Research Highlight The dark side of multistakeholder initiatives for sustainable supply chains

Collaborative efforts by coalitions of different actors are touted as the best way to address societal grand challenges such as deforestation or labour rights violations. But a study uncovering the subtle forms of influence and power within such a multistakeholder initiative in the palm oil sector shows how ambiguous their role is.

Whether for coffee, soy, timber, cotton or any number of other materials, the trend toward global sourcing has spawned more complex, fragmented supply chains. It has also accelerated environmental and social damage in the form of poor working conditions, deforestation and a host of other formidable problems.

Who is to blame, and more importantly, who is to fix the mess? Literature on supply chain management traditionally holds ‘focal companies’ – supply chain heavyweights like Nestlé or Unilever – not only accountable for environmental and social malpractices, but also responsible for fostering the transition towards more sustainable practices. In other terms, they are both the villains and the heroes of sustainability in supply chains, because of the sheer power they are able to exert over other players upstream and downstream.

Reshuffling the cards of responsibility for sustainability?

But an emerging stream of work recognizes that embracing the complexity of sustainability requires enlisting multiple, non-traditional stakeholders, for example not-for-profit organizations, regulators, social enterprises and scientific institutions. These interconnected networks of heterogeneous actors with diverse expertise are known as multistakeholder meta-organizations (MS-MOs). Examples include the Forest Stewardship Initiative, the Better Cotton Initiative and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).

In theory, such meta-organizations promote cooperation and knowledge transfer, produce their own regulations, make decisions by consensus and function by ‘heterarchy’ rather than hierarchy. As such, they offer an emergent, collective and collaborative-based perspective, that may replace the traditional, hierarchical, power-based approach. In fact, most current research seems to praise MS-MOs as the optimal solution to tackle complex global issues, from ocean conservation to labour rights violations.

But are such inclusive networks really a ‘magic bullet’? A trio of researchers challenges this optimistic view. In a paper included in Liliane Cabrini Carmagnac’s thesis (rewarded with the 2021 thesis prize of the International Association for Research in Logistics and Supply Chain Management) and recently published in M@n@gement, Liliane Carmagnac, her thesis supervisor Valentina Carbone and Anne Touboulic examine how MS-MOs reshape the ways in which the responsibility for sustainability is constructed and attributed in supply chains.

The power of corporate discourses

To address this question, the researchers adopted a discursive perspective, “with a Foucauldian view of power at its core, which posits the inextricability of narrative and practice.” Focusing on discourse (simply put, what is said), they write, is “an effective way to investigate power dynamics within and between organizations.”

Indeed, regarding supply chain sustainability, the so-called performative nature of corporate discourses is well researched: they “serve to construct and enact socio-environmental practices, i.e. self-regulation, that can be passed on to others, such as large buying firms imposing sustainability requirements on their suppliers,” point out the authors. They cite numerous codes of conduct, for instance those that UKK retailers Waitrose and Tesco impose unilaterally upon farmers and other suppliers. In other words, the discursive power of Western multinational companies allows them to define the rules of the game.

But what about the discursive practices of MS-MOs? Does the supposedly more democratic decision-making process mean that responsibility attribution is collectively negotiated?

Unpacking the discursive strategy of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil

Professors Carmagnac, Touboulic and Carbone focused on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the most established and successful MS-MO in its sector. The RSPO has certified 19% of the total palm oil market and brought more than 5,000 heterogeneous members together, including sponsors, universities, retailers, growers and NGOs. As a reminder, the sector is associated with issues such as land-grabbing, deforestation and high carbon emissions.

The researchers analysed 69 videos and conducted an additional 22 interviews with RSPO members and staff about addressing sustainability issues. What they found is disheartening.

Overall, the smallholders (small-scale farmers who rely on family labour and depend on the oil palm crop for subsistence) are depicted as poor and uneducated, and associated with negative issues such as human exploitation or the use of chemicals. “The videos have been carefully edited to reinforce such representations,” argue the researchers, who include telling screenshots in their article.

MS-MOs tend to reproduce and even exacerbate domination and paternalistic patterns and, in so doing, continue to give primacy to the interests and role of focal firms, exerting control over marginalised stakeholders.

At the other end of the supply chain, consumers – whose voices are in fact absent – are portrayed as greedy, unaware and naïve, and “sustainability topics associated with these actors are framed around products with ‘bad’ [uncertified] palm oil.”

Traditional supply chain actors are large-scale growers, manufacturers, and retailers including Unilever, which consumes 3% of the global palm oil supply, and five Indonesian traders which together control 90% of the market. Although they appear as the main characters in the interview videos, they barely discuss their own role and are portrayed as “a simple link between the two extremes of the supply chain,” as if hiding in “the RSPO black box.” There is, note the researchers, “an interesting contrast between their conspicuous absence from the RSPO discourse and the fact that these actors not only fill most seats on the board of governors but also outvote other members and dominate the decision-making process.”

The image of the RSPO itself is crafted as the only practical and legitimate solution and as a credible global standard.

Increasing opacity and power plays

These results suggest that the RSPO constructs and deploys a hegemonic discourse that allocates responsibility for sustainable practices to the two extremes of the supply chain and “provides a shield for focal firms who have traditionally been held responsible for ensuring sustainability along the supply chain.” Smallholders and consumers are exhorted to become the new heroes of sustainability, without being given any actual agency, while the focal companies are able to maintain their authority over the meanings and practices of sustainability in supply chains.

Instead of reshaping approaches to management and responsibility, the MS-MO tends to “increase opacity and power plays,” assert the researchers. In other terms, it reproduces and exacerbates the existing imbalance of power in supply chains.


Liliane Carmagnac Liliane Carmagnac Assistant Professor of Supply Chain Management at Excelia Business School, ESCP Business School PhD graduate.
Anne Touboulic Anne Touboulic Associate Professor in Operations Management at Nottingham University Business School.
Valentina Carbone - ESCP Business School Valentina Carbone Professor of Sustainability and Supply Chain Management at ESCP Business School.