Academic journal article Canada-United States Law Journal

Towards Sustainable Consumption and Production in North America: Building Legitimacy through Roles and Responsibilities in a "Beyond Compliance" Operating Environment

Academic journal article Canada-United States Law Journal

Towards Sustainable Consumption and Production in North America: Building Legitimacy through Roles and Responsibilities in a "Beyond Compliance" Operating Environment

Article excerpt

And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to the suffering outside our borders, nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

--Barack Obama, 2008 Inauguration Speech


Sitting at the intersection of a number of disciplines, sustainability policy is characterized by learning and debating about what "environmental" problems mean for society. (1) In the flux surrounding mainstream North American policy responses to the de-stabilization of global climate and socio-economic systems, a fledgling discourse coalition is emerging around the concept of a "low-carbon economy." (2) While still in the early stages, it is not the first socio-sustainability discourse to eventually be institutionalized at the federal levels in the United States and Canada, as generation after generation attempt to reconcile socio-economic and environmental imperatives. Such institutionalized discourses (e.g., "pollution prevention") represent a moment of consensus within a particular institutional structure, most notably the environment departments at North American federal levels.

This paper begins with a discussion of the some of the key assumptions in the emerging low-carbon economy consensus, which it situates in the context of the existing discourse of pollution prevention as embedded in federal environment departments in North America. It then proceeds to analyze the connection between low-carbon economy tenets and those of the concept of ecological modernization developed primarily in Europe. Historical resistance to the application of ecological modernization approaches in North America is then reviewed, revealing divergent discursive manifestations of the appropriate role of technology, the relationship of humanity to nature, and individual and collective interests.

Transitioning from a review of institutionalized sustainability discourses, a political economy lens is used to identify the emergence of a "beyond compliance" operating environment for all actors, as the parameter setting function of the state declines (see section 3.1). Both driving this decline and characterizing it are new generators of marketplace legitimacy (e.g., visible logos and certifications), the structural deference by regulators to voluntary standards (e.g. the "strategic partnership" between the International Organization for Standardization ("ISO") and state signatories to the World Trade Organization ("WTO") Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade--see section 3.3), and supply chain imposed environmental and social risk mitigation measures.

This systemic reconfiguration takes us out of federal environment departments, engenders a blurring of roles and responsibilities, and raises a number of key questions for all actors moving forward in a beyond compliance operating environment:

1. What does a beyond compliance environment and a decline in parameter setting functions mean for accountability and risk mitigation? Can we actually entrust consumers/procurers with this responsibility?

2. Will low-carbon and ecological modernization approaches provide an adequate response to our economic and social sustainability challenges?

3. What does this mean for the United States and Canada's bilateral approach to economic development, as exemplified by the North American Free Trade Agreement?

Finally three potential intervention points are offered: (1) create new democratic North American regional institutions with specific projects related to standardization; (2) establish clear roles and responsibilities between the private sector, government, civil society, business and citizens in a beyond compliance environment; and (3) deliberatively re-vision the good life & the social compact at all levels.


Starting points can reveal a lot about an analysis. …

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