Category Archives: Standards

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 materialise 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. The researcher will spend 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.

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.

A Taxonomy of Sustainable Business Model Patterns

By Florian Lüdeke-Freund & Sarah Carroux.

In recent years, so-called “sustainable business models” are increasingly gaining in importance in both practice and research.[1] There is hope that business models and business model innovation could, for instance, support the diffusion of ecologically and socially-beneficial products and services in the market.[2] Despite the growing interest, there still exists a lack of systematically-generated knowledge about the different shapes (or “patterns”) such business models can take. Hence, our research project aims to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date overview of presently known business model patterns that can contribute to the diffusion of ecologically and socially beneficial innovations. We developed a structured patterns system, a new taxonomy, of 45 patterns organized into 11 groups, including experts’ expectations for their contributions to sustainable value creation.

Key Objectives of the Study

A broad range of business models are being discussed in current scientific and applied literature. These are often identified as “patterns”.[3] Following Christopher Alexander, a pattern theory pioneer from the field of architecture, a pattern basically represents a solution to a reoccurring problem.[4] What makes patterns so special is that their solutions can be applied in different contexts. For instance, a window is a universal solution for the problem of a lack of lighting in a room. A window exists in different variations and can be applied in various contexts (e.g., for residential buildings, skyscrapers, small windows, large windows etc.). Similarly, business model patterns can be understood as replicable and modifiable solutions to reoccurring business challenges. For instance, the “freemium” business model can not only be used for online services such as Spotify, but also to market high-quality medical services that, depending on patient type, are offered either for “free” or for a “premium” (e.g. Aravind, an eye-care service provider in India).[5] The key objectives of this study are (i) to consolidate the current knowledge about business model patterns with the potential to support sustainable innovations, i.e. to develop a new taxonomy, and (ii) to prepare the foundations for a “sustainable business model pattern language”.[6]

Methodology

We identified a total of 102 potential business model patterns in the relevant literature. These were critically assessed and duplicates or irrelevant items were eliminated, resulting in a sample of 45 patterns. These were reviewed and organized into groups by 10 international experts to condense the large number of patterns in a way that allowed recognizing a systematic order. In the second survey round, the international experts were asked to assess the patterns with respect to their potential contributions to ecological, social, and economic value creation. This enabled us to develop a structured patterns system, a taxonomy, of 45 patterns organized into 11 groups, including experts’ expectations for their contributions to sustainable value creation.

 

Results and Practical Implications

The patterns system is comprised of 45 patterns that were each allocated to one out of the 11 identified groups according to their problem-solution combination. The following groups of sustainable business model patterns were found:

  1. Pricing & revenue patterns
  2. Financing patterns
  3. Eco-design patterns
  4. Closing-the-loop patterns
  5. Supply chain patterns
  6. Giving patterns
  7. Access provision patterns
  8. Social mission patterns
  9. Service & performance patterns
  10. Cooperative patterns
  11. Community platform patterns

These groups can be characterized based on (i) their specific problem-solution combinations (e.g., solving the problem of limited access to health care through a specific pricing model), and (ii) their expected ecological, social, or economic effects (i.e. their expected contribution to sustainable value creation). The patterns system is highly practice-oriented, given the input provided by the experts. For instance, it could be used as an instrument in innovation workshops. Furthermore, our patterns system could be used in combination with business model innovation tools such as the Business Model Canvas, the Business Innovation Kit, or the Smart Business Modeler. Our pattern taxonomy is based on an essential principle in business and innovation: “learning by example”. Companies that want to integrate sustainability into their business models can refer to our taxonomy for guidance and inspiration and use it as a catalogue that also includes practical examples. This means that companies do not have to start from scratch and, instead, can learn from the experiences of others and use these to progress towards sustainability. All-in-all, our sustainable business pattern taxonomy is an efficient and effective instrument that enables practitioners and scholars alike to benefit from vast years of experience. The sustainable business model pattern taxonomy is dynamic in nature and can be easily expanded with new patterns and examples. It can already be used for online business modelling by using the Smart Business Modeler.

[1] Lüdeke-Freund, F. & Dembek, K. (2017): Sustainable Business Model Research and Practice: Emerging Field or Passing Fancy?, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 168, 1668-1678. [ DOI | ResearchGate ]

[2] Boons, F. & Lüdeke-Freund, F. (2013): Business Models for Sustainable Innovation: State of the Art and Steps Towards a Research Agenda, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 45, 9-19. [ DOI | ResearchGate ]

[3] E.g., Remane, G.; Hanelt, A.; Tesch, J. & Kolbe, L. M. (2017): The Business Model Pattern Database — A Tool for Systematic Business Model Innovation, International Journal of Innovation Management, Vol. 21, No. 1, Article No. 1750004. [ DOI ]

[4] Alexander, C.; Ishikawa, S.; Silverstein, M.; Jacobson, M.; Fiksdahl-King, I. & Angel, S. (1977): A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press. [ Website ]

[5] Breuer, H. & Lüdeke-Freund, F. (2017): Values-Based Innovation Management: Innovating by What We Care About. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan. [ Website ]

[6] Lüdeke-Freund, F.; Bohnsack, R.; Breuer, H. & Massa, L. (forthcoming): Research on Sustainable Business Model Patterns – Status quo, Methodological Issues, and a Research Agenda, in: Aagaard, A. (ed.): Sustainable Business Models. Houndmills: Palgrave.


Florian Lüdeke-Freund is a Lecturer at ESCP Europe Business School, Berlin, where he also holds the Chair for Corporate Sustainability. Since 2013, Florian facilitates the research hub www.SustainableBusinessModel.org.

Sarah Carroux is a research associate and doctoral candidate at the University of Hamburg. As member of the Chair of Management and Sustainability, lead by Prof. Timo Busch, Sarah researches topics related to sustainable finance with a strong focus on impact investing, as well as the business case for sustainability and sustainable business models

 

Pic by Eli Duke, Flickr.

Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives and Legitimacy

By Mikkel Kruuse.

  • Which groups of actors typically drive the standard development within Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives (MSIs) and why?
  • Power imbalances between actors within MSIs go beyond the global North/South dichotomy.
  • There seems to be a trade-off between input legitimacy (via equal participation) and output legitimacy (outcomes) of MSIs.

Approximate Reading Time: 2-3 minutes.

Private governance in a globalized economy
While it is difficult to dispute the benefits of globalization, the integration of production and trade has made it increasingly difficult for even highly developed nations to regulate activities that extend beyond their borders. For example, how do we decide who is responsible for the negative externalities of global production, such as emission of greenhouse gasses, when considering that goods often pass through several countries before reaching their final destination? Some of these issues can potentially be resolved through cooperation in intergovernmental organizations that are able to establish extraterritorial jurisdiction, but it is important to keep in mind that the implementation relies on the individual governments that in some cases may not be able or willing to do so.

Resulting from the absence of legally enforceable regulation, there has emerged a great number of non-state market-driven governance systems since the 1980s. However, unlike democracies where the government derives its legitimacy through public elections, this is not an inherent part of private governance. As such, a particular concern is that private governance could essentially be equivalent to corporate self-regulation. In order to avoid this issue, non-governmental organizations are increasingly encouraging companies to participate in so-called multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs), in which different types of stakeholders work together to achieve a common goal, such as the implementation of social and environmental standards for global production.

Stakeholder Participation and Distribution of Power
Some of the more well-known examples of MSIs include the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which have both grown considerably since they were established in 1993 and 1996, respectively. Although the membership diversity ideally helps to ensure that MSIs are not being controlled by a single type of actor, this may not always be the case in practice. In particular, it has been suggested in the academic literature that this form of civil regulation is primarily being driven by actors from the global North, while values and knowledge originating in the global South are often marginalized.

Notwithstanding this naturally questions the legitimacy of MSIs, it still seems appropriate to ask why this tendency persists. First, there is a significant cost associated with creating a new initiative and the individual actors must therefore possess sufficient resources to do so. However, as resources are finite there is a trade-off between where to best apply them, and as such it appears reasonable to want something in return. In other words, there must be an opportunity to realize highly valued interests for an actor to spend the resource required to create and maintain an MSI. To be sure, this is not to say that the global South does not share an interest in solving the various social and environmental issues, but when viewed as a single group they have fewer total resources compared to the North. This may offer a partial explanation of why MSIs appears to be dominated by Northern interests, yet it is highly unlikely that there are no actors within the global South group that have the required resources to participate in the various standards-development activities.

Input and Output Legitimacy
Returning to the question of legitimacy, it does not really improve the situation to replace the commonly remarked North/South divide with a big/small distinction. Even so, it may help to better understand why actors behave in a certain way and how MSIs function. As noted above, the purpose of MSIs is to provide for a common good when national governments are unable or unwilling to do so, but at the same time it is not free to create and maintain these initiatives. Thus, while all parties may benefit from the common good, the associated cost renders it implausible that actors would be willing to carry the burden of providing it – that is, unless the reward is considered to be proportional.

In summary, it can be argued that having a small group of actors responsible for the majority of standards development will question the input legitimacy of an MSI, in terms of who participates in the process. But at the same time, the issue at hand is likely to remain unresolved if no one is willing to allocate the necessary resources, which ultimately lowers the output legitimacy of the MSI. In this way, some MSIs may present a trade-off between input and output legitimacy when it comes to regulating global production, where some actors gain increased influence over the decision-making in exchange for spending additional resources.

Finally, it is important to mention that there are a great many different MSIs in existence, and that the contents of this post do not apply to every single one. Instead, the purpose is to help advance the discussion of MSI and legitimacy in general, where these insights will hopefully prove beneficial.


Mikkel is a MSc Candidate in International Business and Politics at Copenhagen Business School and research assistant at the Department of Management, Society and Communication

Pic by Margarida CSilva, Unsplash.

Where is the Space for Ethics in Rule Governed Organizations?

By Anna Kirkebæk Gosovic.

Imagine that you work in an organization where your choices, your knowledge and your thoroughness in your work could potentially impact the lives and health of people; for the better, yes, but also for the worse, if you make a mistake. Imagine then, that at any moment, someone could come and go through all your work, ask for all the details of your choices and demand proof that you made the right decision according to all the rules that you need to know. And then imagine that large investments are at stake and that the failure or success of these investments depend, partly, on the thoroughness of your work.

Strict rules and procedures
This is the reality that many employees in pharmaceutical companies operate in. Many organizations today are governed by policies and procedures to make things run smoothly but some organizations are – to a larger extent – characterized by strict monitoring and reporting procedures, high preoccupation with failure and commitment to organizational resilience. Weick and Sutcliffe name such organizations “High Reliability Organizations” (HRO) (Weick & Sutcliffe, 2007). HROs are organizations working in fields where mistakes can have severe consequences and which, as a result of this, have strict procedures for ensuring compliance with processes and policies.

Studying HROs, scholars have focused on organizations such as air craft carriers (Weick & Roberts, 1993), nuclear power plants (Schulman, 1993), hospitals (Chassin & Loeb, 2013) and military units (Bierly & Spender, 1995; Demchak, 1996); all of which operate in environments rich with potential for error but where the consequences of such are too severe to allow them to happen (Cf. Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 1999, p. 32).

With their close attention to monitoring, following procedures and regimes for registering data, actions and decisions, pharmaceutical companies can be defined as HROs.

Is following the rules enough?
Organizations preoccupied with reliability may spend more time and effort organizing for controlled information processing, mindful attention and action than other organizations. Weick and Roberts call this “mindful organizing” (Weick & Roberts, 1993, p. 357). But with such elaborate legislative frameworks in place as in the pharmaceutical industry, how do employees experience their room for maneuvering and for acting ethically? And how do staff and managers perceive the ethical dilemmas they meet? Is it enough to have followed the rules? And what happens in situations when there is a wider space for interpretation of such rules? How does moral reasoning take place at the intersection between legislative frameworks, financial considerations, scientific possibilities and human lives? And what domain outweighs the others at which points in time?

These are the questions that I hope to answer by studying within – and in partnership with – a pharmaceutical company. The project only started in January, so if you are interested in the answers to this, be patient, and stay tuned!


Anna Kirkebæk Gosovic is a PhD student at the Department for Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School. She is working on business ethics within a multinational pharmaceutical corporation.

Pic by G. Crescoli, Unsplash.

 

The Sustainable Development Goals: Elite Pluralism, not Democratic Governance

By Daniel Esser.

  • Was the process leading up to the SDGs really an exercise in global democratic policy making?
  • Although broad consultation efforts shaped the process, these alone were not able to alter the power structures undergirding the political economy of aid.
  • In the end, UN members states finalized the agenda behind closed doors and civil society organisations were once again relegated to serving as commentators and claqueurs.

Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.

The MDGs: An exercise in top-down development planning
Almost twenty years ago, a small group of white men sat together and dreamed up the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Soon after, the United Nations (UN) deployed them as carrot and stick to halve extreme poverty and hunger, reduce infant mortality, and put all girls and boys into primary education, all by 2015. There was real confidence that the MDGs’ top-down programming would eventually reach the farthest and most destitute corners of the globe, and that national as well as global resources would finally be spent on well-coordinated and effective projects. Listening to UN technocrats pontificate about the MDGs’ indispensability, one could have almost believed that old-fashioned development planning had finally been put on the right tracks. By the end of the exercise, thousands of new jobs in the international development industry had been created, yet most of the goals had been missed. The MDGs had begotten a hyperactive global network of goodwill ambassadors, faithful implementers and intrepid evaluators staff while billions in the global South continued to suffer.

The SDGs: Consultations as the end of procedural elitism?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were supposed to end the MDGs’ dual legacy of procedural elitism and edentulism. Framed by the UN as the world’s foremost post-2015 development agenda, the new goals were designed to be more comprehensive in both scope and impact. Crucially, the UN also launched considerable efforts to incorporate voices from outside of the UN system. Thematic consultations took place around eleven areas selected by the UN Development Group (UNDG). They were complemented by web consultations, national consultations in 88 countries, and global high-level meetings. In addition, the UN created two websites to allow for direct consultation by inviting users to submit proposals and vote for challenges they considered most pressing. Moreover, a UN-sponsored civil society organization (CSO), ‘Beyond 2015’, brought together another 1,000 CSOs participating in national consultations.

Global democratic policy making – high aspirations, sobering facts
Undeniably, these efforts marked a clear departure from the MDGs’ backroom fecundation. But have they been sufficient to justify senior UN staffers’ praise of the SDGs as an exercise in global democratic policy making? Broad consultation alone does not alter the power structures undergirding the political economy of aid. Instead, it creates a thin layer of legitimacy that fades away as soon as accountability in invoked. The process leading up to the SDGs was rooted in an assumption that a goal-based framework was the only viable option; alternatives to such goals were never considered publicly. Countries were selected by UNDG and UN Resident Coordinators, and the breadth and depth of national consultations varied starkly. And although UNDG’s final report listed crowd-sourced issue rankings, it did not provide any rationale for excluding issues from subsequent high-level negotiations.

Closed doors, revisited
In the end, UN members states finalized the agenda behind closed doors. CSOs were once again relegated to serving as commentators and claqueurs. When push came to shove, the UN leadership thus followed its half-century-old practice of elitist international governance. Even though the UN leadership has been relentless in praising the virtues of accountability for post-2015 development cooperation, it has so far shied away from institutionalizing accountability in a way that would really make a difference: between the UN system and its powerful national agenda setters on one side, and CSOs, taxpayers, and intended beneficiaries on the other. If the SDGs demonstrate anything, it is that the UN remain unlikely to usher genuine global democratic governance into being.


Daniel E. Esser is Associate Professor of International Development at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. His research on local governance amid violence, organizational management, and global health politics is widely cited. A former staff member of the United Nations in New York and Bangkok, he follows the organization’s continuous struggle to make a difference in the world from a safe academic distance. He can be reached at esser@american.edu.

Pic by UN Ukraine, edited by BOS.

License to Critique: Inoculating Standards against Closure

By Lars Thøger Christensen.

  • Sustainability and responsibility standards entail a danger of organizational actors stopping to reflect about what these values could or should entail in each particular situation and setting.
  • Rather than passive compliance, standards should produce participation, involvement and contestation.
  • Several communication principles need to be respected for a license to critique approach to have its desired effects.

Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.

Fixed, clear and authoritative standards able to discipline and regulate organizational behavior are often called for on the sustainability and responsibility arenas. This makes perfect sense. Standards that are loose, vague or open-ended allow organizations to subscribe to the values of sustainability and responsibility without changing their behaviors significantly. In such cases, standards may be criticized for being simply “lofty pronouncements” disconnected from other organizational practices. Yet, if standards become too strict and rigid they may end up working against their original purposes.

Standards are voluntary and predefined norms and procedures that specify desirable organizational behavior in particular social or environmental contexts.

Most standards in sustainability and responsibility are developed, designed and assessed by international organizations, governments, or multi-stakeholder initiatives outside the adopting organization, often with the intent of prescribing and shaping the dos and don’ts in a particular context. Their ability to generate compliance is usually considered an important success criterion. Passive compliance, however, may not serve the social and environmental interests at play. Strict standards tend to produce mechanical and unreflective “ticking the box” exercises where the main concern is to appear good and be let “off the hook” by critical stakeholders.

Compliance is not necessarily the best measure for responsibility and sustainability.

When responsibility and sustainability are prespecified in detail, there is a great danger that organizational actors stop reflecting about what these values could or should entail in each particular situation and setting. Such “closure” is detrimental to both the environment and to society. Under conditions of closure, curiosity and argument about values are replaced by attempts to manage the standards, to transform their ideals into technical measures, and to document their impacts on organizational practices. By naturalizing the standard as the “normal thing to do”, closure transfers responsibility from the organization to the standard itself in a way that allows the organization to demonstrate responsiveness without responsibility: “It is not our fault. We are complying with the standard”.

 Strict and closed standards produce organizational responsiveness without responsibility.

Rather than passive compliance, standards should produce participation, involvement and contestation. Involvement, critique and contestation are vital dimensions in processes of testing, fine-tuning and improving standards to fit changing social and environmental problems. To facilitate such processes, organizations would be better off embracing – rather than repudiating – critical voices. Such attitude may be described as a “license to critique”. License to critique is a managerial philosophy designed to involve managers and employees, draw on their insights and stimulate their critical thinking while avoiding a premature closing down of discussions along with a potential to improve organizational practices. Critique in the shape of criticisms, appraisals, examinations, opinions, argumentations, or the suggestion of alternatives is recognized as an important and necessary dimension of organizational development and learning.

A license to critique approach welcomes and encourages constructive input from all corners of the organization.

Several communication principles need to be respected for a license to critique approach to have its desired effects. The most important are these:

  • Confronting alternatives. The licence to critique approach invites alternatives by regarding the standard as a “lens” through which managers as well as employees are expected to observe and challenge existing ideals, assumptions and practices.
  • Authorizing participation. The license to critique approach invites participation with a focus on openness, mutuality, and trust, as well as a tolerance for difference and variety. This invitation calls on organizational members to act constructively in shaping organisational ideas and practices. Simultaneously, they call on managers to allow for intensive boundary spanning and to draw actively and systematically on the day-to-day experiences, ideas and enactments of standard users.
  • Talking to learn. Since sustainability and responsibility are complex issues without finite answers and solutions, the role of communication is not simply to convey prepackaged ideals and explain necessary practices. Rather, participants, including managers, need to hear themselves talk about sustainability in order to understand what the ideal means to their particular organizations and to discover the possibilities and limitations of the ideal in specific contexts.

In sum, contestation of values and assumptions and their implied practices in contested contexts such as sustainability and responsibility is necessary to cultivate a variety of perspectives, ensure commitment among involved parties and stimulate creative solutions.

 

See further: Christensen, L.T., Morsing, M., & Thyssen, O. (2017). License to Critique: A Communication Perspective on Sustainability Standards. Business Ethics Quarterly, 27(2): 239-262.


Lars Thøger Christensen is Professor of Communication and Organization at the Copenhagen Business School, Denmark. 

Pic by alphaspirit, Fotolia.

Seeing Like a Standard: Sustainable Palm Oil and the Coasian Challenge

By Kristjan Jespersen & Caleb Gallemore.

Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.

Go to any supermarket and you’ll see labels, so many labels. Some of them seem reputable: the Marine Stewardship Council, the Forest Stewardship Council. Some of them seem less so, such as Bob’s House of Sustainability standard, which we just created five minutes ago.

One challenge – countless standards
Credible or not, these standards, developed mostly by the private sector and civil society, are growing in number. In Jessica Green’s 2014 book, Rethinking Private Authority, she counts 119 such environmental standards as of 2009, 90% of them created after 1990 – and this without considering Bob’s House of Sustainability. In a way, all these standards attempt something economist Ronald Coase imagined virtually impossible: to convey information about the true social costs and benefits of actions via pricing mechanisms. In this way, complex social and ecological interactions could be made intelligible to stakeholders like customers at the corner store.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – A Case Study
So how are such illustrious standards as Bob’s House of Sustainability put together in the first place? Like James Scott in his 1995 book Seeing like a State, we are interested in how social systems require the production of certain kinds of information. But we suspect that because the pressures on private standards for sustainability are different from the pressures on state governments, the types of phenomena standards make intelligible will be different. In other words, we are interested in what it means to see not like a state, but like a standard, using a detailed case study of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). Working with support from Copenhagen Business School’s Governing Responsible Business Research Environment, we are in the process of collecting data on the internal processes of the RSPO from a range of sources that include webscraping, document analysis, and interviews.

Various Adverse Effects of Palm Oil Production
There are certainly plenty harrowing problems posed by palm oil production that ideally should be readily legible to consumers: palm oil production causes deforestation and attendant greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, particularly affecting orangutan populations. Because land clearance to plant oil palm often is undertaken with the use of fire, it contributes to local air pollution and the notorious Southeast Asian haze problem. What is more, oil palm plantations often engage in exploitative labor practices, promote tenurial conflict, and can benefit local elites at the expense of others.

Lead by conservation and social justice NGOs, there have been numerous brand attacks against unsustainable and exploitative palm oil production. These have lead to such notable episodes as the successful campaign by two American girl scouts to get the manufacturer of Girl Scout Cookies to purchase certified sustainable palm oil, and the recent awareness campaign launched in Denmark by Freja Bruun, also a successful teenage environmental activist.

Reputation is Key
The founders of the RSPO intended to respond to these challenges by managing a private standard certifying sustainable palm oil production. Because initiatives like the RSPO are private rather than public, decisions about what information needs to be made intelligible are driven primarily by branding concerns. The RSPO’s reputation is critical, as it is the validity of the standard that allows it to differentiate itself from the likes of Bob’s House of Sustainability. While there have been vociferous debates about the RSPO’s on-the-ground requirements, another key concern is the traceability of certified palm oil across the supply chain. Within the standard, certified sustainable palm oil prices tend to be differentiated by the level of traceability, ranging from the Book & Claim mechanism, which acts like an offset, to the RSPO-Next system, which envisions traceability to the source plantation.

Shift in Power Balance within the RSPO
Working with several Master’s students at CBS, we have found that the RSPO has, over time, undergone a noticeable shift in the balance of power between upstream members (consumer-goods manufacturers, investors, and retailers), and downstream members (oil palm growers and palm oil refiners), as the number of downstream voting members has grown considerably (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Composition of RSPO membership, by year (RSPO Website Data). Credit: Mikkel Kruuse and Kaspar Tangbaek.

As downstream members have become a stronger bloc, the RSPO’s intelligibility efforts have shifted from on-the-ground impacts to the traceability of the supply chain. While separate, traceable supply chains have been a stated goal since the RSPO’s founding, a noted shift is apparent. The share of total certified sustainable palm oil sold on the offset-like Book & Claim (B&C) system, for example, is declining rapidly (see Figure 2), and even B&C’s name has been rebranded to PalmTrace.

Figure 2: Percentage of total RSPO CSPO sold via the B&C system, by year (RSPO, various years).

Benefits of RSPO Membership only so good as the Label
Faced with concerted brand attacks, downstream members of the RSPO, in particular, have to overcome a public goods problem. The benefits of RSPO membership are only so good as the label, and downstream firms are understandably nervous about buying from suppliers who are cheating, exposing them to brand attacks. Faced with that risk, raising traceability requirements is one straightforward way to maintain the brand’s integrity. While enhanced traceability encourages downstream firms to police their supply chains, and geographic information systems and remote sensing are making traceability more robust, there is a monetary and policy cost to cutting through the supply-chain haze. The more traceable tiers of certification – which, with the exception of the newly minted RSPO-Next, do not involve more stringent on-the-ground requirements – are prohibitively expensive for smallholders and small businesses that must push those costs onto consumers. The desire for intelligibility, in other words, can strengthen standards, but has its own costs: first, it may focus intelligibility efforts in unproductive directions, and, second, when being intelligible involves transaction costs, only bigger players have the wherewithal to stand up and be counted.


Kristjan Jespersen primary research focus is the growing development and management of Ecosystem Services in developing countries. Within the field, Kristjan focuses his attention on the institutional legitimacy of such initiatives and the overall compensation tools used to ensure compliance. He has a background in International Relations and Economics.

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Caleb Gallemore is an Assistant Professor in the International Affairs Program at Lafayette College. A geographer by training, Caleb’s research focuses on land-use teleconnections and international environmental policy and politics.

Pic by JAM Project, edited by BOS.