Sustainability certification as marketisation: Rainforest Alliance in the Sri Lankan tea production industry

Munasinghege Munasinghe, Thomas Cuckston, Nick Rowbottom

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Unsustainable production is a root cause of numerous social and ecological problems. Whilst sustainability certifications face criticism for exacerbating greenwashing, comparative studies have identified improvements in social and ecological outcomes on certified farms. In this paper, we investigate the process by which a sustainability certification can enable a production industry to move beyond mere greenwashing. We conceptualise sustainability certification as a process of marketisation, organising economic activities within a production industry in ways that can enable new forms of thought and action. To examine this marketisation process, we study the case of Rainforest Alliance certification in the Sri Lankan tea production industry. We draw on an extensive six-month period of fieldwork, involving 74 semi-structured interviews with people working across the industry. We find that accounting devices deployed in this marketisation process create new visibilities within the industry to distinguish sustainability-certified tea as a marketable economic good, to equip producers to become economic agents capable of participating in markets for sustainability-certified tea, and to construct an economic exchange connecting supplies from certified tea estates with demands from ethically minded consumers. Our findings contribute to research on accounting for sustainable development, shedding light on the process by which, despite ongoing concerns regarding greenwashing, sustainability certifications can bring about positive impacts on social and ecological outcomes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)247-272
Number of pages26
JournalAccounting Forum
Issue number3
Early online date21 Mar 2021
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jul 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was funded by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission in the UK. We are grateful to all the individuals and organisations in Sri Lanka who were so hospitable and helpful during fieldwork research. We would also like to thank participants at the 2019 Asia-Pacific Interdisciplinary Research in Accounting (APIRA) Conference at Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand for their helpful comments and suggestions.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 University of South Australia.


  • Sri Lanka
  • Sustainable development
  • agencement
  • agriculture
  • certification
  • production

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Accounting
  • Finance


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