15 - Communities of practice as cause and consequence of transnational governance: the evolution of social and environmental certification  pp. 347-374

Communities of practice as cause and consequence of transnational governance: the evolution of social and environmental certification

By Tim Bartley and Shawna N. Smith

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When communities of organic farmers began certifying ecologically friendly agriculture, they could never have guessed how prominent the certification model would become. Nearly four decades later, consumers can buy products not just from certified farms, but also certified forests, fisheries, and factories – with standards pertaining not only to the environment, but also to “social” conditions of labor and community development. Firms interested in “corporate social responsibility” and “ethical sourcing” can now draw on a growing set of suppliers whose labor or environmental standards have been certified by an independent body. For their part, the certification associations that oversee this activity – the Fairtrade Labeling Organization, Forest Stewardship Council, Social Accountability International, and others – find themselves entwined in an increasingly elaborate web of transnational governance, layered with evolving rules about trade and standard-setting, competing initiatives, and a variety of questions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of their activities. Certification of quality and product safety has, of course, existed for many years (Cheit 1990), but the transformation of certification into a mode of social/environmental regulation has occurred mainly since the 1990s.

Most observers of certification initiatives have focused on a single sector or issue domain. Thus, we have a range of studies of forest certification, organic agriculture, Fair Trade certification, labor standards monitoring, and the sustainable management of fisheries. More general theories of this form often portray it as a solution to several types of problems.

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