My research examines the role of new and innovative forms of global governance – specifically environmental certification/labeling and corporate social responsibility initiatives – in addressing complex, transboundary environmental challenges. This research program is inherently interdisciplinary and seeks to put elements of political science, environmental studies and business/management in conversation.

The starting point for my research is that conventional state-led multilateral efforts to solve transboundary environmental problems have yielded only intermittent results. In the absence of comprehensive state-led solutions, a host of innovative transnational governance initiatives have emerged that use market forces to address environmental problems. The rise of these new forms of governance raises a number of questions. Under what conditions are they likely to be effective? How do they interact with conventional, state-centric forms of environmental governance? And what does the growing fragmentation and complexity of our global governance architecture signify for efforts to address complex transboundary challenges? I address these questions across a number of related projects, reviewed below.

Book Project: Beyond Greenwash: Explaining Credibility in Transnational Eco-Labeling [Under contract with Oxford University Press]

Building on my dissertation research, my book project examines the expansion of the global public domain and its consequences for addressing transboundary environmental challenges. I focus specifically on the use of product labeling and certification to lessen the environmental impacts of consumer goods, a practice commonly known as “eco-labeling.” Eco-labeling schemes now exist in nearly every country on Earth and are gaining traction with some of the world’s largest companies. However the rigour and credibility of these schemes varies widely. Whereas some eco-labeling organizations (ELOs) adhere to best practices designed to increase the likelihood that their schemes will be rigorous and credible, others do not. In my book manuscript, I explain variation in the level of adherence to best practices amongst transnational eco-labeling organizations using a two-phased mixed-method research design. In the first phase, I build and analyze an original dataset comprising information on the policies and practices of 123 transnational ELOs. In the second phase, I build on my statistical findings by further investigating both deductive and abductive hypotheses in the context of two representative case studies, sustainable aquaculture and carbon labeling.

My central argument is that who an eco-labeling organization targets for governance holds a strong relationship to its propensity to follow best practices. Specifically, ELOs that “aim big” – meaning those that target a large proportion of a relevant global market – are more likely to follow best practices than those with narrower ambitions. “Aiming big” subjects ELOs to heightened critical scrutiny, increases demand for democratic legitimacy, and over time, augments their organizational capacity. These three conditions, in turn, drive attention to best practices and help create rigorous and credible eco-labels with a better chance of meeting environmental objectives. My findings suggest that renewed scholarly attention be directed towards the targets of governance, since pressure towards procedural rigour often comes from the governed community and not the owners of a governance scheme.


Refereed Journal Articles

Bernstein, S. and H. van der Ven. 2017. Best Practices in Global GovernanceReview of International Studies 43(3): 534-556.

Abstract: Best practices are increasingly used to govern a range of global issues. Yet, the rise of global governance through best practices has received scant attention in the International Relations literature. How do best practices differ from other modes of governance? How are they constructed? And to what end? We offer a novel conceptualization of best practices as a unique mode of global governance principally distinguished by basing claims of political authority on existing practices. Belying their apolitical terminology, best practices in global governance are purposively constructed by political actors to steer targeted actors toward desired ends. We illustrate the characteristics of governance through best practices with reference to state and non-state global governance initiatives in a wide range of issue areas, ranging from finance and development to human rights and the environment, and through an in-depth case study of the ISEAL Alliance, a disseminator of best practices for transnational sustainability standard-setters. We find that governance through best practices has both positive and negative consequences. While it offers a pragmatic approach to global governance under conditions of fragmentation and polycentricity, it can also mask underlying power dynamics and political agendas and therefore requires ongoing critical scrutiny.

van der Ven, H., Bernstein, S., and Hoffmann, M. 2017. Valuing the Contributions of Non-State and Subnational Actors to Climate GovernanceGlobal Environmental Politics 17(1): 1-20.

Abstract: Non-state and subnational climate governance activities are proliferating. Alongside them are databases and registries that attempt to calculate their contribution to global decarbonization. We label these registries “orchestration platforms” insofar as they both aggregate disparate initiatives and attempt to steer them towards overarching objectives such as improved transparency, accountability, and effectiveness. While well-intentioned, many orchestration platforms adopt a narrow conception of “value” as either quantifiable GHG reductions or relevant outputs. We offer a more comprehensive approach to valuing non-state and subnational climate governance that is rooted in recognizing the potential for initiatives to become far-reaching (i.e., scale) and durable (i.e., entrenched). We illustrate the comparative advantage of our approach with reference to a particular case of non-state governance: The Carbon Trust’s attempt to create product carbon footprints. By tracing the direct and indirect impacts of product carbon footprinting, we show that initial failures to generate GHG reductions or produce relevant outputs do not reflect the intervention’s broader impacts through scaling to other jurisdictions and entrenching business practices that contribute to decarbonization. Taking this broader view of “value” can help policymakers better understand and gauge the contribution of non-state and subnational climate governance to global decarbonization.

van der Ven, H. 2015. Correlates of Rigorous and Credible Transnational Governance: A Cross-Sectoral Analysis of Best Practice Compliance in Eco-Labeling. Regulation & Governance 9(3): 276-293.

Abstract: The number of eco-labeling schemes is rising dramatically, yet the rigor and credibility of such schemes remains uneven. Whereas some eco-labeling organizations (ELOs) comply with best practice guidelines designed to increase the credibility of their standards through attention to good operating principles, such as transparency and impartiality, others do not. Within this article, I attempt to explain this variation through multivariate regression analysis of an original cross-sectoral dataset of transnational ELO policies and practices. I find compelling evidence to suggest that ELOs with environmental non-governmental organization (ENGO) partners, nonprofit structures, or broad transnational reach are most likely to comply with best practices. I also find that private ELOs are more likely to disregard best practices than public ones. Conversely, I find little evidence that levels of industry funding or sector-specific competition dynamics affect best practice compliance. This study contributes new data, a new method of comparison, and new findings to the growing literature on transnational governance.

van der Ven, H. 2014. Socializing the C-Suite: Why Some Big-Box Retailers are ‘Greener’ than OthersBusiness and Politics 16(1): 31-63.

Abstract: Despite a considerable push by policy-makers to incentivize green business practices, take- up of environmental initiatives amongst North American retailers has been highly uneven. While some “big-box” retailers have launched ambitious environmental initiatives, others continue to conduct business as usual. This paper asks: why do some mega-retailers commit to ambitious environmental agendas while others in the same sector do not? And how can the answer to this question improve public policy? I investigate these questions using comparative case studies of four North American big- box retailers: Wal-Mart, Target, Costco and Kroger. My findings suggest that the socialization of senior executives through multi-stakeholder sustainability networks is the critical variable accounting for progressive environmental practices in some corporations and not others. This finding suggests that existing public policies that focus on making the business case for sustainability are based on incomplete assumptions about why companies “go green.” It further suggests that socialization theory can help explain broader instances of corporate social responsibility and proposes that scholars in this field should devote more attention to the composition of socializing groups.

van der Ven, H. 2013. Bringing Values Back into CSRBusiness Ethics Journal Review 1(16): 99-105.

Abstract: Why do companies pursue CSR? I concur with Christian Thauer that intra-organizational dynamics are important, but find his focus on managerial dilemmas unconvincing. I counter by suggesting that a renewed focus on managerial values can help explain CSR when external conditions are held constant.

Book Chapters

Bernstein, S. and van der Ven, H. 2017. “Continuity and Change in Global Environmental Politics.” In International Politics and Institutions In Time, ed. Orfeo Fioretos. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 293-317.

Abstract: To date, the tools and techniques of historical institutionalism have been under-applied in scholarship on global environmental politics. We argue that historical institutionalism can provide useful insights into the persistence of ineffective institutional arrangements, change in formal governance arrangements over time, and the broader condition of experimentation and fragmentation that characterizes contemporary global environmental governance. However, we also suggest important limitations to the kinds of puzzles historical institutionalism is equipped to address. Specifically, the resilience of certain norms that shape macro-institutional development in global environmental governance is better explained with reference to synchronous developments in the overarching normative environment. Understanding the influence of these norms is a task more aptly accomplished by sociological institutionalism or constructivism. We illustrate our arguments by rigorously tracing macro-institutional development and the evolution of non-state governance in global environmental politics from the 1970s to present. Ultimately, we suggest that bringing historical and sociological institutionalism into closer conversation is the best strategy for explaining patterns of stasis and change in global environmental politics.

Work in Progress

van der Ven, H. Greenwash or Governance? Explaining Procedural Credibility in Sustainable Aquaculture Eco-Labeling. Working paper.

Abstract: Voluntary sustainability standards and consumer-facing eco-labeling schemes play a growing role in governing transnational environmental problems, particularly in areas of limited statehood. However, the credibility of such schemes remains highly variable. Whereas some eco-labeling organizations engage in rigorous, transparent, and democratic standard-setting procedures, others do not. This paper explains variation in the credibility of sustainability standard-setting procedures for aquaculture. Through comparative case studies of three transnational aquaculture eco-labeling organizations, it shows that the types of businesses targeted by eco-labeling organizations have important consequences for the credibility of procedures used to create and manage eco-labels. Eco-labeling organizations that target large, downstream retailers and global markets tend to demonstrate greater concern for procedural credibility and adherence to best practices than those that target smaller, upstream suppliers in regional markets. My findings suggest that who is governed by an eco-labeling scheme is just as important for credibility as who owns or operates the scheme. A key implication is that credible eco-labels can come from industry sources, under the right conditions.

van der Ven, H. C. Rothacker, and B. Cashore. Does Non-State Market-Driven Governance Create Unintended Land Use Impacts? Lessons from Fisheries, Palm Oil, Sugar, Cocoa and Forestry. Working paper.

Abstract: Non-state market-driven (NSMD) governance systems address some of the planet’s most pressing environmental challenges. Existing research on these systems has largely focused on their emergence, development, and intra-sector competition. The purpose of this paper is to assess the potential unintended impacts of NSMD systems on broader questions of land use policy. This issue has come to the fore in recent years through charges that companies operating in global value chains – often the same ones promoting NSMD systems – are engaging in “land grabs” (both legal and illegal) that disempower communities and limit broader prospects for biodiversity conservation. In this paper, we ask: what is the effect of NSMD systems on land use in general? We address this question through a detailed historical analysis of NSMD systems in the fisheries, palm oil, sugar, cocoa, and forestry sectors and by assessing whether, when, and how these systems interact and impact land use change within the same geographic landscape. We are particularly interested in how different land conversion “cut off dates” may have inadvertently fostered land use change that increases deforestation and reduces community “rights to resources.” We expect to draw theoretical and practical insights for the study of “impacts” in transnational sustainability governance.