Sustain Sci. 2023 Jan 6:1-15. doi: 10.1007/s11625-022-01256-2. Online ahead of print.
Sustainability standards have been one of the hopefuls for decades when it comes to ensuring the sustainability of biomass for the bioeconomy, especially in the wake of their evolvement from voluntary, non-governmental to hybrid, public-private governance instruments in recent years. In addition to doubts regarding their legitimacy and effectiveness, however, they have also been associated with a neoliberalization of nature that integrates natural resources into a free market logic. Drawing on a conceptual framework that builds on political ecology and the political sociology of policy instruments, this paper challenges this notion. To this end, it examines sustainability standards in three countries/regions particularly prominent for the bioeconomy-the EU, Brazil, and Indonesia-to illustrate how these can be differentiated in terms of their neoliberal orientation, and what can be inferred from this for the orientation and state of the respective bioeconomies. The results show that the introduction of sustainability standards is not necessarily accompanied by a neoliberalization of nature. Rather, it is shown that the standards and their specific designs-and thus also their intrinsic understanding of sustainability as integration-are primarily intended to serve the material interests of the state and the respective industrial factions, for which neoliberal configurations are sometimes seen as rather obstructive, sometimes as rather useful. The sustainability standards, and thus the bioeconomies for which they stand, therefore, rather serve as instruments to stay on the path of modernization and industrial development already taken or envisaged, or, put differently, as strategies to avoid social-ecological transformation.