Tag Archives: #accountability

‘Just Sustainabilities’ in a World of Global Value Chains

By Stefano Ponte.

What if we used our size and resources to make this country and this earth an even better place for all of us: customers, Associates, our children, and generations unborn? What if the very things that many people criticize us for—our size and reach—became a trusted friend? 

Excerpt from ‘Leadership in the 21st Century’, speech by Lee Scott, then CEO of Walmart, Bentonville, Arkansas, 24 October 2005 (as in Humes 2011: 102)

Whenever we engage in consumption or production patterns which take more than we need, we are engaging in violence.

Vandana Shiva, Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace (2016: 102)

A New Era

Human activity is having major impact on the earth and its biosphere, to the point that geologists have now defined a new era – the Anthropocene – to reflect this phenomenon. For some, this is a period that started in the late 18th century with a marked increase in fossil fuel use, and that has accelerated dramatically since the middle of the 19th century. During this time, human action has overshadowed nature’s work in influencing the ecology of the Earth. Global sustainability crises, such as climate change, the acidification of oceans, and the ‘sixth great extinction’ of planetary life characterize this period of great turbulence in the relation between humanity and nature.

Others question the focus on humanity as an undifferentiated whole in the term ‘Anthropocene’, and propose a different term to explain the same result: Capitalocene, ‘the era of capitalism as a world-ecology of power, capital and nature’ (Moore 2016: 6). This term shifts focus away from the putative duality of human-nature relations and towards capitalism as a way of organizing nature. From a Capitalocene perspective, major changes in the world-ecology started taking place already in the mid-15th century – with a progressive transition from control of land as a way to appropriate surplus value, to control of land as a way of increasing labour productivity for commodity production. In other words, it is not enough to simply examine what capitalism does to nature and how humanity can solve global sustainability challenges through innovation in technology and business models. We need to conceptualize power, value and nature as thinkable only in relation to each other.

Sustainability Management

In addition to cost, flexibility and speed, sustainability management has become another key element of contemporary capitalism. The practices that corporations enact to address sustainability issues are also (re)shaping the existing spatial, organizational and technological fixes that are needed to ensure continuous capital accumulation.  Geographically, production is moving to locations that can meet basic sustainability specifications in large volumes and at low cost; organizationally, multi-stakeholder initiatives on sustainability have come to play a key role in global value chain (GVC) functioning; labour conditions among suppliers are under pressure from the need to meet increasing environmental sustainability demands from lead firms; and the need to verify sustainability compliance has led to the adoption of new technologies of measurement, verification, and trust.

The ‘business case’ for sustainability has been by and large solved – lead firms do not only extract sustainability value from suppliers, but also benefit from internal cost savings, supplier squeezing, reputation enhancement and improved market capitalization. As the value of goods increasingly depends on their intangible properties (including those related to sustainability) than on their functional or economic value, sustainability management becomes a central function of corporate strategy – filtering through organization, marketing, operations and logistics. Lead firms in GVCs are leveraging sustainability to extract more information from suppliers, strengthen power relations to their advantage, and find new venues of value creation and capture.

The business of sustainability is not sufficient as a global solution to pressing climate change and other environmental problems. It is doing enough for corporations seeking to acquire legitimacy and governance authority. This legitimacy is further enhanced through partnerships with governments and civil society groups. Some of this engagement is used strategically to provide ‘soft’ solutions to sustainability concerns and to avoid more stringent regulation. While the business of sustainability is leading to some environmental improvements in some places, and better use of resources in relative terms in some industries, the overall pressure on global resources is increasing. The unit-level environmental impact of production, processing, trade and retail is improving. But constantly growing consumption, both in the global North and in the global South, means that in the aggregate environmental sustainability suffers.

What To Do

Public actors at all jurisdictional levels need to put in place orchestration strategies that improve the actual achievement of sustainability goals, and activists and civil society groups should identify and leverage pressure to strengthen the effectiveness of orchestration. But these strategies have to be informed by the realities of the daily practices, power relations and governance structures of a world economy that is organized in global value chains. Orchestration is more likely to succeed when a combination of directive and facilitative instruments is used; when sustainability issues have high visibility in a global value chains; when the interests of private and public sectors are aligned, and when orchestrators are aware of the kinds of power that underpin the governance of value chains and act to reshape these power configurations accordingly.

A path towards ‘just sustainabilities’ means addressing inequality – since it drives competitive consumption and leads to lower levels of trust in societies, which makes public action more difficult; it entails focusing on improving quality of life and wellbeing, rather than growth; it demands a community economy and more public consumption; it involves meeting the needs of both current and future generations and at the same time reimagining these ‘needs’; it demands a paradigm of ‘sufficiency’, rather than maximization of consumption; it recognizes that overconsumption and environmental degradation impacts on many people’s right to enjoy a decent quality of life; and it requires a different kind of ‘green entrepreneurial state’, which also caters to these needs. Just sustainabilities necessitate building a social foundation for an inclusive and stable economic system that operates within our environmental planetary boundaries; and it demands business to behave responsibly (within its organizational boundaries and along value chains) to maintain its social license to operate.

This text is based on excerpts of Stefano Ponte’s forthcoming book Green Capital, Brown Environments: Business and Sustainability in a World of Global Value Chains, Zed Books: London. The book is based on 20 years of research on sustainability and global value chains, and builds from empirical work on several agro-food value chains (wine, coffee, biofuels) and capital-intensive industries (shipping and aviation).

Stefano Ponte is Professor of International Political Economy in the Department of Business and Politics, Copenhagen Business School and the former academic co-director of the Sustainability Platform at CBS. Twitter: @AfricaBusPol


Selected books for further reading on this topic:

Agyeman, J. 2013. Introducing just sustainabilities: Policy, planning, and practice. Zed Books.

Dauvergne, P. 2016. Environmentalism of the Rich. MIT Press.

Humes, E. 2011. Force of nature: The unlikely story of Wal-Mart’s green revolution. HarperBusiness New York.

Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity without growth: Economics for a finite planet. Routledge.

Moore, J. 2016. Anthropocene or Capitalocene? Nature, history, and the crisis of capitalism. PM Press.

Shiva, V. 2016. Earth democracy: Justice, sustainability and peace. Zed Books.

 

Pic by Marufish, Flickr.

Droned

by Glen Whelan.

A Military Heritage

A drone is an unmanned aircraft. Long used to refer to male honeybees – whose main function is to fertilize a receptive queen bee (and then die a seemingly horrific death) the word was first used to refer to remote-controlled aircraft by the US Navy back in the 1930s. The word was chosen as a homage to ‘the Queen Bee’, a remote-control aircraft that the Royal Navy demonstrated to the US Navy, and that inspired the US Navy to develop similar aircraft.

In the 1990s, the word drone was being used as a verb to describe the act of turning a piloted aircraft into an unpiloted one.[i] And by 2009, the word drone was being used to describe the act of remotely killing someone. As Fattima Bhutto wrote in 2009:

“Droned” is a verb we use now in Pakistan. It turns out, interestingly enough, that those US predator drones that have been killing Pakistani citizens almost weekly have been taking off from and landing within our own country. Secret airbases in Balochistan – what did we ever do before Google Earth? [ii]

Various Civilian Uses

With the development of consumer market autonomous drones[iii] that can be told to follow yourself or another person, it seems that the word ‘droned’, or ‘droning’, is soon to be used more regularly. Rather than just being used to describe acts of murder (or defense), however, it seems it will be used to refer to the act of being filmed or recorded by (autonomous) flying devices more generally.

Such filming will clearly be a good thing for legitimate film-making. And there are possibilities for autonomous drones to be used to improve accountability: as a form of sousveillance in response to surveillance by the powerful. But drones have other uses as well. Indeed, there are already numerous cases of drones being used for stalking around the world. Late last year for example, it was reported that:

“A group of women living in a rural setting near Port Lincoln on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula have been woken at night by a drone looking into their home…. One of the women, who like the rest of the group did not want to be identified, was asleep and alone at home on her relatively remote hobby farm. She was woken by a bang on her bedroom window and when she looked out into the darkness was confronted by a camera attached to a drone, hovering within centimetres of her window”.

Technologically Changing Society

Whilst such reports are alarming, Nick Bilton[iv] has used a personal anecdote to suggest that the negatives of being droned could be overstated. As he writes:

“I was sitting in my home office, working on this very column about neighbours getting into arguments over drones, when I heard a strange buzzing sound outside. I looked up and hovering 20 feet (around 6 metres) from my window was a black drone with a beady-eyed camera pointed at me.

At first, I was upset and felt spied upon. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to the opposite conclusion. Maybe it’s because I’ve become inured to the reality of being monitored 24/7, whether it’s through surveillance cameras or Internet browsers. I see little difference between a drone hovering near my window, and someone standing across the street with a pair of binoculars. Both can peer into my office.”

Whether or not the majority of people would agree, or disagree, with Bilton’s sentiment, is well beyond the present piece. But what should be noted with regard to it, is that he seems to be correct to emphasize that droning will have a material impact on what we deem (un)acceptable. Thus, as more and more people get droned – and as the capacity to make more sophisticated autonomous drones gathers pace – we should expect social norms and practices regarding privacy and personal (air) space to change as well.


Glen Whelan teaches at McGill, is a Visiting Scholar at York University’s Schulich School of Business, and the social media editor for the Journal of Business Ethics. He was GRB Fellow at CBS in 2016/2017.  His research focuses on the moral and political influence of corporations, and high-tech corporations in particular. He is on twitter @grwhelan.

Links

[i] Zimmmer, B. 2013. The flight of ‘drone’ from bees to planes. The Wall Street Journal, July 26. https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424127887324110404578625803736954968

[ii] Bhutto, F. 2009. Missing you already. New Statesman, March 12. https://www.newstatesman.com/asia/2009/03/pakistan-war-government-terror

[iii] https://www.skydio.com

[iv] Bilton, N. 2016. When your neighbor’s drone pays an unwelome visit. The New York Times, January 27. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/28/style/neighbors-drones-invade-privacy.html

Pic by Cambodia, P.I. Networt, Flickr. No changes made.

The Sustainable Development Goals: Elite Pluralism, not Democratic Governance

By Daniel Esser.

  • Was the process leading up to the SDGs really an exercise in global democratic policy making?
  • Although broad consultation efforts shaped the process, these alone were not able to alter the power structures undergirding the political economy of aid.
  • In the end, UN members states finalized the agenda behind closed doors and civil society organisations were once again relegated to serving as commentators and claqueurs.

Approximate reading time: 3-4 minutes.

The MDGs: An exercise in top-down development planning
Almost twenty years ago, a small group of white men sat together and dreamed up the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Soon after, the United Nations (UN) deployed them as carrot and stick to halve extreme poverty and hunger, reduce infant mortality, and put all girls and boys into primary education, all by 2015. There was real confidence that the MDGs’ top-down programming would eventually reach the farthest and most destitute corners of the globe, and that national as well as global resources would finally be spent on well-coordinated and effective projects. Listening to UN technocrats pontificate about the MDGs’ indispensability, one could have almost believed that old-fashioned development planning had finally been put on the right tracks. By the end of the exercise, thousands of new jobs in the international development industry had been created, yet most of the goals had been missed. The MDGs had begotten a hyperactive global network of goodwill ambassadors, faithful implementers and intrepid evaluators staff while billions in the global South continued to suffer.

The SDGs: Consultations as the end of procedural elitism?
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were supposed to end the MDGs’ dual legacy of procedural elitism and edentulism. Framed by the UN as the world’s foremost post-2015 development agenda, the new goals were designed to be more comprehensive in both scope and impact. Crucially, the UN also launched considerable efforts to incorporate voices from outside of the UN system. Thematic consultations took place around eleven areas selected by the UN Development Group (UNDG). They were complemented by web consultations, national consultations in 88 countries, and global high-level meetings. In addition, the UN created two websites to allow for direct consultation by inviting users to submit proposals and vote for challenges they considered most pressing. Moreover, a UN-sponsored civil society organization (CSO), ‘Beyond 2015’, brought together another 1,000 CSOs participating in national consultations.

Global democratic policy making – high aspirations, sobering facts
Undeniably, these efforts marked a clear departure from the MDGs’ backroom fecundation. But have they been sufficient to justify senior UN staffers’ praise of the SDGs as an exercise in global democratic policy making? Broad consultation alone does not alter the power structures undergirding the political economy of aid. Instead, it creates a thin layer of legitimacy that fades away as soon as accountability in invoked. The process leading up to the SDGs was rooted in an assumption that a goal-based framework was the only viable option; alternatives to such goals were never considered publicly. Countries were selected by UNDG and UN Resident Coordinators, and the breadth and depth of national consultations varied starkly. And although UNDG’s final report listed crowd-sourced issue rankings, it did not provide any rationale for excluding issues from subsequent high-level negotiations.

Closed doors, revisited
In the end, UN members states finalized the agenda behind closed doors. CSOs were once again relegated to serving as commentators and claqueurs. When push came to shove, the UN leadership thus followed its half-century-old practice of elitist international governance. Even though the UN leadership has been relentless in praising the virtues of accountability for post-2015 development cooperation, it has so far shied away from institutionalizing accountability in a way that would really make a difference: between the UN system and its powerful national agenda setters on one side, and CSOs, taxpayers, and intended beneficiaries on the other. If the SDGs demonstrate anything, it is that the UN remain unlikely to usher genuine global democratic governance into being.


Daniel E. Esser is Associate Professor of International Development at American University’s School of International Service in Washington, DC. His research on local governance amid violence, organizational management, and global health politics is widely cited. A former staff member of the United Nations in New York and Bangkok, he follows the organization’s continuous struggle to make a difference in the world from a safe academic distance. He can be reached at esser@american.edu.

Pic by UN Ukraine, edited by BOS.