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The failure of the worlds’ governments to agree on a binding global forest convention at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit led many leading environmental groups to advance eco-labelling ‘forest certification’ programmes that, they hoped, would achieve greater success in implementing sustainable forest management. Eschewing traditional State-centered authority, supporters of this ‘non-State market driven’ (NSMD) approach turn to customers of wood products to create compliance mechanisms, either through positive incentives such as market access or price premiums, or negative incentives such as ‘direct targeting’ or ‘boycott’ campaigns. Understanding how such systems might ‘ratchet up’ global forestry standards, we argue, requires that existing scholarship place greater attention on the role of public policies in helping to facilitate the impacts of private solutions. Specifically, we argue that scholars and practitioners need to assess strategic decisions not only on the basis of their appropriateness at present, but what they might do to trigger a global ‘race to the top’ at a later time.