Are voluntary standards really a form of environmental governance?

I have been reading studies, articles and such for years that describe voluntary standard systems (VSS) as a form of environmental governance – and for just as long I have been wondering if that really is the case.

The term ‘governance’ is very broad can include governments (national, state, provincial, county, municipal, etc…) and civil society (businesses, not-for-profits, charities, unions, churches, universities, partnerships, informal collaborations, the girl scouts, etc…).

I am a bit biased, I guess... I think of 'governance' as a role that includes a measure of direct control. This is informed by my experience as a member of several boards of directors and having worked directly for boards. The governance role of a board is focused on setting a direction and making sure that it is the goal of the organization. (Boards also have a budget and legal compliance role but let's put that aside for now.)

Most of the time when we hear the term ‘governance’ we think of a decision-making body that can create and enforce a policy, rule or regulation. As a result, most people do not think of voluntary or optional systems a form of governance because it lacks the capacity to compel compliance.

Since I am not a lawyer, I will skip over any musings on how legislation and regulation come to be; I will just focus on the voluntary side.

Standards are not legislation or regulation (see my earlier post “Conformity vs. Compliance”) although they can be easily confused. 

Voluntary standards are normally developed to codify norms of practice, that is they are designed to create specific outcomes, whether it is a common screw thread for bolts and nuts or how to manage watersheds.

Once they are developed, voluntary standards are either become the common practice or they are ignored. Those that become common practice create a new norm and nuts of a certain size all fit bolts of the same size. (These are the ones that can 'feel' like they are mandatory.) Those that are not adopted, fall by the wayside or sit in limbo until they are needed, if ever. The ‘decision’ is made in the market, and competing standards are used by different players until one is the clear winner. As a result, VHS became the norm despite the obvious superiority of Betamax (I know, I am showing my age now….)

Voluntary standards establish the norm by competition in the market. Winners and losers are not often clear because the winner may be selected for reasons that are not clear at the start.

A new norm, widely accepted may have the effect of regulation because once it becomes the new norm it is hard to use some other option, and have it accepted. Sometimes these other options can arise and disrupt the accepted norm, and then things change.

Well, what does this mean for a new standard system? I would see this as an opportunity to look at competing standards in the past and really understand why some succeeded and some failed. Shelves are full of standards that were rarely used (I should know because I spent lots of time writing some of them). Also, for every successful standard there are many competing ideas that were discarded.

I have my own ideas about why some succeeded and others fail. But that may just have to wait for a future post.


A NOTE: Yes, I agree that some governments adopt standards as regulation, effectively making them law in some jurisdictions. I consider these standards to have become regulations since they then have the force of law – they are no longer voluntary, even thought they were originally developed outside of legislatures and government departments.