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Making a Market for Sustainability: The Commodification of Certified Palm Oil

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In the same way there are markets for carbon, there is now a market for sustainability. Ostensibly produced as a means of conserving land in South-East Asia, a commodity called ‘certified sustainable palm oil’ has been created by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and exchanged on its own international trading platform completely independently of the flow of physical palm oil. In this way, sustainability has acquired a precise pecuniary value and can be bought by ‘socially responsible’ companies to offset their use of conventional and potentially environmentally destructive palm oil. This is yet another instance of the commodification of nature, but of a kind largely unexplored in the literature because it has emerged without formal governmental authority. What this case adds analytically to the study of capitalism and environmentalism is two-fold. First, what is commonly described as non-state, market-driven governance must now be seen as actively market-making. Second, rather than foreclosing politics by moving outside the state and within markets, the fragile authority of the RSPO has opened space for activists and other interest groups to challenge both the regulatory mechanisms and social purpose of primary commodity governance.
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Keywords: certificate trading; commodification; market environmentalism; palm oil; sustainability

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL, UK

Publication date: July 4, 2015

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