Building legitimacy in an era of polycentric trade: the case of transnational sustainability governance

Luc Fransen and Natalie J. Langford
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#Trade and FDI
#Sustainability standards
Additional info: Politics and Governance
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Increasing multi‐polarity within global politics is understood to be a key contributor to the current legitimacy crisis facing global governance organisations. International relations scholars studying this crisis recognise that a prominent strategy to confront “Northern” dominance within this arena is through the construction of alternative governance institutions. Yet while the de‐legitimation of long‐established international organisations is widely discussed, there is less focused attention on how alternative institutions seek to gain legitimacy, particularly when they advance in fields where both “Northern” and “Southern” interests matter and beliefs about what constitutes proper governance may differ. This article analyses the field of transnational economic governance where the de‐legitimation of pre‐existing Northern‐oriented governance takes the shape of new initiatives backed by Southern actors. Specifically, we focus on transnational sustainability standards governing trade and production in the global economy. This global governance arena has been transformed by the increasingly polycentric nature of global trade, in which producers governed by sustainability standards cater to rapidly expanding markets in the Global South as well as markets in the Global North. As markets have expanded in emerging economies, transnational sustainability standards must increasingly navigate and respond to actors and interests within different geographies in order to gain and establish legitimacy. The recent development of Southern‐oriented sustainability standards (as opposed to established Northern‐led standards) reflects the existence of diverging perspectives on the appropriateness of established rules and procedures when it comes to the regulation of trade and production. These standards are seen as partially challenging established standards but may likely seek to establish legitimacy within the wider transnational field of sustainability governance. This article examines the case of a recently established India‐based sus‐ tainability standard known as Trustea to illustrate how various actors managed design and policy dilemmas to reconcile the preferences and beliefs of various audiences. The case illustrates the significance of both “Northern” and “Southern” audiences to Trustea’s legitimacy‐seeking strategies in the context of broader political contestations regarding how production should be governed in relation to sustainable practices.


Luc Fransen

University of Amsterdam

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