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UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Palm oil, eco-labels, and greenwash in a liberal environmental regime Ajayi, Deborah


Eco-labels and multi-stakeholder certification bodies have risen in prominence as tools through which the sustainable production of certain goods can be signaled to consumers. Consumers have accordingly been framed as key actors upon whom environmental custodianship rests, in what has been popularly termed the “individualization of responsibility.” Despite their seeming importance, I argue that ecolabels may be no more than a form of global greenwash, which is the practice of making unsubstantiated claims of environmental sustainability in a concerted effort to preserve or gain market share. I contend that they are instruments of liberal environmentalism which aims to unify disparate goals of economic growth and environmental protection. Moreover, I demonstrate that liberal environmentalism is indeed an extension of neoliberal and capitalist economic ideals that seek unrestricted market expansion, economic growth, and the accumulation of profit. Thus, eco-labels and certifications being a manifestation of a neoliberal economic order merely encourage continued consumption. Within the liberal environmental framework, individuals are encouraged to use eco-labels and certifications in making “green” buying decisions. I argue that given their current position in a neoliberal economic regime, certifications and eco-labels are ineffective for assuring positive longterm environmental change. I rely on the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) as the case study for this inquiry because the RSPO has positioned itself as the organization and industry standard that certifies sustainable palm oil. I find that the RSPO has failed to substantiate sustainability claims given continued environmental decline associated with palm oil production. iv Although there is a body of research on greenwash present in certifications and eco-labels, not many have attempted to uproot its source. This research, thus, aims to underscore the neoliberal underpinnings of certifications and eco-labels. Importantly, I hope to demonstrate that by relying on these tools as solutions to environmental degradation, we fail to address the structural and contradictory institutions that promote them, which disempowers consumers through the false narrative that asserts that individuals’ best avenue for environmental protection is through their shopping habits. Ultimately, this failure is dangerous for the environment and society at large.

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