How effective have transnational standards been in catalyzing improvements in labor and environmental conditions? This is the core question of Tim Bartley’s book, Rules without Rights, which engages in an in-depth examination of four cases across two countries—Indonesia and China—and two sectors—forestry and apparel/footwear. His research is based on an impressive range of both qualitative and quantitative sources, including 145 interviews with practitioners, audit reports, observations of audits as they were carried out, and several factory-level surveys and datasets.

Bartley concludes that transnational standards such as the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and SA8000 (social accountability) certifications have had only limited success in transforming labor and environmental practices. His primary explanation for this outcome relates to the broader theoretical message of the book, which is that both scholars and practitioners need to stop treating the countries in which these transnational standards are being implemented as “empty spaces,” “regulatory voids,” and “areas of limited statehood” (pp. 37–39). Instead, he contends they should be viewed as sites that “are crowded with actors, agendas, and rules,” including local firms competing for contracts, international and domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) pushing for reforms, and government agencies enforcing domestic laws and norms.

In Bartley’s view, such a recognition enables a more fruitful focus on the intersections between transnational standards and the contexts in which they are being applied. As Bartley convincingly argues, this approach reveals that transnational private regulation “ignores the domestic political economy in which factories and forests are embedded, and it pretends to bypass the state rather than grappling with the messy but essential character of state-based governance” (p. 32). This dynamic is clearly demonstrated in each of the book’s four cases, although in different ways.

The two cases in China demonstrate the effects that an authoritarian state can have on the effectiveness of transnational standards. Bartley explores how the “dormitory labor regime” and resistance to allowing freedom of association for workers by the Chinese state have undermined the ability of global brands and their auditors to push factories to meet the standards propagated by the Fair Labor Association and Social Accountability International.

The same dynamic is apparent in the context of FSC forest certification, which requires workers to be able to “join organizations of their choosing” (p. 129). This is “nearly impossible,” however, given the primacy of the state-backed trade union federation in China (p. 130). Compliance with FSC’s requirements regarding land-use rights is also constrained due to the top-down privatization of forests, government repression of villager resistance, and the lack of NGOs allowed to represent those villagers’ interests. Because of the willingness of auditors to overlook these issues, FSC certification at first grew rapidly in China, but has more recently declined due the government’s support for its own alternative certification regime—another example of how the local context is not an “empty space.”

The Indonesian cases further demonstrate this point by paradoxically showing how not only a dearth but also a plethora of local voices and NGOs has limited the implementation of transnational standards. Bartley explains that “democratization in Indonesia allowed civil society actors to push “for ‘maximalist’ constructions of compliance with private rules” (p. 32), which ultimately have constrained their broader implementation. This is particularly apparent with FSC certification, which has stagnated in the country amid widespread contestation over indigenous and customary land rights.

The labor rights case in Indonesia reveals an additional disconnect between transnational standards and their domestic contexts. While multinational firms and auditors have focused on labor reforms within particular factories, the Indonesian labor movement’s strength lies outside factory walls, in collective action through protests and legislation. It also highlights differences between the labor and forestry cases, which include the greater mobility of apparel/footwear production and the pressures of rapidly changing fashions. Bartley concludes that these factors have contributed to transnational forestry standards being relatively more rigorous than transnational labor standards.

His main conclusion, however, is that despite some successes in both the authoritarian and newly democratic contexts of his cases, private regulation has faced inherent limitations. He ends with an optimistic discussion of the new transnational timber legality regime, which he views as appropriately building on rather than ignoring domestic governance contexts. While well taken, this emphasis points to a weakness of Bartley’s overall analysis, which tends to underemphasize the normative effects of transnational standards. He persuasively shows that their independent and tangible impacts have indeed been limited, but he does not acknowledge or explore the more subtle and indirect effects they may have had on local and national discourses about labor and environmental issues. How have discussions of timber legality been influenced by transnational standards? The book also has more of a focus on the social criteria of these standards and does not attend to their environmental criteria in much detail. Arguably the story would be less pessimistic if it had done so.

Nevertheless, the strengths of the analysis—its theoretical contributions, use of mixed methods, and detailed case studies—far outweigh these weaknesses. Bartley’s overarching message of the need to pay more attention to the intersection between domestic governance and transnational standards is unassailable. Future research can build on this important work by analyzing these intersections in other countries and sectors, and by further developing a systematic way to comprehensively assess the effects of transnational standards—not only on specific factories, forests, and supply chains, but also on the domestic contexts in which they are embedded.