My research examines the role of businesses, NGOs, and standard setters in solving transboundary environmental challenges. This research program is inherently interdisciplinary and seeks to put elements of political science, environmental studies and business/management in conversation.
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 the traditional authority of governments and international organizations? And what negative externalities do the create? I address these questions across a number of related projects, reviewed below.
van der Ven, H. 2019. Beyond Greenwash? Explaining Credibility in Transnational Eco-Labeling. New York: Oxford University Press.
Abstract: Green frogs. Blue angels. White bunnies. Modern consumers are confronted by a growing array of colorful eco-labels on everything from coffee to computers. Yet, not all of these eco-labels are trustworthy. Despite the existence of well-established best practices for eco-labeling, many labels remain little more than superficial exercises in “greenwash.” How can consumers separate greenwash from genuine attempts to address environmental challenges?
Beyond Greenwash addresses this question by systematically investigating the credibility of transnational eco-labeling organizations across countries and commercial sectors. Using an innovative proxy measure for credibility that examines adherence to established best practices, Hamish van der Ven proposes a novel theory of rigor and credibility in transnational eco-labeling that upends conventional wisdom. He argues that the credibility of an eco-label does not depend on who creates or manages it – whether a government, industry association, professional standard setter, or environmental NGO – rather it depends on which types of businesses use the label. Eco-labeling organizations that target bigger, consumer-facing retailers tend to create credible eco-labels out of a desire to insulate their clients from critical scrutiny and gain acceptance in new markets. This theory challenges the conventional wisdom that only governments or environmental NGOs can create meaningful environmental governance and suggests that who is being governed matters as much, if not more, than who is doing the governing.
Beyond Greenwash brings original data, an innovative mixed-method research design, and a unique measure of credibility in transnational governance to bear on one of the most salient questions in contemporary global environmental politics. In doing so, it lends insight into broader debates in political science and international relations about when and how new forms of transnational governance can succeed in achieving their objectives.
Refereed Journal Articles
Sun, Y and van der Ven, H. Forthcoming. Swimming in their own direction: Explaining domestic variation in homegrown sustainability governance for aquaculture in Asia. Ecological Economics (online first).
Abstract: Agricultural commodity production in the Global South is accompanied by a range of social and environmental problems ranging from pollution and deforestation to labor rights violations. Accordingly, governments and non-state actors have responded through various governance initiatives aimed at promoting sustainable commodity production. While the existing literature focuses largely on transnational standards originating in the North, we investigate “homegrown” approaches in the South by asking: what explains variation in the design and features of sustainable commodity governance led by Southern actors? By comparing sustainable aquaculture governance in Thailand, Vietnam, and China, we derive a novel conceptualization of two distinct types of homegrown governance approaches – certification standards and capability-building programs – and suggest that the choice between the two is contingent on the supply of, and demand for, sustainable commodity governance. We find decisions by Southern governments to supply governance can lock in top-down approaches and exclude potentially more impactful bottom-up approaches. We therefore argue that the material resources and normative concerns of Southern governance entrepreneurs lead to different homegrown approaches. Our findings contribute theoretical insights to the literature on transnational governance interactions and practical observations about the utility of different approaches to sustainability concerns in the Global South.
Bullock, G. and van der Ven, H. 2020. The Shadow of the Consumer: Analyzing the Importance of Consumers to the Uptake and Sophistication of Ratings, Certifications, and Eco-Labels. Organization & Environment 33(1): 75-95.
Abstract: Why has the market uptake and sophistication of information-based environmental governance (IBEG) programs like eco-labeling increased despite mixed signals on the willingness and ability of individual consumers to support such programs? We argue that the extant literature on IBEG focuses too narrowly on individual consumer purchasing decisions to the exclusion of other mechanisms through which consumers, both as individuals and as an imagined collective, exert influence. As a corrective, we present a novel conceptual framework that highlights the different causal mechanisms through which consumers contribute to the uptake and sophistication of IBEG. We call our framework “the shadow of the consumer” since it suggests a more latent and indirect role for consumers than voting-with-one’s-wallet. Our analysis adds nuance and complexity to accounts of consumer agency vis-à-vis environmental ratings, standards, certifications, and eco-labels and helps explain the proliferation and growing sophistication of such programs despite the variability of individual consumer support.
Singer, A and van der Ven, H. 2019. Beyond market, firm, and state: Mapping the ethics of global value chains. Business and Society Review 124(3):325-343.
Abstract: The growth of global value chains (GVCs) and the emergence of novel forms of value chain governance pose two questions for normative business ethics. First, how should we conceptualize the relationships between members of a GVC? Second, what ethical implications follow from these relationships, both with respect to interactions between GVC members and with respect to achieving broader transnational governance goals? We address these questions by examining the emergence of transnational eco‐labeling as an increasingly prominent form of GVC governance that is redefining the relationship between nominally independent firms. On the first question, we argue that GVCs occupy a middle ground between intrafirm and interfirm transactions, thereby posing a challenge to theoretical frameworks that attempt to apply ethical standards based on transaction types. On the second question, we argue that this unique institutional status leads to a range of novel ethical considerations and dilemmas for GVC members. Lead firms, their suppliers, and third‐party standard‐setters all confront new ethical quandaries when third‐party eco‐labeling is introduced to a GVC. The nature of these quandaries means that, while GVCs may be well‐positioned to serve as instruments of transnational governance, they are frequently not well‐oriented to do so. Our analysis marks an initial attempt to map the ethical considerations that apply to members of a GVC, and in doing so, places the literature on normative business ethics and transnational governance in a closer conversation.
van der Ven, H. 2018. Gatekeeper Power: Understanding the Influence of Lead Firms over Transnational Sustainability Standards. Review of International Political Economy 25(5): 624-646.
Abstract: Do retailers and supermarkets hold power over third-party transnational sustainability standards? If so, what is the nature of their power, when and how do they use it and to what ends? Using the counterintuitive case of Walmart’s efforts to improve the Best Aquaculture Practices standard for sustainable aquaculture, I develop a conceptualization of business power that flows from the position of retailers and supermarkets as lead firms within buyer-driven global value chains (GVCs). This position affords them considerable leverage over transnational sustainability standards (TSS) through their ability to act as ‘gatekeepers’ to their networks of suppliers, thereby controlling the degree to which sustainability standards gain market
uptake. However, this power can be constrained or redirected by value chain and sector-specific conditions that may shift the balance of power towards other actors in a production network. As a result, lead firms may sometimes counterintuitively advocate for TSS that are more inclusive, independent and demanding. This article brings together the literatures on GVCs, global production networks, transnational governance and business power in global governance to offer an initial framework for theorizing power dynamics between multinational corporations and the transnational standard setters that seek to govern them.
van der Ven, H., Rothacker, C. and Cashore, B. 2018. Do eco-labels prevent deforestation? Lessons from non-state market driven governance in the soy, palm oil, and cocoa sectors. Global Environmental Change 52: 141-151.
Abstract: In countries marked by the growing uptake of non-state market driven (NSMD) governance for agricultural commodities (i.e., eco-labels and certification systems), forested areas are steadily decreasing while crop lands are growing. This deforestation continues despite NSMD rules aimed at prohibiting the conversion of forested land to agriculture. In this paper, we ask why the growing presence of NSMD governance has coincided with ongoing deforestation. While the seeming inability of NSMD governance to halt broader patterns of land use change can be partially explained by a lack of market uptake, there are also a range of other variables that may contribute to this relationship. We probe the plausibility of five hypotheses through comparative case studies of sustainable soy certification in Brazil, palm oil in Indonesia, and cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire. Our findings indicate that NSMD governance has neither abetted, nor hindered, the conversion of forested land to agricultural production. We find strong evidence that a lack of broad market uptake limits the effectiveness of NSMD governance. However, we also find evidence that regulatory loopholes in NSMD systems may explain the inability of eco-labels and certification systems to halt broader patterns of land use change in countries with comparatively strong market uptake. Our results highlight critical problems related to expanding the reach and stringency of NSMD governance alongside the ongoing fragmentation of global environmental governance. The study contributes to scholarship on the impacts and effectiveness of transnational environmental governance.
van der Ven, H. and Cashore, B. 2018. Forest Certification: The Challenge of Measuring Impacts. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 32: 104-111.
Abstract: This article begins by situating forest certification within a broader set of forest governance institutions and innovations. It then examines how certification has been practiced to date, before investigating whether, when, and how it has achieved its intended impacts. Doing so reveals a number of gaps in existing knowledge that stem from narrow conceptualizations of impacts, limitations of available data, and epistemological challenges inherent to particular research designs. As a corrective, we propose a three pronged approach to improving impacts research that involves collecting better data, expanding the indicators under observation, and affording a greater role to concept and theory building that draws on mixed-method research to highlight slow-moving, multi-level, historical processes that result in important, but often under-analyzed, impacts.
Bernstein, S. and H. van der Ven. 2017. Best Practices in Global Governance. Review 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 Governance. Global 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 Others. Business 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 CSR. Business 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.
van der Ven, H. 2019. “Private Accountability in Global Value Chains.” In Global Environmental Governance and the Accountability Trap, eds. S. Park and T. Kramarz. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 63-85.
Abstract: This chapter analyzes the complex accountability relationships that exist among actors within, and adjacent to, global value chains. It argues that environmental goals are often subsumed by a narrower logic of action underlying accountability mechanisms. In this case, the economic consequences that provide a strong imperative for accountability also distort the original goal of accountability as it moves up a value chain. In this way, accountability in global value chains often resembles a game of “broken telephone”, wherein an original message becomes more distorted with each new transmission. A key implication is that while accountability exists at each level of a global value chain, it normally falls short of achieving the type of on-the-ground environmental improvements that it is intended to produce.
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
Cashore, B., Steen Knudsen, J., Moon, J., and van der Ven, H. Private Authority and Public Policy in Global Context: Governance Spheres for Problem Solving. Special issue in progress.
Abstract: The past thirty years have witnessed a remarkable transformation in global governance. Whereas states were once the primary rule makers in the international system, presently, many of the norms and rules through which humans manage complex global environmental, social, and economic problems are created both by and for non-state actors. After a generation of research, scholars increasingly recognize that to better understand the effects of private governance, attention must be turned from assessing its legitimacy and authority to examining its interactions with traditional state-led public policy. There is now a burgeoning interest in theorizing, and empirically assessing, how the expanded political authority of businesses and civil society organizations will impact the traditional authority of states. This special issue asks: how are private governance initiatives interacting with conventional state-led attempts to solve transboundary problems through domestic public policy and international law? On one hand, scholars recognize the functional potential of private governance in filling gaps in public policy efforts around critical governance challenges. On the other hand, there is a risk of countervailing impacts wherein private governance could limit or supplant more impactful public policies. Uncovering the true nature of the interactions between private governance and public policy is vital for understanding how much political emphasis should be placed on private solutions to global challenges and how central the nation-state remains to global governance.
Cashore, B., Sun, Y., and van der Ven, H. eds. Sustainable Commodity Governance and the Global South. Special issue in progress.
Abstract: Rising levels of global consumption have precipitated a range of escalating sustainability challenges in the Global South, including deforestation, water pollution, food insecurity, hazards to worker health and safety, and biodiversity loss. Many of these challenges are associated with the production of export commodity products including: coffee, cocoa, gold, sugarcane, seafood, tea and timber. To date, efforts to address these challenges have frequently taken the form of non-state market-driven (NSMD) governance initiatives that create sustainability standards and certify firms and producers who are in compliance with these standards by awarding eco-labels. NSMD governance is focused on embedding social and environmental stewardship in the global value chains of commodity products. While these initiatives are often intended to respond to sustainability crises in the Global South, they are overwhelmingly initiated and managed by organizations in the Global North. Accordingly, a disproportionate amount of the research on NSMD initiatives has focused on Northern actors, with a particular emphasis on forestry and fisheries schemes in developed countries. By contrast, the agency and initiative of Southern actors in addressing sustainability challenges has received less scholarly attention. This special issue will correct this imbalance by asking: how have actors in the Global South responded to sustainability challenges associated with commodity production? And to what ends?