Category Archives: Issues

Sustainability’s Infrastructure

Ethnographies of the global value chain of certified tea (SUSTEIN)

By Hannah Elliott, Martin Skrydstrup and Matthew Archer.

Why SUSTEIN?

Currently, the world’s tea industry is on a race with time to source tea sustainably before 2020. But what is “sustainable tea” and how do we know if tea is sustainable or not? This project entitled SUSTEIN (SUStainable TEa INfrastructure) will focus on this question by way of looking at localized translations of transnational sustainability standards in Kenya, United Arab Emirates and corporate headquarters in Europe. We aim to advance our understanding of the global value chain of certified tea.

3 Research lines

The theoretical objective is to venture beyond the notion of global value chain by reinterpreting sustainable supply chain management through the concept of infrastructure, a notion anthropologists and other social scientists have deployed in recent years to emphasize the political and temporal aspects of networks such as transnational supply chains. We hope that this concept will allow us to better comprehend how sustainable certification schemes manifest in global value chains.
SUSTEIN consists of three sub projects, which each address a core question posed by the project:

  • How does certification shape agrarian production in the form of cultivation and factory processing, and vice versa? Who benefits from which sustainability standards? (Line A)
  • How does certification influence the valuation of tea, assessed in terms of taste, grade and price? How is the value of certification performed and capitalized? (Line B)
  • How do corporate professionals and independent auditors distinguish between “sustainable/unsustainable”? What lines of evidence are recognized? (Line C)

Each of these questions will be answered by the corresponding research line:

tea plantation
Tea plantage in Kericho; one of SUSTEIN’s field sites.

Research line A

explores agrarian questions, enquiring into the ways contemporary drives towards sustainability shape and are shaped by modes of tea production in Kenya. The research focuses on the institution of the tea plantation and its associated factories and outgrower farms, all key components of the infrastructure of sustainable tea. The tea plantation has been described as having a “dual character” (Besky 2008: 1); it has its roots in British colonialism while being contemporarily positioned in international markets for certified sustainable commodities.
This research line enquires into what ‘sustainability’ comes to mean and materialises within this apparently contradictory setting. How do contemporary measures seeking to ensure sustainable tea production? Such as certified standards affect the way tea is produced in the context of the plantation? And to what extent do longer-standing modes of plantation production endure through the present, in turn shaping contemporary sustainability ideologies and practices? The research line addresses these questions through ethnographic inquiry. They are spending time with the people working on tea plantations and in factories certified by different certification bodies and on the farms of outgrowers contracted to supply the companies owning plantations with supplementary sustainable tea. Through interviews and participant observation, the ethnographer will enquire into the social, political and ethical worlds surrounding sustainable tea production in contemporary Kenya.

Research line B

will follow through on the plantation and factory sites to the auction sites in Mombasa and Dubai. Ethnographic fieldwork will be conducted in the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai with no tax regulations, no strict labor laws nor import/export duties, making it the perfect infrastructural hub to blend and pack tea according to corporate logic. Likely as an outcome of this, the Dubai Tea Trading Centre has since its establishment in 2005 risen to re-export 60% of the world’s tea production. These volumes are predominantly traded on virtual platforms.
In contrast, the Mombasa Tea Auction holds two weekly auctions under the auspices of the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA), which conforms to national regulations (Tea Act of Kenya & Tea Board of Kenya). Recently, this auction site voted “against the mouse and for the hammer,” maintaining the tradition of the Dutch auction style vs. virtual trading. The ethnography for this research line will move between these two sites, following tea blenders who purchase in Mombasa vs. Dubai and investigating tea expertise and technologies as it pertains to the valuation of certified tea.

Research line C

builds on these ethnographies of production and exchange to try and understand the relationship between corporations and standards/certification regimes. There is a tension between these groups of actors whereby standards organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade International need to appear independent in order for their certifications to remain credible while at the same time remaining sensitive to the financial obligations of for-profit corporations in order to promote “buy-in.”
This research line will draw on interviews with people working in these organizations and participant observation at sites where they interact, including industry conferences and trade fairs. These are the sites where sustainability is negotiated as both a concept and as a set of practices. With that in mind, interview questions will focus on, among other things, the extent to which specific agricultural and trading practices are integrated into broader definitions of sustainability and their manifestation in different certification regimes, the challenges of maintaining a critical distance between certifiers and corporations, and the way standards govern markets and, crucially, vice versa.

The grant

SUSTEIN is made possible by the Sapere Aude Starting Grant (meaning “dare to know”), awarded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (DFF). The Sapere Aude program “is aimed at younger, very talented researchers, who at the time of the application deadline and within the last eight years have obtained their PhD”. The Sapere Aude program targets “top researchers who intend to gather a group of researchers, in order to carry out a research project at a high, international level.”

Reference

Besky, S. (2008) ‘Can a plantation be fair? Paradoxes and possibilities in Fair Trade Darjeeling tea certification’. Anthropology of Work, XXIX: 1, pp. 1-9.


Hannah Elliott is a post-doc in the Department of Management, Society, and Communication at Copenhagen Business School, having recently finished her PhD at the University of Copenhagen. She is responsible for research line A.

Martin Skrydstrup is an associate professor in the Department of Management, Society, and Communication at Copenhagen Business School and is the principal investigator of SUSTEIN. He is also responsible for research line B.

Matthew Archer is an assistant professor in the Department of Management, Society, and Communication at Copenhagen Business School and is responsible for research line C. He recently completed his PhD in environmental studies at Yale University and is interested in corporate sustainability and sustainable finance.


Closing remarks

In a year we hope to update BOS readers about how far we are with answering our research questions. In the meantime, we invite you to swing by our offices at Dalgas Have for a cup of tea.
The SUSTEIN project runs from 1 July 2018 to 30 June 2020.
For further information about the project, please contact the principal investigator, Martin Skrydstrup, at msk.msc@cbs.dk.

Raising the bar for sustainable events

By Louise Thomsen

How often do we as event coordinators ask ourselves: how can I minimize the plastic use, the waste, the paper? I could also reverse the question and ask: Could we imagine a smarter, more efficient and even more inspiring new way to host events?

Copenhagen Business School hosts a significant number of conferences and other events throughout a year and all carry the opportunity to be managed more sustainably. But, what makes an event sustainable? In June, the Sustainable Consumption Conference hosted by the VELUX Endowed Chair in Corporate Sustainability at CBS became the first pilot conference for implementing sustainable initiatives at a bigger event at CBS.

Hosting events is a wasteful affair

We all know exactly what to expect when attending a conference. You receive a name tag when you register, which you usually throw in the waste bin when you leave. You get a plastic bottle of water, and when you are done with that, or even before you are done, you get another one. You get the conference programme and the participant list which you look at a couple of times before that goes into the waste bin. Often printed in colour.

Now, imagine attending a conference with no plastic bottles, no paper, no meat, and no food waste. Imagine, how this conference would increase the level of awareness, communication and engagement between the participants and the hosts. And ignite fruitful discussions because we would realize, how much we can actually achieve with little changes in our everyday lives.

Sustainability taken to new heights

On June 27-30, more than 200 scholars and policy practitioners participated in an international conference on sustainable consumption at Copenhagen Business School, The conference topic Sustainable Consumption naturally raised the question how a sustainable conference could look like at Copenhagen Business School? No attempt at all to satisfy the conference’s title would be more than hypocritical.

In order to make sure that the sustainability initiatives implemented at the conference were the most sustainable solutions and had a high impact factor, the conference organizers allied themselves with a group of students from the Danish Technical University (DTU) who were doing a course on Life Cycle Assessments.

The students received 2 cases

  1. How should the conference supply water?
  2. How should the conference be catered?

Over the course of 4 months, the DTU student teams collected data from CBS and carried out life cycle assessments taking into account various impact factors such as production, transportation, use and disposal etc. Based on the results, all conference meals were vegetarian, and all conference participants received one glass bottle that could be filled from water dispensers throughout the entire conference.


The conference participants also received information about the sustainability initiatives that they could expect prior to the conference. The findings from the life cycle assessment were communicated on posters and on the back of the staff t-shirts. All conference staff engaged with the participants and assisted with water bottles and waste sorting. Furthermore, the conference participants were continuously encouraged to share feedback and discuss the attempts made with each other and the staff.

Implemented sustainability initiatives at the Sustainable Consumption Conference

  • Each conference participant received one reusable glass bottle, which replaced single-use plastic bottles for the distribution of water throughout the conference.
  • Every meal served at the conference was vegetarian, reducing the environmental impact of the conference’s catering by 44% compared to meat-based meals.
  • Participants were asked to sort their waste throughout the conference, using designated bins for paper, plastic, food, and general waste.
  • The conference was largely paperless. Programs and other general information were made available in ways that reduced the need for paper, such as printed posters and an app with, among other information, the timetable.
  • The lanyards for name tags were made from recycled polyester, and both name tags and lanyards were collected for reuse after the conference.
  • Food waste was minimized by asking participants to give notice in advance about which meals they were going to participate in, and any leftover food was brought to a nearby centre for homeless people.
  • All conference staff wore a sustainable and organic cotton t-shirt with key sustainability messages on the back.

Invitation to a learning journey

When hosting an event at CBS, you are in touch with many different stakeholders who have procedures on how to efficiently meet requests on catering, waste handling, or cleaning. This means that it must be a collaborative effort if you want to change the existing structures. Engagement and communication are key.

We should not get carried away by the belief that the easiest solutions to implement will necessarily be the most impactful or more environmentally significant than our starting point. There is a big difference between solutions that carry a high degree of reducing CO2-emissions (real impact), and solutions that have the purpose of creating awareness. Both aspects are highly important. However, we should be aware of when we spend resources on one or the other and communicate this clearly.

I want to invite you to think about how we can improve our ecological footprint when we host events at CBS and elsewhere. As you will soon learn, there is no such thing as a “sustainable event”. However, there are well-founded decisions and much to learn if we dare to ask the question:

How can we raise the bar for sustainable events?


Louise Thomsen is Project Manager for CBS PRME and the VELUX Chair in Corporate Sustainability at the Department of Management, Society and Communication, CBS. Louise is focused on implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals in an university context through student engagement. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Save the date: 29 August, 15 h, Dalgas Have, Copenhagen Business School.

Creating a whole conference to have a significantly reduced amount of waste, use of paper and plastics is a big challenge. But many people also wonder, what they can do as individuals to limit climate change, if there is anything at all.
This issue is treated in another edition of the Sustainability Seminar Series at the department of Management, Society and Communication at CBS.

For more information and sign-up click on “What Can the Individual Do to help Limit Climate Change?”.

Feeling the Pain

By Robin Porsfelt.

While the recent US ’opioid crisis’ has been widely reported, a second, less recognized, crisis related to opioids has been taking place, and is still ongoing, more quietly in countries with less Western media visibility. Whereas the crisis in the US is arguably related to an over-subscription to opioid-based pain relief, such as OxyContin, the second crisis could rather be seen as a case of too tightly regulated access to opioids in health-care systems. This is at least the argument of a recent report commissioned by The Lancet which proclaims that the world is experiencing an under-management of pain where as many as 25 million people are suffering partly as a result of regulatory and cultural approaches to the use of opioids.

Severe lack of access

The report was the result of a three-year study on the integration and access of pain relief and palliative care in health systems. It opens with a succinct description of the problem: “Poor people in all parts of the world live and die with little or no palliative care or pain relief. Staring into this access abyss, one sees the depth of extreme suffering in the cruel face of poverty and inequity” (Knaul, Farmer & Krakauer et al, 2017: 1).

Those suffering from lack of access to adequate medication are predominantly found in low-income and middle-income countries, often with terminal illnesses, and includes approximately 2.5 million children dying with, what the report terms, ‘serious health-related suffering’ each year (Knaul, Farmer & Krakauer et al, 2017: 2). Of the almost 300 metric tons of morphine-equivalent opioids distributed annually, only 0.1 metric tons reach health systems in low-income countries. This is something the report’s authors condemn as: “a medical, public health, and moral failing and a travesty of justice” (Knaul, Farmer & Krakauer et al, 2017: 1).

Addiction and pain relief

But what are the reasons for this state of potentially unnecessary suffering? In contrast to many other debates on access to medication, the problem is in this case not predominantly related to questions of scarcity, costs, or tightly enforced intellectual property rights to drugs, but rather a mix of cultural and regulatory factors. There are (at least) two factors that explain the pattern: One is a lack of visibility due to fragmented patient advocacy and exclusion of pain alleviation from standard measures of health. Another key factor is that opioids do not only fall under the scope of medical regulation but are also controlled substances under international drug conventions (Ibid.).

As substances such as morphine are listed and regulated as narcotic substances by the UN, they become part of a machinery of international checks and balances on their flow, including import quotas and reporting requirements. The UN treaties are based on two imperatives, on the one hand the limitation of harmful and addictive substances, and on the other hand to secure access to medically vital analgesics.[1] In recent decades, the war on a drugs-compatible first imperative of strict control has become increasingly dominant, making such medication harder to access (Knaul, Farmer & Krakauer et al, 2017: 8).

A second related issue suggested by the report is ‘opiophobia’, described as prejudice and misinformation concerning medical use of opioids. Whereas a balanced approach to opioid prescriptions is needed, a prevalent fear of non-medical use and its side-effects among health-care providers, regulators, and patients have led to an underestimation of needs and insufficient medical use in many countries (Ibid.).

What’s to be done

Even though this inequity in pain relief is indeed under-acknowledged, potential solutions should at least, in theory, not be gridlocked by economic interests. As morphine and morphine-like medication is cheap to produce and commonly used in Western medical systems, the problem is rather about framing and contesting stigmatization. While acknowledging the risks with a too laissez-faire approach, there is a need to recognize the value in a controlled medical use of opioids to avoid unnecessary suffering as well.

A way to do so, as the report highlights, would for instance be a broadening of the third Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on ensuring healthy lives and well-being for all. Currently, the battle against substance abuse is covered in the SDG target 3.5, a step forward however would be to include pain alleviation and access to pain relief as similarly essential objectives – for instance as part of SDG target 3.8 on universal health coverage. As a measure, this is of course not enough, but at the current stage, and given the documented ‘abyss’ of equity in pain treatment worldwide, simply diagnosing the issue as problematic per se would to some degree seem like progress.

 

[1] A member of a group of drugs to achieve analgesia, i.e. relief from pain. (editor’s note)

References

Knaul, F. M., Farmer, P. E., Krakauer, E. L., et al. (2017). Alleviating the access abyss in palliative care and pain relief––an imperative of universal health coverage: The Lancet Commission report. Lancet. DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32513-8


Robin Porsfelt is a PhD fellow at the Department of Management, Society and Communication. He is part of a PhD cohort on time and societal challenges, with particular research interests in the sociology of valuation and global governance

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

“Publish or Perish”

by Luisa Murphy

In academia -especially for young researchers- there seems to be only one way to the top: publish frequently and in well-regarded journals. This pressure however may sometimes come at the expense of academic quality. As with other things, good research sometimes just needs time. Unfortunately, infrequent publishing might be followed by less recognition, and funding might be more difficult to obtain in the short-term. Eventually, one might lose the opportunity to move up the career ladder. In a nutshell: Publish or perish.

The pressure of frequent publishing

My experience is that the phrase seems to ignite a range of emotions from rage to acceptance among academics. This can be a conversation starter or something that inevitably comes up in conversation. The dilemma is also at the epicenter of different symposia, conferences and other scholarly debates. The woes of the publish or perish dilemma are manifold. To name a few, ‘salami slicing’ e.g. taking one idea or dataset and reusing it in various papers, disillusionment with the publishing process and lack of creativity. Yet, few researchers investigate the publish or perish dilemma and why it endures (de Rond & Miller, 2005). In essence, is it the publish or perish dilemma that is the problem, or are we?

Below, I briefly introduce the birth of ‘the publish or perish’ dilemma and then delineate a few points on what I call the short-term pleasure dilemma of the publish or perish dilemma. I conclude with a few questions to consider what a ‘publish or perish’ free world would look like. I suggest that paradoxically, we might enjoy the publish or perish dilemma because it provides short-term gratification in a long-term context. In this age of publish or perish, I should note that I am by no means a gratification theory scholar and raise these questions based on my own personal experiences in academia for further research purposes.

To publish or to perish

The idea behind the publish or perish dilemma is often traced back to two studies by the Carnegie and Ford Foundations in the mid-1950’s which looked at the state of business education in the US. The findings of the studies deplored the lack of intellectual relevance and dynamism, analytical prowess and lack of high quality journals in organization sciences (de Rond & Miller, 2005, citing Gordon & Howell, 1959, pp. 355, 379). As a result, research which had been on the backburner compared to teaching endeavors became the hallmark, or at least of equal significance, to teaching in academic organizations (ibid). The idea also traveled to Europe with similar studies conducted in the UK and France in the 1960s and 70s and has since spread like wildfire globally. In essence, with the prevailing publish or perish idea, there has been a focus on publishing in top-tiered peer reviewed journals, citation impact factors and tenure rewarded as a result of publications. This has led to the criticism that scientific quality e.g. innovation and intellectual inquiry has come at the expense of publishing expeditiously to move up the career ladder. One example of these costs is the phenomena of “rogue publishers” or journals which offer to publish (often younger scholars) at a fee thereby abusing the peer-review system.

Short-term gratification?

Taking this into consideration, I suggest some areas that require further research (to do at another time due to the publish or perish dilemmaJ) which suggest that the publish or perish system endures because it provides short-term gratification in a long-term academic game.

Publishing frequently

While it has been argued that publishing frequently comes at the expense of originality and innovation, academics also cite deadlines such as paper calls and conferences and the review process itself as means to work through ideas and enable them to come to fruition. This suggests that there may be some short-term gratification that results from publishing often as opposed to waiting years for a high-quality idea to emerge and be published. On the contrary, if the idea might not amount to something publishable, the review process may be a way to root it out. Clearly, the inverse is also true e.g. that great ideas and theories are obviously not developed in a day but short-term gratification might be attained from delivering frequent outputs.

Publishing in top-tiered peer reviewed journals

Publishing in top-tier peer-reviewed journals has been a source of great contention as many argue that the process forces publications into certain conversations and might prize certain discourses, that the metrics which rank journals are problematic and that the peer-review process itself is rife with transparency, bias and time allocation issues. Yet, publishing in top-tiered journals also provides scholars with a sense of pride, inclusion into an academic conversation and sense of accomplishment. Again, there seems to be a sense of short-term gratification related to publishing in top-tiered peer reviewed journals: scholars develop a certain prestige, are able to network and communicate with others in the community and use a yardstick to measure their progress. Given that senior scholars do not need to prove themselves to the same extent that junior scholars do, it can be argued that gratification might be more of a short-term benefit.

Moving up the career ladder

Publishing frequently and in top-tiered peer reviewed journals is the ticket to advancing in academia. But once you move to the top, there is likely less gratification received from publishing in top-tiered journals and publishing frequently. Therefore, it is likely more gratifying in the short-term to publish frequently and in top-tiered journals because they can lead to career advancement.

The short-term publish or perish pleasure dilemma or an alternative?

Taking these factors into consideration, the question remains as to whether this short-term gratification is at the expense of the long-term. This raises the question as to what the alternative would look like. Presumably, it would involve publishing less frequently, in journals of the author’s choice and using other metrics for evaluation. What do you think? Is this what the new generation of academics should strive for or should we continue to play the game and enjoy the short-term gratification / pleasure dilemma like eating a Snickers bar?

 

Reference

De Rond, M., & Miller, A. (2005). Publish or Perish: Bane or Boon of Academic Life? Journal of Management Inquiry, 14(4), 321-329.


Luisa Murphy is a PhD Fellow at Copenhagen Business School and supported by the VELUX Endowed Chair in Corporate Sustainability. Her research examines governance for anti-corruption. She brings a human rights and business background from the University of Oxford and legal experience from the Antitrust Division of the United States Department of Justice.

 

Photo by Simson Petrol on Unsplash.

A framework for assessing the potential of behaviour change for global decarbonisation

By Kristian Steensen Nielsen

Addressing climate change requires an urgent implementation of far-reaching solutions. Policy-makers and natural scientists have mainly offered supply-side solutions to solving the climate problem, such as widespread adoption of new or innovative technologies. While of critical importance, strictly prioritising supply-side solutions is unlikely to deliver the necessary greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reductions within the desired time frame. An often-overlooked demand-side solution is behaviour change, which can offer both immediate and long-term reductions in GHG emissions.

There is an urgent need for rapid decarbonisation to reduce the magnitude of climate change. The Paris Agreement reflected this urgency in its formulation of ambitious goals to keep the global temperature increase below 2°C and preferably 1.5°C. Since the Paris Agreement, researchers—often affiliated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—have with accelerated frequency been building scenarios for potential pathways to reach the temperature goals.[1] These far-reaching—and arguably radical—pathways involve urgent transitions to renewable energy sources and the majority assumes the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) technologies, such as afforestation or bio energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). Neither of the pathway scenarios take behavioral changes into account despite the fact that studies have shown its potential to reduce GHG emissions. For example, Thomas Dietz and colleagues (2009) found that a national implementation of behavioural changes in the United States could reduce U.S. households’ direct emissions by 20% within 10 years (representing 123 million tons of CO2). Although not sufficient single-handedly, behaviour change can help speed up the decarbonisation of societies.

 

Three dimensions of behaviour change

To identify the potential of behavioural changes to reduce GHG emissions, it is critical to consider three dimensions[2]:

  1. the technical potential (TP) of a behaviour, or the emissions reduction achieved if an individual or a target population collectively adopted the behaviour;
  2. behavioural plasticity (BP), or the proportion of the technical potential achievable through the most effective behavioural interventions; and
  3. feasibility of initiatives (IF) to induce change, which refers to the likelihood that the most effective interventions are achievable within a target population.

Focusing exclusively on either of the three dimensions will result in skewed analyses from which only imperfect interventions can be developed. For example, substituting a GHG-intensive behaviour with a less GHG-intensive alternative (e.g., flying to Bermuda on vacation versus vacationing in one’s own country) will promise a high TP but the extent to which people are willing to make such a behavioural substitution may be less promising (BP) and so might the feasibility of achieving the behavioural change across a large population (IF). Conversely, a behaviour could be easy to change (e.g., getting people to shut off lights in unoccupied rooms) and feasibly be implemented in a large population, yet hold a very low TP and therefore even in the aggregate fail to reduce emissions by much.

Identifying the most promising target behaviours

The task of researchers (across disciplines) in collaboration with policy-makers and companies is to identify the behaviours with the highest potential to reduce GHG emissions while considering all three dimensions in cohesion. Making such calculations is no easy task—as the dimensions may vary substantially between and within countries—but neither is adopting innovative technologies at a massive scale. However, focusing on both supply- and demand-side solutions will heighten the likelihood of achieving the Paris goals.

[1] Rogelj et al., 2018.

[2] Dietz et al., 2009; Vandenbergh & Gilligan, 2017.

 

References

Dietz, T., Gardner, G. T., Gilligan, J., Stern, P. C., & Vandenbergh, M. P. (2009). Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences106(44), 18452-18456.

Rogelj, J., Popp, A., Calvin, K. V., Luderer, G., Emmerling, J., Gernaat, D., … & Krey, V. (2018). Scenarios towards limiting global mean temperature increase below 1.5° C. Nature Climate Change8(4), 325.

Vandenbergh, M. P., & Gilligan, J. M. (2017). Beyond Politics. Cambridge University Press.


Kristian Steensen Nielsen is a PhD Fellow in environmental behaviour change at Copenhagen Business School. His research interests are self-control, behaviour change, and environmentally significant behaviour.

 

Pic by Duncan Harris, Flickr.

The not-so-sharing economy

By Attila Marton

With the rise of Airbnb and Uber into the elite club of Silicon Valley superstar firms, the sharing economy has become an accepted business concept and social practice. Apart from the fact that sharing economy platforms (SEPs), such as Airbnb and Uber, are very savvy in playing labelling games (most of them have little to nothing to do with actual sharing), they are also very savvy in purposefully blurring established institutional boundaries and categories – most prominently, categories of employment and labour. By facilitating the “casual participation” of private individuals as users of their services, SEPs can gain significant advantages over well-established incumbents as they disrupt mature markets and labour structures as well as challenge long-held wisdoms of how to organize the creation and distribution of value.

It’s a thing now

The sharing economy is here to stay. Although, it is not yet clear whether the sharing economy will turn out to be as big a thing as the hype surrounding it suggests. Just to give some indicative numbers; The Economist estimates that the consumer peer-to-peer rental market is worth $26 billion, McKinsey predicts that the sharing economy will rise to $335 billion in revenues by 2025. In Denmark, 10% of the population has participated in the sharing economy in some form, while the Danish government announced a sharing economy strategy. At least it is safe to say that the hype is real and so are the expectations for high returns on the investments made into sharing economy platforms.

Something new, something old

The sharing economy, in its contemporary digitally platformed version, is the result of the confluence of three developments:

  • The rise of access-over-ownership as consumers are increasingly okay with paying for services and servitised products rather than to buy stuff. Streaming services, such as Netflix and Spotify, are telling examples. When we say access-based consumption or on-demand economy, we typically refer to this development.
  • The rise of peer-to-peer networks, which allow for direct inter- and transactions between peers coordinated by trust and reputation mechanisms. Think eBay and YouTube – typical examples of what we sometimes call the peer-to-peer economy or collaborative economy.
  • Allocating idle resources in order to tap into privately owned resources (assets and labour) and to promote more economical and sustainable use of resources as a result. Examples are IKEA’s second-hand campaign or renting out idle storage space via sharemystorage.com. Terms such as collaborative consumption and circular economy typically refer to this notion.

None of these developments is, of course, new nor exclusive to the sharing economy. Clans have been sharing food and tools since the dawn of humanity. Donating blood peer-to-peer has been around for at least half a century and the allocation of idle resources in brick-and-mortar second-hand shops even longer. The same applies to digital varieties of these practices; sharing files or selling/buying peer-to-peer online have been around since the 1990s (eBay was founded in 1995, Napster in 1999, Wikipedia in 2001). What is new is how these developments come together under specific technological, economic and cultural circumstances.

Mature technologies of automation enable private individuals to casually participate in economic activities as they self-service on dedicated platforms, which run automated matchmaking algorithms. Network effects attract larger groups of participants, increasing the economic value of those platforms (and of the corporations owning them). Thus, the coordination of casual participants has become a highly profitable business model. Culturally, these developments have become socially acceptable and appropriate as the new narrative of the Web 2.0 propagates “sharing is caring” and a general fascination with technological wizardry.

Four generic types of sharing economy platforms

An important outcome of above developments is that established institutional categories are becoming blurred, and static boundaries are becoming fluid. SEPs purposefully utilize these fluid boundaries to their advantage – be it between firms and markets (are Uber drivers employees or self-employed?), between internal and external resources (Airbnb hosts bring their own assets and have all the risks), and between private and business spheres (participants monetize and commodify their private life into assets), to name but only the most important examples. In our research (with Ioanna Constantiou, Dept. of Digitalization, CBS, and Virpi Tuunainen, Dept. of Information and Service Economy, Aalto University), we found that successful SEPs are very good at exploiting these boundary fluidity for their purposes. We identified four generic types we call the Franchiser, Chaperone, Principal, and Gardener.

  • The Franchiser aims for tight control over the platform participants and high rivalry among the service providers. The prototypical example is Uber, exploiting boundary fluidity by treating its drivers like employees while making them compete for fares dictated by Uber’s algorithm.
  • The Chaperone aims for loose control over the participants and high rivalry among the service providers. This is, of course, the Airbnb model; Airbnb exploits boundary fluidity by treating its participants like community members expected to follow norms and values while making the hosts compete like micro-entrepreneurs, who set their own prices based on Airbnb’s recommendation.
  • The Principal aims for tight control over the participants and low rivalry among the service providers. For instance, Handy (a per-task labour platform) treats its service providers like employees by making them sign contracts while the service providers participate in tenders based on standardized prices dictated by Handy.
  • Finally, the Gardener aims for loose control over the participants and low rivalry among the service providers. For instance, Couchsurfing (facilitating short-term, free-of-charge accommodation) leaves it to the participants to coordinate their accommodation while eliminating rivalry among the hosts by not allowing them to charge money.

Not so obvious implications

What each of these four types have in common is that they all rely on the casual participation of their user base; that is, their users typically operate on smaller scale, use their personal resources, and are less experienced than traditional service providers and professionals (not only in terms of delivering services but also protecting oneself against exploitative business practices).[1] Combined with digitalisation, such casualness provides unprecedented sources for creating value and disguises large portions of the labour of the participants.

It is the degree to which this hidden labour has become the core of the business models of Uber, Airbnb, Handy, and Couchsurfing, that is really new.

To name just two examples. By means of the app and data-driven algorithms, Uber obviously replaces taxi dispatchers. Not so obvious, however, is the hidden labour provided by the Uber riders who, by scoring their rides, control the service quality. This used to be the purview of employed and paid middle managers. Likewise, Airbnb does not only profit from on-boarding private individuals as hosts (instead of hiring professional concierges) but also from the marketing those hosts provide not just for themselves but for Airbnb, the corporation – hidden labour, which would have traditionally required to pay marketing specialists.

It is a not-so-sharing economy we are dealing with. In fact, the sharing economy is the quintessential expression of a new logic of capital accumulation in the digital economy, where large portions of labour are disguised as casual (or even pleasurable) participation in the name of self-servicing and sharing. These forms of hidden labour are not unintended consequences; they are essential parts of the platform business model, as they sustain the digital systems and algorithmic operations of those platforms in order to make “sharing” not only economically viable but, above all, profitable. As a result, the historically and culturally important institution of sharing (in the true sense of the word) is thinned out and replaced by the logic of the platform economy, the micro-entrepreneurial ethos of monetizing every aspect of one’s “everydayness”, and the precarity of depending on demand.


Attila Marton is Associate Professor at the Department of Digitalization at Copenhagen Business School. He  focuses the interplay between information management and digital memory studies and the question how we will remember and forget the past in the future.His research can also be found on Academia and ResearchGate.

Academic Reference

[1] See Katz, V. 2015. “Regulating the sharing economy,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal (30:385).

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

 

Consider also our post from last week, dealing with the topic of sharing.

‘Just Sustainabilities’ in a World of Global Value Chains

By Stefano Ponte.

What if we used our size and resources to make this country and this earth an even better place for all of us: customers, Associates, our children, and generations unborn? What if the very things that many people criticize us for—our size and reach—became a trusted friend? 

Excerpt from ‘Leadership in the 21st Century’, speech by Lee Scott, then CEO of Walmart, Bentonville, Arkansas, 24 October 2005 (as in Humes 2011: 102)

Whenever we engage in consumption or production patterns which take more than we need, we are engaging in violence.

Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (2016: 102)

A New Era

Human activity is having major impact on the earth and its biosphere, to the point that geologists have now defined a new era – the Anthropocene – to reflect this phenomenon. For some, this is a period that started in the late 18th century with a marked increase in fossil fuel use, and that has accelerated dramatically since the middle of the 19th century. During this time, human action has overshadowed nature’s work in influencing the ecology of the Earth. Global sustainability crises, such as climate change, the acidification of oceans, and the ‘sixth great extinction’ of planetary life characterize this period of great turbulence in the relation between humanity and nature.

Others question the focus on humanity as an undifferentiated whole in the term ‘Anthropocene’, and propose a different term to explain the same result: Capitalocene, ‘the era of capitalism as a world-ecology of power, capital and nature’ (Moore 2016: 6). This term shifts focus away from the putative duality of human-nature relations and towards capitalism as a way of organizing nature. From a Capitalocene perspective, major changes in the world-ecology started taking place already in the mid-15th century – with a progressive transition from control of land as a way to appropriate surplus value, to control of land as a way of increasing labour productivity for commodity production. In other words, it is not enough to simply examine what capitalism does to nature and how humanity can solve global sustainability challenges through innovation in technology and business models. We need to conceptualize power, value and nature as thinkable only in relation to each other.

Sustainability Management

In addition to cost, flexibility and speed, sustainability management has become another key element of contemporary capitalism. The practices that corporations enact to address sustainability issues are also (re)shaping the existing spatial, organizational and technological fixes that are needed to ensure continuous capital accumulation.  Geographically, production is moving to locations that can meet basic sustainability specifications in large volumes and at low cost; organizationally, multi-stakeholder initiatives on sustainability have come to play a key role in global value chain (GVC) functioning; labour conditions among suppliers are under pressure from the need to meet increasing environmental sustainability demands from lead firms; and the need to verify sustainability compliance has led to the adoption of new technologies of measurement, verification, and trust.

The ‘business case’ for sustainability has been by and large solved – lead firms do not only extract sustainability value from suppliers, but also benefit from internal cost savings, supplier squeezing, reputation enhancement and improved market capitalization. As the value of goods increasingly depends on their intangible properties (including those related to sustainability) than on their functional or economic value, sustainability management becomes a central function of corporate strategy – filtering through organization, marketing, operations and logistics. Lead firms in GVCs are leveraging sustainability to extract more information from suppliers, strengthen power relations to their advantage, and find new venues of value creation and capture.

The business of sustainability is not sufficient as a global solution to pressing climate change and other environmental problems. It is doing enough for corporations seeking to acquire legitimacy and governance authority. This legitimacy is further enhanced through partnerships with governments and civil society groups. Some of this engagement is used strategically to provide ‘soft’ solutions to sustainability concerns and to avoid more stringent regulation. While the business of sustainability is leading to some environmental improvements in some places, and better use of resources in relative terms in some industries, the overall pressure on global resources is increasing. The unit-level environmental impact of production, processing, trade and retail is improving. But constantly growing consumption, both in the global North and in the global South, means that in the aggregate environmental sustainability suffers.

What To Do

Public actors at all jurisdictional levels need to put in place orchestration strategies that improve the actual achievement of sustainability goals, and activists and civil society groups should identify and leverage pressure to strengthen the effectiveness of orchestration. But these strategies have to be informed by the realities of the daily practices, power relations and governance structures of a world economy that is organized in global value chains. Orchestration is more likely to succeed when a combination of directive and facilitative instruments is used; when sustainability issues have high visibility in a global value chains; when the interests of private and public sectors are aligned, and when orchestrators are aware of the kinds of power that underpin the governance of value chains and act to reshape these power configurations accordingly.

A path towards ‘just sustainabilities’ means addressing inequality – since it drives competitive consumption and leads to lower levels of trust in societies, which makes public action more difficult; it entails focusing on improving quality of life and wellbeing, rather than growth; it demands a community economy and more public consumption; it involves meeting the needs of both current and future generations and at the same time reimagining these ‘needs’; it demands a paradigm of ‘sufficiency’, rather than maximization of consumption; it recognizes that overconsumption and environmental degradation impacts on many people’s right to enjoy a decent quality of life; and it requires a different kind of ‘green entrepreneurial state’, which also caters to these needs. Just sustainabilities necessitate building a social foundation for an inclusive and stable economic system that operates within our environmental planetary boundaries; and it demands business to behave responsibly (within its organizational boundaries and along value chains) to maintain its social license to operate.

This text is based on excerpts of Stefano Ponte’s forthcoming book Green Capital, Brown Environments: Business and Sustainability in a World of Global Value Chains, Zed Books: London. The book is based on 20 years of research on sustainability and global value chains, and builds from empirical work on several agro-food value chains (wine, coffee, biofuels) and capital-intensive industries (shipping and aviation).

Stefano Ponte is Professor of International Political Economy in the Department of Business and Politics, Copenhagen Business School and the former academic co-director of the Sustainability Platform at CBS. Twitter: @AfricaBusPol


Selected books for further reading on this topic:

Agyeman, J. 2013. Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning, and practice. Zed Books.

Dauvergne, P. 2016. Environmentalism of the Rich. MIT Press.

Humes, E. 2011. Force of nature: The unlikely story of Wal-Mart’s green revolution. HarperBusiness New York.

Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. Routledge.

Moore, J. 2016. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, history, and the crisis of capitalism. PM Press.

Shiva, V. 2016. Earth democracy: Justice, sustainability and peace. Zed Books.

 

Pic by Marufish, Flickr.

Wonder Tech and the Institution of Gender

by Jeremy Moon

“I didn’t realize that I was a woman until I went to the US.”

This was the rather arresting comment of a keynote speaker at the WonderTech Summit in Copenhagen, organized by a group of, mainly female, IT professionals. The speaker in question (a Senior Vice President of a leading MNC and leader of a women’s innovation initiative) explained that this awakening to gender was because in her home country, Denmark, she was used to being treated as another ‘person’ and, by inference, equal to men.

I have noted elements of equality in Denmark in: the extent of public funding for schools (overwhelmingly mixed sex) and parental leave; and the involvement of fathers in parenting. However, this is not to suggest that there is no gender institution in Denmark. The speaker referred to her disappointment that Denmark was only ranked 14th in the World Economic Forum Report for Women, and some other speakers alluded to the institution of gender in the tech industry and higher education in Denmark, and the way it worked against women.

Gender as an Institution – marco, meso and micro level

This comment struck me as a nice illustration of the idea of gender as an institution[1]: the way gender delineates the largely taken for granted roles of men and women. At the systemic (macro) level there are the respective norms, laws and rules. At the organizational (meso) level gender regimes shape the ‘way things are done here’. At the individual (micro) level there are the gendered practices in daily interactions. Of course, the gender institution is manifest in different ways in different places as illustrated by the aforementioned speaker’s contrast of its operation in Denmark and the USA.

So what, I wondered, would be the approach to this issue recommended at the conference whose purpose was ‘to celebrate the achievements of women in the industry and inspire diversity in tech’?

I was interested in the way participants addressed gender in their contexts. The aforementioned speaker advised that women disappointed in job / promotion applications, should not complain but try harder and better next time. Another speaker referred to a role model for women in blockchain entrepreneurship who advised ‘not to talk about gender’. The emphasis was upon innovation and taking initiatives at the individual level, and the numerous awards that were made enabled yet more such personal stories to be told. Wilma Rudolph was a used as a role model by one speaker (check out her amazing story of overcoming obstacles of socio-economic means and physical disability alone).

Network merit

Another key theme of the conference was at the meso level but focusing not on the oppressive organization, but on women’s self-help networks for mentoring, capacity building, career modelling, and sheer encouragement. The conference was replete with evidence of network organizations and social enterprises working in the field.

All this was so positive. The conference speakers and participants seem confident in their abilities to work professionally and effectively. There was little sense of inferiority or ‘being a woman’ in their organizations. How representative or scalable are these stories?

Too little attention on the political level

Which leads to my final observation that there was little attention to the systemic, or political, level of the gender institution to advance the careers of participants at WonderTech, even though the conference did give cases of ‘solving problems for people, businesses, and the planet’ (e.g. how ICT could be deployed to address systemic obstacles to equality for women in developing countries?).

Solving Problems for People, Businesses, and the Planet.

Can the inspiring individual stories and the network values and achievements carry the day or will more political action along the lines of the suffragettes or #MeToo be required? This might be to increase female participation in Tech science education, to increase women leaders in the Tech industry, and to enable women not to need ‘to feel like women’ – at least when doing so is a sign of adverse effects of the gender institution?[2]

 

[1] The subject of a forthcoming paper with Lauren McCarthy (more when it is published)

[2] Former Soviet countries lead the EU rankings of women in the tech workforce, presumably a legacy both of their policies of enrolling the brightest students in specialist maths high schools, and of current practices of selecting equal numbers of boys and girls in these schools, and encouraging girls to study computer science at university https://www.ft.com/content/e2fdfe6e-0513-11e8-9e12-af73e8db3c71


Jeremy Moon with some help from Marjahan Begum, Plamena Cherneva, Lavinia-Cristina Iosif-Lazar and Lauren McCarthy.

Jeremy Moon is professor at the Department of Management, Society and Communication, member of the Governing Responsible Business Environment and holds the VELUX Chair of Corporate Sustainability, all at Copenhagen Business School.

 

Pic by Jennifer C, Flickr.