, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 91-119

The diffusion of environmental management standards in Europe and in the United States: An institutional perspective

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Abstract

ISO 14001, released in 1996, provides the basic framework for the establishment of an Environmental Management System (EMS) that can be audited and certified. ISO is not only an acronym for the International Organization for Standardization, but is also a term that refers to its Greek meaning: ‘equal.’ The main rationale for the creation of ISO 14001 was that its worldwide acceptance should facilitate international trade by harmonizing otherwise diffuse environmental management standards and by providing an internationally accepted blueprint for sustainable development, pollution prevention, and compliance assurance.

However, the implementation of ISO 14001 varies significantly across the globe. A significant number of firms have adopted ISO 14001 in Western Europe and Asia. In December 1999, 52% of the 14,106 ISO 14001 certified facilities were located in Western Europe and 36% in Asia. On the contrary, very few American companies have adopted this voluntary standard. U.S. certified facilities accounted for only 4.5% of the total of ISO 14001 certified facilities in the world in December 1999.

The U.S. institutional environment seems acting as a deterrent to ISO 14000 adoption as U.S. companies are fearful of the certification process which lays their performance open to public scrutiny. The opposite is true in Europe, where governments have encouraged the adoption of environmental management standards by setting up a trusted certification system and providing technical assistance to potential adopters.

This paper offers a conceptual framework to analyze this variation in adoption rates. It is proposed that the regulatory, normative and cognitive aspects of a country's institutional environment greatly impact the costs and potential benefits of ISO 14001 adoption and therefore explain the differences in adoption across countries. The analysis is supported by data collected from a phone questionnaire to 140 firms in Europe and a questionnaire mailed to 152 firms in the U.S.