Friday, December 30, 2011

Eco labels: the more successful, the less value

 “The very traits — governance and inclusiveness — that make consensus-based standards so useful as credible mechanisms for collective action also pose challenges for businesses seeking to move quickly and to differentiate themselves in the marketplace. And like any tool, certification and labelling have limits — including limits to scale.” concludes a report from the consultancy Sustainability, 

33 years after the world’s first sustainability label (Germany’s Blue Angel) appeared, certifications and labels are now everywhere. The Ecolabel Index lists 426 certifications and labels in 25 industry sectors and 246 countries as of November 2011. Around two-thirds of these were developed in the last decade alone, and new schemes continue to arrive. And as our own research, the Organic Standard Directory shows that there are at least 124 organic standard, but probably many more, Nowadays it’s stating the obvious that consumers are confused by the sheer number of certifications and labels: according to the Natural Marketing Institute, 51% of American consumers think “there are too many green seals and certifications”; Only 42% of American consumers recognize Rainforest Alliance, 26% LEED and 19% Forest Stewardship Council, although 95% recognize Energy Star and 76% recognize USDA Certified Organic.

In the report Signed, Sealed... Delivered? Behind Certifications and Beyond Labels”, the UK based consultancy Sustainability asks “Why certify or label?” The report, based on 85 interviews with businesses, standards-setters, certifiers and other expert observers as well as desk research places the question in the context of other ways available to businesses for improving or communicating sustainability impacts across the value chain.

The interviewed businesses expressed frustrations with the soundness of criteria (“based on perception or politics, not science”, “popular only because it was the first”), the level at which requirements are set (“too low — we can’t differentiate ourselves”), the fit for the business (“requires us to change our processes for no reason”), or the failure of the standard to adapt to new knowledge or processes (“hampers innovation”).

Committing to a single standard can limit sourcing flexibility in the case of raw materials standards. Agricultural certification illustrates this challenge emphatically. “At the moment, certification is the only process we have, but at some point we’ll have to jump to a completely different mechanism,” states Jan Kees Vis, global director of sustainable agriculture at Unilever. “We’re not going to certify every farmer in the world, we can’t create a roundtable for every raw material.” Another risk for businesses is that participation in a labelling schemer ties them to the reputation and viability of the standards-setting organization. The reports predicts that the model of a standard, certification and label on one coherent system carrying most of the message will fade. Sustainability believes that in the future sustainability certifications will be moved to the back-of-pack, metaphorically and literally. 

I do agree with this analysis.  I have been working with this sector for three decades, and while I still think there are many merits in eco labels and organic labels, I think it is increasingly apparent that there are many in-built limitations in what they can deliver. As I write in Garden Earth: "The attraction of an eco label, for businesses and consumers alike is to differentiate a product from other products that are without the label. But the more successful the label is the less value it has in a competitive market."

Related blog post in Garden Earth
Don't buy organic instead of changing the world - do it as part of changing the world
Sustainable coffee is increasing, but only 35% is sold as such.
How fair is fair?
What gives value to an eco label



Wednesday, December 28, 2011

What will happen if we all do like China?

In Europe and the USA, environmentalists have for decades used a rhetorical question: “what will happen if the Chinese adopts western lifestyles and consumption patterns?” The idea of the question is to show that the Western lifestyle is not sustainable (which it certainly isn't)

Perhaps we got it all wrong. Perhaps we should ask the opposite question? "What will happen if we adopt Chinese lifestyles and consumption patterns".

I just read that China, despite being a stumbling block in climate negotiations has the most extensive payment scheme for ecosystem services in the world, they spend some US$90 billion in payment for ecosystem services according to a recent report. In Garden Earth I write: 
In Europe and the USA, environmentalists have for decades used a rhetorical question: “what will happen if the Chinese adopts western lifestyles and consumption patterns?” Now, this question is no longer a rhetorical question. It is reality; it will not be answered by western environmentalists but by the Chinese themselves; because whatever the global impact is, the impact in China itself will be even greater. In 2006, there were 16 million electrical bicycles in China, in 2010 their numbers were probably 120 million (New York Times 2010b). Electrical bicycles are for sure no ideal and not unproblematic from an environmental perspective, they spread led from batteries and they need coal-generated electricity (ADB 2009). Nevertheless, they are clearly favourable compared to cars, and they represent just one of many examples of how they can avoid the mistakes of high-income countries. China is also the number one producer of solar technology.

I don't want to glorify China, neither for its environmental nor for its social policies. But I do think there is a tendency in the so called West to not see promising signs. We need to realise that the Chinese are not only good in churning out industrial goods, but they are also masters in managing the landscape, which is why China has continued to be a major force in the world for thousands of years, with dips now and then.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who gave you your property?

La propriété, c'est le vol! said French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in his 1840 book Qu'est-ce que la propriété ? ou Recherche sur le principe du Droit et du Gouvernment (What is Property? Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government). This perception was not new. The famous Marquis de Sade (Yes, the same guy whose name formed sadism) said:
"Tracing the right of property back to its source, one infallibly arrives at usurpation. However, theft is only punished because it violates the right of property; but this right is itself nothing in origin but theft."
Those who are in favour of property rights to be almost unlimited and sacrosanct tend to be the same as those who wants to limit the extent of government. But they, conveniently, overlook a very fundamental fact. They have got their property from government and it is only government that can ensure their perpetuated right to the property. Before there was government, before there were laws and a state that could enforce them there was no property. And in most societies most things “belonged to” the community or the state. The root of private property is a privilege extracted from governments. This continues today where governments convert new things to goods and markets, for instance eco-system services. The market and control of such services is instituted by governments and through various processes allocated to private owners. 

Over years, different groups, with the support of the state (or being part of the state) came to take over larger and larger parts of property, such as the war lords, later becoming the respected nobles or the financiers of the state's war, the emerging capitalists of high finance. It is estimated that some 1.5 million valuable items were stolen from the Old Summer Palace in China, when ransacked by the French and the British 1860. Victor Hugo (1985) wrote:
One day two bandits entered the Summer Palace.[...] All the treasures of all our cathedrals put together could not equal this formidable and splendid museum of the Orient. It contained not only masterpieces of art, but masses of jewellery. What a great exploit, what a windfall! One of the two victors filled his pockets; when the other saw this he filled his coffers. And back they came to Europe, arm in arm, laughing away.
To stimulate the transcontinental railway building, the US federal government gave one fourth of Minnesota and Washington and a fifth of Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas, North Dakota and Montana to the rail road companies; an area bigger than France (Lindblom 2001). It is interesting to note that a professor in the stronghold for "free market" economics acknowledge this. "Land, natural resources, and government contracts and licenses are the predominant sources of the wealth of our billionaires, and all of these factors come from the government" says Ragharam Rajan, economist in Chicago (IHT 2011), referring to billionaires of India (read also NYT).

And no doubt, enormous wealth and therefore property is generated by the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. How property in the collapsing Soviet Union was distributed was a crash course in how property is unequally distributed to those that are close to the power. 

It is an entirely subjective and political decision weather some should be given unique rights to land or other resources or they should be common. A government could as well declare a universal right to food as the private right to land. For those, like the author, that is raised in a fully developed capitalist market society it is almost hard to conceptualise how a world without private property could look like. Still, in many parts of the world, forests and farm land are often owned by the state or by the local community. The point is neither that private property by itself is good or bad, nor to claim that anyone with property is a thief (which would then include myself as well). It is to clarify that it is a privilege based on state sanction, and that the unique rights that property has been given has very little to do in a discussion about freedom, and even less that property rights should form a moral justification for limitation of other peoples' freedom. First when we have cleared the myth, can we discuss property in a rational way.

"Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can" sings John Lennon in Imagine. This is probably our greatest challenge. To think outside the box.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Homo Petroleum

One sad fact with the internet is that it is so easy to find out if someone already "said it" or "thought it". Working with my latest manuscript, I had the idea to name our species after the dominating energy source used for the three main phases of development.
The hunting and gathering man - Homo something (yet to figure out - my Greek was never that good).
The farming man - Homo agricola
The industrial man - Homo petroleum 
The last thing recognizing the fundamental role oil (or fossil fuel in general) plays for our so called modern society. We often believe it is human ingenuity or technology or even "the market economy" that has made the modern world possible. But trust me, fossil fuel is the most prominent factor....

And of course I searched for Homo petroleum on the net and found that some other clever person already used the expression.

Discovering Homo Petroleum by Pouly

(original version in french)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Soil: wrong side up

"Author Joseph Kinsey Howard describes a spring day in 1883 in North Dakota when John Christiansen, a Scandinavian farmer, looked up while plowing a field to discover an old Sioux watching him. Silently the Sioux watched as the prairie grass was turned under. The farmer stopped the team, leaned against the plow handles, pushed his black Stetson back on his head, and rolled a cigarette. He watched amusedly as the Sioux knelt, thrust his fingers into the furrow, measured its depth, fingered the sod and the buried grass. Eventually the Sioux straightened up and looked at the immigrant. “Wrong side up,” said the Sioux and went away."

This comes from an article by Wes Jackson in YES!
The article is mainly about how to restore the prairies, or rather how to re-invent perennial systems of farming. He concludes:
"As civilizations have flourished, many upland landscapes that supported them have died, and desert and mudflat wastelands have developed. But civilizations have passed on accumulated knowledge, and we can say without exaggeration that these wastelands are the price paid for the accumulated knowledge. In our century this knowledge has restorative potential. The goal to develop a truly sustainable food supply could start a trend exactly opposite to that which we have followed on the globe since we stepped onto the agricultural treadmill some ten millennia ago."

Clearly soil erosion has caused the collapse of many civilizations. As I write in Garden Earth:

Environmental degradation has followed man since his first attempts to farm, well even before farming. Also hunters caused substantial degradation e.g. by the extermination of large mammals in North Americas or many bird species in the Pacific. Soil erosion is one of the most prevalent and also one of the most harmful kinds of environmental degradation. It was an issue of concern for rulers of ancient Greece as early as the sixth century B.C. The lawmaker Solon proposed a ban on cultivating hillsides in order to prevent erosion. The ruler Peisistratos rewarded peasants for planting olive trees instead of cutting down forests and grazing livestock. Two-hundred years later, Plato wrote of land devastation taking place in Attica:
“ the primitive state of the country, its mountains were high hills covered with soil, and the plains, as they are termed by us, of Phelleus were full of rich earth, and there was abundance of wood in the mountains. Of this last the traces still remain, for although some of the mountains now only afford sustenance to bees, not so very long ago there were still to be seen roofs of timber cut from trees growing there, which were of a size sufficient to cover the largest houses; and there were many other high trees, cultivated by man and bearing abundance of food for cattle. Moreover, the land reaped the benefit of the annual rainfall, not as now losing the water which flows off the bare earth into the sea, but, having an abundant supply in all places, and receiving it into herself and treasuring it up in the close clay soil.” (Plato Critias)
If not dramatic collapse, so at least the slow decay of most civilizations can be traced back to soil erosion and wasteful agricultural practices. It is a sobering insight that there are very few agriculture systems that actually have proven to be really sustainable, and for many of those it is thanks to external factors that they are sustainable, not thanks to the ingenuity of humans. The fertility of the Nile valley and other flood plains is mainly a result of erosion up stream bringing every year new soil and new nutrients downstream. David Montgomery[1] states in Dirt, the Erosion of Civilizations, that most historic cultures lasted between five hundred and one thousand years. They start off with fertile soils created by natural processes. Fertile soils in hills with good rainfall are brought into cultivation as population increases, but soil erosion makes fertility fall. Marginal lands are taken into cultivation where fertility plummets rapidly and finally the whole civilization collapse, the area is depopulated until nature replenishes the soils again. He shows that Schwarzwald (Black Forest, today dominated by forests as its name indicates) in Germany has gone through three such cycles (Montgomery 2007).

[1]       David R. Montgomery is a Professor of Earth and Space Sciences, see a presentation here:

I have written several posts about soil and erosion. And even more about agriculture

Monday, December 12, 2011

Scarcity starts to bite

Norway has a shortage of butter, newsmedia report. Do we see the end of cornucopia? Will scarcity become part of everyday life in the future? 
"A radical change in food consumption and production in Europe is unavoidable to meet the challenges of scarcities and to make the European agro-food system more resilient in times of increasing instability and surprise. "
Is one of many conclusions of a recent report commissioned and endorsed by the European Union’s Standing Committee on Agricultural Research (SCAR), an advisory committee comprised of representatives of all 27 EU member states plus 10 additional European countries, which is headed by the European Commission

Main messages of the report are:

1. The increasing scarcity of natural resources and destabilization of environmental systems represents a real threat not only to future food supplies, but also to global stability and prosperity, as it can aggravate poverty, disturb international trade, finance and investment, and destabilise governments. Price volatility, access restrictions and the interconnectedness of global commodity markets, as well as the increasing vulnerability of food production systems to climate change and loss of agrobiodiversity, will make food even more inaccessible for the poor in the future.

2. Many of today´s food production systems compromise the capacity of Earth to produce food in the future. Globally, and in many regions including Europe, food production is exceeding environmental limits or is close to doing so. Nitrogen synthesis exceeds the planetary boundary by factor of four and phosphorus use has reached the planetary boundary. Land use change and land degradation, and the dependence on fossil energy contribute about one- fourth of Greenhouse Gas emissions. Agriculture, including fisheries, is the single largest driver of biodiversity loss. Regionally, water extracted by irrigation exceeds the replenishment of the resource.

3. Drastic change is needed in regard to both food demand and supply. In an era of scarcity, the imperative is to address production and consumption jointly in order to introduce the necessary feedbacks among them and to decouple food production from resource use. Efficiency and resilience are the new priorities over production levels. This transition cannot be met by following the common narrative of increasing productivity. The narrative of “sufficiency” opens opportunities for transition into sustainable and equitable food systems by a systemic approach that deals with the complex interactions of the challenges founded on a better understanding of socio-ecological systems.

4. The average Western diet with high intakes of meat, fat and sugar is a risk for individual health, social systems and the environmental life support systems. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoarthritis, and cancer are wide-spread diet-related diseases. The promotion of a healthy diet also reduces the environmental footprint of food consumption in Europe and globally.

5. Coherence between food, energy, environmental and health policies and across all levels of governance are prerequisites for a timely transition to sustainable and equitable food systems. A new quality of governance is needed at local, national and global level, with a substantial contribution by the State and civil society. Research should strongly support this improvement, and the role of social sciences may be crucial.

6. Diversity and coordination are key for increased efficiency and resilience of the future agro-food systems. It is a fact and a strength that food consumption and production systems are diverse. This diversity has to be maintained, or diversification be fostered, between different regions and farming systems. Diversity in research directions will keep all options open for reacting to surprises.

7. Research, innovation and agricultural knowledge systems must be fundamentally reorganized. To speed up transitions, tightly and actively integrate 1) multiple disciplines from ecology, economy, agronomy, social science, 2) research, innovation and 131 communication, 3) farmers, food retail, technology, industry and agricultural research, and organise research and innovation as learning processes.

8. Make Europe the world leader in efficiency and resilience research of food consumption and production. Ensure a strong role of public research, in particular to guarantee a better understanding of the underlying processes of ecosystem services and the interactions among the scarcities. The continuation of cooperative thematic research in environmental topics and food production and consumption is as critical as the maintenance and further development of European research infrastructures in these areas.

9. Sufficiency-oriented research, innovation and communication must become the priority. Explore new opportunities and ecological approaches to boost research and innovation on efficiency in resource use in agricultural production, including new farming systems that balance the three dimensions of sustainability, and food processing, including cascading uses and waste reduction. Address consumer behaviour and supply chain strategies (including information and communication) in favour of healthy sustainable diets that save food and feed resources and can help curb the increase in global food demand.

10. A radical change in food consumption and production in Europe is unavoidable to meet the challenges of scarcities and to make the European agro-food system more resilient in times of increasing instability and surprise. Europe has already taken up the climate change challenge in industry and is intending to make new energy technologies a win-win-win strategy for market, labour and human welfare. Now the agro-food sector has an opportunity to positively take the challenge and be the first to win the world market for how to sustainably produce healthy food in a world of scarcities and uncertainty.

The report point outs the far-reaching effect of energy scarcity on food production: 
Oil scarcity may affect the food system in two ways: (1) shocks, that are a sudden deviation from normality; and (2) stresses, which are a continuous trend of intensification of the problem. Shocks would strike most where the system is most oil dependent: for example, the British system is very efficient, but heavily dependent on long distance sourcing, and a crisis in the energy sector may put food access of the Britons in danger. In countries with less efficient power distribution, the damage and chaos resulting from a black out could be much worse. Stresses could manifest themselves in a trend of rising prices, and if unattended, could bring to forms of adaptation which might be far from
efficient. Among the possible effects of stresses on agriculture related to oil prices there could be:
· Increase of costs of production, bringing a reduction of fertilizer and pesticide use, especially by resource poor farmers, and therefore a reduction of yields and / or impoverishment of soils (Jaggard et al., 2009).
· Increasing profitability of energy production from agriculture, that would generate problems for land use competition and consequently to further rise in food prices
· Reduction of consumption and changing dietary patterns, that may lead to an increase in

I would add the affect of reduced global competition which would follow as a result of increased energy prices. This reduced competition pressure would increase food prices for the benefit of farmers and local production.These kinds of effects are the ones that really will shape the world when energy is getting more and more costly. And the effects are not necessarily bad. All in all, increasing energy prices are likely to be a blow to the industrial agriculture model, but not necessarily bad as it will make better methods, such as organic more competitive. The changing dietary pattern following energy scarcity is also more likely positive rather than negative.
The report is written by: Annette Freibauer (chair), Erik Mathijs (rapporteur), Gianluca Brunori, Zoya Damianova, Elie Faroult, Joan Girona i Gomis, Lance O´Brien, Sébastien Treyer 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Location divide is more important than class divide today

A very interesting study by Branko Milanovic from the World bank concludes that differences in income between countries have increased tremendously in our modern society. And these difference also extent to salaries of workers. The difference in salary between worker in the richest countries and the poorest countries were small at the footstep of modern industrial society. Today, they are huge.

Among many things, it means that:
- capitalist globalisation has lead to increasing gaps, not decreasing (which is why the elite loves it)
- workers in the industrial countries are most likely profiting from exploitation of workers in developing countries (which is why it is hard to engage them in a global social movement).
- migration has a lot more appeal than ever before, and its potential to reduce difference in income is great(which is why there is such resistance to it).

Read also the post:

Growing inequality, between people, between countries, between region, between urban and rural

Some quotes from the report below

"Inequality between world citizens in mid-19th century was such that at least a half of it could be explained by income differences between workers and capital-owners in individual countries. Real income of workers in most countries was similar and low. This was the basis on which Marxism built its universal appeal. More than 150 years later, in the early 21st century, the situation has changed fundamentally: more than 80 percent of global income differences is due to large gaps in mean incomes between countries, and unskilled workers' wages in rich and poor countries often differ by a factor of 10 to 1. This is the basis on which a new global political issue of migration has emerged because income differences between countries make individual gains from migration large. The key coming issue will be how to deal with this challenge while acknowledging that migration is probably the most powerful tool for reducing global poverty and inequality."

"Angus Maddison has estimated that around 1850, the mean income in the poorest countries in the world (Ceylon and China) was around $PPP 600. 5 At the top were the Netherlands and the United Kingdom with a GDP per capita of about $PPP 2,300. Thus, the ratio between the top and the bottom (of country mean incomes) was less than 4 to 1. Consequently, the better-off workers who earned incomes close to the national means, could not, in terms of their standard of living, differ from each other by more than the ratio of 4 to 1. And the bulk of workers who lived at less than their countries’ average income and closer to the subsistence, could not have incomes that differed by more than 2 to 1—with many of them living at approximately the same subsistence level. Indeed, Broadberry and Gupta (2006, Table 6, p. 17) show that in the period 1800-1849, the wheat-wage of an unskilled daily laborer in India (among the poorest countries in the world then) was about 30% of the wage of a similar worker in England. And comparing the Netherlands with the Yangtze valley, two relatively developed areas sharing a number of similar geographic features, Li and van Zanden (2010, p. 21) conclude that in the 1820s, real wages in the Netherlands were about 70% higher than in the Yangtze valley."

"In 1870, the gap between the richest countries (Australia and Great Britain) and the poorest (Nepal and Ghana) was 8 to 1; in 2007, it is 31 to 1 (United States and Norway vs. Nepal, North Korea and Ghana)."

Monday, December 5, 2011

The internet isn't really bringing us together...

Excellent analysis by Ramesh Srinivasan, in the Washington Post

"We’ve long heard that the Internet was supposed to unite people of different cultural and political persuasions. Yet, despite the explosion of online voices, social-media users rarely access opinions that differ from their own, and many social-media sites — with their bifurcated like/dislike, join/don’t join ethos — only perpetuate the sound-bite culture of older media.Not only are our Facebook friends similar to us (we usually connect through mutual friends and shared interests), but researcher Ethan Zuckerman has shown that the sites we visit reaffirm our political and cultural preconceptions. This homogenization reaches the very machinery of social media — its algorithms — which tailor search results or Facebook feeds according to what the systems “think” users will find most interesting."
I would venture that TV and Radio probably did a lot more to bring us together than the internet. This because of the more limited number of voices in those media. It is simply more unifying that everybody sees the same TV show and listen to the same radio. This was also a reason for why totalitarian ideologies as fascism and soviet style communism were keen users of radio and movies.  

In a way it is a similar experience that I found from moving from a city, to the country side and back again. In the city you can easily congregate with your own mind-fellows and age-fellows, even the same old gang you went to school with. Even if you live in an environment with a lot of information and opinions around you don't often confront these other opinions. When you live in the country side you interact with the few people that are there, regardless of age, interest or political or religious orientation. Perhaps this is exaggerated a bit, but that is what you do to make a tendency clear.