Maintaining Moral Legitimacy through Worlds and Words: An Explanation of Firms' Investment in Sustainability Certification

Melanie Richards, Thomas Zellweger, Jean-Pascal Gond

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A prominent way for firms to manage their moral legitimacy is to invest in sustainability certifications. However, a significant subset of firms remain reluctant to invest in sustainability certifications even decades after the establishment of such certifications. Our paper seeks to elucidate this variance by exploring how firms in the coffee, tea, and chocolate industries legitimise themselves on moral grounds through external communication to stakeholders. Drawing on insights from French Pragmatist Sociology, we suggest that firms primarily rely on two distinct sets of legitimacy principles that reflect their identity orientation: the ‘civic and green’ world and the ‘domestic’ world. Specifically, our results show that reliance on the domestic world is negatively related to firms’ investment in sustainability certifications. Our findings also suggest that the strength of the relationship between these distinct methods of moral legitimising and certification varies depending on whether firms are characterised by first- or multi-generation family control.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)676-710
Number of pages35
JournalJournal of management studies
Issue number5
Early online date28 Nov 2016
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2017


  • certifications
  • first-/multi-generation family firms
  • French pragmatist sociology
  • moral legitmacy
  • sustainability

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