Exploitation, corporate responsibility or state regulation? A new study on public perceptions of global supply chains

Newswise – Washington, DC – The pandemic has contributed to heightened awareness of global supply chains. In addition to concerns about disruptions and bottlenecks, people are increasingly concerned about labor exploitation and environmental degradation in the manufacturing of consumer products. But how do people in the United States decide what is objectionable and what can be dismissed as remote, negligible, or the normal workings of the market?

Previous research on perceptions of globalization has generally focused on the likes or dislikes of international trade, but the current state of global production raises new questions. Specifically, how are the moral limits of markets judged when what is wrong or harmful is geographically distant, supply chains are fragmented, and people face competing claims about the severity of that harm – and who should take responsibility for fixing it?

In their new study “Global Markets, Corporate Assurances, and the Legitimacy of State Intervention: Perceptions of Distant Labor and Environmental Problems,” published in the June 2022 issue of American Sociological Reviewauthors Matthew Amengual, associate professor of international business at the University of Oxford, and Tim Bartley, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis and senior lecturer at Stockholm University, seek answers to these issues, which can help make sense of the current moment when global supply chains are increasingly politicized.

Using survey data, the authors seek to explain why Americans view state restriction of the market as important in addressing environmental degradation and labor exploitation in supply chains. global supplies. Over the past decade, national governments have become more interventionist when it comes to global supply chains and in some cases have even banned the sale of products related to human rights or abuses. ‘environment.

The US government, for example, has blocked the import of products made by forced labor in Malaysia, China and other places, including fishing boats linked to “modern slavery”. The federal government has also blocked the sale of items traceable to illegal logging in Russia, Peru and elsewhere, and some lawmakers are now proposing an expanded ban to tackle deforestation in the Amazon. Yet the legitimacy of this type of government intervention continues to be questioned, especially given the politically polarized perceptions of the evidence and questions about the ability of companies to address these issues through voluntary action.

Using a nationwide sample of 4,489 adults designed to approximate the US population in terms of region, age, gender, income, and education, the authors conducted an online joint survey experiment of the mid-February to early March 2020. The authors have constructed thousands of “scripts that approximate the noisy way in which information about issues, advocacy frameworks and corporate promises are typically conveyed in news stories. Each script consisted of information about (1) a product produced through global supply chains and consumed in the United States, (2) a labor or environmental issue, (3) a statement from an advocacy group, (4) a statement from companies in the industry, and (5) a description of the companies that made this statement.These items were randomly combined, allowing the researchers to estimate the influence of each item on the po respondents’ views on state intervention.

By examining popular judgments about state intervention, Amengual and Bartley’s study reveals widespread assumptions about accountability and regulation. First, the authors find clear evidence that firm assurances about private regulation make government intervention less important.

In comparison, the effects of advocacy frameworks are inconsistent. “Advocacy frameworks emphasizing corporate greed and (less consistently) scientific evidence increase the perceived importance of state intervention, but other advocacy frameworks have more mixed effects, and neither is effective for political conservatives – who have reacted negatively when told that greater state involvement is the solution.

Finally, corporate messages resonate more clearly, “but only when they assure the public that relevant reforms are underway.” Corporate messages around ethics, charity and community do not diminish support for state intervention. Moreover, while companies may find concrete assurances of reform more risky, they are also more powerful in the public imagination.

So why do we give so much credit to business insurance? The authors suggest that a strong possibility is that “firms have acquired a kind of symbolic capital in the common sense of moralized global markets that elevates their confidence even in the absence of trust…Observers may pragmatically want to someone to solve distant problems and see companies as well placed to do so.

The research also reveals that Americans’ views on the legitimacy of state intervention are strongly influenced by the issue at hand. Vignettes that included child labor or the emission of toxic chemicals, for example, produced more support for government-imposed bans than those that included wage theft or overexploitation of natural resources.

Understanding these popular judgments is important because public opinion is a resource for activists and political reformers. The authors find a substantial pool of support for state intervention to address remote workforce and environmental issues. However, they also find that as companies offer assurances of voluntary reform to the public, support for state intervention declines across the political spectrum. This finding suggests that if reformers want to strengthen government regulation of the global economy, they will need to either neutralize corporate assurances so that they are seen as purely tokenistic, or transform corporate action into a more meaningful form of regulation. .

The authors suggest that future research should assess whether the credibility accorded to corporate insurance depends more on trust in companies or pragmatic deference to position and how public judgments influence the likelihood of concrete reform projects to effectively regulate insurance companies. global supply chains.


About the American Sociological Association and the American Sociological Review

The American Sociological Association, founded in 1905, is a nonprofit association dedicated to serving sociologists in their work, to advancing sociology as a science and a profession, and to promoting the contributions and use of sociology by the Society. the American Sociological Review is ASA’s flagship journal.

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