April 15, 2013
This time I want to discuss another aspect of oil and gas extraction in Nigeria.
I think the Shell dilemma is also an individual dilemma, as all of us are part of the game… part of our worldwide resource extracting system that is based on oil and gas. As I explained in my last entry, I think the root causes of the conflict are political and economical. Political, because Nigeria is a weak state suffering from corruption while local conflicts get polarized and most parts of the population excluded from the oil profits. Economical, since our society depends on fossil resources and therefore on companies like Shell or Gazprom. Thus, as long as those two circumstances continue, an environmentally and socially harmful resource extraction as in Nigeria won’t stop.
So I think, in a certain way, it comes back to the consumer decision since everybody is (directly and indirectly) implemented in our fossil based production and consumption system. It’s up to us (as a whole) to reduce our dependence on oil &gas. However, that’s a lot of responsibility to an individual and therefore this may not work out, since individuals barely take into account negative environmental and social consequences when deciding what to buy or how to live.
Concerning this, I’d like to pose the question, if individual decisions should be influenced by governmental measures? If so, how could negative externalities be taken into account? How far could that go? I’d like to pose you two simplified ideas (that already exist…) that are definitely worth to be discussed:
- A carbon tax on each product that takes into account the CO2-emissions of a product and favors those products that are not based on fossil resource extraction.
- An international, standardized label that categorizes a product according to its carbon footprint, as well as environmental and social consequences (which has to be defined, of course)
What do you think ..would that be efficient to shift consumer behavior? Would it be enough to create a more sustainable system? What problems could arise when implementing such measures? Have you any other ideas? =)
April 14, 2013
This time, I would like to write about vegetable production in Andalucia/Spain. As most of us know, this is the place where a large part of our vegetables (and also fruits) come from. Today, nearly half of the Andalucian area is used for agriculture, and the 35.000 acres covered with plastic around the city of El Ejido are the world’s largest greenhouse-surface, which can be even seen from space. Pipelines from Northern Spain were build to enable industrial cultivation in an area that used to be a desert until the 1960ies, when investors started to develop especially the area around El Ejido.
But what sort of vegetables grows there? Well..most plants are put in rock wool or high-tech substrates instead of earth and lots of pesticides (around 40kg/acre/year) are used to get some well-designed tomatoes, paprika and zucchinis to look eat-worthy. Since bees would not survive in such a pesticide-loaded area, genetically modified drone are used, that are designed to believe that the plants were the queen bees. To get the overdoses of pesticides out of the vegetables, they get neutralized and “smoked-out” with other chemicals. Apart from that, the region is home of “Europe’s last slaves”: illegal migrant workers that work day to day for a few Euros.
That’s where a large part of our vegetables come from and that’s where a large part of European agricultural and regional subsidies go to. And all the named circumstances explain why those vegetables and fruits are that cheap…If it was produced biologically and fair, it would probably be around 5 times more expansive. But what do we learn from that? I guess most people have already heard most of what I’ve just written, but a lot of them still buy it! Why do you think is that so? What are the implications of such a price dumping? Would it be useful to set up for example stricter EU-wide regulations that avoid such cultivation? Given the fact that a lot of supermarkets (especially in winter) don’t offer many alternatives, would there be demand for better quality? Under which circumstance would people start to rethink their consumption?
April 12, 2013
After having read the text about Shell in Nigeria, several aspects came to my mind. First of all, it’s definitely hard to understand how Nigeria’s large oil and gas deposits could have turned out to be a course and caused so much suffering for the country and its population. Apart from that, I’m shocked by Shell’s ruthlessness. I think that there should be definitely a further discussion about corporate social and environmental responsibility.
But here it comes to the point that a larger range of components influence the situation in Nigeria. So there are a lot of issues that have to be solved politically, as for example the fact, that in the moment only a very small part of the population benefits from the extraction of the huge amounts of oil and human rights and environmental standards should be improved. On the other hand, economic interests play an essential role on the conflict as the global production and consumption system is based on the use of fossil energy and those interests which are driven by the rising demand in energy and petrol as well as a private sector and multinationals logically embed Nigeria.
Still, I think it’s important to consider that it would be too easy to simply blame Shell &Co for what they do, since everybody depends on companies like Shell. That’s not difficult to understand as all of us depend on oil and gas, either directly (fuel, heating…) or indirectly (since all production and thus all consumption are based on oil and gas). So, everybody who drives a car knows how it is to be dependent on the fuel price that is rising more and more. However, the other aspect, the embodied energy, is often forgotten.
So, to summarize, it seems to me that the example of the system “Shell/Nigeria/Dependence-on-fossil-energy” is extremely complex and all involved factors influence each other so that is difficult to blame only one side for something. What do you think about this?
March 21, 2013
Recently I wrote about labor conditions at Foxconn, the most important supplier of Apple’s iPod. But where do raw materials for cell phones actually come from? I think that’s an interesting issue, but it’s not that easy to get information about it. I’d like to point out one of the most shocking examples: That’s coltan which can be processed to tantalum, which is used for cell phones and laptops. A large part of these coltan deposits are situated in the east of the DR Congo. There we find also large deposits of cassiterite and gold. In East-Congo there is an ongoing civil war in which “conflict minerals” unfortunately play an essential role, as on the one hand, different groups fight to get access to those mining regions, and on the other hand, the conflict is financed and upheld by illegal mining. Financed, because fighting forces sell minerals in order to buy new weapons, and upheld, because privates, companies and in one case even UN peacekeepers have no interest in stopping the conflict in order to can continue illegal mining and make profit.
I also watched this short documentary.. well… I’d recommend you to watch the last part of the film (the rest of it wasn’t that good, that one is much better), when NOKIA was asked for a statement. The responsible persons didn’t seem to care at all and were even downplaying the facts. Additionally, they claimed that it was impossible to control where minerals come from, although that’s not true – it’s technically possible, so conflict minerals could be avoided, if there was any effort to do so. At this part, I wasn’t only anymore shocked by the issue itself, but also by the reactions of NOKIA. To me, this shows that cell phone producers definitely don’t care although they are the essential purchasers of coltan and fortunately for them, this isn’t really an issue that attracts attention in the public. But how can that be so? I mean, there are around 5 million people that died since 1998. 300000 women got raped in this time. Children are working as miners. And there are nearly 5 billion people in the world who possess a cell phone!
March 20, 2013
This time, I’d like to write some thoughts about the concept of microfinance which is often said to be an efficient way to get people out from poverty and to “develop” especially rural communities.
It was introduced around 30 years ago by Mohammad Yunus, a Bangalese economist who later received the Nobel Peace Prize. Through that, the concept of microfinance got popular all over the world and also commercial banks, financial institutions and big companies started to participate. Yunus and his Grameen Bank co-operated with companies like Monsanto in order to bring farmers to use “modern” (GMO) seeds and the corresponding pesticides and fertilizers. Farmers were made dependent and had to continue to purchase seeds and fertilizers, since the GMO-system, once adopted, is very hard to reverse, and prices increased sharply in the following years.
So microfinance which was pretending to help people out of poverty appeared to increase poverty and dependence even more. It helped companies to incorporate even poor subsistence farmers into the worldwide GMO-system which is controlled by a very few number of companies. There’s a lot of interesting material available in the internet, some examples:
Nowadays lots of commercial banks are involved in microfinance and started to give conditional loans to people (in India to over 30 million of people), without controlling where the money goes to. Then those profit maximizing banks violently collect debts, which often causes a lot of suffering (an example) An important fact I think is that microfinance is closely linked to corporate sustainability. Some of the biggest banks in the world (e.g. HSBC, Citigroup, Commerzbank, ING, Deutsche Bank) entered the microcredit business in search of new growth opportunities, while in the same time they seem to “good-wash” themselves by acting “sustainable”. Thus it’s obvious that microcredits aren’t always that sustainable as they pretend to be and to me, this illustrates the difficulties we face concerning sustainability issues in our financial system since also everybody of us is involved.
March 19, 2013
Today I’d like to share with you some thoughts about the electronic industry, after having done some research about Apple’s iPod and Foxconn (one of the biggest manufacturers in the electronic industry).
On the one hand, Apple seems to have understood that a certain corporate responsibility is necessary to avoid negative publicity. So Apple’s sustainability agent publishes each year a well elaborated “Progress Report” which explains Apple’s “Supplier Code of Conduct” telling us that Apple will reinforce its audit program to make sure that all minimum standards are fulfilled. Okay, this sounds professional. They also emphasize that they have positive assessments from the Fair Labor Association. But as it comes out, the FLA is financially supported by Apple and therefore doesn’t seem be that critical …
Still criticism is rising and doubts about the seriousness of Apple’s promises come up. Can we call that “good-washing”? Isn’t Apple still cheating on its customers when claiming that everything is perfect while nothing has changed ? But do customers really care? Well, people still seem to be crazily buying the latest iPods and the high demand caused supply problems and thus exacerbated working conditions in Foxconns’ factories. Thus customers have an impact and in this case the huge demand undermined some slightly efforts towards better working conditions.
Thus to me, there’s no doubt that a company like Apple should have to be hold accountable when working conditions in the supplier chain don’t even meet the minimum standards. On the other hand, how can we be sure that promises are executed? Stricter regulations and so on can’t be established that easily. As we saw, pressure from media and civil organizations can induce a company to react, but in the case of Apple this wasn’t enough. Therefore I think that the decisive component is the customer. What do you think about this assumption? Who takes the main responsibility if working standards are undermined and human rights violated? Who has an iPod and feels good about that? Why?
March 13, 2013
In one of my last entries, I wrote about the manufacture of footballs in Pakistan. People working there get the lowest possible salary, while companies selling the products gain a lot of money. The same holds for the clothing industry and I guess nobody will deny that this is unfair. And most people will agree that measures should be undertaken to improve working and environmental standards. But only few people really realize that their own consumption does have an impact, even if it’s just a small one.
As far as I can observe, most of us don’t question at all, how clothes or sport equipments get produced. Instead of that, some of us are passionate about shopping in big malls and use tobuy things they don’t need …for the lowest bargain prices of course. Others are crazy about getting the latest fashion and spend huge amounts of money to get a certain brand that serves solely as a status symbol (that may be an expensive designer brand, or also an ‘alternative’ brand like Converse…It doesn’t matter). Thus, some people seem to like spending money on brands or, in other words, on the ‘feeling’ or ‘status’, which they believe to get, once they have it. This money usually goes into a company’s PR department (which may start a CSR campaign though) and will be used for market analysis and advertisement, but it won’t be spent to establish fair trade or to fulfill better environmental standards.
Thus, I’m asking myself, why people rather spend money on expensive brands, than on fair traded clothes?! Don’t they know any better? Or is it still the bad company who can get blamed for all the deficits as well as for seducing and brainwashing the costumers? Of course, it’s difficult to answer questions of this sort, but I think the truth is somewhere in the middle. Nevertheless, I’d like to hear others opinions concerning that in order to discuss what could be done from politics as well as from a civil society’s perspective.
March 13, 2013
I have just had a look on the webpage sinsofgreenwashing.org, which tests the eco-friendliness of “eco-friendly products” in North America, informs about certifications and gives examples of products that have been green-washed. They list “seven sins of green-washing” and publish a really interesting annual report (that can be found here).
It is reported that, surprisingly or not, 95% of all tested “green” products commit at least one of these sins! Apart from this, the demand for green products has increased dramatically in the last few years and so, also the number of products that claim to be “green” is increasing, for example by 75% from 2009 to 2010.That is something most of us might have remarked in a similar way, especially in supermarkets. Another really surprising observation is probably that big box stores have the highest percentage of legitimate green products and less green washing than products sold in green boutiques for example.
So it comes to decide which products are legitimately green and which of them not?! What can we do? I think certification definitely matters here, but it seems to be the problem that a lot of those so-called certificates do not guarantee anything and some labels are just even designed to mislead the consumers. As we can notice, there is such a huge amount of different labels (and “labels”), that it is not at all easy for most people, to filter out those, whom one can trust. Apart from that, it is even more difficult, especially for a consumer, to compare and measure the quality of most certificates and even well-known and generally trustworthy labels like “Fairtrade” sometimes (or often, like “FSC”) face criticism. Thus I would like to discuss those issues further..for example, would there be any alternatives to voluntary labels? Would it be possible and useful to have standardized certificates that are obligatory for each product and classify it according to it’s “eco-quality”? What do you know about different quality of existing labels?
March 10, 2013
I have just read the text about Environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), which tries to point out different types and strategies of ENGOs and analyzes their networks as well as their linkages towards the corporate and the institutional sector. So, we have got in general those organizations, which are more independent and critical, but have to finance themselves and are limited in their impact, and those who tend to co-operate with companies and sometimes even get financial support from them (as the author of the text explained, a lot of ENGOs are between these two extremes).
I think this is an interesting topic as NGOs nowadays play a vital role in our society. Since our economic system is obviously dominated by the interests of private companies and financial institutions, and no longer only by governments and public institutions, NGOs could be seen as one of the last few critical voices. While big private interest groups do a lot of lobbying, in politics as well as in society, NGOs (could) form a counter-lobby.
However, it can be very often observed, that criticism concerning environmental and social issues is undermined and mitigated. A good example for that would be the upcoming of CSR strategies (including green washing especially). Another one would be the rise of public-private partnerships (PPPs), which search to combine economic and public interests, but often have negative effects like privatization and the loss of public control over resources, e.g. water (=> watch here). Most of those measures work hand in hand with the liberalization of markets, financial speculation and the upcoming of transnational companies and therefore NGOs seem to face a much more difficult situation nowadays.
So I ask myself, how much impact NGOs can still have and if it makes sense for them to co-operate with the institutional and private sector (like WWF does it with the World Bank & some privates). For me, it would be also interesting to discuss what position the so-called civil society takes in and which impact ‘we’ (as consumers and as citizens) still have.
March 10, 2013
Hardly anybody has ever heard of Sialkot. If so, then probably because it is the city where around 70 per cent of all hand-sewed footballs get produced. These footballs are acknowledged all over the world and are even used in Champions League Finals and World Cups. The manufacturing industry traditionally plays an important role in Pakistan, for example up to 60 million footballs get produced in Sialkot each year. They are sold in Europe for more than 100€, while adidas & Co pay around 5€ for these footballs and a pakistani sewer gets around 50 cent of that. To me, that is something hardly understandable, but actually worldwide production chains just work like that.
Besides that, in the 1990s, there was finally one international outcry after it came out that child labor was systematically approved in Sialkotian football manufactories. Since adidas, Nike and Co suffered from this bad reputation, they decided to officially ban child labor in 1997. From then on, the football buyers could be relatively sure, that no child labor was used anymore, at least in football production. But what happened to those thousands children, who lost their jobs? Well, most of them didn’t go to school, since school education is often not accessible and children have to work to support their families. Thus, they started to work in the even worse metallic industry, but nobody really cares about that.
To me, this shows that it would be in general possible for society to pressure companies to take action and improve working conditions or environmental standards. Since child labor is such a sensitive topic and intolerable from “European perspective”, the producers were more or less forced to ban it. However, as we don’t care that much about sweatshops, environmental standards and exploiting working conditions in general, producers and retailers will not start to do anything about it, since for them, maximizing profits is the main goal. To satisfy customers it seems to be enough that child labor is officially “banned”. Whether any measures are undertaken to create better working conditions, does not really influence a consumer’s decision to buy or not buy a football …whether those children who got jobless get any accurate education and perspective neither.