Archived project

Ethnography of Corporate Carbon Accounting

Goal: The PhD thesis and its related publications address how a carbon footprint of a multinational company was enacted. Related publications draw out a range of implications of this analysis for, inter alia, the sociology of the environment, Science and Technology Studies (STS), social studies of Big Data, the sociology of numbers and quantification.

Methods: Statistics, Visual Sociology, Qualitative Research, Qualitative Data Analysis, Ethnography, Mapping, Qualitative Interview

Date: 1 September 2008

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Project log

Ingmar Lippert
added a research item
This poster provides a methodological perspective to study human actors and the socio-technical devices and settings in and through which they perform governance. By way of linking Actor-Network theory and Pierre Bourdieu's concept of habitus and field the agency of humans may be explored. This suggests to studies of governance a perspective to reconsider its conception of the role of individuals in the "doing" of governance. For this methodological endeavor I draw on organisational sociology and Science and Technology Studies. Both provide promising resources to conceptualise how actors are situated and embedded in socio-technical assemblages which may provide the source of agents' power to govern. This approach will be illustrated by ethnographic material of agents participating in the environmental governance of the financial services sector. Following John Law's approach in "The Manager and His Powers" we may outline possible empirical trajectories to scrutinise agency in governance. The work of Bourdieu will be used to provide a frame for generalising from the minute details encountered in ethnographic studies.
Ingmar Lippert
added an update
Several people asked me what to read first of my STS ethnographic research on corporate carbon accounting in the financial industry/voluntary carbon markets.
 
Ingmar Lippert
added a research item
New markets are key in debates concerning environmental regimes. Critics and proponents share a discourse that characterises environmental markets in terms of scale; many discuss how to scale environmental markets ‘the right way’. Building on previous work in human geography, actor–network theory, and governmentality studies, we unpack the dual but always interwoven politics of scale-making in doing environmental policies, which consists of material-semiotic practices of producing and using scales as ontologically real ordering devices. Drawing from the results of three studies conducted independently by the authors, we analyse material-semiotic scale-making practices in different ways of enacting environmental markets. By revealing the dual politics of scale production and use in environmental markets, our analysis contributes to the study of developing and implementing environmental governance.
Ingmar Lippert
added a research item
Calculating and making public carbon footprints is becoming self-evident for multinational corporations. Drawing on ethnographic data I narrate of the calculative routine practices involved in that process. The narration shows how routine yet sophisticated mathematical transformations are involved in retrieving salient information, and second that mathematical consistency is readily interrupted by 'dirty data'. Such interruptions call for opportunistic data management in devising work-arounds, which effect enough mathematical coherence for the number to hold together. Foregrounding an episode of calculative data retrieval, interruption and work-around contrivance, I employ it to make a comparative reading of two STS analytics, arguing: whereas Callon and Law's (2005) analytic technique of qualculation reveals the episode of data management and work around contrivance as a teleologically oriented process that manages to bridge mathematical inconsistency, Verran's technique of ontologising troubles enables us to recognise how a number-as-network configures its particular kind of certainty and coherence, how it sticks.
Ingmar Lippert
added a research item
Carbon matters. And it is computed. In a culture. Underlying calculations are configured; and they could be configured otherwise. To open a space for conceptual discussion about carbon, this article attempts to reconstruct the extended and distributed practices of knowing carbon emissions with the help of scholarship from the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) on heterogeneity and qualculation. To that end, the following pages serve to characterise the machinic quality of a specific technology, one which is often construed as a means for reconciling capitalism with “Nature”: the corporate social construction and accounting of carbon dioxide emissions. This allows us to problematise and contextualise the distributed and heterogeneous intelligence assembled by human and non-humans to make intelligible their corporation’s carbon footprint. Politically, engagement with this kind of intelligence is key to a critical understanding of the limits to managing the environment. By engaging empirically with carbon accounting, this article offers a contribution to the analysis of the hegemonic to dealing with environmental issues (ecological modernisation) and illustrates the generative quality of conceptual work on heterogeneous assemblages. These two fields require brief introductions.
Ingmar Lippert
added 2 research items
How does a corporation know it emits carbon? Acquiring such knowledge starts with the classification of environmentally relevant consumption information. This paper visits the corporate location at which this underlying element for their knowledge is assembled to give rise to carbon emissions. Using an Actor-network theory (ANT) framework, the aim is to investigate the actors who bring together the elements needed to classify their carbon emission sources and unpack the heterogeneous relations drawn on. Based on an ethnographic study of corporate agents of ecological modernisation over a period of 13 months, this paper provides an exploration of three cases of enacting classification. Drawing on Actor-Network theory, we problematise the silencing of a range of possible modalities of consumption facts and point to the ontological ethics involved in such performances. In a context of global warming and corporations construing themselves as able and suitable to manage their emissions, and, additionally, given that the construction of carbon emissions has performative con-sequences, the underlying practices need to be declassified, i.e. opened for public scrutiny. Hence the paper concludes by arguing for a collective engagement with the ontological politics of carbon.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is ubiquitous. It is a chemical compound that is commonly encountered, for example, in chemistry classes in high school. It also entered the global stage of climate change politics and economies as a currency of emissions to be traded on carbon markets. Thus, a definition of carbon dioxide must engage with the complexity of its status in society.
Ingmar Lippert
added 2 research items
Capitalism manages to enact environments in the midst of its centres by means of keeping other environments out. The fundamental practice which allows for this contradictory and generative move is that capitalist agents enact environments. Capitalism does not require a clear, neat, distinct, singular environment. Multiple, fluid, dynamic environments allow far better the tactical and strategical project of staging capitalism as having its destructive environmental impacts in control. That control is a decisive fiction sustaining the unsustainable. These theses are the result of an ethnography, reported in this book, that scrutinised corporate carbon accounting practices as a site at which we are able to simultaneously explore two significant issues for the management of environments: on the one hand studying practices of corporate environmental accounting allows us to engage with agents' practical work reality by which capitalism seeks to render itself 'green' and 'sustainable'; on the other hand the focus on precisely how accountants achieve taking carbon into account is able to sharpen our understanding of how quantifying practices perform in a non-substantial area of business, such as engaging with climate change. In the received view, corporate carbon accounting is about providing the facts and figures about the emissions which a company produces. Accounting for these emissions is supposedly a condition to take carbon into account – economists would call this process internalisation. The discourse which assumes that 'if only capitalist society is able to internalise its environmental problems' (like carbon emissions which are identified as the culprit of global warming and, in consequence, climate change) 'then capitalist society will be able to solve environmental crises' – this discourse is called ecological modernisation. Within environmental sociology arguments over whether that discourse is actually materially reflected abound. Ecological modernisation theory proposes that capitalist organisations do get green(er). In the midst of debate, little attention, if at all, has been paid to those agents who are, supposedly, implementing the programmes of ecological modernisation, such as environmental management systems (EMS) and carbon accounting. This study contributes to understanding how capitalism organises its relation to environments by means of scrutinising the work practices of these agents. To conduct that study, I have carefully avoided to make assumptions about whether a particular organisation would be conducting greenwash. Much rather, the intentionally open question was: what do agents of ecological modernisation do and how do they achieve it? With this orientation, this study turned to sociological theory and methodology which does not presume any overarching structure as determining agents. Instead, by means of methodological triangulation between ethnomethodology, actor-network theory (ANT) and Pierre Bourdieu's concepts of field and habitus, this study reconstructs by which specific practices and discursive action agents manage to make greening more central to capitalism. The decisive finding is that while agents do manage to bring environmental data into the heart of the corporation – the centre of capitalism – what that data is about (the things this data is related and presumably representing, the material hinterland of that data) is simultaneously distanced from the corporate core. This study, thus, shows how capitalism manages to enact a epicentral movement of 'environment' and, in parallel, to ensure that environmental issues and concerns do not challenge orinterfere in that centre. It manages by means of keeping the largest degrees of environments out. The overarching thesis of this study is, thus, that environments, such as carbon, are not existing – for all practical purposes of corporate agents – out-there but, rather, they are carefully crafted and enacted into corporate, social and, eventually, economic reality. Environments are enacted. The plural matters. Within the organisational practices of capitalism, agents may imagine to refer to 'the' environment. Their everyday practices of taking environments into account, however, relate to specific materials, such as spreadsheets, pieces of papers, flip-charts. Environments exist through these multiple materials, in multiple versions; ontologically, thus they do not exist in the singular but they are staged as such. If the carbon emission fact of a company is established, that fact may well be out-dated a few micro-seconds or years later; it may differ several kilometres off or in a neighbouring storage unit in a computer. Any global fact is enacted in particular located situations. Emissions facts are not stable but fluid, flowing in and between myriads of situations. They are hold together by means of humans' material-discursive performances. And they shift with agents' practices just like with the dynamics in-built into materials, like a database. These processes produce artefacts, versions of environments. And these versions matter. What a society is dealing with when encountering a corporate emission fact is not Nature but a version of an environment. Next year, the same fact (as in, signifying the same imagined out-there) may have changed. Vis-à-vis Science and Technology Studies (STS), my analysis of the effects of enacting environments is indicative of a potentially general characteristic in digital quantification practices – whether in offices or in laboratories: data flows are not that clean and under control. While workers may achieve staging being in control, in practice parallel versions of realities may proliferate – for the better or worse. What we find is that the reality of corporate carbon emissions is enacted as mutable, mobile and multiple. In the practical work of corporate fact finders, it is not necessary, albeit it is deemed required, that facts are singularised and immutablised. In consequence, social and economic reality is confronted with diverse carbon emission accounts, all implying universal truths. Societies and politics which resist engaging with parallel realities and insist on singular ones may not be well equipped to manage those crises that may be co-constituted by these parallel realities. Ethnographic work underlying this argument involved participant observation over a period of twenty months as well as document analysis. The study took place at a Fortune 50 financial services provider positioned in a legitimising network involving one of the largest international environmental NGO's and one of the four largest auditing firms. The findings of this study are, thus, considered to point to practices indicative of widely organisationally accepted and shared realities within hegemonic modern capitalist culture.
Ingmar Lippert
added a research item
The stability of a discourse is not given but produced. It is achieved in the configuration of the dispositif. The paper approaches dispositif as a practical ongoing assembling of semiotic and material entities. The article presents an assemblage of theories, methods and methodologies that allow tracing how heterogeneous entities are (re)(con)figured to achieve performing a discourse's stability. Using mundane office practices that configure the corporate sustainability/carbon discourse as an example, the article spells out how qualitative data analysis, grounded theory and Science and Technology Studies approaches can be interwoven to pursue a grounded and generalisable ethnographic study of discourse.
Ingmar Lippert
added 4 research items
Ecological modernist approaches to climate change are premised upon knowing carbon emissions. I ask how corporate environmental managers know and do carbon, i.e., shape the reality of emissions. I argue that for managers’ practical purposes carbon exists as malleable data. Based on ethnographic fieldwork over a period of 20 months in a Fortune 50 multinational corporation, I show that managers materially-discursively arrange heterogeneous entities – databases, files, paper, words, numbers – in and between office spaces, enabling them to stage emission facts as stable and singular. Employing Annemarie Mol’s work on multiplicity, I show that multiple enactments of carbon hang together not by an antecedent body (CO2) but through ongoing configurations of data practices. Disillusioning promissory economic discourses of ‘internalisation’, I demonstrate: Management is materially premised upon preventing purportedly internalised carbon realities from entering capitalist core processes. This undermines carbon economics’ realist promises. Staging some carbon realities as in control is premised upon managers’ ongoing, reflexive, partial and always situated configuration of, e.g., standards, formal meetings or digital data practices in which humans do carbon-as-data. Carbon practices are materially-discursively aligned, forming a configuration. This configuration effects carbon as a malleable and locally configurable space rather than as a closed fact. Reconstructing managers’ practices as configuring carbon-as-dataspace, I argue, allows grasping adequately the contingency and constraints of managing carbon as a particular material-discursive form of environment. In conclusion I generalise the environmental management office as a space that can be configured to stage, beyond carbon, other global environments as well.
Corporate carbon footprint data has become ubiquitous. This data is also highly promissory. But as this paper argues, such data fails both consumers and citizens. The governance of climate change seemingly requires a strong foundation of data on emission sources. Economists approach climate change as a market failure, where the optimisation of the atmosphere is to be evidence based and data driven. Citizens or consumers, state or private agents of control, all require deep access to information to judge emission realities. Whether we are interested in state-led or in neoliberal ‘solutions’ for either democratic participatory decision-making or for preventing market failure, companies’ emissions need to be known. This paper draws on 20 months of ethnographic fieldwork in a Fortune 50 company’s environmental accounting unit to show how carbon reporting interferes with information symmetry requirements, which further troubles possibilities for contesting data. A material-semiotic analysis of the data practices and infrastructures employed in the context of corporate emissions disclosure details the situated political economies of data labour along the data processing chain. The explicit consideration of how information asymmetries are socially and computationally shaped, how contexts are shifted and how data is systematically straightened out informs a reflexive engagement with Big Data. The paper argues that attempts to automatise environmental accounting’s veracity management by means of computing metadata or to ensure that data quality meets requirements through third-party control are not satisfactory. The crossover of Big Data with corporate environmental governance does not promise to trouble the political economy that hitherto sustained unsustainability.
Ingmar Lippert
added a project goal
The PhD thesis and its related publications address how a carbon footprint of a multinational company was enacted. Related publications draw out a range of implications of this analysis for, inter alia, the sociology of the environment, Science and Technology Studies (STS), social studies of Big Data, the sociology of numbers and quantification.