Published January 17, 2020
Errol Meidinger sees the big picture.
Much of the UB law school faculty member’s current research focuses on efforts to use “supra-governmental” regulatory systems, such as environmental certification and fair labor standards programs, to improve the social and environmental performance of businesses.
Meidinger’s newest book, “Transnational Business Governance Interactions: Advancing Marginalized Actors and Enhancing Regulatory Quality,” of which he is co-editor, is the latest example of this big-picture approach.
“The world is buzzing with efforts to get businesses to take better care of people and the environments they work in, but knowledge about how well these efforts work is very sparse,” says Meidinger, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Margaret W. Wong Professor of Law in the School of Law.
“We’ve catalyzed a global network of researchers working on these questions, and the book reports findings from 15 studies ranging across a lot of different areas. We are confident that it will be useful to activists, policy makers and researchers.”
Understanding and synthesizing studies of 15 different governance arenas by authors coming from a variety of disciplines and perspectives, Meidinger asks when and how these Transnational Business Governance Interactions or TBGIs — the complex overlaps, intersections and encounters amongst actors and institutions involved in the transnational regulation of business — can be harnessed to enhance the quality of transnational regulation and empower weaker actors.
Exploring developments in issue areas ranging from climate change to derivatives trading, and in industry sectors from agriculture to sports, this interdisciplinary book presents new empirical research, theory and practical insight into this question from 22 leading and emerging scholars of transnational regulatory governance.
Meidinger is currently co-teaching an intensive short course on environmental and energy transition law at the University of Freiburg, Germany, where he has been an honorary professor for 20 years. UBNow interviewed Meidinger via email about his new book.
TBGIs are interactions among a variety of actors who are trying to improve business behavior by setting standards, implementing them, monitoring compliance, sanctioning noncompliance and evaluating overall performance in a given business arena. These actions can be carried out by many different actors — governmental and non-governmental — and need to be understood in terms of the overall pattern they create.
It means at a minimum that transnational business practices leading to problems like environmental damage and worker abuse are drawing increasing attention and effort. But it also means that it is very complicated to know who is doing what, and whether the overall combination of governance efforts is actually leading to improvement.
They include government agencies and inter-governmental organizations. They also include many kinds of non-governmental organizations, ranging from local environmental and labor rights groups through national and global environmental and human rights organizations, individual businesses through national and transnational industry associations, and also many types of organizations that focus on specific activities like “certifying” good environmental or human rights behavior, setting standards for that behavior, monitoring it, and so on. Many of these groups are “self-appointed,” so to speak — they just do it.
That varies, but often it is poor people, ethnic and other minorities, Third World communities in global supply chains, indigenous groups, unorganized workers and others who have little voice in deciding the conditions they live under.
Sure. If things work well, the various actors carry out all of the key governance jobs: setting standards, communicating, implementing, monitoring, sanctioning bad behavior and rewarding good, evaluating progress, making improvements and so on. The process provides a lot of room for participation by all involved, and is able to adjust to new conditions or information. And of course, it should lead to improved conditions, whether environment, food safety, worker health, community well-being, or whatever. We find that some of the key things necessary to make this work include adequate resources for the various actors, compatibility of their capacities and goals, professional networks that share information, and a commitment to open and inclusive governance.
Effective governance is always an uphill battle, and lots of things can and do go wrong. The most basic problem is that self-interested actors have to be harnessed to pursue the collective good. But they are also pulled toward maximizing their individual interests — for example, professional certifiers may be tempted to put things in an overly rosy light to keep their clients happy; companies may cut corners to reduce costs and so on. Similarly, efforts to reduce marginalization usually mean reducing the control of those with entrenched power, and they often use their power to prevent that.
The challenge is to keep actors in one country from purposefully or inadvertently injuring those in another. This challenge keeps getting bigger as a result of economic globalization. Increasingly, products made in some countries are consumed in others, usually wealthier ones. Businesses in consuming countries often squeeze prices down so far that producers in poorer ones can only meet them by cutting all kinds of corners in working conditions, environmental protection, wages and so on. The benefits to consumers are often trivial. If they knew the true costs to others of saving a few dollars on a T-shirt (which they might even throw away after a few months), many would not want to do it. But usually they don’t know, and the effects happen far away from them. So, if we can help find ways to prevent cost pressures from further impoverishing people and destroying the environment, we will be much better off. And everyone will benefit, not just those who are currently disadvantaged. Very few will lose, other than those who are unduly benefitting.
Surprise, surprise, there is no silver bullet. The traditional approach of relying solely on governments has been an abject failure. The governance strategies we studied had modest effects, but they did demonstrate some ways of improving things. We found that if transnational governance actors have complementary regulatory capacities and compatible goals, if they build their legitimacy in the relevant communities, if they collaborate to pull together important information and expertise, and if they maintain open and inclusive governance arrangements, then they can indeed improve things. Those conditions are often hard to meet, but by no means impossible.
I was lucky enough to meet many memorable people. The ones who left the most lasting impressions on me are those who spend much of their lives going to problematic worksites in impoverished countries and trying to find ways to improve things. They are very impressive human beings.