Selling out for sustainability? Neoliberal governance, agency and professional careers in the sustainable palm oil sector

Delabre, Izabela and von Hellermann, Pauline. 2023. Selling out for sustainability? Neoliberal governance, agency and professional careers in the sustainable palm oil sector. Journal of Political Ecology, 30(1), ISSN 1073-0451 [Article]

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Abstract or Description

In response to high-profile activist campaigns raising public awareness of the destructive effects of large-scale oil palm plantations on tropical rainforests, wildlife and local communities, the palm oil sector has put considerable effort and resources into ensuring "sustainable", "deforestation-free" palm oil production (and thereby countering negative publicity) over the last 15 years or so. The corporate sustainability drive – with the palm oil sector significantly leading other tropical commodities – has involved the direct employment of many professionals with backgrounds in conservation, anthropology or activism by the private palm oil sector. Based on long term participant observation as well as interviews with "sustainability professionals" about their career choices, this article shows that there is more nuance, agency and positive change than the existing political ecology literature attributes to the sustainable palm oil drive. It also shows how neoliberal governance structures and individual professional careers and values intersect and mutually reinforce each other. This dual, seemingly paradoxical analysis is informed by and situated in the wider context that the sustainability professionals we interviewed and we ourselves, as academics, share: growing academic precarity, the climate and ecological emergency, and the challenges and questions posed by both.

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The Journal of Political Ecology (JPE) publishes its content under a Creative Commons CC BY license for journal articles

We would like to thank the Leverhulme Trust for funding part of this research, through Pauline von Hellermann's Major Research Fellowship.


agency, careers, professionals, neoliberal governance, sustainable palm oil

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23 October 2023Published

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01 Nov 2023 15:50

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01 Nov 2023 15:50

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Yes, this version has been peer-reviewed.


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