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„Ideas don’t spread without a purpose“

Sina Leipold is awarded the German Thesis Prize for her dissertation on global corporate responsibility in the international lumber trade

Freiburg, Jul 19, 2017

„Ideas don’t spread without a purpose“

Foto: Wilson Dias, Agência Brasil/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0 BR

Sina Leipold is 31 years old. Since April 2017 she has become a junior professor for societal transformation and recycling and has now placed second in the German Thesis Prize in the category social sciences. Stephanie Streif asked the social scientist why the world desperately needs research like hers.

Deforestation in Brazil: Thanks to new legislation, companies in industrial countries are now responsible for ensuring their products such as furniture or music instruments come from legal documented sources. Photo: Wilson Dias, Agência Brasil/Wikimedia Commons,CC BY 3.0 BR

Frau Leipold, first off: congratulations! The German Thesis Prize recognizes excellent works of research that have a “great societal relevance.” Why is your work so important for our social cohesion?

Sina Leipold: Global raw material consumption is on the rise. To meet those growing needs, raw materials are being traded on an international scale more and more. That has a worldwide impact on the environment and society. The latest research shows that more than 60 percent of all negative environmental impact can be traced back to the international trade of raw materials. My work helps people understand with which instruments we can use to offset this problem. I have studied a new instrument that has prevailed in the lumber trade: corporate responsibility for environmental and social standards at the raw material’s place of origin.

As a social scientist, how did you come upon the idea of researching lumber trade?

During my master’s program in social sciences in the Freiburg Global Studies Program, I came into contact for the first time with global environmental issues. During a semester abroad to India, environmental problems became extremely apparent to me. In my thesis, I chose an environmental topic and wanted to learn more about global environmental issues thereafter. I went to Vienna where I studied agrarian policy at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences. Through a stroke of fate I learned about a doctoral position in the Faculty of Forestry and Environmental Sciences here in Freiburg, returned and began my doctoral work in environmental regulation in the international lumber trade.

Why exactly the lumber trade?

When I started my PhD, the growing international lumber trade was an important topic in international forums. For one reason because up until a few years ago companies could illegally cut down endangered species such as rosewood in African national parks and sell them in Germany and other countries undisturbed. The production and trade of illegal wood in the past decades had become a multi-million dollar industry. To combat this kind of abuse, the United States, the European Union and Australia developed laws to hold buyers of illegal products accountable: importing and trading companies in industrial countries. They have to ensure that their products such as furniture or musical instruments come from legal documented sources. As a result, companies are legally responsible for the first time to take on responsibility for lumber production conditions abroad. If they don’t, their goods could be confiscated, they could be fined or even jailed. A lot of observers were surprised by the political implementation of global corporate responsibility. Especially in the lumber trade which had obviously been, up until now, formed by a business culture of looking away from the issues at hand. That was the reason I wanted to find out how the notion of global corporate responsibility could prevail in the lumber trade and what we can learn from it with the trade of other raw materials.

With her research approach, Sina Leipold examines the role people and groups play to determine how new ideas and instruments in politics emerge and spread. Photo: privat

And how could they get laws passed in the United States, Australia and the European Union?

My dissertation shows that the introduction of global corporate responsibility in the international lumber trade could only prevail by keeping the focus on what was ‘legal’ versus what was sustainably produced wood. This focus allowed, on the one hand, for unilateral trade restrictions within the framework of valid regulations by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and, on the other hand, the melding of environmental and industrial policy goals. On the one side, environmental associations hoped that sustainability could be achieved if the responsibility for legality could be introduced as a first step. On the other side, industrial associations hoped that global legal trade would lead to fair competition or an improvement in one’s own image. The connection of industrial and environmental goals had both advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, it helps transfer the notion of global corporate responsibility for the mineral and fish trade. On the other, the implementation, for instance, in Germany is viewed as being driven too much by the industry and therefore it seen as having little impact.

Pragmatically speaking, how did you go about your research?

I conducted interviews directly with those involved with the legislation, as well as people working at the American FBI, German parliamentarians or World Bank experts. I also participated in meetings with authorities, companies and environmental associations and analyzed political documents. I interpreted the data with the help of a method both Georg Winkel and I developed called Discursive Agency Approach.

What does Discursive Agency Approach mean exactly? What is new about it?

A lot of social and political scientists try to understand how new ideas and instruments emerge and spread in politics. Individuals and groups have played a subordinate role up to now. But they are often the decisive drivers of certain ideas. Just think of the American climate change deniers. Because I wanted to find out how global corporate responsibility as a notion prevailed and why companies that now carry a significant responsibility didn’t want to fight it, I wanted to take a look at the people and groups who made this idea successful.


People or groups are successful when they employ argumentative strategies that emphasize the role and responsibility of certain groups. The environmental associations helped usher in the success of the notion of global corporate responsibility by referring to the negative effects the international lumber trade has had on the United States. They argued, for instance, that American wood had to be protected from price dumping with illegal wood through legislation. Using this argument, they won over the American industrial associations that were largely in favor of passing the legislation.

How can the research design you developed translate to other areas?

My Discursive Agency Approach is applicable to any topic you choose. My junior research group is currently using the approach, for instance, for understanding how a new concept for European recycling is being implemented. It is aimed at keeping materials within the economic cycle for as long as possible and avoiding waste. Up until now, this idea was not questioned much and can be traced back to the multiple possible solutions for current urgent environmental and resource problems. But I question it. Ideas do not spread without a purpose.


German Thesis Prize

Sina Leipold’s doctoral thesis came about in collaboration with her colleagues Theresa Frei, Metodi Sotirov, Maike Stelter and Georg Winkel. The German Thesis Prize is awarded by the Körber Foundation, honors the best German junior scientists in all fields every year and counts as one of the highest monetary awards for young scientists in Germany.