In his recent paper, Tim Bartley (unpublished working paper, see references) argues that implementation of transnational standards, particularly in developing countries, often remains a black box. He starts by showing that some scholars imply that local conditions do not matter, while some others suggest that the effects can be read off programs’ principles and design. Using a case study of certification of forests and labor conditions in Indonesia, Bartley convincingly shows that neither is the case. Motivated by his contribution, I would like to reflect on why it is important to open up the black box of implementation. I focus on four aspects here: mechanisms, politics, implementation gap, and local actors. In part, I use forest certification as an example to illustrate how the study of the implementation of certification standards can enrich our knowledge of transnational governance.

Certification is a procedure by which professional certification organizations assess company practices against a specific standard and give written assurance that practices conform to the standard. Since the early 1990s, nonstate actors, i.e. firms, industries, NGOs, professional associations, have initiated several dozens of transnational certification programs aimed at promoting sustainable use of natural resources, decent labor conditions and respect for human rights. One of the pioneers of the “certification movement” is the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) that launched the first forest certification program in the mid-1990s.

The FSC developed global principles and criteria (P&C) of good forest management and a third-party system of verification of compliance. Independent certification organizations accredited by the FSC assess compliance of forest operations with FSC’s P&C. If compliance is verified, certification organizations issue FSC certificates, and certified operations can label their products as coming from well-managed forests. Several surveys show that almost every operation regardless of its origin, size, and ownership needs to change at least some of their practices (Newsom and Hewitt 2005). Yet the application of certification standards in local conditions has received relatively little attention.

This research problem is important for at least four reasons. First, addressing this gap helps identify social mechanisms, i.e. “recurrent processes linking specified initial conditions and a specific outcome” (Mayntz 2004: 241), that connect structural factors facilitating (or impeding) certification and changes in on-the-ground practices. Scholars have identified firm-, industry- and country-specific factors that shape company preferences for forest certification: company characteristics, such as size and ownership, market and product characteristics, export dependence, associational structures, NGO pressure and the role of governments (Auld, Gulbrandsen and McDermott 2008; Cashore, Auld and Newsom 2004; McNichol 2006). Typically, if companies export a significant portion of their products to countries where activists, media, governments and consumers perceive forest products as controversial, they are likely to certify their forest operations or to require their suppliers to certify in order to avoid controversies. Yet even when companies agree to implement FSC’s global P&C to achieve certification, they can rarely translate them into local practices in a straightforward way.

Broad global standards have to be implemented in specific local settings far away from international forums where there were designed. They have to be adjusted to local natural and socio-legal circumstances. It is unlikely that certification standards would be applied in a similar way in boreal and tropical forests, in privately and publicly owned forests, in countries with a strong and weak environmental movement, etc. Moreover, Schneiberg and Bartley (2008: 49-50) suggest that when adjusted standards can be reshaped and transformed in different ways. In the recent organizational and socio-legal literature, this process has been often referred to as translation (Czarniawska and Sevon 1996; Campbell 2004; Merry 2006). To sum up, the study of implementation helps identify the missing elements of the causal chain connecting initial local conditions and changes in on-the-ground practices.

Second, without examining how standards on paper are translated into standards on the ground we may be overlooking that this is not only a technical but also a political process. Certification may empower some actors, e.g. NGOs, local communities and indigenous people, and challenge authority or expertise of other actors, e.g. companies and governments. Since FSC requires reconciliation of economic, environmental, social and cultural interests, forest certification provides a window of opportunity to actors that have stakes in forests but have been previously excluded from global and local politics of forests. Forest certification offers a new arena where interests clash and are settled in order to successfully implement forest certification standards.

Third, implementation research suggests that implementation gap can be easily overlooked without a careful examination of the ways laws or standards, more generally rules, are translated into specific practices. Actors responsible for the implementation of specific rules can use different strategies to avoid compliance, e.g. delay and symbolic or creative compliance (Halliday and Carruthers 2009). In other words, even when actors agree to implement certain standards, it does not necessarily mean that the standards are adequately implemented and practices improve. This may challenge a thesis of ratcheting-up of standards (Braithwaite and Drahos 1999; Fung, O’Rourke and Sabel 2000). While environmental, labor and social standards may have ratcheted up during last decades, it does not automatically mean that on-the-ground practices have improved accordingly.

Finally, the role of local actors responsible for the implementation of standards has not been properly analyzed in the existing literature on forest certification. Not only can they avoid implementing standards and thus create an implementation gap. They can also contribute to the reformulation of standards and production of new knowledge. During implementation, local actors may detect inconsistencies and contradictions in standards. This may trigger additional rounds of standard-setting and reform both at the national and transnational levels. This process is similar to what Halliday and Carruthers (2007) call the recursivity of law. They suggest that contradictions in law, ambiguity of law and tensions between lawmaking and law-implementing actors trigger new cycles of national lawmaking. Moreover, implementation generates new knowledge that actors moving horizontally between localities and vertically between governance system levels can transfer to new locations. New knowledge may also set off standard reforms and enable innovation across settings within one country and across borders. It is also possible that private standards may spill over into public standards.

Naturally, these four reasons – mechanisms, political aspects of implementation, implementation gap and the role of local actors – are not exhaustive. Moreover, these are rather ideas that need to be turned into research questions or hypotheses and be tested. Moreover, although current research has focused mainly on the top of what Tim Bartley calls the “governance chain” that connects global forums and local settings, it would be unfair to argue that no research has been done on the implementation, or translation, of transnational public and private standards for human rights, environment and labor rights. There are a number of excellent studies focusing on the realization of global norms in specific local settings. Many of them deal with the experience of the countries often referred to as developing or transition, e.g. Merry (2006) or Espach (2009). Yet more research in this direction is required if we want to shed light on broad issues of private regime effectiveness, including what private governance actually achieves, how the global interacts with the local and what shapes the outcomes of this interaction.



Auld, Graeme, Lars H. Gulbrandsen, and Constance L. McDermott. 2008. “Certification Schemes and the Impacts on Forests and Forestry.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 33:187-211.

Bartley, Tim. Unpublished Working Paper. “Transnational Private Governance in Practice: The Limits of Forest and Labor Standards in Indonesia.” Department of Sociology, Indiana University-Bloomington (retrieved January 2010).

Braithwaite, John, and Peter Drahos. 1999. “Ratcheting Up and Driving Down Global Regulatory Standards.” Development 42:109-114.

Campbell, John L. 2004. Institutional Change and Globalization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Cashore, Benjamin, Graeme Auld, and Deanna Newsom. 2004. Governing Through Markets: Forest Certification and the Emergence of Non-State Authority. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Czarniawska, Barbara, and Guje Sevon (Eds.). 1996. Translating Organizational Change. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Espach, Ralph H. 2009. Private Environmental Regimes in Developing Countries: Globally Sown, Locally Grown. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Fung, Archon, Dara O’Rourke, and Charles Sabel. 2000. “Ratcheting Labor Standards: Regulation for Continuous Improvement in the Global Workplace (World Bank Social Protection Discussion Paper No0011, May 2000).” Washington, D.C.: The World Bank.

Halliday, Terence C., and Bruce G. Carruthers. 2007. “The Recursivity of Law: Global Norm Making and National Lawmaking in the Globalization of Corporate Insolvency Regimes.” American Journal of Sociology 112:1135-1202.

—. 2009. Bankrupt: Global Lawmaking and Systemic Financial Crisis. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mayntz, Renate. 2004. “Mechanisms in the Analysis of Social Macro-Phenomena.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 34:237-259.

McNichol, Jason. 2006. “Transnational NGO Certification Programs as New Regulatory Forms: Lessons from Forestry Sector.” Pp. 349-374 in Transnational Governance: Institutional Dynamics of Regulation, edited by Marie-Laure Djelic and Kerstin Sahlin-Andersson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Merry, Sally Engle. 2006. Human Rights and Gender Violence: Translating International Law into Local Justice. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press.

Newsom, Deanna, and Daphne Hewitt. 2005. The Global Impacts of SmartWood Certification: TREES Program, Rainforest Alliance.

Schneiberg, Marc, and Tim Bartley. 2008. “Organization, Regulation and Economic Behavior: Regulatory Dynamics and Forms from the 19th to 21st Century.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 4:31-61.