Wednesday, June 20, 2012

What does sustainable really mean in an unsustainable economy?

There is renewed interest in sustainability issues, ahead of ‘Rio +20’, the follow up to the UN Environment conference of Rio 1992. What has been called ‘sustainable development’ for the last twenty years is now often referred to as the ‘Green Economy’. As before, one of the tools for its promotion are markets for ‘sustainable products’. And of these, organic products are one of the most prominent examples. Certainly, there has been a tremendous increase in the market for various sustainability schemes, such as organic and fair trade schemes, as well as others like the Rainforest Alliance, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), etc. In the most developed market segments some of these schemes are taking significant market shares. There is a tendency for  people to assume that sustainability standards represent something new, but that is not true.

Gandhi advocated the boycott of machine-made European clothing as it caused large-scale unemployment in India. He took to wearing hand-made cloth called Khadi  that was inexpensive and suitable for poor Indians. Most importantly, it showed Indians how to be self-reliant by a symbolic act. His arguments are similar to arguments used today of sustainability proponents. 

“Khadi is only seemingly expensive. I have pointed out that it is wrong to compare khadi with other cloth by comparing the prices of given lengths. The inexpensiveness of khadi consists in the revolution of one's taste. The wearing of khadi replaces the conventional idea of wearing clothes for ornament by that of wearing them for use. (Young India, 7-8-1924)”

There are still many issues associated with the schemes that need to be discussed. ‘Can you trust them?’ is one of the questions. On this matter ISEAL has worked hard to develop codes of good practice. And in the organic sector there are many layers of watchmen all watching each other over and above the constant criticism by competitors. Compared to other claims in the market  place, the credibility and integrity of sustainability schemes is generally high.

‘How sustainable is the production?’ is another increasingly common question. As the term  sustainable’ is often badly defined, or defined in hundreds of different ways, and everybody pays lip service to sustainability, it is very hard to respond to such a question. Even systematic and
standardised methods of measuring sustainability, like Life Cycle Analysis, are ultimately based   on subjective values and depend on how much weight is given to different parameters. The ultimate answers are not scientific but ideological.

‘Could the schemes be merged?’ is another common question. It is often the same clients that ask this question who are interested in the many facets of sustainability, and it is not so farfetched to believe that there could be benefits in merging them. But reality speaks a very different language, new  sustainability schemes emerge all the time. Those who call for schemes to merge do not really understand that the main role of a scheme is to be a marketing tool for differentiation.

Also, they don’t realise that consumers are different. For some environment is the most    important, for others personal health, fairness or animal welfare is more important. For the
ethical vegan it can hardly be acceptable to support a sustainability scheme that allows animal products; while anti-globalisation activists would probably not approve schemes built on free international trade.

Questions that are not asked often enough are:
• What is the role of a sustainability scheme in our world?
• To what extent can we rely on markets to shape our world?
• Under which conditions do they work and under which don’t they work?
• Will fair trade or organic schemes really change the bigger picture?

While Gandhi’s cloth was a forceful symbol for self-reliance, in the end not many Indians wear hand-spun cloth today. Perhaps buying organic products is more like a statement of how we want the world to be; a statement of what is good and sometimes even a statement of status, of being  hip.

Most of the sustainability schemes work purely as a marketing tool. Their need comes from the market place which relies on a pricing process that does not internalise social or environmental costs into the price of products. This means that some consumers foot the bill for what essentially   are market failures, while other consumers are free-riders – that is they get the benefits without contributing. What are the issues that are best dealt with by voluntary markets and what are best dealt with by regulation, or by a combination?

For example, in carbon offset trading the often-hyped voluntary markets (i.e. where a supplier claims to be carbon neutral by buying offsets) represents only around 10% of the total market value for carbon offsets, the rest is created by regulations. The organic sector in  Europe is as much driven by political endeavour as it is by the market, which results in measures such as direct subsidies, proclamation of areas dedicated for organic farming (nature reserves, water-protection areas) and public procurement. These issues should be discussed to a much greater extent within the ‘sustainability industry’, rather than the detail of a particular standard, or another layer of supervision

(leader in The Organic Standard, Issue 134)

Khadi means handspun and handwoven cloth. In 1918 Mahatma Gandhi started his movement for Khadi as relief programme for the poor masses living in India's villages. Spinning and weaving was elevated to an ideology for self-reliance and selfgovernment. Every village shall plant and harvest its own raw-materials for yarn, every woman and man shall engage in spinning and every village shall weave whatever is needed for its own use. Gandhi saw it as the end of dependency on foreign materials (symbolizing foreign rule) and thus giving a first lesson or real independence. Raw materials at that time were entirely exported to England and then re-imported as costly finished cloth, depriving the local population of work and profits on it. Gandhi also felt that in a county where manual labor was looked down upon, it was an occupation to bring high and low, rich and poor together, to show them the dignity of hand-labor. Thus Khadi is not mere a piece of cloth but a way of life. Readmore


  1. I was in Khadi sector for last 30 years and still pursuing after retirement. My view is this is only path to growth towards right economy. Our misery began when we forgot Mahatma.

  2. I am working in organization invented by Mahatma Gandhi (KVIC). What this great man said is still virgin. Every one agree but........ I have hope the day will come every one not only agree but will do with out prejudiced. I have hope that one day will come we all Care, trust, love each other.