There is an ambivalence within political ecology about whether the unequal power relations that emerge from many development projects are intended or unintended. This ambivalence is a result of an empirical focus on the effects of these programs on target communities, as opposed to an empirical focus on the people who are responsible for developing those programs. Drawing on qualitative fieldwork among people tasked with designing, promoting, and enforcing sustainability standards in global agricultural supply chains, I argue that the empowerment of multinational corporations and well-funded environmental NGOs that characterizes market-oriented sustainability programs is, in fact, intentional. This intention reflects the belief among sustainability professionals that the intersection of western scientific expertise with the dynamics of “the market” is the most effective way to promote sustainability in global supply chains, and to generate global sustainability in a more general sense. Concepts like “stakeholder engagement” and a commitment to flexibility and accommodation in the development and adoption of social and environmental standards are examples of what I call euphemistic sustainability, which shifts critical attention away from a balance of power that is increasingly tilted toward private interests, even as that imbalance remains an intended outcome of non-state market-driven governance systems like ostensibly voluntary sustainability standards.
Bibliographical noteEpub ahead of print. Published online: 28 May 2021.
- Political ecology