Multinational corporations (MNCs) are increasingly seen as key actors in global governance. This article introduces the concept of corporate role conceptions as a new and interdisciplinary approach for analysing the self‐conception of MNCs. To illustrate its analytical strength, the concept is used to explore how MNCs operating in major forest‐risk supply chains, that is, cattle, palm oil, pulp, soy and timber, conceive themselves and their function in global forest governance. The empirical analysis shows that their self‐conception is both complex and multifaceted as they seek to perform several functions at the same time: corporate decision‐makers consider it appropriate for their corporation to be a pioneer, a role model, a supporter and co‐creator, a dedicated worker, a force for prosperity, a good global citizen and a good steward. However, these corporate role conceptions are overlapping and partly incompatible, which leads to role conflict. I argue that this role conflict constrains corporate agency in global forest governance and therefore diminishes the potential of MNCs to promote positive change.
- Considering the key role that MNCs play in global forest governance, policy makers should further expand their understanding of corporate self‐conception.
- Policy makers should be aware that MNCs have not (yet) developed a consistent image of their function in global forest governance. Therefore, their ability to promote positive change should not be overrated at this point in time.
- Due to their multifaceted self‐conception, MNCs offer different ʻdocking points’ for external expectations. Policy makers should adjust their communication strategy accordingly.
- Corporate role conceptions are shaped by internal and external stakeholders. This means that different actors – including policy makers – can contribute to changing the self‐conception of MNCs.