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Some success stories

Print edition : Nov 01, 1997 T+T-

U.N. report on Agenda 21 highlights case studies of eco-friendly export industries.

C. T. KURIEN

Unlocking Trade Opportunities - Changing Consumption and Production Patterns, United Nations Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development, International Institute for Environment and Development, London, 1997.

IN Agenda 21 of the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992, governments of the world agreed that action had to be taken both to promote more sustainable patterns of consumption and production and to make global goals for the environment, development and trade mutually reinforcing. A progress report on the Agenda was to be presented to the 1997 Earth Summit+5 meet. The publication under review has been prepared on behalf of the U.N. Department of Policy Coordination and Sustainable Development for this purpose.

The Rio Summit alerted the peoples and nations of the world that the global environment was rapidly and dangerously deteriorating and that the major cause of it was "the unsustainable pattern of consumption and production, particularly in the industrialised countries." The Summit highlighted the deep divide in consumption and pollution between the developed and developing countries, whereby 20 per cent of the world's population in the rich North account for 50 per cent to 90 per cent of consumption and pollution. Agenda 21, therefore, called on the industrialised countries to take the lead in making the shift towards sustainable consumption and production patterns. It also called for a new balance to be struck to make international trade flows, development needs and environmental sustainability mutually reinforcing. It was recognised that this would not be an easy task as it involved restructuring economic activity, redirecting business opportunities, reforming policy frameworks, renewing international cooperation and rethinking core ethical values. One estimate indicated that reduction in resource use, energy consumption and pollution per unit of economic output of a factor of ten or more would be required in the rich countries over the next half century if all the world's citizens were to have a fair chance of meeting their needs. Equally major changes would be needed in pricing, trade policies and ethical considerations to achieve the stated objectives. Whether a global "community of interests" between the rich and the poor, between consumers and producers, between governments and voluntary agencies, is possible is the crucial issue.

International trade assumes great significance in this context. About a third of the value of Asian exports and about half the value of manufactured exports are in sectors where environmental requirements are emerging. They provide excellent opportunities for the rich countries to resort to subtle forms of "environmental protectionism." And although a new Committee on Trade and Environment has been set up to study these issues, the evidence, as an independent evaluation has indicated, is that there has been a failure to recognise that "the world's economy and its environment are joined at the hip like Siamese twins."

Against such pessimistic prognostications, this publication reports a number of case studies that are success stories. The first and most prominent among them is the Century Textiles and Industries Limited, Mumbai, of the Birla group, which has succeeded in finding an eco-friendly substitute for the azo dyes traditionally used in textile manufacture but which, recently, were found to cause allergies and even cancer. Century now is accredited with the globally accepted ISO 9002 quality system and has won national and international export, quality and productivity awards.

A second case study is that of Fridge Master, Swaziland, which found a safe substitute for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).Widely used in refrigeration, CFCs cause stratospheric ozone depletion. Although it is a very costly operation, Fridge Master made good thanks to the increase in exports that followed.

Other case studies relate to tourism in the West Indies, coffee production in Costa Rica, fruit production in Chile, organic cotton cultivation in Uganda, timber trade in the Solomon Islands and the use of the tagua nuts, a forest produce, as a substitute for plastic in the manufacture of buttons in Ecuador - a range of products indeed.

It must be noted that the major successes so far have been in units big enough to be "big players" in international trade. Century is the largest textile unit in India, employing nearly 7,000 workers and with a turnover of the equivalent of over $1 billion a year. Fridge Master is the largest manufacturer of refrigeration products in southern Africa, exporting nearly 80 per cent of its output to South Africa. In contrast, the problem with coffee and cotton has been that they are produced mostly by small owners who need support to compete and survive in the global markets. In such instances, consumers must be educated about the value of eco-friendly products that may turn out to be (initially at least) more costly than the standardised familiar brand names. "Green coffee", for instance, in 1995 was 10 per cent more expensive than other kinds of coffee and only 0.3 per cent of the global coffee market was under fair trade conditions.

The case studies show that while the potential for fair trade is not negligible, "the realisation of the potential is not always easy or straightforward, and that there are a number of often substantial policy and business constraints to be dealt with along the way." An equally significant finding is that where there have been successes, central to them has been the development of new partnerships along the production chain that have resulted from the initiatives of individuals and groups in different parts of the world. Promises to keep and miles to go.