The art of recontextualisation: How firms make sense of the European ecolabel


  • Johanna Richter
  • Tobias Kirchhoff



 The globalisation of markets and gradual depletion of natural resources not only gave rise to fiercer competition, but also emphasised the need for sustainable production processes and business solutions (Golden, 2010, p. 10). Initially, legislators sought to tackle environmental issues by directly regulating the market through command-and-control instruments such as hard law, albeit with mixed success (Jordan et al., 2003, p. 562). The main criticism of command-and-control mechanisms lies in the fact that these often undermine a firm’s competitive advantage (p. 564). As a response, legislative instruments have taken on a more market-based character, developed as a result of negotiations between policy makers, scientific experts, non-governmental organisations (NGO) and firms. The soft-law approach is considered more effective as it better reflects the interest of a firm; however, its environmental benefits remain a matter of debate (Iraldo, Testa, Melis & Frey, 2011, p. 213). The European Union (EU), one of the leading economies in the world, adopted such a market-based policy instrument in shape of the EU ecolabel. The ecolabel was created as a voluntary scheme motivating firms to produce environmentally friendlier products and services (European Commission, 2011b). The label is awarded to a wide array of products, however, only if – after careful examination – they have met the ecological criteria agreed upon at the EU level (Locret & de Roo, 2004, p. 3). Besides the protection of the environment, ideally this approach also creates trust for the consumers and a competitive advantage for the firm (European Commission, 2011b). While at the EU level various stakeholders standardise criteria to ensure their widespread applicability for many economic sectors and products, the national competent authorities (NCAs) have to interpret the legislation in such a way as to ensure their practical use at the local level. Subsequently, firms that apply for the ecolabel have to re-interpret the legislation and adapt their resource selection, production, and distribution accordingly. This process – in this chapter referred to as the recontextualisation of standards – creates a tension between the European and the local level.


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