Category Archives: Research

AESS 2014: Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences in NYC

12138_AESS-2014-Conference-HeaderI attended the fifth annual meeting of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) last month.  I had attended the inaugural meeting in Wisconsin in 2009 and the third meeting in Santa Clara in 2011, and had very much enjoyed these interdisciplinary gatherings of scholars who study the environment and society.  This meeting was hosted by Pace University in New York City, which was a nice change of pace from the less urban venues of past meetings.

I spoke on a panel focused on environmental policy, and presented some of my research on “The Meaning of  Embedded Values in Environmental Certifications and Ratings.”  It was a great opportunity to talk about my plans for the second chapter of my book manuscript, which analyzes the development of information-based environmental governance strategies.  In this particular chapter, my goal is to explore the role of values in determining the extent to which consumers and organizations pay attention and respond to sustainability ratings and labels.  I mapped out some of the ideas I want to cover in the chapter in the presentation, and received some helpful questions and feedback that I am looking forward to incorporating into my next draft.

I also attended several other interesting panels at AESS, including ones on the Montreal Protocol, sustainable business, synthetic chemicals and society,  and US climate policy.  One of the highlights of the meeting was the field trip I went on to the new Sims Recycling Plant in Brooklyn.  It was an odoriferous but fascinating tour of where now much of New York City’s recyclable materials goes for processing.  Supposedly it is the largest recycling facility of its kind in the US.  They have an educational exhibit and classroom for local schoolkids and citizens (and environmental studies conference participants) to learn more about the recycling process.  See the photos below for a glimpse into that process — and a great view of NYC from the facility!

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ISEAL’s Global Sustainability Standards Conference

20140521_141048In May, I attended ISEAL’s Global Sustainability Standards Conference in London, England.  ISEAL is an alliance of standards organizations, such as FairTrade International, the Rainforest Alliance, and the Forest Stewardship Council, that is working to “to strengthen sustainability standards systems for the benefit of people and the environment.”  Amy Jackson, ISEAL’s Senior Credibility Manager, had invited me last year to speak on a panel at the conference, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more about the organization, meet both practitioners and scholars working on sustainability standards, and share some insights from my research.

The title of the panel was “The Claims Jungle,” and focused on “how to improve consistency and trust in claims and labeling and avoid label confusion and misleading claims.”  I was fortunate to have three distinguished individuals with me on the panel with rich and diverse sets of experiences relating to sustainability standards –

  • Amanda Long, Executive Director, Consumers International
  • Adam Lavis, Senior Policy Adviser – Sustainable Business, UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
  • Blake Lee-Harwood, Communications & Strategy Director, Sustainable Fisheries Partnership

My talk started off the session, and provided an overarching framework for thinking about the current “claims jungle.”  It also laid a foundation for the insights from the other panelists and their various backgrounds.  Our combination of academic, consumer, government, business, and NGO perspectives made for a great blend of perspectives on the cacophony of labels that have emerged in recent years.

The rest of the conference was engaging as well — representatives from businesses such as IKEA, McDonalds, Chipotle, Mars, and HSBC, advocacy organizations such as Greenpeace and WWF, and a host of  certification organizations spoke at a wide range of plenary and breakout sessions.  While I didn’t see any “magic bullets” to the challenges that sustainability standards face, it was clear that there are many innovative efforts to to make these standard systems work as best they can.  I had the opportunity to meet and talk with a good number of the conference attendees who are working on these initiatives, and look forward to following up with them and learning more about their work in the future.

The conference was held at The Crystal on Royal Victoria Dock in East London, which is a very new and “green” conference facility (with Outstanding BREEAM and Platinum LEED accreditation) built  by Siemens that explores the future of cities (see photo above).  It features “the world’s largest exhibition focused on urban sustainability,” which was indeed very impressive and well-designed.  You can learn more about the facility and the exhibition by clicking here.

Duke Nicholas School of the Environment Seminar Series

duke nichLast week I gave a talk as part of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment Spring Seminar Series, which is organized by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the University Program in Environmental Policy.  The goal of the series is  to feature “leading experts discussing a variety of pressing environmentally focused topics,” and last fall Professor Erica Weinthal of the Nicholas School had asked if I had wanted to present some of my work on environmental certifications and ratings as part of the series.  I thought it would be a good opportunity to share some of the work I have been doing during my sabbatical, and so agreed to give a talk on “The Purveyors of Green: The Organizational Legitimacy of Eco-Labels and Sustainability Ratings.”

It actually turned out to be perfect timing to do this presentation, because I had just received an invitation to revise and re-submit an article on precisely this topic.  I am also in the process of working on Chapter 2 of my book manuscript, which is also focused on the organizational legitimacy and credibility of information-based governance strategies.  I was particularly interested in getting feedback on a new conceptual framework I have been working on that uses principal-agent and delegation theory to connect the concepts of legitimacy, credibility, and accountability.

A good mix of students and faculty attended the talk, including some from outside the Nicholas School, which was nice to see.  I got about halfway through the talk before questions from the audience started coming in, which was great as it allowed for more interaction and back-and-forth about my research.  Audience members were interested in discussing not only my theoretical model, but also learning more about my research methods and empirical results, and it was nice to have the opportunity to talk about them in more depth.  Definitely a helpful discussion, and I plan to incorporate many of the comments into my next drafts.

Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Annual Conference

mpsa chicagoEarlier this month, I made a quick trip up to Chicago to present a paper at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) Annual Conference.  I was on a panel titled “Understaniding Opinions on Contemporary Issues,” and presented a revised version of the carbon tax paper that Alex Theodoridis and I have been working on.  We had been able to incorporate the feedback we had received from colleagues at Duke into the new version, which was entitled “Respond and Deliver? Examining the Risks and Rewards of Responsive Accommodation in the Politics of Climate Change.”  In particular, we had changed how we presented the data, and were looking forward to hearing the impressions of other political scientists.

Turnout was unfortunately pretty low, perhaps because of the applied focus of the panel and its lack of a clear connection to the sub-fields and sections of MPSA.  Nevertheless, the discussant who had read our paper, Donald P. Haider-Markel from the University of Kansas, had some very helpful comments on the paper and was generally very positive about both our conceptual framework and methodological approach.  Several audience members also had some interesting insights about how to interpret our results.  Our next steps are to make our final revisions and submit the paper, hopefully later this spring!

Duke University Political Science Department Seminar Series

campus-map-photoLast month, I had the opportunity to present a paper at Duke University’s Behavior and Institutions (B&I) Seminar Series.  The series is hosted by the Political Science Department at Duke, and held in their beautiful new space in Gross Hall (right).  I presented the paper on carbon taxes that I am working on with Alex Theodoridis and had presented in DC at the Dupont Summit.  We had made some significant revisions to it since then, and were looking forward to getting comments from a more academic audience.

Turnout at the seminar was great, and included a mix of graduate students, post-docs, and faculty members.  I had invited a few faculty members from outside political science and around campus who I thought might be interested in our work, and was glad to see that several colleagues from the Energy Initiative, Nicholas School, Law School, and Business School were able to attend.  I received some very insightful comments about the paper that will help guide our next round of revisions.  They also pointed to some interesting directions for future research, which we look forward to following up on as well.

Dupont Summit Presentation on Climate Change Research

PSO logoLast month I traveled to Washington, DC — my hometown — to present a paper at the Dupont Summit on Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy Issues.  The Summit is organized by the Policy Studies Organization (PSO), which grew out of the American Political Science Association in the 1970s as an effort to encourage scholarship on public policy and communication between policy scholars and policymakers.  The PSO sponsors conferences and publishes book series and academic journals, including the Policy Studies Journal and Review of Policy Research.

The Dupont Summit is an effort to bring together “academics, government, business and social leaders from a variety of backgrounds” in order to “promote multidisciplinary conversation and networking across the social and political spectrum.”  This was my first experience attending the Summit, and I was impressed by the variety of participants in attendance, from academics from R1 universities and small colleges to Representatives of Congress and foreign diplomats to concerned citizens and corporate representatives.  It is held in the historic Whittemore House in Dupont Circle, which is relatively small but enables more engaged and intimate discussions than your average large hotel conference experience.

WhitmoreMy presentation was entitled “Respond and Deliver? Persuasion and the Politics of Taxes, Jobs, and Climate Change,” and discussed a survey experiment that I conducted with a colleague from the University of California, Merced, Alex Theodoridis.  The experiment examined the effects of two different policy amendments to a carbon tax proposal on public opinion about such a proposal.  We found some interesting and unexpected treatment effects, and it was nice to have an opportunity to share our findings with a diverse audience.  We received some useful feedback, and plan to revise and submit our paper for publication this spring.

2013 American Political Science Association (APSA) Annual Meeting

In Late August, I attended the American Political Science Association (APSA) Annual Meeting in Chicago.  I presented a poster on ““Who Persuades the Persuaders?  Power and Accountability in Information-Based Governance Strategies,” which analyzed data from my eco-labels and ratings database on the types of organizations that are behind these initiatives.  The emphasis of the poster closely related to the theme of the conference, “power and persuasion,” and highlighted the opacity of power and lack of transparency in the field of information-based governance.

I had the opportunity to attend a variety of panels and poster sessions at the conference, an increasing number of which are related to environmental politics.  I was also able to connect with a significant number of other researchers who are working on projects related to my own work, and I look forward to following up and possibly collaborating with them in the future.

Sustainable Consumption vs. Sustainable Citizenship: SCORAI Conference Presentation at Clark University

In June, I attended the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI)’s Conference at Clark University.  I had never been to Clark, which is located in Worchester, MA, but had heard good things about it from one of my Nature Conservancy colleagues from China who had gotten her masters degree there.  It is a little hard to get there, but has a beautiful campus that is easy to get around.  The plenary sessions of the conference were held in a particularly beautiful and airy space, Tilton Hall.

The conference itself had a great range of talks and panels relating to consumption and sustainability.  I presented a paper on “The Consumer/Citizen Relationship across Time and Space: Millennial Perspectives on Responsible Citizenship in Different Issue Domains,” which built on insights from my political science seminar on citizens, consumers, and the environment.  In the seminar, students are required to write a 20-25 page research paper on responsible citizenship applying concepts and theories discussed in the class to a particular issue area that they are interested in – water, energy, climate change, etc.  I thought it would be interesting to systematically examine the approaches they took and the citizenship-related ideas they used in their papers.  The analysis was an interesting window on how the concept of citizenship translates both across issue areas and generations.

Overall, the students used a wide range of concepts in their papers, but made particularly extensive use of ideas from our readings on communitarianism, consequentialism, the engaged citizen, and social capital.  One of the overarching conclusions of the paper and from the course is that responsible citizenship as an overarching frame of reference may be more appealing to younger generations than sustainable consumerism, which increasingly may be seen as a necessary but insufficient component of a citizen’s responsibilities.

Talk on the Politics of Sustainability for CTI

The Charlotte Teachers Initiative (CTI) is an initiative focused on strengthening teaching in the Charlotte area.  It hosts a wide range of seminars for teachers led by college professors in the region as well as special events on particular topics for both teachers and the public.  I was invited to speak at one of these events in October on “Exploding Canons: Sustainability in Charlotte and Beyond.”  It was preceded by a reception and information expo with tables from dozens of sustainability and education related organizations from the area, and moderated by Rob Phocus, energy and sustainability manager for the City of Charlotte.

I was one of several speakers from Davidson College, UNC Charlotte, Wake Forest University, and two Mecklenburg public schools, and started off the event with a presentation on the “Politics of Sustainability.”  I talked about the transition from “government to governance” in the context of environmental issues, and the idea of multi-scale polycentric governance that Eleanor Ostrom and others have described as the current reality of sustainability politics.  I used two case studies from my own professional experiences to explore the challenges of sustainability issues – one from my work in China with the Nature Conservancy and one from my work as a Co-Founder of GoodGuide.

The audience had some great follow-up questions and comments, and overall I thought the event went really well.  I particularly enjoyed meeting some of the teachers and faculty members who have participated in CTI, and learning about all of the organizations that are working on sustainability-related projects in the Charlotte region.

Faculty Series Presentation on “Policy and the Environment”

In September, I gave a presentation as part of Davidson College’s ongoing faculty series on “Policy and…”  Every month over the course of the semester, several faculty and staff members presented on different aspects of policy from the vantage point of their own research and professional work.  My topic was Policy and the Environment, and as the first speaker in the series, I first discussed what we mean by “policy,” tracing the words origins back to no less a source than Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

I then explored its use in the environmental context, and how environmental policy has evolved over the last several decades.  I concluded with a discussion of information-based governance and policy, such as the use of eco-labels and ratings to encourage pro-environment behavior, which has boomed in recent years and is the focus of my  research.

My presentation helped frame the next two presentations, which were focused more on local issues of environmental policy and the preservation of natural forests and habitat from destruction and development.  These faculty panels are great opportunities not only for students to learn more about what their professors are working on, but also for faculty to learn more about each other’s work.  I had some nice conversations with several of my colleagues after this and other similar events about various connections between our areas of interests and expertise.  This is one of the benefits of being at a liberal arts college – there is a real opportunity and possibility of engaging in substantive discussions and even collaborations with faculty from very diverse backgrounds who you would not likely ever even meet at a large university.