Interdisciplinary workshops are always a good opportunity to discuss and exchange differences and shared perspectives on a common empirical research field. Such a workshop (“Transnational private regulation in the areas of environment, security, social and labor rights: theoretical approaches and empirical studies”) took place in Berlin, at the Freie University, at the end of January. Researchers of various backgrounds including sociology, international relations, industrial relations,  organizational studies and political science came together to discuss global developments and its local implications of transnational private governance in various empirical fields (labor standards, environmental standards and security)

The role of transnational companies and private actors in governance beyond borders is approached and conceptualized from a variety of theoretical and empirical angles. A shared language and common understanding has not yet fully emerged. To start this interdisciplinary exchange across different governance fields three set of questions have been discussed at this workshop:

A) Variety of theoretical approaches: combining different strands of research

How are different strands of research conceptualizing the changing role of companies as actors in the changing global governance landscape? What can they learn from other disciplines analyzing the role of the firm in societies, including economic managerial theories, economic and organizational sociology, political economy and industrial relations and vice versa? These were questions discussed in the presentation by Nicole Helmerich and Matthias Hofferbeth. It became clear that despite the huge amount of literature on the political and regulatory role of transnational companies in the era of globalization, (re-)combinations and (re-) integrations of the research field on transnational governance is only starting to emerge. This undertaking is further complicated as different approaches view the empirical field from different angles: Mainly research on transnational governance starts from “the global” and asks how global aspects get localized. However, “bottom- up” perspectives, which put a stronger emphasis on local contexts and actor constellations also become increasingly common. As in particular the Beitrag of Tanja A. Börzel and Jana Hönke showed, first attempts are made to combine more fruitfully these different perspectives.

B) Global normative dynamics

By now the emergence and developments of transnational governance arrangements are seldom explained with functional arguments of increased efficiency. It becomes more important to trace the (historic) developments, processes and discursive and contentious interactions which led to the evolution of these volatile transnational fields of governance.  The next panel gave several empirical examples on how various actors, including states shaped the meaning and practice of governance concepts. For example Kathrin Böhling has shown how the UN contributed to the diffusion of the idea of multi-stakeholder initiatives. Philip Pattberg has traced the emergence of the conception of climate change risks as business risks. Michael Fichter instead presented how cycles of negotiation between business and labor unions at various levels shape the meaning of what the right way to govern is and what the right thing to govern is. Overall discursive and contentious interactions contribute to the proliferation of certain forms of governance, despite their shortcommings in implementing standards and the high uncertainty about their contribution to solving initial problems.

C) Implementation deficits as a rule

The limits of transnational governance and the difficulties in implementing standards have been the subject of the second half of the workshop. The various case studies across different issue areas again showed that implementation deficits remain the rule, not the exception. Transnational regulation is seldom going “beyond” law, and rarely can contribute to increase compliance with the law. The case studies of Olga Malets on transnational forest regulation in Russia and Tim Bartley on Labor and Sustainable Forestry Standards in China discuss how the domestic contexts interact with and restrict the impact of transnational regulation. The reasons for that are manifold. They include national regulation undermining or conflicting with transnational efforts, lack and problems of coordination and networking across borders, procedures and how they are adopted into different environments, or power (im-) balances between actors. We still do not know enough about the conditions, which make governance beyond borders more or less effective and at which level (from the local to the global) the main reasons for that are located. In the discussions it also became clear, that there is no shared agreement on how to define and measure “effectiveness”, and how to detect compliance or non compliance in research sites often characterized by highly ambiguous and uncertain environments.

Moreover, as the last presentations of Sabrina Zajak on the case of China and Jerome Merk on the case of Indonesia showed, transnational regulation might not only affect those it regulates but also other societal actors and local power relationships. Future analysis should further specify broader and unintended, or unknown consequences (as intensions are often not clearly defined) of transnational governance arrangements.

Taken together, the various case studies portrayed the complexity of multi-level regulatory dynamics and stress the need for further empirical studies as well as theoretical conceptualizations which help to make these processes comparable across issues fields and countries.

List of Participants (with affiliations and links to their homepage):

  • Panel 1: Conceptual Issues in the Transnational Governance Research

The businessman whose master plan controls the world each day. Multinational enterprises and their actor images in International Relations, Matthias Hofferbeth, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main

The effectiveness of transnational private regulation initiatives in the area of social and labor rights. A literaturereview and proposition of a theoretical framework for comparative analysis, Nicole Helmerich, Freie Universität Berlin

  • Panel 2 Transnational Private Regulation

The multi-stakeholder approach in the United Nations: unprecedented perhaps, but not unexpected,
Kathrin Böhling, Technische Universität München

How Climate Change has become a Business Risk: Analyzing Non-State Agency in Climate Politics, Philipp Pattberg, VU University Amsterdam

Organization and Regulation of Employment Relations in Transnational Supply and Production Networks: Ensuring Core Labor Standards through International Framework Agreements?, Michael Fichter, Freie Universität Berlin

  • Panel 3 Local Implementation of Transnational Standards

Private Regulation with Chinese Characteristics? Labor and Sustainable Forestry Standards in China,
Tim Bartley, Indiana University

Between Local Effects and Global Effectiveness: What Limits the Transformative Potential of Forest Certification?, Olga Malets, Technische Universität München

From Compliance to Practice. Mining Companies and the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanja A. Börzel and Jana Hönke, Freie Universität Berlin

  • Panel 4 The Role of Local NGOs, Unions and Suppliers

Cross-border Anti-Sweatshop Campaigns and Local Bargaining in the Sportswear Industry: Negotiating a protocol on freedom of association in Indonesia, Jeroen Merk, Clean Clothes Campaign, Amsterdam

Private regulation and domestic labor NGOs in China, Sabrina Zajak, Max Planck Institute for the Studies of Societies, Cologne