Sustainable Development


Kenyan Flowers, Ethical Trade and the Question of Sustainable Development

Sustainable development can not be meaningfully discussed today without considering the effects of economic globalisation, for which there is an increasing call to be regulated by a stronger ethical framework. Many sub-Saharan African countries face enormous challenges to make globalisation work for them and to achieve sustainable development. One recent success story in African agriculture is the Kenyan cut flower industry, which in many ways is representative for economic globalisation. Kenyan flower farms have also been at the forefront of embracing ethical trade. These characteristics make the Kenyan cut flower industry an ideal case study to explore the relationship between economic globalisation, ethical trade and the prospects for sustainable development. This paper discusses the Kenyan cut flower industry along the lines of social, environmental and economic aspects and considers the effects of ethical trading on sustainability. Overall, the discussion suggests that the industry makes a considerable contribution towards sustainable development in Kenya and that ethical trading has played a positive role in this favourable assessment. However, some important systemic features of the global cut flower value chain limit the potential of the cut flower industry and of ethical trading initiatives to instigate a more inclusive virtuous circle of sustainable development in Kenya.

To read the full paper click here: Kenyan-Flowers (pdf, 589 KB)


Limits to Sustainable Development: or, why there is a need to revisit the link between economy and ecology

Throughout the 1990s sustainable development was adopted by many governments and development institutions around the world as a new paradigm for development. The rapid adoption of sustainable development in development discourse was due to the growing realisation that ending world poverty and stopping environmental degradation needed an integrated approach. But how effective is the new development paradigm in achieving the twin goals of poverty reduction and environmental protection? The continuously slow progress in world poverty reduction and the steady stream of bleak environmental reports would suggest that sustainable development is not the magic formula that it was hoped to be and that it will soon be replaced by another development fad. However, sustainable development continues to possess a strongly inspiring note for many and realising its promise remains as relevant as ever. This paper therefore tries to examine some of the limits that sustainable development is currently facing with view to regaining its potential for reconciling economy and ecology.

Sustainable development today has many competing meanings and often looks very different from the perspective of the North or from the South (Najam 2005). However, for the purpose of this paper I shall limit the discussion of sustainable development to its mainstream meaning as embodied in the Brundtland report (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987) and several other United Nations documents. The difference between sustainable development and other development paradigms - its “unique selling point” so to say - is of course, that it claims to deliver poverty reduction and environmental protection. I shall therefore focus especially on the ecological aspects of sustainable development and leave aside the discussion of issues related to poverty reduction.

This paper thus sets out to examine the limits of mainstream sustainable development from a strictly ecological perspective. In order to do so, the paper will look at three different areas that constitute important limits to sustainable development. I begin by examining the meaning of sustainable development and will point out some of the conceptual weaknesses associated with it. I then look into how sustainable development is shaped and limited by a broader agenda of global governance. This will be followed by a short account of how the dynamics of contemporary capitalism are limiting the effective implementation of sustainable development. I then conclude with some thoughts about the changes needed for sustainable development to regain its critical ecological edge.

Limit I: Conceptual Weaknesses of Sustainable Development
In the 1960s it was increasingly realized that there were strong linkages between industrialisation and environmental degradation. This awareness resulted in the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972 which is often taken as the key event in the emergence of sustainable development (Adams 2001). The term sustainable development, however, was only starting to be used in the 1980s. The IUCN (1991) claims that it has first given currency to the term “sustainable development” in its World Conservation Strategy published in 1980 (see IUCN 1980). The Brundtland report titled Our Common Future, published by the World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), then popularized the term sustainable development and quickly turned it into an international catch-phrase. This report also provided the now dominant definition of sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, p. 43). Although the report was important in stimulating discussion and putting sustainability at the centre of international attention, it also had considerable weaknesses.

Though the Brundtland Report’s definition of sustainable development as inter-generational justices is elegant in its simplicity, it is clearly insufficient. First, inter-generational justice is a weak concept for political operationalisation as future generations do not have a voice in current processes of political decision making. Second, and more importantly, the Brundtland definition of sustainable development as inter-generational justices leaves inter-regional justice unmentioned. This might lead to the paradox situation where one region is able to protect its own environment, and thus to fulfil the obligation for inter-generational justice within its own boundaries, by overexploiting the resources of other regions. Any meaningful definition of sustainable development will not be complete without refereeing to inter-regional justice of resource use.

The Brundtland report identified poverty as one of the main cause of environmental degradation in the Third World. This is a remarkable confusion of cause and effect. Indigenous communities, for example in the Amazonian rain forest, are poor by any standard of income poverty. And many such communities have managed for centuries to live with nature without causing environmental destruction. Following the Brundtland report’s analysis of cause and effect we would, however, have to conclude that such communities are negatively impacting the environment because they are poor. A conceptually sounder approach to understand the causes of environmental problems is to look at it strictly from a consumption angle (Princen 2001). From such a perspective it is consumption above a sustainable rate that is the cause of environmental decline. And growth in consumption is the product of population growth and growth in consumption per person. The causal link made between poverty and the environment in the Brundtland report is potentially misleading. Reducing poverty is beneficial for the environment in areas where the poor are forced to overuse the ecosystem simply to survive. However, as the poor climb up the consumption ladder the link between poverty reduction and environmental protection will probably be a negative one. The perceived link between poverty reduction and the protection of the environment is often due to the impression that richer regions are better able to preserve their environment. But this is often only the case because richer communities possess the ability to externalize the impact of their consumption to poorer communities.

On the operational level the Brundtland report identified economic growth and trade as the main means to achieve sustainable development. The report states: “it is essential that global growth be revitalized. In practical terms this means more rapid economic growth in both industrial and developing countries, freer market access for the products of developing countries, …” (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987, p.89). The report however fails to convincingly demonstrate the positive link between rapid economic growth and environmental protection. One is tempted to think that the incorporation of economic growth as operational objective for sustainable development is more the result of ideological beliefs than sound analysis. Lélé (1991), in a critical review of sustainable development, notes that economic growth may be the fallout of sustainable development but that it can not be regarded as its prime mover. What is clear is that the incorporation of economic growth as operational objective of sustainable development has taken away the critical ecological edge of the concept of sustainable development. Sustainable development will in the end need to move away from growth-economics and find ways of improving quality of life without constantly increasing consumption. Daly (1996) therefore argues that sustainable development necessarily means to abandon economic growth, first in the North and eventually in the South, and to move towards models of steady-state economy.

The above discussion suggests that sustainable development in its mainstream definition is lacking in conceptual clarity and that in many respects it resembles more a statement of faith than a sound policy framework. Some argue that it is precisely this conceptual vagueness that has allowed for the rapid adoption of sustainable development as dominant development paradigm (Lélé 1991; Adams 2001). As a result of this conceptual weakness sustainable development today buttresses capitalist globalization rather than challenging it.

Limit II: Global Governance and Sustainable Development
Sustainable development does not exist independently of other areas of global governance. In the following I shall examine two areas that are of particular importance for the shaping of sustainable development. First, I will look at the integration or indeed subordination of sustainable development under the broader global agenda of trade liberalization. And second, I will describe how the currently fragmented system of global environmental governance limits the successful protection of the global commons.

Trade liberalization and the promotion of export-oriented growth strategies are at the heart of the neoliberal global governance agenda as pursued by the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO. And mainstream sustainable development thinking has accommodated itself comfortably with this broader policy agenda. As mentioned above, the intellectual subordination of sustainable development to the imperatives of economic growth and free trade was already accomplished by the Brundtland report. The belief in the benefits of economic growth and free trade for the environment was further cemented by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio in 1992 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002. Agenda 21, the main policy document adopted by the 1992 Rio summit, for example explicitly calls for the promotion of sustainable development through trade (see United Nations Division for Sustainable Development 2004).

However, there are several good reasons to be doubtful about the assumed positive nexus between trade and the environment. First, trade and export-led growth strategies often lead to mono-cultural agricultural production. And numerous studies show the environmentally detrimental effect of monocultural agricultural production (see Adams 1990, p.170; Murray 1998). Second, trade facilitates over-consumption in rich regions and the export of environmental damage to poorer regions. The historian Donald Hughes (2005) sees the import of cheap resources and the export of environmental damage as a key feature of developed countries trade policy in the twentieth century. Current trade patterns contain a massive resource transfer between the South and the North. The negative ecological impact of this resource transfer is best captured by the concept of shadow ecology. Dauvergne (1997) uses this concept to demonstrate the devastating impact of Japan on the tropical forests of Southeast Asia brought about by timber trade. The detrimental environmental impact of the current trade regime is likely to be magnified in the future as the North-South resource exploitation is complemented by South-South exploitation between Africa and resource hungry China (Servant 2005).

Another area of global governance which is of great importance for sustainable development is the protection of the global commons such as the climate or the oceans. Protecting the global commons is the classical task of global environmental governance (GEG). In the following I will quickly outline the current system of GEG and highlight its main weaknesses. GEG can be understood as the sum of organizations, policy instruments, financing mechanisms, rules, procedures and norms that regulate the processes of global environmental protection (Najam et al. 2006). GEG started to emerge in the late 1960s and has developed rapidly since then. Today the system of GEG is characterized by a broad range of international institutions that are involved in one form or another in the management of the global environment. The United Nations Environment Management Group (UNEMG) counts over forty different organisations as its members. Besides the large number of international institutions concerned with the environment, an ever increasing number of multilateral environmental agreements have been devised to regulate global environmental problems. The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP 2001) estimates that currently over 500 such agreements are in effect. Many of these agreements have their own secretariats and funding mechanism, which adds to the institutional complexity of the current GEG system.

The complex architecture of the current institutional framework of GEG and the hitherto inability to reverse many of the negative environmental trends clearly suggests a need for reform. In the run-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 a vivid reform debate has started. One of the most promising ideas in the current debate is the suggestion to establish a World Environment Organization (WEO). Most proponents of this idea suggest building such an organization on the currently weak UNEP (see for example Charnovitz 2005). The purpose of a WEO would be to bring the myriad of environmental treaties and some of the existing international environmental institutions under one umbrella organization. This, so it is believed, would strengthen the coordination between existing initiatives and improve negotiation, decision making and implementation of future environmental policies. Furthermore, such a partial centralization of the currently fragmented system of GEG would strengthen the position of environmental concerns in other areas of global governance such as international trade and development.

Limit III: Contemporary Capitalism and Sustainable Development
For sustainable development to be more than a catchphrase fundamental changes in current consumption and production patterns will be necessary. This insight was recognized by the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002. The World Summit adopted the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation in which it is explicitly stated that: “Fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume are indispensable for achieving global sustainable development” (United Nations Division for Sustainable Development 2004a, Chapter 3). The question is, of course, whether consumer capitalism - the globally dominant system of production and consumption – is able to undergo such fundamental changes in its patterns of production and consumption. Or to put it another way, it is the question whether a greening of capitalism is possible or not. In the following I will first look at the likelihood of greening the production patterns of capitalism. And second, I will take a closer look at the likelihood of greening consumption patterns within capitalism.

Many authors believe that the greening of capitalism can be achieved by increasing the efficiency of resource use (for example Hawken et al. 2000 or Von Weizsäcker et al. 1995). Such an approach trusts on the capacity of capitalism to adapt to changing circumstances and on its ability for technological innovation. From such a perspective one could argue that all what it is needed is “getting prices right”. The rising cost of resources and environmental pollution will automatically provide the right incentives for capitalist production to adapt more efficient production technologies. Oosthoeck and Gills (2005) estimate that the global market for technologies promoting renewable energy and lower resource use is worth several hundred billion dollars. And indeed, many corporations have started to invest heavily in clean technologies. General Electric, for example has pledged to invest annually $ 1.5 billion in research and development of clean technologies (Bazilchuk 2005). The emerging greening of corporations would thus suggest that environmental protection is not at all antagonistic to capitalism but makes good business sense.

The ability of capitalism for innovation and adaptation shall not be disputed here. However, the above outlined technocentric solution to environmental problems caused by capitalist production leaves out other important features of contemporary capitalist production systems. Contemporary capitalism is characterised through production and marketing systems that seek to increase profits by promoting shorter and shorter product life cycles. Thus increases in production efficiency are easily offset by increases in output of production. Another important feature of contemporary capitalism is ever longer commodity chains. Longer commodity chains potentially offset the gains achieved through more efficient production by increasing the pollution brought about by transportation. Furthermore, commodity chains often span countries with different environmental standards and thus promote the export of environmentally harmful production activities to countries with lower environmental standards. It is therefore highly questionable if the emerging greening of capitalist production can guarantee the long-term ecological sustainability of capitalism (Vlachou 2004).

Assessing consumption patterns of contemporary consumer capitalism is a difficult task. The traditional analytical frameworks of neo-classical or Marxist economic analysis are overly concerned with analysing production and interpret consumption as the outcome of rational choices made by sovereign consumers. From such a perspective consumption can not be critically questioned. Princen (2001) suggests an analytical perspective that allows for the critical assessment of current consumption patterns from an ecological perspective. He proposes the concepts of “overconsumption” and “misconsumption”. Overconsumption occurs when a species undermines its own life-support system through excessive consumption. Misconsumption occurs when an individual consumes in a way that undermines his or her own wellbeing.

Overconsumption and misconsumption are only to some extent natural phenomena. Contemporary consumer capitalism systematically fuels unsustainable consumption patterns through advertising. Advertising and promotion costs constitute an increasing share of the total product cost. Nike for example has increased its advertising budget twentyfold in only ten years, reaching $ 500 million in 1997 (Klein 2000). And corporate advertising efforts are likely to continue to grow, as oversaturated consumers need to be convinced about the need to purchase more. Consumer attention for corporate advertising messages is therefore poised to become the scarcest resource of contemporary capitalism (Davenport and Beck 2001). The increasing exposure of consumers to corporate advertising therefore suggests the need to complement the concept of environmental pollution with that of mental pollution (Lasn 1999).

Arguably, excessive advertising and the resulting problems of overconsumption and misconsumption are mainly a phenomenon occurring in developed countries. But advertising fuelled consumption patterns have direct negative ecological impact in developing countries. Understanding the link between advertising and unsustainable resource use is therefore of critical importance. A change in consumption patterns, as suggested by the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002, will not happen without radically rethinking the role that advertising plays in contemporary capitalism.

The above discussion shows that sustainable development is seriously limited by conceptual ambiguity, by its close alignment with the global governance agenda of accelerated economic growth and free trade, and by an uncritical understanding of the dynamics of contemporary capitalism. In its current conception, sustainable development is potentially harmful in so far as it helps to obscure the real trade offs that exist between accelerated economic growth and environmental protection. The sustainable development mainstream misses much of the critical edge of green ideas and is thus not able to effectively challenge the ideological superstructure of consumer society.

For now, the concept of sustainable development is clearly geared towards the interests of those who want to maintain the current socio-economic system and not those who want to protect the eco-system. The struggle for sustainable development is therefore first of all a struggle over the meaning of sustainable development. The need to reconsider the link between economy and ecology is at the very heart of this struggle. Eventually sustainable development will only be a meaningful development paradigm if it critically engages with processes of commoditization of nature and social relations. Only such a critical engagement will open up the way for the larger systemic changes necessary to reconcile economy and ecology.


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Robert Moosbrugger

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