In late May, the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies published my paper on the implementation of transnational voluntary forestry standards in Russia in its discussion paper series (From Transnational Voluntary Standards to Local Practices: A Case Study of Forest Certification in Russia. MPIfG Discussion Paper 11/7). In the paper, I attempt to deconstruct the process of implementation and suggest that the current literature has paid little attention to two social processes that accompany – or even constitute – the implementation of transnational voluntary standards: collective learning and stakeholder interest negotiation. Basically, I argue that previous research examines carefully various factors that explain why certain companies in certain countries commit to voluntary environmental standards, but has so far mainly assumed that once standards are adopted, the improvements in practices will occur (if there is a gap between standards and practice, which is most often the case, as some research shows). Instead, I suggest that implementation should not be taken for granted and propose a framework for understanding how companies and activists translate transnational voluntary standards into on-the-ground practices, particularly in a difficult context of non-advanced industrial countries. Empirically, I apply this framework to the analysis of the implementation of the Forest Stewardship Council’s forestry standards in Russian forest enterprises.

I start by identifying two problems that local advocates of transnational voluntary initiatives (FSC), and other implementing actors, e.g., companies, face when implementing broad global principles in a specific local context. On the one hand, when external actors question habitual ways of doing things and provide new rules, this may challenge the preexisting structures of authority and question preexisting knowledge that may lead to conflicts. They need to be solved before the standards can be implemented. On the other hand, new rules set in the distant transnational forums may appear alien to implementing actors and/or contradict national laws and regulations. In other words, new rules do not always make sense to implementing actors or pose a question how to follow both transnational standards and national regulations at the same time. For them, figuring out what new rules mean and how they are to be applied in a specific local context becomes a precondition for a successful implementation. Local actors have to find ways to cope with these challenges, or in other words, to fix what people have to do in order to observe rules. Theoretically, I draw on two bodies of literature: (1) translation literature in the organizational analysis emphasizing collective learning and knowledge building and (2) sociology and anthropology of international law focusing on the politics of implementation of transnational norms in a national context.

Stakeholder interest negotiation and conflict settlement, on the one hand, and collective learning and knowledge building, on the other hand, occur in different settings – both formal and informal – and require active involvement of skillful and knowledgeable intermediaries that possess enough capacities and navigate between the transnational and local level and are able to bridge the gap between the two and promote cooperation between groups with conflicting interests. In the case of forest certification, nongovernmental environmental organizations, both braches of international NGOs and “indigenous” NGOs – play the role of intermediaries. They mobilize stakeholders, persuade companies to become certified, mediate conflicts, support implementing actors in different ways (e.g., consulting), develop compliance guidelines, monitor compliance, educate company managers and auditors, and facilitate cooperation between different groups.

My paper also addresses the question how new knowledge concerning the implementation of transnational standards is constructed. I emphasize the creative and knowledgeable character of implementing actors and suggest that new knowledge is constructed in many different ways. Local practices are reframed in order to make them consistent with global standards; external practices are transplanted from other settings; and new practices are invented for local use through experimentation. Local actors commonly combine and recombine new transnational concepts and models with locally available concepts and practices, which helps them achieve compliance with transnational standards and at the same time legitimize their existing practices and follow national and local regulations.

Clearly, although I focus on creative translation of transnational environmental standards and knowledge building in this paper, this does not necessarily mean that implementation is a harmonious process that leads to the best outcomes and significant improvements in forest management practice. What I show in this paper is how standards are implemented. The evaluation of translation outcomes is a separate matter that I address in another paper that I plan to present at the 23rd annual meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics in Madrid in June 2011.

The discussion paper can be downloaded at the homepage of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies.