The agency of global sustainability certifications in developing countries: Rainforest Alliance & the Sri Lankan tea industry

Research output: Contribution to conference (unpublished)Paper


Colleges, School and Institutes


Certification schemes have emerged as a means of controlling the social and environmental impacts of distant supply chains in developing countries. However, critics note that certifications are commonly addressing consumer concerns in the Global North, and are imposed on developing countries through supply chain participants in the Global South.

This study investigates how one such certification, Rainforest Alliance, is implemented in the Sri Lankan tea industry. A case study is developed from an extensive six month period of fieldwork in Sri Lanka using observation at tea auctions and in tea plantations, documentary analysis and 72 interviews. Actor Network Theory (ANT) is used to analyse how the Rainforest Alliance certification, constructed in the Global North is translated in the local Sri Lankan context. The data analysis is guided by Latour’s notions of technical mediation, circulating references and matters of concern to reveal the local impact of the certification.

The adoption of Rainforest Alliance by a leading multinational alters local tea market dynamics and creates market pressure that leads to the adoption of the certification by local supply chain actors. Rainforest Alliance is inscribed in a local accountability standard that leads to changes in management and accounting practices of certified plantation companies. Rainforest Alliance is translated locally as a means for differentiating tea quality and ensuring commercial sustainability, rather than an indicator of agricultural or environmental sustainability. Its local adoption also leads to unexpected effects: whilst it provides a trigger to improve compliance with local laws, it disadvantages tea smallholders, due to their inability to control growing conditions even though they are responsible for approximately three quarters of tea production and are the purported beneficiaries of such sustainability certifications. The contribution of the paper lies in revealing how a conception of agricultural sustainability inscribed in a certification originated in the Global North undergoes different translations in the local context with some unexpected consequences.


Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 11 Apr 2017
EventBritish Accounting and Finance Association Annual Conference 2017 - Herriot Watt University, Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Duration: 10 Apr 201712 Apr 2017


ConferenceBritish Accounting and Finance Association Annual Conference 2017
Abbreviated titleBAFA
CountryUnited Kingdom
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