Posts Tagged ‘green economy’

Certification: all things to all men?

IIED’s Sian Lewis has an intriguing piece on Fair Trade over at the Due South blog. My eye was particularly taken by this section:

Other participants shared Justice’s concerns over the infrastructure for fair trade certification. Jorge Chavez-Tafur, from the Centre for learning on sustainable agriculture (ILEIA), asked “Is it true that fair trade standards are so complicated that companies can’t cope?”

It seems the answer is yes. Even from within the movement itself, there were calls to address standards. Merlin Preza, coordinator of Fairtrade Small Producers in Latin America and the Caribbean, said “the problem lies not in meeting standards — of course producers can meet them — the problem is verification”. She explained that poor farmers, who are often illiterate and live in isolated rural areas, often find it very difficult to navigate all the ‘red tape’ involved in registering products and proving where and how products are grown.

“We are asking for simpler — not lower — standards,” said Preza. “They need to be regionally specific because local contexts and cultures can be very different,” she added.

The same problem pertains to forest certification by FSC et al, and I see similar dangers in the emerging standards and safe-guards for REDD+ schemes, especially in the voluntary market. (I’m not familiar with MSC certification of fisheries, but suppose there is likely to be similar issues.)

The dilemma for certifying agencies, I suppose, is that some investigative journalist comes along and exposes some, perhaps relatively small element of a certification supply chain for, say, having dodgy labour practices. The resulting negative publicity could tarnish the entire brand, so the certification standards bodies put in a rule about that.

Unfortunately this is a slippery slope to massive complexity. I’ve seen FSC certification checklists which extend to more than 200 items. Each criterion or sub-criterion on its own is reasonable and generally not too difficult to deliver, but put all together and it becomes immensely challenging. FSC-certified forest managers nearly always have several Corrective Action Requests on the go; failure to improve by the next inspection could see their certificate suspended.

All of this drives up costs. Sian’s post continues:

A bigger problem for fair trade — especially as it goes ‘mainstream’ — is competitiveness. Being able to compete with big business has always been a major challenge for small-scale farmers, who have fewer resources, less bargaining power and limited access to the latest technologies.

Big businesses are taking advantage of a scheme that was originally designed for small-scale producers and now compete with those producers, creating a major problem, said Preza.

This issue is magnified many times over for FSC certification, which was originally devised to reward sustainable management of tropical forests by or involving local communities, but most holders of FSC certificates are big companies, most either based in temperate zones and/or managing plantations not natural forest. Why? Because they have the resources to meet the myriad demands that forest certification makes, and secondly because if you’re running a pine plantation in Europe, you probably already meet 90% of the requirements as otherwise you’d be breaking the law. Conversely, even for big companies managing forest concessions in the tropics I hear that it is marginal as to whether it is profitable to get FSC certification. One could argue that is a market failure, but nonetheless it illustrates the size of the challenge.

So for anyone working on certification type issues, I have one big plea: keep it simple! Decide what are the most important criteria, and focus on them. If you want to add further criteria, then do it on a Bronze, Silver, Gold or similar type ranking (credit therefore to CCBA who’ve taken this approach), with ascending degrees of complexity. I’m all for setting the bar high, but don’t make it ridiculously high (otherwise you’ll limit take up), and don’t go for so many different bars that we lose track of what it is that we basically stand for.

Plotting the eco-revolution

I’ve recently been reading about the period of great revolution in Europe during the first half of the 19th century. Many European revolutionaries had a pan-European vision of a glorious struggle for liberation, nurturing strong links with other revolutionaries across the continent*. Thus, bands of foreign revolutionaries would readily assist their comrades in arms when the outlook for successful agitation looked better in another country than their own: “Our home is stuck in its ways without hope of emancipation,” ran the thinking, “But we can see excellent opportunities in your country, so we’ve come to lend our support.” Cue lots of devilish plotting and scheming that arguably only ended with Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in 1914.

In my inbox this week, a glossy report from UNEP entitled the Green Economy – Why a Green Economy Matters for the Least Developed Countries.  The foreword to the synthesis opens up as follows:

The  world  is  preparing  for  the  2012  UN  Conference  on  Sustainable  Development
(Rio+20),  where  one  of  the  themes  will  be  “green  economy  in  the  context  of
sustainable development and poverty eradication”. This publication examines the
idea that Least Developed Countries (LDCs) possess the economic conditions, the
natural and cultural assets, and the policy setting to embrace, if not lead, a green
economy transition, which would in turn accelerate their development.

I don’t suppose for a moment there is a revolutionary bone to be found in UNEP’s staff, but UNEP’s overall philosophy is clearly strongly influenced by Western environmentalism. It is certainly regrettable that the big Western economies completely missed the opportunity to focus their recent economic stimulation programmes rather more strongly on creating green economies, but I’m slightly uneasy over UNEP urging LDCs to “lead” the transition to a green economy.

“We want to get rich first, then we’ll worry about the environment,” sums up the approach taken by many developing countries to climate change negotiations, and, in the absence of a bit of leadership from developed countries, who can blame them?

This is not to say that I do not understand the academic arguments for pushing for a green economy in LDCs; they are often proportionately richer in natural resources, and have less invested in carbon-intensive ways of doing things; there is a clear potential for leap-frogging straight to clean technologies. But I cannot help escape the feeling that we need to be very careful about advocating strategies our own countries have spurned. Most developing country governments seem to smell the fish pretty easily.

* Eventually such ideals faded under growing nationalistic currents – the parallel with Pan-Africanism is striking.

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