Chance or genius?: A garbage can exploration of the institutionalisation of sustainability reporting in the Netherlands

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In this study I have analysed the institutional trajectory of Dutch sustainability reporting using the lexicon of the garbage can model and its emphasis on the independent existence, and occasional simultaneity, of a multiplicity of participants, problems, and solutions around choices. Exploring this model within an institutional perspective suggests the importance of so-called historical contingencies and collective institutional entrepreneurship. To be sure, I do not claim that institutionalisation and change necessarily resemble a garbage can. Rather, this lens makes it possible to analyse a phenomenon from a different angle and thus functions as a sensitizing tool that allows us to see things differently and stresses often neglected aspects. It highlights historical contingencies, collectivity and the importance of serendipity, timing and context rather than the relatively neat and teleological assumptions of institutionalisation and change prevalent in many studies. This enabling role of chancelike contingencies opens up space for institutional work of a plurality of actors. Whereas I do not deny the importance of strategic and intentional actors, I reduce their importance and add to the mix the influence of the oftentimes uncoordinated activities of a wide range of actors.

Taken together, a first contribution of this study is that it has challenged the assumption of intentionality and purpose present in many institution entrepreneurship studies (Czarniawska, 2009). This has made them look overly linear and mechanistic (Blackler & Regan, 2006). By drawing on the garbage can model I have highlighted the importance of historical contingencies for processes of institutionalisation and change (see e.g. Aldrich, 2011; Czarniawska, 2009) arguing they are not teleological deterministic processes. As we are hard wired to connect means and ends and assign purpose to events, sometimes justly so, integrating the assumptions of the garbage can more explicitly in institutional accounts asks us “to give up a tidy world in which problems imply solutions over which participants exercise choice, and to replace it with a world in which participants, problems, choices, and solutions each have the capacity to connect to any of the others” (Cohen et al., 2012: 22). This study has made a start with that by stipulating the importance of historical contingencies and suggesting their role as a possible enabling factor of institutional change. This may enhance our understanding of institutionalisation and change, in particular in the case of pluralistic practices linked to complex social problems in relatively emerging, uncertain and heterogeneous fields where cause-effect relations remain unclear.

A second, related, contribution is that I offer an empirical account of more collective distributed agency (e.g. Delbridge & Edwards, 2008; Dorado, 2005; Wijen & Ansari, 2007) that challenges the individualised portrayal of agentic institutional actors. The garbage can lexicon provides an insightful framework for analysis as it highlights the collective aspects and how boundedly rational as well as temporally and contextually constrained actors muddle through the institutional trajectory. I have specified the considerable complexities of an institutional process over the course of more than two decades and shown the multiplicity of actors involved and the related changes in choice moments involving various problems and solutions. The garbage can thus provides a potentially insightful instrument in unpacking the various aspects that can help to explain the collective action involved in many complex institutional processes over time and how this process combines unintended actions with more strategic work in the wake of changes in the constellation of the field.

This research provides several opportunities for future research. First studies could usefully investigate the relation between institutional theory and the potential of integrating garbage can thinking into existing models in more detail. Studies could look at enabling factors. For instance, it could be helpful to compare the potential of the garbage can in various fields. For example, mature vs. emerging fields, heterogeneous vs. homogenous fields or lowly institutionalised vs. highly institutionalised ones. As briefly discussed, it could be expected that depending on the nature of the field integrating garbage can thinking into institutional analyses holds more or less promise. Similarly, the nature of what gets institutionalised may also affect the appropriateness of using a garbage can inspired analysis. Practices that are more or rather less complex or differences in degrees of contestation may be interesting facets. Second, an interesting avenue for further research could be to compare the usefulness of the garbage can for different phases of institutionalisation. That is, can we expect to see differences when comparing creating new institutions, maintaining existing ones or destructing old ones. Third, both institutional studies as well as garbage can theorising are relatively silent about issues of power and politics. Institutional processes include power inequalities and political considerations though and neither do garbage can processes happen in a power vacuum. Appreciating and further unpacking the power dimensions of both processes may provide interesting research opportunities. This could in particular be helpful in peeling down the interplay between institutional actors and how problems and solutions get defined and/or chosen and thus exactly how the interplay between problems, solutions, choices and collective actors takes shape.

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Table 1 Overview of interviewees

Actor group

Number of interviewees

Actor group

Number of interviewees

Public sector


Reporting firms


Civil society




Investment community


Professional services firms


Table 2 Overview of data sources

Type of data

Detail of source


Data analysis

Interviews with field informants

Interviews with firms, civil society, investors/raters, consultants, accountants, policy officials, academics.

94 interviews (approx. 100 hours)

Transcribed interviews, analysed and coded the material. Through iterative analysis of data and literature the garbage can model surfaced and the data was analysed along its main tenets

Secondary material

Newspaper articles of Dutch press, consultancy reports, NGO studies, government legislation and reports; investor statements

3100 pages

Contextual reading, field familiarization, background for interviews. Enhanced credibility and further validation of interpretations

Table 3 Summary of sequence of events

Time period




Choice opportunities

Environmental management systems



Civil society/NGO’s



Lack of trust

No access to firm data

How to improve environmental monitoring/control?

How to generate revenue?

Showing care through management
Publicly available data
Management system

New regulation and/or tools to consult on

Introduction EMS

Reporting aspect of EMS

Conducive climate for EMS

Introduction EMS

Crisis and emerging( soft) law






Firms unaccountable for degradation environmental
State and NGO pressure; legitimacy and trust issues
Lack of transparency and compliance
Financial consequences of sustainability aspects

Reporting legislation

Reluctant start with reporting

Legislation on reporting
Transparency of firms CSR risks

Agenda 21 and Environmental Protection Act
Threat of legislation and Brent Spar

Environmental Protection Act

Brent Spar

Politics, emerging guidelines and luck







How and what to report?

Vacuum of authoritative reporting guideline

Which CSR have financial impact?
How to get more revenue?
What is CSR?

Support for guidelines
Developing guidelines

Corporate transparency

Guidelines as a tool to consult on
Publication of report

SER report and GRI

Zeitgeist for reporting asking for direction

Accounting scandals

Introduction GRI and SER report

Request for report

Further mainstreaming of reporting




Ministry of Economic Affair

How to show you are doing well on sustainability?
How to generate revenue?
How to improve transparency cheaply?

High position on rankings, awards etc.
Consulting on benchmarks
Transparency Benchmark

Introduction of benchmarks, rankings, indices.
Introduction of benchmarks etc..
Political pressure

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