Eco-labels have flourished over the past few years and today seem to be ubiquitous. We encounter them not only in groceries, supermarkets, and warehouses but also in catalogs of shipping cruises and advertisements for offsetting carbon emissions from flights or other environmentally harmful practices. Such labels promise that the offered bananas, coffee, or other goods and services meet a certain environmental standard or are in line with a given code of conduct. In Beyond Greenwash? Explaining Credibility in Transnational Eco-Labeling, Hamish van der Ven begins from his curiosity (which is nicely described in the acknowledgments) about whether the various existing labels really mean anything—a highly relevant concern in times of pressing sustainability challenges and raising awareness among consumers about the environmental impacts of their purchasing decisions.
The landscape of eco-labels is certainly full of greenwashing exercises, and van der Ven’s book takes these practices into account. Numerous companies have recently been confronted with accusations of greenwashing, which basically connotes that corporate claims to build on eco-friendly modes of production or service delivery are misleading or simply false. Yet, other companies obviously put considerable efforts into enhancing their sustainable behavior and also set standards for managing the environmental impact of supplier firms, potentially leading to a change of global value chains down to local producers. There is thus a large variation between the credibility of prevailing eco-labels, or, as van der Ven puts it, “credible efforts to address environmental problems often exist alongside superficial greenwash, and the two are frequently indistinguishable to casual observers” (3).
Assessing the credibility of different eco-labels across policy domains is an important endeavor, and van der Ven’s book takes up this challenge. To this end, he does not—as could perhaps be expected—look at the compliance of companies with particular eco-label standards but evaluates the adherence of eco-labeling organizations to so-called best practice guidelines. Such best practice guidelines are formulated by international organizations, nongovernmental organizations, and associations of eco-labeling organizations and entail various principles of good conduct related, inter alia, to accountability, inclusiveness, and transparency. Van der Ven argues that some eco-labeling organizations comply with best practice guidelines, while others fail to do so, which is why he treats these guidelines as “a reasonable proxy for the overall sincerity of an [eco-labeling organization’s] governance efforts” (17).
Based on these considerations, the key research question raised in the book is, “[W]hy do some transnational [eco-labeling organizations] follow established best practices more closely than others?” (3, italics original). Van der Ven situates his study in the literature on transnational governance. He understands eco-labeling as a prime example of transnational new governance since it involves quasi-authoritative rules, which are applied and spread by mostly private actors beyond national borders and jurisdictions. Owing to the absence of a centralized authority and oversight within this governance sphere, free-riding is a common and frequent practice. This framing underlines the relevance of van der Ven’s two research goals, that is, first to distinguish between credible and noncredible eco-labels and second to explain why some eco-labeling organizations are more reliable, others less so.
Building on an original database of 123 transnational eco-labeling organizations and a comprehensive theoretical framework to assess the credibility of different labels in two case studies, van der Ven draws one central conclusion. He contends that eco-labeling organizations with a larger transnational presence are generally more likely to adhere to best practice guidelines and hence possess more procedural credibility than those with a smaller coverage and narrower ambitions. In other words, those eco-labeling organizations “that aim big by attempting to certify a large proportion of a relevant global market are driven to closely follow best practices out of concern for both material consequences and demonstrating appropriate behavior” (155).
With this argument, van der Ven aims to provide a novel explanation for the variance in the credibility of eco-labels. While most existing studies point to agency and hold that it is most important who governs and sets standards in what context (e.g., governments, industry associations, certification entities, or nongovernmental organizations), his book highlights that who is being governed by private norms and rules also matters. Based on his empirical findings, van der Ven draws the wider conclusion that scholars concerned with transnational relations should devote more attention to “the targets of governance and not simply the owners or sponsors of governance” (161, italics original). This novel perspective is a major strength of the book.
While van der Ven’s conclusions are generally convincing, he does not elaborate in enough detail about how his findings speak to existing scholarship beyond his own theoretical and conceptual approach. Relatedly, the book remains relatively vague on the question of what exactly the empirical results add to the wider literature on transnational governance. The findings presented in the book do not challenge or question central assumptions of established accounts but rather refine and complement previous knowledge. The claim made on the book’s cover that the analysis upends conventional wisdom seems to be slightly exaggerated.
Nonetheless, Beyond Greenwash? gives some nuance to a vibrant field and offers a great read for students and practitioners interested in the potential and limits of transnational governance. All in all, the book constitutes a rigorous and painstaking investigation of the credibility behind eco-labels with several illustrative examples that bring more clarity to an unwieldy and rapidly changing research landscape.