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Power in the people: Private environmental governance

By June 2, 2019Blog

It the world keeps using plastic the way it does now, by 2050, we will have more plastic in the ocean than fish. The enormity of the plastic problem is gaining more and more public attention, and both public and private actors have made changes to try to stem the tide of ocean plastic. In June, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada will ban certain single-use plastics as early as 2021. Several U.S. cities have banned plastic bags and plastic straws; a teenage Girl Scout who founded an ocean conservation group convinced Alaska Airlines to stop using plastic straws.

Alaska Airlines is working with Lonely Whale, an NGO dedicated to “radical collaboration” to improve ocean health. Through one of its initiatives, called NextWave, member companies have committed to diverting the equivalent to 1.2 billion single-use plastic water bottles from entering the ocean by the end of 2025.

Historically, environmental progress has come primarily from government regulation. But environmental problems have become increasingly complex and global in scope, with effects that play out slowly and are fraught with scientific uncertainties. Solving them through traditional regulatory approaches has become more difficult.

In response, social movements have emerged to demand solutions. Governments and NGOs have shifted away from traditional public law and toward private environmental governance (PEG), relying on voluntary programs, information disclosure, eco-labeling and activist campaigns against corporate offenders. Although the research community has made much progress on PEG’s impact, much remains poorly understood, and the relevant research is scattered across economics, political science, management, operations research, sociology and law.

A workshop that Professor Tom Lyon organized, with financial and logistical support from the Erb Institute, aimed to help build an international, interdisciplinary research community interested in social movements, nongovernmental organization (NGO) activism, private governance and information disclosure. It also sought to spark new research at the boundaries between disciplines, and it generated the five research papers discussed below. They provide some insight into PEG’s potential.

Leading by example

People often characterize NGO strategies toward business as either confrontation or cooperation. But Graeme Auld argues that a third form has been underappreciated: “prefiguration,” or leading by example. Organic farming originated with market participants who were concerned about the dominant system of industrial agriculture. They began to farm without chemical pesticides, herbicides and insecticides, and today, the organic movement is the fastest-growing part of the grocery business. Auld’s paper, “Transforming Markets? Activists’ Strategic Orientations and Engagement with Private Governance,” presents a framework for understanding why activists adopt different strategies for different situations.

The university

The university is an underappreciated actor in the PEG space. Sarah Light’s paper “The Role of Universities in Private Environmental Governance Experimentalism” lays out the parallels between public and private governance, and states’ traditional role as “laboratories of experimentation” for public policy. She suggests that PEG can play a similar role, performing the prefiguration function Auld describes. And because private firms’ profit motivations differ from public policy motives, universities might provide a more directly transferable source of experimental results.

Sociological and economic perspectives

Two leaders in the study of social movements and the NGO industry, Brayden King and Anthony Heyes, surveyed the relevant work in their fields (sociology and economics, respectively), and the research agenda ahead. They coauthored a paper, “Understanding the Organization of Green Activism: Sociological and Economic Perspectives,” that provides a remarkable overview of our current understanding—and a road map for future interdisciplinary research in this field.

Disclosure and certification

Among the most prominent forms of PEG are information disclosure schemes and voluntary sustainability certification. Two workshop participants have books that take deep dives into the performance of information-based schemes (by Graham Bullock) and the credibility of transnational labeling programs (by Hamish van der Ven). They collaborated to shed light on a puzzle that afflicts both disclosure and certification schemes: the consumer’s role in making these schemes successful. Their paper, “The Shadow of the Consumer: Analyzing the Importance of Consumers to the Uptake and Sophistication of Ratings, Certifications, and Eco-Labels,” argues that existing analyses focus too narrowly on individual consumer purchasing decisions, ignoring other mechanisms through which consumers exert influence.

Sustainable forest management

A multi-stakeholder group led by Greenpeace created the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), which instituted a system of private standards and certification. Not long after, the American Forest & Paper Association, an industry trade group, introduced its own alternative, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI). Rivalry between the two standards has sometimes been heated, with FSC supporters accusing the SFI of being a form of greenwash. Benjamin Cashore coined the term “non-state market-driven” (NSMD) to describe these new PEG mechanisms, and he and his coauthors assessed how FSC and SFI have evolved in their paper, “Do Private Regulations ‘Ratchet Up?’: A Comparative Classification Framework.” It offers a framework for characterizing standards’ scope and prescriptiveness.

Together, these papers offer insight into how social movements create new forms of PEG. They identify the roles that key stakeholder groups play and the tactics they use. They highlight new tactics and actors that haven’t received much attention. They demonstrate the importance of consumers but suggest that the channels through which consumers have impact have not been fully understood.

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