Environment and Sustainability

The growing Environment and Sustainability list is at the heart of our remit to publish quality scholarship that addresses global social challenges.

This list covers a broad spectrum of issues and focuses on the social justice dimensions of environmental sustainability, including in: climate change; environmental politics; developing sustainable economies; transport and sustainability; and environmentalist thought and ideology.

The new Open Access Global Social Challenges Journal incorporates these themes to facilitate critical thinking across disciplines and fields.

Environment and Sustainability

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This panel discussion session explores some of the central dimensions of the Crisis in the Anthropocene that constitute global social challenges in the context of development studies. The conference theme highlighted the profound human impact on our blue-green-brown planet, that is already breaching planetary boundaries and pushing us beyond the roughly 1.5°C tipping point. This threatens liveability and sustainability in many localities and regions and may well rapidly be ‘off the scale’ of imaginability and survivability. Inevitably, as mounting empirical evidence and increasingly clear projections by the IPCC and other authoritative bodies show, these impacts are unevenly spread, both socially and spatially, both now and over the coming decades. The urgency of appropriate action is undeniable and we already know many dimensions of the required adaptations and transformations. Yet progress mostly remains too slow. These challenges are vital to the development studies community – heterogenous as it is – with our concerns for tackling poverty, inequality, deprivation and environmental degradation globally and locally.

Hence this symposium asks what the crisis means for development theory, policy and practice and what development studies can and should be contributing to – and, indeed, whether it is capable of – addressing some key dimensions that warrant greater attention.

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Exploitative working conditions for migrant workers in industrial fisheries have recently drawn considerable attention among activists and scholars, often with a focus on Asian fisheries. Even so, fish work can offer a better livelihood option than migrant workers might have in their home countries. These contradictions are apparent in fisheries around the world, including those based in Europe and North America. In this paper we explore the incongruities and patterns of working conditions for migrant workers in Irish fisheries, situating how the global seafood industry relies on a racialised labour force that is devalued to produce raw materials for high-value seafood products, before turning to an analysis of a decades-long campaign to improve Ireland’s legal framework for migrant fish workers. Persistent campaign work illustrates how a multi-pronged approach, including legal strategies and actions to make the injustices in Irish fisheries more visible, is critical to provoking change, even as working conditions remain far short of most land-based sectors in that country.

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Despite a growing consciousness of the social and environmental problems at an international scale, the creation of economic value and short-term profitability tend to remain the central objectives of private and public decision makers. Based on this initial observation, the social cooperative enterprise BASIC (Bureau d’Analyse Sociétale pour une Information Citoyenne) was created in the belief that a lever for change lied in greater awareness and understanding of the link between economic activities and social-environmental issues. BASIC was set up in 2013 as a shared platform to mutualise expertise between academic researchers, civil society organisations and public bodies in order to analyse and question the relevance of current business models, whether at the level of a business sector, a company, a territory or a project, and initiate changes at the level of the societal stakes faced today.

The chapter analyses how BASIC achieves such goals via the generation and dissemination of information, knowledge and tools to understand and measure the impacts of economic activities on society and the planet, so as to stimulate the public debate and foster policy decisions towards an ecological and social transition. BASIC has developed a specific methodological approach in collaboration with academic researchers to analyse value chains, assess their societal impacts and estimate related hidden costs at different scales, from international commodities to local products. So far, the framework has been applied to a number of food value chains (banana, cocoa, tea, rice, shrimps, dairy, beef, fruits and vegetables) as well as textiles (sport brands), publishing and mining products.1

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The chapter explores the approach adopted by CORE (renamed the Corporate Justice Coalition in April 2021), the civil society coalition on corporate accountability established in the UK in 1998, with regard to recently introduced and proposed laws which require (or would require) companies to identify, and take steps to manage and mitigate, the human rights risks and impacts in their corporate group and supply chains, and considers the prospects for this emerging trend. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, endorsed by the Human Rights Council in 2011 introduced the concept of human rights due diligence (HRDD), a process by which businesses can assess and manage their impacts on human rights. Since then, references to HRDD have begun to be included in legislative instruments in Europe, at both EU and domestic level.

The chapter addresses the early evolution of these requirements, from measures intended to improve corporate transparency (the EU Non-Financial Reporting Directive and the UK Modern Slavery Act) to laws and legislative proposals which create, or seek to create, specific legal duties for companies with associated civil or criminal sanctions for management failures that give rise to human rights abuses. This latter category of laws includes the ground-breaking 2017 French ‘Devoir de Vigilance’ law. The chapter provides an overview of these instruments and the ways in which CORE is assessing the political and social dynamics behind their development and adoption, including the corporate response. It also considers the prospects for similar legislation in Europe and beyond, including the possibility of the inclusion of an HRDD requirement in a future EU directive.

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As the final touches are being put to this book, entire populations are submitted to compulsory confinement and curfew, a situation not experienced in many countries since the Second World War. The centralisation of governmental decisions is reaching new thresholds, together with the rarefaction of public spaces where pluralist views may be formed and expressed on our social, economic and political futures. Are we entering the ‘new normal’ of a digital age fed by GVCs and enforced through state repression? How can value chains be reshaped by social and political forces for a more sustainable ‘world after’?

The research and activist perspectives collected in this book date from the ‘world before’, but they contain signals and analytical insights which can usefully inform such questions. Indeed, the rise of state authoritarianism and the mechanics of inequalities that GVCs have engendered or continue to build upon are becoming increasingly visible, while sustainability discourses are increasingly captured by lead players. While the citadels of political, financial and economic power which govern the GVCs may seem impregnable, a mosaic of bottom-up initiatives are stirring empowerment and emancipation, holding potential to reshape the social, economic and political forms of value chains.

Much has been said on the disruptions that the COVID-19 crisis would induce in our ways of operating in – and thinking about – the world economy. Some argue that the crisis is leading to greater awareness of the unsustainability of global growth, and that there is now an urgent need to revitalise local economies so as to meet the basic needs of their population in more reliable ways.

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This chapter recounts the organising strategy developed by the French-based civil society initiative ReAct through the unfolding of a campaign led against the abuses by Socfin and Bolloré in and around their rubber and oil palm plantations. Land occupied, a lack of living space, rivers polluted, forests destroyed, a sacred place and indigenous cemeteries wiped out: the oil palm and rubber agro-industrial activities of Socfin Group have affected local communities for many decades. Yet, most of these issues are still unresolved or have not given rise to fair compensation. For almost ten years, the association ReAct has supported the local communities’ struggle against human rights violations and environmental destruction, in order to tackle corporate impunity step by step. ReAct’s strategy has involved:

  • strengthening grassroots power;

  • connecting people and building a transnational alliance; and

  • identifying leverage points and running campaigns at a global level.

Local communities organised at a local and global level have worked together to achieve important victories in this David versus Goliath fight, even if the challenges in the years ahead remain significant.

Oil palm and rubber monocultures can have significant negative impacts on local communities and the environment. These adverse effects are sometimes very poorly compensated despite the fact that the company generates significant profits. The Socfin Group was created in 1909. Specialising in the development and management of agro-industrial plantations, it operates in ten African and Asian countries where it has 15 industrial-scale palm and rubber tree plantations. The Group’s different subsidiaries run various activities ranging from plantation management to marketing and scientific research.

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Inequality within countries and between individuals globally are among today’s crucial development issues. These concerns are generally met with a policy response in the form of measures to enhance ‘competitiveness’ by articulating local firms with the world economy. The principal framing of these measures is by reference to GVCs, which are both the method and units of analysis in a framework seeking to interpret the fragmented muddle of global production (see, for example, World Bank, 2020). Broadly, a GVC is an international chain of market actors bringing commodities from extraction or production of raw materials to the point of consumer retail. The GVC framework has been adopted and adapted by major international financial and development institutions (the OECD, WTO, World Bank, and others), especially for the purposes of framing development aid conditionalities (Neilsen, 2014; Werner et al, 2014).

As it is currently conceived, however, the GVC analytic is a poor lens through which to view wider issues such as wealth distribution and gender inequality, and uncritical deployment of it in a policy making context consequently risks expanding and deepening adverse equality outcomes globally, rather than addressing them. We analyse the key shortcoming of the GVC model as being its uncritical focus on ‘value added’ at each juncture in the chain. ‘Value added’ within a market entity means gross revenues minus costs other than wages, or (which is an accounting identity) profit plus wages. By definition, therefore, an uncritical focus on value added as it arises along a chain fails to take into account the distributional effects of the partition of value added into wages for workers and profit for asset owners.

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It has become almost a truism that global value chains (GVCs) and global production networks (GPNs) have become a central feature of the contemporary global economy. Powerful lead firms such as Glencore, Apple (the first US company in the world to be valued at US$2 trillion on Wall Street, and only the second in the world after oil giant Saudi Aramco), Airbus or Zara orchestrate the configurations and geographies of these value chains and networks – from extractive industries to software development, aircraft production to garment manufacturing. As GVCs and GPNs have become ever more prevalent phenomena over the last four decades, their importance has been recognised by global institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) to formulate economic and social policies and initiatives. In the same vein, social sciences have developed sophisticated analytical frameworks and theories to explain their development, governance and impact on the global economy (Coe and Yeung, 2015; Gereffi, 2018).1 However, recent major events and more gradual global shifts have cast some doubt on the future of GPNs, their organisation and geographies, among the public, policy makers and academics alike.

Since the global expansion of neoliberalism from the 1980s onwards, the world economy faced its first major shock in the form of the global financial crisis of 2007/08. This crisis was followed by a second inflection point when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in 2020, temporarily shutting down many national economies first in Asia, then Europe, the Americas and Africa leading to recessions in many countries not seen since the Great Depression of the 20th century.

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The need to rethink value chains has gained momentum in public debates during the COVID-19 pandemic, highlighting the vulnerability of transnational production systems to unexpected shocks that could suddenly deprive import-based, consumption countries from access to very basic goods (Gereffi, 2020), while raising poverty levels to alarming thresholds in export-based producing countries where vast numbers of unprotected workers were left without work or a basic income (Kabir et al, 2020; Morton, 2020). The unsustainability of global capitalism has likewise come to the fore with the establishment of a link between deforestation and the decline of biodiversity on the one hand, and the vulnerability of our societies to disease pandemics on the other (for instance, see Tollefson, 2020).

Social inequalities, precarious development and ecological destruction have been longstanding issues surrounding the rise of global value chains (GVCs), but their magnitude and acuteness have now reached such a point that rethinking their premises and core dynamics has become unescapable. Such an endeavour should concern not just GVC experts, academics and students but also a broad array of actors involved in and around these chains, including policy makers, corporate managers, labour unions, civil society activists and the diverse stakeholders with whom they interact, from consumers to workers, indigenous people and non-human living beings on this planet.

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