On forests, corporate sustainability, and Rules without Rights

Spotlight: Timothy Bartley, PhD | Dept. of Sociology

Contributed by Bennett Rosenberg on July 13, 2020.

Where do forests fit into attempts to mitigate climate change? What does it really mean when a corporation promises to sell sustainable timber and paper products? Can these protocols effectively contribute to improved environmental management and global environmental justice?

Sociology professor Tim Bartley addresses questions like this in his research on global supply chains and corporate accountability. In 2018, Dr. Bartley published Rules without Rights: Land, Labor, and Private Authority in the Global Economy, a book analyzing transnational governance in sustainable forestry and labor standards. This book examines corporate standards and enforcement for fair labor and sustainability—and why they often fail. Among other things, Bartley’s research works to define the extent to which companies can improve their environmental and labor conditions by setting standards for their supply chain, especially in an era where corporations publicly declare their commitments to social causes.

People have historically turned to public policy as a solution to issues of environmental justice and climate change. Increasingly, we think of the private sector as able to accomplish this as well. Companies can protect their name by adopting their own standards and principles. Given their significant influence over their own supply chains, they can set regulations on their suppliers, just like governments on their citizens. In other words, there are private forms of policymaking that are also important to utilize in the fight against climate change and other justice issues.

In Rules Without Rights, Bartley focused his studies on Indonesia and China. In both of these countries, laws regulating labor and land (particularly forests) are exceedingly important, as they shape national development. Bartley interviewed parties involved with corporate activities and regulations, including corporate officials, third-party auditors, and leaders of non-governmental organizations, determining the real effects of private standards.

Voluntary standards are not isolated from public regulations. Bartley finds that the private sector inevitably clashes with the dictates of governments at some point, at least concerning land use protocols. The Chinese government, for instance, doesn’t appreciate third party auditors such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) telling them how to run their forests. Therefore, private markets are not truly a way to bypass stagnant governments. In Bartley’s words, private standards only make “a tiny dent” to the international issue of climate change. To make an impact at a necessary scale, the private and public sectors must work in tandem to “combine credible, rigorous corporate sustainability initiatives with commitments by governments to manage land in a responsible way.”

Bartley notes that there are actually plenty of laws on the books in most countries governing forest use, fair labor, and more. The primary problem is that they are under-enforced. Part of the solution, Bartley says, is that consumers and companies alike should push more for sustainable, equitable, and legally-compliant supply chain management. Additionally, we need a powerful global agreement that forces companies to realign their valuation of forests, treating them as indispensable carbon sinks rather than expendable resources.

When it comes to fighting the climate crisis, Bartley believes sociology is an important part of the tapestry. “We often imagine a technological fix,” he says, “but they’re never perfect.” Bartley points to the ever-arising conflicts about societies and social orders that new technologies generate. Questions about how governments and companies can come together around climate change and about how to create solutions from opposing viewpoints are “fundamentally sociological questions.”

Rules Without Rights was awarded with the 2019 Harold and Margaret Sprout Award for environmental studies, and has an honorable mention from the Global and Transnational Sociology section of the American Sociological Association.

Relevant Publications:

Bartley, Tim.  2019.  “Transnational Corporations and Global Governance.”  Annual Review of Sociology 44:145-165 https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-soc-060116-053540

Bartley, Tim (2019), “Introduction: Toward a Political Sociology of Land”, The Politics of Land (Research in Political Sociology, Vol. 26), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 1-12. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0895-993520190000026005

Bartley, Tim.  2014.  “Transnational governance and the re‐centered state: Sustainability or legality?”  Regulation & Governance 8(1):93-109  https://doi.org/10.1111/rego.12051

To see more, visit Dr. Bartley’s profile on Google Scholar.