Creating Meanings, Changing Contexts: contested sustainability in the Brazilian beef industry



Área de conhecimento: 

  • Gestão Pública


  • Marcus Vinícius Peinado Gomes




The objective of this research is to understand how organisations fashion their environment, through analysing why some practices become known as ‘sustainable’ in the Brazilian beef industry. The research engages with the organisational institutionalism literature by pointing the need to account for politics (i.e. actor’s negotiations) and meanings in order to understand how stability and change take place under a situated context (i.e. a particular time and space). The research concludes that the understandings of what could be considerate ‘sustainability’ are the result of actors fashioning their environment through actions and interactions that produce meanings. Following a hegemony approach, such disputes are not only about actors looking for resources’ advantages, but also aimed at protecting or attacking the societal logics that support actors’ dominant position. Moreover, actors exert their agency under the conditions of the present time (i.e. situated context), by drawing on an inherited past in order to produce a future they have envisaged. To analyse such processes, a hegemony approach to actors and societal logics was developed, highlighting the negotiation order, an arena in which actors struggle for hegemony. As an outcome of such negotiations, a focal issue emerges, influencing actors’ discourse and interests, and justifying their initiatives, programmes and technologies developed to address such issue; thus, fashioning consent. Drawing on Critical Realism and Critical Discourse Analysis, the research developed a longitudinal case study supported by public and confidential documents, alongside interviews with experts, in order to examine the sustainability path at the Brazilian beef industry. Three different contexts for agency regarding sustainability were found. In the first one, a silence upon sustainability practices was identified, while the second context emphasised the emergence of Amazon deforestation as a focal issue, due to Greenpeace and MPF agency, forcing the industry to develop a monitoring system to trace its cattle suppliers in order to avoid procurement associated with Amazon deforestation, among other illegal activities. Finally, during the third context, the monitoring system enabled the beef industry to take-over of sustainability, enabling the beef sector to build its legitimacy so as to influence the risks and opportunities associated to the context of sustainability. In terms of societal logics, the Amazon deforestation is denounced as an environmental problem anchored by capitalist logic characteristics, such as risk management, innovation and productivity increase, global supply chain and governance. Although during such attack the profit maximisation rationale is questioned by the imposition of environmental concerns over corporate behaviour, the developed solution draws upon the very same capitalism’s characteristic employed to attack it. As a consequence, a piecemeal change is illustrated by a transformation on the capitalism ‘quantitative efficiency’ – the productivity increase as a result of changing the proportion of resources consumed in the production process in order to avoid Amazon deforestation. However, the capitalism ‘qualitative efficiency’ is being preserved as the ruling dominant groups are still controlling the means of production and their associate resources (i.e. money, power and legitimation). Since such negotiations processes are mediated by the rationale of avoiding businesses risks, profit maximisation, the deep core of capitalist logic, is preserved. Therefore, the ruling groups maintain their hegemony

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