Complicating Visibility In Global Sustainability Networks

Last changed: 07 March 2022

This panel discusses findings from research on transparency practices in two types of sustainability networks: sustainable global supply chains, and global environmental reporting networks, highlighting such issues as representation, reporting practices, circularity, viability, sensemaking and knowledge It brings together seven researchers from WP4 to present brief five minute summaries of their work examining visibility and transparency in these networks. The audience will be invited to consider the significance and relevance of these findings as well as directions for future research.

Panel Proposal

The panel brings together seven WP4 researchers from Sweden, Germany, New Zealand, India, and the US to discuss their current work examining how networked actors respond to pressures that require them to make sustainability engagement visible and transparent. We understand transparency (commonly referred to as the voluntary disclosure of information) as a dominant communication construct in global sustainability networks. The panel examines two dominant forms of such networks: global sector-specific sustainable supply chains, and global multi-sectoral reporting networks (such as the UNGCN or the GRI), and interrogates the idea that there can be no sustainability without transparency in these networks, i.e., the idea of secret sustainability is a contradiction in terms.

In interrogating this relationship, we also bring into focus assumptions about transparency and visibility, reviewing how they rest upon easy assumptions about information, knowledge and action (Andonova 2017). Disclosure and environmental reporting practices, especially, have long been regarded as the main means to ensure environmental stewardship (Eisenberg, 1984). However, the ubiquity of digital communication means that we no longer live in an era of communication scarcity with control over message flows. Instead, we live in an era of multi-modal and multi-nodal communication, characterized by information abundance and volatility, uncertainty and ambiguity (Ganesh & Stohl 2019). Organizations find themselves more visible and embedded in dynamic and multi-level networks of communication that involve cooperatives, NGOs, certification agencies and public bodies (Contractor et al. 2006). As these organizations become more and more networked, they come into increased contact with dissimilar others, making more unorthodox partnerships, entering into short-lived arrangements, unexpected competitions and new forms of advocacy and resistance. Visibility therefore informs not only reporting, but also the development of interorganizational connections in global supply chains.

The five papers presented in this panel take up the networked and visible character of such organizational work that is evident in a range of spaces. The first paper addresses a range of reporting practices in the United Nations Global Compact that influence corporate responses to sustainability development goals.  The second paper interrogates visual representation of sustainability in environmental reports, identifying a range of practices that flatten and simplify sustainability. The third paper addresses creative attempts to procure sustainability in supply chains, focusing upon a case study to build a circular value “loop” through the principles of regeneration and redistribution. The fourth paper also focuses on supply chains, in particular, examining how workers in the Global South seek to construct alternatives even as they deal with issues such as viability and vulnerability. The fifth and final paper bridges both reporting networks and supply chains by examining how a range of fashion corporations in Sweden make sense of networked transparency reporting demands as they attempt to “know” their own supply chains.

Forgotten SDGs

Delaney Harness and Julius Klingelhoefer

In 2015, the United Nations Global Compact launched 17 sustainability development goals, replacing the millennium goals. Using annual reports collected from the Swedish Global Compact between 2016-2019, we identify a hierarchy in SDG reporting, focusing not only on goals that are frequently reported but also on the “forgotten SDGs. We then investigate three key areas of reporting that lend to favoring of certain SDGs over others: material practices, institutional practices, and cultural practices.

Sustainability Reporting and the Powerpoint Imagination

Shiv Ganesh

Sustainability reporting is understood as the simple and mechanical transmission of information and data. We challenge this by interpreting environmental reports as visual artifacts that simplify and flatten sustainability; a product of what I term the “Powerpoint Imagination.” This reporting genre includes characteristics such as simplicity, efficiency, superficiality, and standardization that renders sustainability in terms of instrumental problem-solution terms. The paper also identifies alternative visual forms that have the potential to create more complex and inspiring narratives about sustainability management in practice.

Broadening the Circle: Creativity, Regeneration and Redistribution in Value Loops

Nitha Palakshappa, Massey University, NZ

Recent years have seen several creative responses to the human and environmental cost of global capitalism. This paper asks what such creativity looks like in the context of a circular economy by examining an ethnographic case from the organic cotton textile industry in South India. It identifies two phases of creative growth and discusses two fundamental features of circularity: regeneration and redistribution before identifying two major challenges to achieving and maintaining full circularity.

Viability, Vulnerability and Visibility: An extended case study of handloom weavers and desi cotton in South India

Mackenzie Schnell

Conventional cotton textile production is unsustainable, but the idea of incorporating indigenous cotton varieties into global supply chains is frequently dismissed. This study explores South India’s handloom industry and the work of weavers to create local supply chains using indigenous varieties for traditional textile production. Using ethnographic methods across three handloom organizations, I explore how weavers grapple with the viability, vulnerability and (in)visibility of their livelihoods as part of a supply chain network.

Sensemaking and transparency demands in the Swedish Fashion Industry

Lotten Westberg and Helena Nordström Källström

The paper explores how a range of relationships affect the sense-making of transparency demands for Swedish fashion companies. Drawing on the visibility agents relationship framework (Harness, Ganesh, & Stohl.), our paper examines the complex reality of transparency in fashion companies. Exploring, for example, how companies may advocate for transparency as their own visibility agents, or how relationships may be viewed as inquisitorial due to hostilities between the organization and media.