Contesting private sustainability norms in primary commodity production: norm hybridisation in the palm oil sector

Helen E.S. Nesadurai

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    This chapter examines contestation and resistance around sustainability norms in primary commodity production, using the case of palm oil to explore the analytical utility of recognising ‘norm antipreneurs’ as a distinct type of resister of normative change. While much of the literature on norm dynamics focuses on states as the ultimate ‘governors’ adopting and enforcing new norms that have been constructed in multilateral institutions, the primary commodity sector offers a different point of entry into this question. Primary commodity production is increasingly regulated by ‘private governors’ in the form of primary commodity roundtables – voluntary private associations comprising corporations and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) or civil society actors more broadly – designing and enforcing sustainability norms in sectors such as forestry/timber, soy, marine fisheries, sugar, palm oil, cotton, and biofuels/biomaterials (Brassett et al. 2012).1 Norm construction, thus, takes place outside formal multilateral institutions. The norms advanced by multistakeholder roundtables are usually translated into certification regulations that specify sustainable practices in the respective industry. The roundtables’ corporate members in particular are expected to comply with these standards and rules, thereby also signalling their sustainability credentials to crucial external audiences. Primary commodity roundtables are clearly norm entrepreneurs because they work to ‘alter the prevailing normative order according to certain ideas or norms that they deem more suitable’ (Wunderlich 2013). However, rather than display ‘an absolute ethic’ (Howard Becker cited in Nadelmann 1990, 482, n4) even though some of their members may have ‘strong notions about appropriate or desirable behaviour in their community’ (Finnemore and Sikkink 1998, 896), primary commodity roundtables find themselves having to balance the various competing normative goals and material interests of their members (Brassett et al. 2012; Cashore et al. 2004; Nikoloyuk et al. 2010). Intra-network contention, which is an important part of norm dynamics more generally, is especially salient, and of a particularly complex nature, in primary commodity roundtables.

    Any roundtable, which may be regarded as a network of diverse actors (or members), will likely face internal differences amongst at least two classes of distinct actors – corporations and NGOs/civil society. Material, or instrumental, considerations are more than likely to intrude into normative deliberations and actions within such associations. Although corporations are recognised as displaying both ‘normative ideals and material concerns’ (Sell and Prakash 2004, 143), these normative ideals are unlikely to deviate too far from instrumental, profit considerations (Kollman 2008). This puts them on a collision course with civil society’s conception of normative action. However, even here, firms positioned differently within an industry structure or supply chain, and thus embedded within different social constituencies, will have distinct notions of how their respective corporate interests relate to normative goals. Moreover, when the norm in question is ‘sustainability’, which is an ambiguous and contested concept, space is opened up for different actors to define them differently (Connelly 2007). While this does not preclude achieving consensus within the roundtable, that process of reaching consensus is bound to involve conflict while the resultant norm will likely be what Julia Black (2008, 152-157) terms a ‘compromise norm’. Both these outcomes can animate contestation over the norms and related certification schemes proposed by the roundtable. Contestation can arise within the roundtables and externally when the proposed new norm challenges the prevailing status quo and its entrenched interests. Contestation can also emerge because the compromise norm advanced by the roundtable does not meet the more exacting ethical standards of principled actors inside and outside the commodity roundtable. The presence of complex contestation and resistance of the type described above offers rich empirical material from which to examine this book’s two central questions: whether it is possible to distinguish between norm entrepreneurs and antipreneurs and whether making such a distinction is analytically useful to explaining the politics of global normative change.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationNorm Antipreneurs and the Politics of Resistance to Global Normative Change
    EditorsAlan Bloomfield, Shirley V. Scott
    Place of PublicationAbingdon Oxon UK
    Number of pages18
    ISBN (Electronic)9781315707341
    ISBN (Print)9781138900295
    Publication statusPublished - 2017

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