The social entrepreneurship world - particularly the environmental sector - can contain quite a bit of irony. This post is about a specific instance of such irony.
At the last international get-together for social enterprises I attended, there were a dozen different beverages and food bars containing exotic ingredients, claiming remarkable health benefits, and sourced from some of the most remote ecosystems in the world. Free samples for many of these products were being handed out at booths. I am as much a sucker for free samples as anyone else and also utterly addicted to "health foods". So I was in heaven. How can you not love exotic, delicious products that make you feel virtuous about every aspect of your consumption? You can't.
Which is why the "socially responsible health food" industry is a hot, hot industry indeed. The $4 chocolate bar is a hot commodity because the cacao is sourced according to Fair Trade guidelines and perhaps even grown in a sustainable way. The $5 bottle of tea sold in a slick looking bottle makes you look hip, its main ingredient is sourced from the Amazon and has apparently kept indigenous populations healthy over centuries, and a percent of the proceeds go to a global conservation agency. Once again, what's not to love?
What's not to love is that the process of sourcing and supplying these "social enterprise products" can be as or more environmentally unsustainable as the cheap products at the local supermarket. What's not to love is that the process of shipping berries from the Himalayas to the United States, packaging them in artistic looking recycled paper, selling them to fitness mad consumers and donating a portion of the proceeds to a Himalayan conservation group :
- is a ridiculously inefficient way of conserving the Himalayan ecosystem
- is a very energy-expensive process from manufacture to supply
- feeds the insanely wasteful consumer culture especially displayed in US markets instead of taking the more environmentally sustainable stand against it (getting that specific mushroom grown in a sustainable forest reserve in Madagascar flown in to your neighbourhood organic food cooperative is imperative to your dinner plans? ahh, ok then. it makes total sense.)
The alternative - buying produce grown on small, local, American farms using minimal pesticides - is an infinitely better choice for the planet and for your health and snoooze....bored? Of course it's boring!! You would have to eat summer vegetables in summer, winter vegetables in winter, meat if inland, fish if coastal. Not purple carrots from Morocco, at least not canned and available in supermarkets all year long.
Supply chain reform
Of course I support the reform of existing global supply chains, particularly in the agricultural sector.
This is a different issue than the local versus global sustainability issue. The supply chain reform targeted by social enterprises usually seeks to achieve ecological sustainability at the product source, but also ensure ethical treatment of the producers. This could be about certifying diamonds so that you remain informed about the source of your diamonds and (hopefully) don't buy a "blood diamond". Or this could be about ensuring that farmers (usually in developing countries) get wages comparable to the value of the commodity for consumers. Policies protecting these farmers are often weak or nonexistent in emerging economies and these farmers don't have enough bargaining power in international markets, making the intervention by such social enterprises or certifying groups quite important. Further, labels ("dolphin safe", "fair trade", "shade grown") provide consumers with the ability to make informed choices and pay for production practices that are aligned with their values. Labels have also been shown to actually shape consumer choices, through various channels of social pressure or guilt because your consumer choices are now public.
Coffee, cacao, tea and spices are luxury foods that have been traded for centuries. Farmers have been growing these crops for a very long time and these crops are a staple feature of global markets. So of course I support creating trade regulations that ensure farmers getting a fair price for their crops, and that is a separate discussion from whether it is environmentally sustainable to ship chocolate around the world. Growing these crops is the primary source of livelihood for many of these farmers and paying them higher prices that better reflect the demand for these crops in the global market is also a great way to tackle poverty among rural farmers.
What I am objecting to is this barrage of unnecessary new food products that create a demand for exotic, unsustainable foods under the guise of social enterprise. That the over-supply and overall impact of many of these products is not environmentally positive is not a message that gets highlighted.
The environmental impact of the global food trade and the frustrating logic of the $4 Amazonian chocolate bar needs to be considered, yes. But one also needs to carefully examine the long term socioeconomic impacts of many of these social enterprise trends in the agricultural sector. I can think of 4 related questions to investigate:
- What effect do all these new, ethical supply chains have on local livelihoods that are linked to existing supply chains?
- What is the regulatory mechanism for ensuring that a fair price gets paid to the source farmers?
- What are the regulatory checks and balances in the social enterprise world to ensure there is a social impact, and also to ensure there is no negative fallout in the long term?
- What happens when the supply chains set up to source these food bars and coffees disappear because the social enterprise fails to make a profit and packs up?
The investigation was conducted by journalists from the Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR) in the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. It was supported by the Programme for African Investigative Reporting (PAIR) and research collaborators from the Netherlands.
The claims of the report point at either lack of regulation and oversight, or deliberate exploitation of consumers' willingness to pay more for products that purport to have social impact. This is all very similar to "greenwash" debates in the environmentally sustainable product market. Consumers have no way of knowing whether that extra money they are paying is actually achieving what they are being told it is. Of course this is also similar to the "international aid" debates which continue to rage around the topic of corruption and fund mismanagement in the international development sector. Common, even simple problems. Somewhat difficult solutions.
Now, this particular incident of potential fraud does not necessarily follow from my rant on the environmental unsustainability of food products.
- This kind of fraud has nothing to do with social enterprise and everything to do with regulation.
- It is as likely to occur in the mainstream rice market as in the Fair Trade chocolate market.