Current position. A rapidly growing area in the U.S. and abroad revolves around what has been called “environmental governance.” Here I focus on one such model. Delmas and Young (2009, 8) present a simplified schematic for understanding environment governance in terms of multi-level interactions (local, regional, national, international) among three main “actors” (public sector, private sector, and civil society).
Delmas and Young plot some interventions into Figure 1, drawing from the case studies in their edited volume, Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives, and their literature reviews. For our purposes, note the environmental arenas where multiple spheres overlap, particularly those related to what has been called eco-labelling, placed at the center of Figure 1 (the shared area of the three intersecting sectors):
One chapter in the volume (Auld et al 2009) gives considerable attention to eco-labelling interventions in terms of third-party certification schemes that ensure goods and services are sustainably sourced. We have programs that certify the produce is organically grown, the coffee is fair-trade, and the timber comes from forests sustainably managed. Such certification programs typically work on two fronts, first by incenting consumers to buy certified products, while discouraging them from buying non-certified products or services.
Recasting the role of eco-labelling. A major, persisting problem in the northern California Delta is deep concern over the reliability and safety of the levee (dike) system protecting island agricultural activities there. Nothing could seem farther away from the Delta levee crisis than eco-labelling, right? Wrong.
Imagine a third-party program (i.e., some organization different from the US Army Corps of Engineers, California Department of Water Resources, and Delta-based reclamation districts) that certified whether or not any given Delta agricultural land (broadly writ to include livestock, aquaculture and non-traditional crops) was protected by levees that met a standard of high reliability in design and maintenance. Imagine consumers would be encouraged to buy “levee-certified” goods and services and discouraged from buying those that were not so certified. Imagine, in other words, the same infrastructure element—the levee—but now having a different function than just “keeping water out.”
For example, the wider buying public in California and beyond would be encouraged to purchase only those goods and services from adjacent country entities that had supported levee certification in and around the Delta water intake for the county (or with respect to any county in similar circumstances). In like fashion, the wider buying public would be discouraged in purchasing from those entities whose goods had been transported on the deepwater shipping channels passing through the Delta to Sacramento and Stockton, if those firms did not support levee improvements up to third-party certification standards along those shipping channels. In parallel, the wider buying public would be encouraged to buy agricultural products only from those Delta islands that had been levee certified and discouraged from buying that which was levee uncertified.
By extension and where eco-labelling falls within a shared space of private, public and civil society sectors, one can imagine a similar role for eco-labels in improving other infrastructures providing vital societal services.
Auld, G., C. Balboa, S. Bernstein, and B. Cashore (2009). The emergence of non-state market-driven (NSMD) global environmental governance: A cross-sectoral assessment. In: M. Delmas and O. Young, Eds., Governance for the Environment: New Perspectives. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, GB: 183-218.