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Abstract

Over the past 30 years, organizations of many different kinds have introduced environmental preoccupations into decision-making, engaging with – and in many cases co-constructing – a striking array of rankings, best practices, standards and other governance tools. However, there has thus far been surprisingly little exploration of the evolving normative implications of environmentalism: existing organizational research treats environmentalism as a static, uniform and quasi-naturalistic phenomenon. In this article, we argue instead that environmentalism is fluid and multifaceted, evolving over time to produce differing conceptualizations that become affiliated with – and mobilized by – particular groups of actors. Using the theoretical framing of path generation, we identify how environmentalism follows a path characterized by episodes of re-conceptualization and re-labelling, a discursive evolution reflecting incremental yet consequential interactions with other institutional paths. We engage in a conceptual history to identify junctures where environmentalism meets with other institutional trajectories, facilitating shifts in meaning. We identify moments of crookedness in the transnational environmental path that are symbolically reflected in label changes – from the emergence of “sustainable development” in the 1980s, to “sustainability” in the 1990s, and more recently, an offshoot towards “resilience”. Those label changes are not only, we propose, symbolic markers but are also performative and entrench consequential regime transformations with regard to environmentalism. Through our exploration, we contribute to theory development while also generating empirical implications: theory-wise, we identify mechanisms of path generation that inform broader debates around path dependence. Empirically, we illustrate how different variants of environmentalism are connected to specific meaning systems, exhibiting affinity with different organizational fields.

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