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Corporate Social Responsibility and the State: International Approaches to Forest Co-Regulation

By Jane Lister

Review By Chris Tollefson

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 183 Autumn 2014  | p. 180-82

Forest certification has provided fertile ground for social science research and scholarship since the early 1990s. Much of this work has focused on explaining the improbable rise and continuing global significance of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) that was born in 1993 at a tumultuous meeting of grassroots activists in Toronto. Since that time, a variety of competitor regimes have emerged and enjoyed varying degrees of success. These regimes include the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), the Canadian Standards Association’s system (SFM), and a global umbrella organization known as the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC).

To date, governance scholars have tended to emphasize the private regulatory capabilities and characteristics of these certification regimes, and the manner in which these regimes have assumed functions that traditionally have belonged to the state. The leading proponent of this view has been Professor Ben Cashore who, along with his colleagues Graham Auld and Deanna Newsom, coined the term “non-state market-driven” (NSMD) governance to describe these exemplars of new governance.

But does the notion of NSMD, with its attendant emphasis on private ordering and market forces, adequately capture the emergence and continuing vitality of these various global forest certification regimes?

In this well-researched and densely argued treatise, Jane Lister offers a dissenting view that in her words directly “…challenges the accepted NSMD theory.” Lister argues that NSMD theory ignores the reality that the prevalence and durability of these certification regimes depends on “state capacity and government engagement.” Instead, she contends, such regimes are more properly understood as “co-regulatory governance mechanisms” characterized by an intermingling of public and private authority (7).

In her scepticism about claims that the emergence of new forms of governance (such as FSC and PEFC) signals that the state is retreating or losing relevance, Lister is in good company: see, for example, the work of Neil Gunningham and John Braithwaite. Moreover, Lister is not the first governance scholar to criticize NSMD theory as a means of understanding the nature and dynamics of forest certification, particularly in its FSC variant (see Setting the Standard by Tollefson, Gale, and Haley at 9-10).

Still, Lister’s book breaks new ground by marshaling empirical evidence from Canada, the United States, and Sweden to show that governments, rather than resisting or ignoring emerging certification regimes, have increasingly chosen a strategy of engagement. She describes this “new political arrangement, one in which public and private authority coexist in an expanded multicentric political arena” (220) as “co-regulation.” One of their principal motivations for engaging, she claims, is to promote corporate social responsibility (CSR) in the forest sector (221).

Lister claims that governments in these comparator jurisdictions are co-regulating forest activity by “enabling, endorsing and even mandating forest certification” (220). If she is correct, this pattern represents a significant departure from the early days of certification when many (especially non-European) governments were more cautious, if not openly critical, about such regimes, most notably the FSC.

Lister is careful to caution that the CSR co-regulatory arrangements she chronicles are unpredictable and unstable, and are a “supplement to, not a substitute for, public regulation.” She also claims that the “business case for certification co-regulation is risk mitigation and governance improvement rather than measurable economic gain.” This is where Lister returns to the CSR theme that figures centrally throughout the book: certification, she claims, is no longer seen by forest operators as a “way of gaining market advantage,” but rather as a vehicle for promoting CSR and attendant benefits including stakeholder engagement and social licence (221).

Lister’s optimistic take on CSR and, in particular, her belief that FSC and PEFC are exemplars of a new and important wave of CSR initiatives (18) may prove controversial. Many would likely challenge her assertion that corporations pursue CSR initiatives in circumstances where they do not stand to gain market advantage as a result.  Moreover, she is vulnerable to the critique that her analysis conflates FSC certification with competitor regimes that may emulate but fall far short of matching it on a variety of corporate responsibility metrics. Likewise, her assertion that governments are motivated to engage, through co-regulation, with these certification regimes out of a commitment to promoting CSR (as opposed to considerations of international trade, for example) is also highly controversial. To her credit, however, to some degree Lister anticipates these objections and in her conclusion identifies these and other related questions as meriting further research.

Lister has offered a very distinct and empirically-grounded contribution to a governance theory literature that was entering its third decade and beginning to show its age. Her fresh, ambitious and provocative approach should be welcomed.


Braithwaite, John. Regulatory Capitalism. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2008.

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

Gunningham, Neil and Peter Grabosky, Smart Regulation: Designing Environmental Policy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998. 

Gunningham, Neil, Leaders and Laggards: The Next Generation Environmental Regulation. Sheffield, UK: Greenleaf Publishing, 2002.

Tollefson, Chris, Fred Gale, and David Haley. Setting the Standard: Certification, Governance and the Forest Stewardship Council. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2008

Corporate Social Responsibility and the State: International Approaches to Forest Co-Regulation
By Jane Lister 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011. 304 pp. $34.95 paper