Sustainability for the mass market

Article as analysis
Am 1. Mai 2013 gab der Bundesrat grünes Licht für einen Vierjahreskredit über 30 Millionen Franken für die strategische Partnerschaft zwischen dem Staatssekretariat für Wirtschaft (Seco) und der holländischen Stiftung für nachhaltigen Handel (IDH).

On 1 May 2013 the Swiss Government approved a four-year credit line worth over CHF 30 million for the strategic partnership between the State Secretariat for the Economy (Seco) and The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), a Dutch foundation. IDH wants to lend a helping hand to big corporations such as Nestlé, Adidas, Ikea, Cargill and Unilever, amongst others, in switching to raw materials produced in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner.

Seco has in fact long supported the formation of trade chains with fairly and organically produced cotton, coffee, cocoa, wood or soya and is also engaged with the development of certification standards. But never before has it spent so much on cooperation with Swiss NGOs and the retail trade.

IDH* encourages corporations operating worldwide to voluntarily set sustainability goals, such as reducing the use of pesticides and fertilizers or protecting the water table by means of sparing irrigation methods. Those programmes are to be as much as 50-per cent financed from development funds. The goal is to capture the mass market with «sustainable» products and encourage resource-conserving cultivation methods on a large scale in developing countries, thereby mitigating extreme poverty amongst small farmers.

Is it sustainable when the label says so?

According to IDH Director Joost Oorthuizen, the concept of «sustainability» is deliberately not defined in greater detail. IDH constitutes a platform for traders wishing to meet the increased demand for goods produced in a fair and environment-friendly manner. It is up to them to decide the standards to which they will jointly commit themselves. There are no minimum standards for participation. Rather than setting the bar too high, it is more important today to allow black sheep into the green pasture.

IDH has repeatedly garnered bad press for this policy. In 2012, for instance, Dutch NGOs criticized the activities of logging companies in the Congo that were involved in illegal logging activities despite participating in the IDH programme. Anger reached boiling point this year when the IDH electronics group announced that it was welcoming Foxconn. As a supplier of Apple, Dell and HP, Foxconn has made a name for itself by means of inhumane working conditions in China, low wages and workplace suicides. In choosing its partners, IDH therefore takes major risks that prove damaging to the image of funding countries or implementing NGOs when things go wrong and are not detected or corrected quickly enough.

Alliance Sud welcomes Seco’s wish to send an NGO representation from Switzerland to the Impact Committee, a kind of quality monitoring committee. This should allow the IDH partnership to benefit from experience with top-quality labels, prevent greenwashing and stop products with pseudo-sustainable dumping labels from reaching the Swiss market. It must be ensured that the know-how developed jointly with producing communities in the South and consumer awareness raising about trade relations is not put at stake. NGOs are keen to accompany and monitor IDH programmes in close dialogue with critical public opinion in Europe and with those directly affected in commodity-producing countries, thereby aiding the process of gaining new insights for strengthening and promoting fair, solidarity-based trading relations.