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date: 20 October 2017

Ecological Modernization and the Politics of Sustainable Development in the Global Palm Oil Industry

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

The global palm oil industry has been the target of vociferous criticism from various local and international commentators for its role in the Southeast Asian 2015 haze crisis, as well as for environmental degradation and social conflict in large parts of the global South. In the face of negative media attention and public criticisms, the industry has made explicit policy intentions to embrace more sustainable practices. This is demonstrated in the increased membership to the leading certification body, the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil, and the creation of the Sustainable Palm Oil Manifesto by five of the largest firms. The backdrop to the policy transformation is an emerging politics of sustainable development: a clear recognition of the need for the sustainable production of palm oil at international and national levels, while facing up to the localized political realities of economies reliant on the export of primary commodities. In light of the actual and intended changes in palm oil environmental governance, three related questions are raised and need to be addressed: First, to what extent is the global palm oil industry an example of so-called “ecological modernization,” whereby environmental problems are solvable within the context of existing institutions, power structures, and continued economic growth? Second, in countries that produce and consume palm oil, how are the politics of sustainable development shaping the emergence and adoption of sustainability discourses? Third, in terms of the heterogeneity of palm oil producers in the sectors and geographies in which they operate, how inclusive are current sustainability narratives and the specific mechanisms to support the transition towards the sustainable production of palm oil? The arguments made are supported by a review of corporate environmental governance, company policies, government reports, grey literature produced by non-state actors, and interviews with key industry personnel. In addition to a novel analysis of current sustainability trends in the global palm oil industry, the paper contributes to our understanding of the relevance and reach of critical social and political theories, such as the ecological modernization theory, in the context of the global South.