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Accepted Paper:

Sustainability certifications, audit culture, and the performativity of impact assessments in global supply chains  
Matthew Archer (Maastricht University)

Paper short abstract:

Reflecting on the role of impact assessments in various market-based sustainability initiatives, this paper argues that the audit culture of neoliberal sustainability leads to a performative impactfulness wherein impact assessments do not merely describe impacts, but in some sense constitute them.

Paper long abstract:

Voluntary sustainability certifications are one of the most prominent examples of so-called non-state market-driven governance systems, which reflect a neoliberal belief (following Harvey's understanding of this complicated term) that markets are able to generate efficient, optimal outcomes in terms of social and environmental welfare. And yet, these certification schemes rarely generate the kinds of social, environmental, and economic impacts they promise to deliver. This inconvenient reality threatens the legitimacy of both standards developers and the corporations that rely on those standards in their sustainability claims, prompting these actors to carry out technically complex impact assessments to “objectively” demonstrate that they are, in fact, “making an impact.” Drawing on interviews and participant observation with people responsible for developing, promoting, and enforcing sustainability standards in the Kenyan tea supply chain, and paying close attention to the way this group of standardizers thinks about their own and their organizations’ impacts, this paper analyzes the increasing prominence of formalized impact assessments in the sustainability discourse through the lens of performativity. It argues that impact assessments, despite claiming to be merely descriptive, actually constitute social and environmental impacts for many people working in sustainability today, offering a different way of approaching audit culture and its effects.

Panel Pol03a
Beyond 'audit cultures'? New critical approaches to accountability, responsibility, and metrics I
  Session 1 Monday 21 June, 2021, -