996 to 2010 and explain the theory's implications for sustainability. They argue that population ecology theory suggests a focus on sustainability (in business practice and strategy) may lead to the formation and survival of new companies and industries, while unsustainability may lead to the demise of companies, if not industries. Both theories are appropriate when looking at institutional fields and legitimacy. The population ecology theory informs us that regardless of how legitimate a single organization is perceived to be, if its industry does not adapt to changes in the broader environment, that organization will fail unless it moves away from industry norms. Resource dependency theory helps us understand how critically important it is that an organization effectively communicates its legitimacy to powerful stakeholders and how organizations working together can shape the normative discourse.

Institutional beliefs and processes penetrate and transcend particular organizations, often through the process of institutional isomorphism. They become part of the taken-for-granted normative systems people rely on (Lammers 2009). Much of an organization's structure is a symbolic reflection of external forces (e.g., laws governing pollution, market forces promoting more sustainable products, reactions to reporting guidelines) (Meyer and Rowan 1977). Organizations incorporate institutionalized rules or rationalized myths which represent what is taken for granted as appropriate conduct or which symbolize rationality and progress either within their organizational field (i.e., same industry, same sector) or in the broader society. For example, we see this occurring as all the professional sports league commissioners made commitments to environmental stewardship and began actively encouraging their league teams to incorporate eco-efficiencies and other sustainability-focused initiatives into their operations (Henly et al. 2012).

Institutional isomorphism includes three types: coercive, normative, and

mimetic. Coercive isomorphism occurs when the change is due to new laws or rules. For example, in 2005, the Arkansas legislature passed a law that directed all new or major renovations of state-owned buildings to be built to the USGBC LEED standards or the Green Building Initiative Green Globes system—a law which dramatically influenced building construction on my campus. Illustrating how coercive isomorphism spreads, in 2008, a similar law was passed in South Dakota. With normative and mimetic isomorphism, organizations have agency or the ability to self-direct their actions, meaning that they may decide not to adopt sustainability initiatives similar to other organizations in their institutional field. Normative isomorphism occurs when the change is in response to new norms associated with a professionalization process (e.g., professional accreditation). For example, since the LEED certification procedure began in 1998, as of June 2013, 187,428 people had attained LEED professional accreditation and currently over 4.3 million people live and work in LEED-certified buildings, numbers which are steadily growing. Finally, mimetic isomorphism occurs when organizations imitate influential and successful organizations. It can occur unintentionally (e.g., through employee transfer) or explicitly (e.g., through trade associations or consulting firms). Modeling can lead to further innovations as organizations imperfectly imitate others.

Tyson Foods and Mimetic Isomorphism As Tyson Foods prepared to write their first sustainability report, they benchmarked against Procter and Gamble, Weyerhaeuser, Dow Chemical, and Johnson & Johnson. “We looked at different entities in American business. We went to Cincinnati and met with Procter and Gamble's sustainability team back in 2004 to learn 'How did you get into this?' Because they had already been into [sustainability reporting] 12 or 14 years by then,” Kevin Igli, Senior Vice President and Chief Environmental Health and Safety Officer at Tyson Foods, Inc., told me. Now companies contact Tyson Foods viewing them as a role model in sustainability reporting. Kevin said:

Sustainability has to be unique to your organization and you should not allow too much outside influence on what it means to you.. .and your culture. You are going to get plenty of input and plenty of criticism from the outside. You want to invite outside thought at some point but when you are originally in the incubator stage you have got to tie it to the core values of who you are. If you don't you are going to make a big mistake. It really has to be about your organization.

Given the pressures toward isomorphism, researchers have investigated how some organizations can transcend regulative and normative expectations to establish innovative practices which ultimately result in changes at the level of the institutional field. Walls and Hoffman (2013) investigated influential factors including the skills and the experience of an organization's board of directors and the pressure on an organization to conform to institutional norms. Innovation was more likely when the board members had varied backgrounds, which included dealing with environmental issues, and the organization was on the periphery of its institutional network (i.e., not tightly connected with similar or related organizations).

 
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