Yixian Sun       孙一先

Private Governance in China: Limits and Promise of Transnational Standards to Promote Sustainable Commodities  

SNSF Doc.CH grant 162177

What are forces driving the uptake of eco-certification in China? And what prevents eco-certification programs to bring significant behavioral changes to Chinese firms? While scholars of environmental governance find that eco-certification programs such as Forest Stewardship Council have a highly innovative and startling institutional design, many have questioned the “on-the-ground” impacts of these programs, especially in the Global South. Others also worry that emerging economies as shifting end markets would further undermine the effectiveness of such private governance initiatives. Yet, research on China - the largest producer and consumer of many agricultural commodities in the world - remains scant and fragmented. My dissertation fills this gap in the literature of transnational private governance by investigating the adoption and implementation of eco-certification programs in China’s authoritarian context. 

Drawing on production and trade data, firm surveys, and interviews with over 100 practitioners gathered from fieldwork in many sites across the country, my research examines the factors affecting the uptake of eco-certification in China’s agri-food sector. I use a political economy approach to develop a theory suggesting that, domestic governance and supply chain characteristics are key determinants of the impact of private sustainability governance in China. The theory is tested by the empirical studies on three commodity supply chains - seafood, palm oil, and tea. All three sectors face significant sustainability challenges but have very different domestic governance and supply chain structures. Using a mixed-method strategy, I probe into firms’ incentives to adopt private standards and their challenges in the implementation processes. I argue that, instead of constituting a barrier, China’s authoritarian institutions can provide opportunities for private governance programs to explore linkages with some public policies and gain support from leading industry associations. However, my study also shows limited progress 
made by eco-certification programs in promoting sustainable production in China. The reason is two-fold: first, most small producers supplying the domestic market remain unfamiliar with the governance mode of certi cation; second, due to the lack of civil society groups, little information is available in Chinese society about businesses' actual behaviors, which do not always follow their sustainability commitments.

Given China’s importance in global commodity markets, eco-certification programs must transform its supply chains if they aim to make a meaningful impact on global sustainable development. By examining interplay among firms, the state, and civil society organizations, this dissertation advances our understanding about the effectiveness of eco-certification, revealing the potential and also limitations of transnational private governance in large emerging economies like China.

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