Sensing reality? New monitoring technologies for global sustainability standards

Fred Gale, Francisco Ascui, Heather Lovell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

In the 1990s, civil society organizations partnered with business to ‘green’ global supply chains by setting up formal sustainability standard-setting organizations (SSOs) in sectors like organic food, fair trade, forestry and fisheries. While SSOs have withstood the long-standing allegations that they are unnecessary, costly, non-democratic and trade-distorting, they must now respond to a new challenge arising from recent developments in technology. Conceived in the pre-Internet era, SSOs are discovering that verification systems that utilize annual, expert-led, low-tech field audits are under pressure from new information and communication technologies that collect, aggregate, interpret and display open-source ‘Big Data’ in almost real time. Drawing on the concept of governmentality and interviews with experts in sustainability certification and natural capital accounting, the paper argues that while these technological developments offer many positive opportunities, they also enable competing alternatives to the prevailing ‘truth’ or governing rationality about what is happening ‘on the ground’, which is of critical existential importance to SSOs as guarantors of trust in claims about sustainable production. While SSOs are not helpless in the face of the challenge, the paper concludes that they will need to take more than incremental action, and actively respond to the disintermediation challenge from new virtual monitoring technologies in order to remain relevant in the coming decade.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)65-83
JournalGlobal Environmental Politics
Issue number2
Early online date2 May 2017
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


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