Pacific Institute

International Environmental Law Committee Newsletter

The Emerging Role of Private Social and Environmental International Standards in Economic Globalization

Over the past two decades, a rapidly increasing number of people have sought to align their social and environmental values with their spending habits. This evolution in commerce encompasses the certified organic food people eat, the shoes and clothes they wear, and the financial investments they make for retirement. Partly in response to this new social phenomenon, companies and other institutions are increasingly searching for suppliers and partners with positive social and environmental practices.

In a world where businesses understand the clear benefits of being perceived of as good socio-environmental performers, companies will market themselves thus, even when this means baseless selfpromotion and/or outright deception known as “greenwashing”. In this emerging economic paradigm, how does one meaningfully and accurately differentiate the good firms from the bad? A significant part of the answer has been standards and the certification initiatives they underpin. In the globalized economic system, it has meant international standards. Who writes those standards – and monitors performance and compliance with them – is an important yet ignored issue. This article chronicles the rise of private international social and environmental standards in the globalization context, describes how these standards are evolving, and evaluates the strengths and challenges of these standards from a public interest perspective.

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