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Bartley's research focuses on corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives, labor and environmental movements, and transnational governance. His recent work has focused on transnational private regulation of land and labor as implemented in Indonesia and China.
Overarching themes in Bartley's writings include the growing importance of global production networks as infrastructures for regulation, the importance of domestic governance in shaping the meaning of global standards, and the limited "on the ground" impacts of corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives.
Bartley serves as a research network coordinator for the Society for the Advancement of Socio-Economics, a section council member for the American Sociological Association, and has served on the editorial boards of several journals.
Compares two recent innovations in the enforcement of labor standards —namely co-enforcement by local government and civil society groups in Seattle and "worker-driven social responsibility" in the tomato fields of Florida.
Looks at the "on the ground" impacts of corporate responsibility and sustainability projects, focusing on land and labor in Indonesia and China. Documents the consequences of fair labor and sustainable forestry standards. Argues for a re-centering of the state to make global standards more effective.
Asks whether and how corporate social responsibility policies can be made more real in their consequences. Finds various effects —some more promising than others— of attempts by labor unions in Indonesia to leverage corporate codes of conduct to improve factory conditions.
Asks whether "conscientious consumerism" is a promising or empty path toward social change, and looks at the meaning of standards that conscientious consumers might support in promoting sustainability and/or fairness in four industries —food, forest products, apparel, and electronics.
Considers the rise of corporate targeting as a social movement strategy and analyzes the factors that make some companies more susceptible to activism than others.
Argues for re-centering the state in transnational governance. Examines a new transnational timber legality regime that is more promising in many respects than even the most credible voluntary sustainability standards.