Journal Papers

The Politics of Multi-Stakeholder Initiatives: The Crisis of the Forest Stewardship Council

Abstract: Multi-stakeholder initiatives (MSIs) have become a vital part of the organizational landscape for corporate social responsibility. Recent debates have explored whether these initiatives represent opportunities for the “democratization” of transnational corporations, facilitating civic participation in the extension of corporate responsibility, or whether they constitute new arenas for the expansion of corporate influence and the private capture of regulatory power. In this article, we explore the political dynamics of these new governance initiatives by presenting an in-depth case study of an organization often heralded as a model MSI: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). An effort to address global deforestation in the wake of failed efforts to agree a multilateral convention on forests at the Rio Summit (UNCED) in 1992, the FSC was launched in 1993 as a non-state regulatory experiment: a transnational MSI, administering a global eco-labeling scheme for timber and forest products. We trace the scheme’s evolution over the past two decades, showing that while the FSC has successfully facilitated multi-sectoral determination of new standards for forestry, it has nevertheless failed to transform commercial forestry practices or stem the tide of tropical deforestation. Applying a neo-Gramscian analysis to the organizational evolution of the FSC, we examine how broader market forces and resource imbalances between non-governmental and market actors can serve to limit the effectiveness of MSIs in the current neo-liberal environment. This presents dilemmas for NGOs which can lead to their defection, ultimately undermining the organizational legitimacy of MSIs.

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