David A. Sonnenfeld, Ph.D.

Research Description

adapted from Switzer Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 1, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2002, p. 5


by Melissa Waterman

Switzer Fellow David Sonnenfeld spent important formative years in Oregon. "Living on the west coast of the USA and having worked at a sawmill and a paper company, I realized that Pacific Rim globalization would be an ongoing issue," he says in explaining his interest in the paper and pulp manufacturing industry of southeast Asia. In the 1980s there was a feeling of outrage on the west coast as the U.S. exported raw logs from Oregon and California to Japan and Korea for processing. "That got me thinking," Sonnenfeld recalls, "What were the economies in Asia? Why were we sending the logs to them?" He began studying the links between globalization and industry. While a doctoral student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, Sonnenfeld undertook field research on the environmental transformation of the paper and pulp industries in Southeast Asia, Australia and United States.   

His research suggests that environmental social movements, both international and domestic, are an important driving force in improving the environmental behavior of paper and pulp companies. Sonnenfeld found that concern about dioxin, a byproduct of chlorine used in pulp and paper manufacturing, prompted changes in industry behavior both at the international and domestic level. Citing the efforts of Greenpeace during the 1990s, Sonnenfeld discovered that in developed countries, such as Australia and the United States, Greenpeace's campaign for chlorine-free paper had a marked effect on public perception and hence, consumer demand for such paper. In developing countries, such as Indonesia and Thailand, community activists used the legal and scientific assistance of Greenpeace and other NGOs to effect changes in governmental policy. Further, the actions of environmentalists helped redirect the paper and pulp industry’s own research and development activities.

After completing his research in Southeast Asia, Sonnenfeld returned to the locales where he had gathered data to share his findings. "People in these places are very interested in what’s happening in their front and back yards and the global dynamics of the industry," he explains. "The local government officials, industry employees, academics, and NGO staff are interested in what their colleagues in other countries are doing." In Southeast Asia, Sonnenfeld emphasizes, people are well aware that economic development has beneficial as well as harmful aspects. They are learning that industry, in this case paper and pulp manufacturers, can mitigate environmental impacts while sustaining economic growth.

Sonnenfeld’s current research in Thailand focuses on the global electronics industry, examining the role that transnational businesses, domestic firms, and civil society play in the transformation of that industry. His research tackles such questions as what is the role of government regulation and policy-making in environmental transformation? What are the sectoral differences in the industry? Where does positive environmental change take place? "I want to know what happens to make some electronics firms take environmental leadership roles," says Sonnenfeld.

Currently, Sonnenfeld is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Policy, Department of Environmental Studies, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF), Syracuse, NY.

last updated July 01, 2010