The Politics of Resonance: Transnational Sustainability Governance in Argentina

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Mapping Participation in Argentina

The study of resonance poses a methodological challenge noted by social movement scholars: while framing strategies, standard-setting negotiations, and bargaining activities are empirically-observable, the effect of culture and ideology in meaning construction is an abstract process that needs to be inferred analytically (Snow and Benford, 2000, p. 59). Considering this, I unpack the resonance of sustainability initiatives in Argentina through an inferential analysis combining three pieces of data: (i) the qualitative involvement of Argentine actors in the organizational structures of global sustainability initiatives, (ii) comparison against the Brazilian situation, and (iii) the positioning and perceptions of primary and secondary actors regarding sustainability governance norms and programs. While (i) and (ii) are elaborated ahead, (iii) is presented in the next section, as part of the discussion of the effects of national political culture.

As an initial measure of salience, I analyze formal participation by Argentine actors in the organizational structures of three global sustainability initiatives: the UNGC, GRI, and ISO SR. These three initiatives possess four institutional features serving the study of resonance. First, albeit representing different types of frameworks (Rasche, 2009), the three initiatives are recognized in the literature as central intermediaries in the sustainability field and can be treated as institutional representatives of the sustainability agenda.6 The initiatives share a focus on environmental protection, social benefits, and economic viability, preference for market-based approaches, self-regulation, and entrepreneurial authority, and advance values of inclusiveness, transparency, accountability and deliberation (Abbott, 2012; Bartley and Smith, 2010; Gilbert et al., 2011). Second, while other initiatives concentrate on subcomponents of the sustainability framework, these initiatives address a broad spectrum of regulatory areas, as shown in Table 2.

Third, the three initiatives claim to represent an international consensus on sustainability governance. Their organizational structures purposely incorporate multi-stakeholder representative mechanisms that combine regional, national, and functional constituencies, which were used to trace actor participation. Lastly, none of the initiatives is certifiable (with ISO lacking even subscription statistics for ISO 26000), providing guidelines rather than formal requirements. This feature is expected to minimize ‘California Effect’-type dynamics in favor of norm-driven participation (Vogel, 2008).

My analysis reveals that by the early 2010s Argentine actors displayed a fragmented pattern of engagement with the formal structures of global initiatives suggestive of low resonance, with few relevant firms and civil society actors involved, few participants engaged in more than one initiative, scarce cross-sectoral collaboration, and limited links with international actors. This participation profile is transversal to all social sectors. On the one end, there is almost a total absence of labor or state actors formally engaged with the global initiatives. Argentine trade unions were not involved with either the UNGC or the GRI, and even in the case of the ISO SR, where national expert delegations included a labor representative, participation in official meetings was sporadic. A trade union official, belonging to the CGT, the principal and powerful Argentine trade union federation, attended the first ISO WG Plenary Meeting that took place in Brazil in 2005, but was largely absent from all remaining events. Similarly, no state representative has been involved in the standard-setting structures of the UNGC and the GRI until 2014.7 The government expert attending the ISO working group did not belong to a governmental agency or ministry, but was the head of the ‘Quality and Modernization Centre’ (FAM/CECAM), a small private consultancy implementing and monitoring quality standards in Argentine municipalities. This contrasts with the Brazilian situation, where the ABNT, the Brazilian national normalization agency, chaired the entire ISO SR working group between 2005 and 2010, representatives of the Ministry of Environment and the Secretary of Human Rights have been governmental advisors to the GRI, a representative of one of the largest trade union confederations in Brazil, Força Sindical, was a GRI’s stakeholder council member for a decade, and former President Da Silva gave the opening speech in the 2004 Global Compact Leaders Summit.

Involvement by Argentine business and civil society actors is indeed more numerous, but coordinating roles appear assigned to secondary organizations with limited capacity and influence. No major Argentine NGO has been directly involved in any of the three sustainability initiatives. For example, in 2012 the two NGOs participating in the Committee leading the UNGC national network were the Institute of Ethics and Quality in Agriculture (EticAgro), and the Argentine Society for Equity in Health (SAES). EticAgro is an organization created in 2005 focused on promoting ‘responsible’ agricultural practices by delivering seminars and training courses in collaboration with a number of universities. SAES is a small entity linking medics around issues of health equity and distributive justice (lacking a formal website). In 2014, these organizations were replaced by two other organizations of marginal visibility: the Rotary Club of Boulogne Sur Mer (a Buenos Aires suburb), and the Economics Association of Buenos Aires City. Similar low-profile actors are found among civil society participants in ISO SR. The civil society expert that attended ISO 26000 Plenary Meetings belonged to very small organization called Fundación El Otro, focused on national development and CSR programs. Notably, a local civil society scholar dismissed this organization as irrelevant, suggesting the possibility that their involvement in ISO SR was likely an opportunistic strategy to access corporate funding (San Andrés University, 2011, pers. comm., 14 September). Indeed, their website has not been updated since 2010 (when the ISO SR concluded), and their attendance to ISO meetings was financed by Red Puentes, a Latin America-wide sustainability advocacy network in turn supported by the Dutch development agency (SOMO, 2011, pers. comm., 15 May). In the case of GRI, two NGOs were directly involved in its governance structure: the Centre for Human Rights and Environment (CEDHA), and the Argentine Institute of CSR (IARSE). While the activities of IARSE regarding the GRI are limited to diffusion and training activities in the central region of the Argentina, CEHDA constitutes an exception, being the only Argentine NGO in the sustainability network with an active international stance, participating in both the GRI’s Technical Advisory Committee and its Stakeholder Council, and involved in projects with the World Bank and the International Financial Corporation (IFC). Moreover, CEHDA’s co-founder, Romina Picolotti, was Minister of Environment between 2006 and 2008.

The situation of business is similar, with no major Argentine firm or business federation having a relevant presence in the global initiatives’ multi-stakeholder structures. A number of firms have repeatedly participated in the Directive Committee of the Argentine UNGC network. By 2014 this included the state-owned oil company YPF, the large Argentine-Italian industrial holding Techint, the confectionery producer Arcor, the agribusiness Los Grobo Group, plus a myriad of TNC’s subsidiaries such as Telefonica, Petrobras, Unilever, and Carrefour, and a few SMEs. Notwithstanding, coordinating roles had been delegated to proxy organizations with low organizational capacity and limited representative character, suggesting little interest by Argentine business for directly engaging with these projects.8 Hence, the representation of the Argentine UNGC network has been shared between an executive of the Argentine Institute of Oil and Gas (IAPG), a small think tank supported by oil companies in the country, and the country officer of the UNDP.9 The business expert attending the Argentine ISO SR delegation, also involved in the UNGC national network, was the Director of CEADS (Argentine Business Council for Sustainable Development),10 an entity supported by a club of large firms, both of domestic and foreign capital. CEADS is also an organization with a permanent staff of a handful of individuals, very limited resources, and minimal public exposure. An interview with a CEADS’ representative indicated that its organizational activities circumscribe to systematize and communicate the experiences of its member companies regarding environmental and community projects, and report on some global trends (CEADS, 2011, pers. comm., 7 September).11 The other organization linked with two of the three initiatives is AG Sustentable, both a member of the UNGC national network and a GRI Organizational Stakeholder. As with the previous cases, AG Sustentable is a (very) small consultancy offering social reporting services. Sustainability reporting is a practice that large firms in the country have only embraced in the last few years: only six Argentine companies used GRI guidelines by 2009, though this number rose to 70 by 2014. By the latter year eight Argentine firms are mentioned as GRI Organizational Stakeholders, with only one company, Banco Galicia, being of relevant size (GRI, 2014a).

This landscape is particularly distinct for the Brazilian case, where a significant number of national industrial champions – some of them very large mixed-capital firms – have been involved in both the GRI and other sustainability initiatives. In the case of GRI alone, this involves companies of the size of Petrobras, Vale, Natura, Bradesco, Samarco, Banco do Brasil, Itaú Bank, Itaipú Binational, and the São Paulo stock exchange BOVESPA, as organizational stakeholders. One of GRI’s Board Directors, Roberto Waack, is CEO of the Brazilian forestry company AMATA and sits in the board of the FSC. Petrobras’ CEO occupies a place in the Board of the UNGC, and a Petrobras executive attended as the Brazilian business expert to ISO SR, a position previously occupied by a representative of Natura, the personal care giant. Similarly active has been the presence of civil society organizations. This is led by the Ethos Institute of Enterprise Responsibility, whose Executive Director sits in the governing board of the UNGC, hosted the first GRI’s national office until 2010, attended ISO SR, and has an extensive presence and contacts with local business and civil society, and with international standard-setters.12 Sustainability projects also involve relevant civil society organizations such as IBASE, a leading think tank that run a recognized social reporting standard until 2008, the prestigious FGV university, the Brazilian Association of NGOs (ABONG), the Brazilian Institute of Corporate Governance (IBGC), which organizes the Directors of Brazilian firms and hosts the GRI office since 2010, and the Akatu Institute for Responsible Consumption, an Ethos-sister organization who provided the expert representing Brazilian civil society in ISO SR and has links with SAI, UNEP and the World Economic Forum (Author Year, Grajew 2010).

This section not only confirms that the pattern of engagement of Argentine actors differs dramatically from the pattern in Brazil, but also delineates several features suggesting low resonance, such as the absence of actors of institutional weight and limited cross-sectoral links. The next section discusses these features in light of the dissonance of certain national political cultural elements with core programmatic aspects behind sustainability governance, in areas such as environmental protection, human rights, labor standards, and business-led regulation.

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