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According to conventional wisdom, there probably never was a great time to pay an unpredictable Latin American country with a dodgy debt reputation a lot of money not to sell a resource which your economy is dependent on. That was essentially the reaction of the majority of the international community when Ecuador´s President Rafael Correa first asked for international “compensation” not to exploit the estimated 960 million barrels of oil in the Ishpingo Tambacocha Tipituni oilfield, located deep in the heart of the Yasuni National Park. No amount of arguing about the benefits from protecting unrivalled biodiversity, isolated indigenous groups, or even the planet´s climate could move international governments to give Correa´s flagship environmental policy anything more than faint praise. So why, in the middle of recession, have the German government just made a concrete offer of $650m over the next 13 years?

In fact, the environmentalist arguments in favor of not exploiting the ITT have never been in doubt. What has changed is that Ecuador has made various compromises in order to transform the proposal from an environmentalist pipe dream to a viable alternative to an apparent development-conservation dilemma:

1 – Ceding a certain amount of autonomy to the financiers about the use of the money, be it in biodiversity conversation, renewable energies, or social programmes.

2 – Providing guarantees to investors, by selling bonds which would convert into debt with interest if any future government were to proceed with exploitation.

3 – Agreeing that the administration of any contribution would happen under the auspices of an international organization, possibly the Inter-American Bank.

4 – Accepting that governments and companies would only invest in the Yasuni-ITT if they could use it to offset their carbon emissions.

On the German side, the Government appears to be demonstrating that there is no inherent reason for governments to suddenly ignore environmental issues due to budget constraints. Beyond that, the willingness to put money into such an unconventional initiative demonstrates that governments can and should look beyond the short-term realities of the slump, and actually make investments in initiatives which do not simply entail a smooth return “business as usual” based on unbridled fossil fuel extraction.

The Yasuni-ITT Initiative is unprecedented for so many reasons, but perhaps the most interesting is that it threatens to marry an unlikely couple: carbon trading, and the non-extraction of fossil fuels. If we consider that the most consistent criticism of carbon trading is that it perpetuates a fossil-fuel based economy, it becomes clear that the Ecuadorian Government has taken the concept, and given it new significance. It is still early days, and Ecuador will be hoping to lure substantial new investment before exploitation can be explicitly ruled out. Nevertheless, in pushing the climate change debate towards a focus on non-resource extraction as the only secure way to ensure environmental security, the Ecuadorian and German governments have pointed the way towards a fundamentally new way of resolving the world’s environmental problems.

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The relationship between economic growth or income and consumption is frequently discussed in the realm of economics and beyond. The economic crisis provides ‘laboratory’-like conditions in which to explore how stagnating or declining economies, falling incomes or decreased purchasing power affects what we buy and consume.

14698176_7c44839711Demand for fish, for example, has been argued by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to be ‘sluggish’ in 2009 compared to 2008, which was a record year in fish production and consumption. According to the FAO ‘sales are sluggish in all major markets and prices and margins are under pressure for most seafood products’. Meat, dairy and fish have commonly been argued to be elastic products – that is, as incomes rise, consumption of these products also increases significantly. The crisis has demonstrated that the reverse is also true – as incomes fall, consumption decreases. However, the sheer variety of fish and seafood deems any generalised analysis of elasticity problematic. Cheaper, more ‘staple’ fish, for example, cod, may be inelastic and difficult to substitute, whereas more expensive fish, for example, tiger prawns, may be more elastic and can be replaced by other fish types or protein sources. For example, in the UK, some have claimed that fish and chips may be recession proof. More disaggregated data of fish consumption (by type or species) during the crisis is needed to draw any meaningful conclusions about elasticity, but we do at least know that consumption of fish overall has declined.  

For fish stocks the economic crisis may therefore come as a welcome break. Though a large proportion (approximately 45%) of our fish comes from farmed sources – aquaculture – the dominant proportion is still sourced from capture fisheries, i.e. the open sea. Concerns about the sustainability of fish stocks, particularly in regards to bluefin tuna, have dominated the media in recent months. A particularly controversial study carried out in 2006 argued that commercial fish stocks will have completely collapsed by 2046.

The New Scientist reports that there is some initial evidence that commercial fish stocks are recovering, although 63% of world fish stocks are still found to be at unsustainable levels, particularly in the developing world (which produces 80% of the world’s fish). Though the partial recovery in some stocks has been argued to be due to effective ‘conservation measures’ the economic crisis may well give these efforts an added boost.

The economic crisis may have momentarily achieved what many a public campaign could not and may signify a crucial turning point in the survival of some stocks. Ironically, the length of the recession may be a crucial determinant. However, there are equity issues involved, with the majority of people in the developed world eating fish in excess of their dietary needs whilst many in the developing world lack the purchasing power to consume enough fish to fulfil their basic nutritional needs. In the EU and US, people consume on average approximately 19kg per annum, whilst people in South America and Africa consume on average 8kg per person, per year.

For many the crisis will have a significant impact on total food consumption and may lead to far higher numbers of people who lack sufficient protein in their diets, are undernourished and go hungry.

Whilst researching the impacts of the recession on the demand for crocodile leather and stumbling over some tales of recession-induced woes, it seems Hermes, an internationally renowned luxury fashion brand, is the shining star – bucking all trends, and potentially single-handedly fuelling demand for exotic skins, like crocodile leather.

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Hermes sales rose by 3.2% at current exchange rates to €428.4 million over the first 3 months of 2009, despite the wider market context of a floundering global economy. Much of that growth is attributed to sales of leather goods, which rose 21.7% to €206 million and has been driven by ‘robust’ expansion in China and Korea (Hermes 2009).

Hermes’ Birkin bags fanatics, including celebrities like Victoria Beckham, are paying up to $US50,000 (with bags made from exotic skins hitting the 6-digit mark) for a single bag with a waiting list of 2-3 years. Beckham reportedly owns $US2 million worth of Hermes Birkin bags (Murray and Williams 2009). Three thousand coveted Saltwater crocodile skin bags will be made this year, and limiting them in number maintains the exclusivity, luxury image and mystique surrounding them. No doubt it helps that Hermes’ key clientele are unlikely to be affected by the recession and are seemingly “recession proof”, but Hermes ability to conjure such furore over a handbag can only be admired. The exclusivity of its brand is partly reflected in its differing sales results for own stores versus distribution networks, with a 16% growth in sales (at current exchange rates) in the former and a decline in the latter. Clearly stepping into Hermes’ own stores is a far more compelling shopping experience than that found in its distribution stores.

Experts argue that “the people who can afford these goods are not affected by the recession. Even if they lost millions of dollars in the market, they are still worth hundreds of millions of dollars. If you want something super special, if you want a handmade crocodile bag and you can afford it, Hermes is the only place you’ll go”.

Hermes, usually very closed-book about its activities, has claimed that “we cannot meet demand. We are facing massive over-demand. We are limited by our ability to train new craftsmen” [Patrick Thomas, CEO, cited in Goldman (2009)]. Craftsmen in a small French town of Pantin, spend up to 2 weeks preparing each bag. In order to guarantee supply Hermes is vertically integrating its supply chain, establishing new farms in Australia: “It can take three to four crocodiles to make one of our bags so we are now breeding our own crocodiles on our own farms, mainly in Australia,” and it is looking to add to its existing number of 1400 craftsmen to alleviate the bottleneck it currently faces in turning the leather into the exclusive Hermes handbag.

Whilst Hermes success might not be replicable in any market other than the ‘luxury’ fashion market, its role in fuelling demand for crocodile skin, and in driving the demand for 8 high quality skin and skilled, highly trained craftsmen can not be ignored.

This article is cited in the Crocodile Specialist Group Newsletter. See: http://iucncsg.org/.

Whilst the ‘Dairy Milk goes Fairtrade’ story has been around since early this year, it has now become a reality, despite a wider context of financial crises and a stagnation and decline in sales of some certified produce such as Organic.

On Monday the Bournville factory in the West Midlands, churned out its first line of Fairtrade Dairy Milk bars. A first in the world of ‘mainstream’ chocolate. Fairtrade has existed on the ‘fringes’ of most commodity sales (1-20% of all commodity sales in Europe and the US, Fairtrade’s biggest markets), albeit with growing sales, with most Fairtrade cocoa traditionally associated with niche or gourmet chocolate. It has now been propelled firmly into the mainstream. 

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The Fairtrade certification of Dairy Milk is expected to increase UK Fairtrade sales by 25%, after they reached £712.6m last year. Cadbury’s adoption of Fairtrade for its largest brand, Dairy Milk, is the sign of a big commitment. Cadbury’s claims that other varieties such as Fruit & Nut and Wholenut will follow once Fairtrade sources for ingredients such as hazelnuts and raisins are established (The Guardian).

And despite now being a time of financial difficulties for many companies, for Dairy Milk the transition to Fairtrade in the midst of a recession, should not be too finanically taxing. Cocoa is currently trading at $2,000 on the open market — well above the  minimum floor price of $1,750 a tonne for cocoa set by Fairtrade. This will mean no impact on purchase prices in the short term. However, the Fairtrade commitment does means the company is now locked in to paying higher prices than that on the open market if prices fall. Cadbury’s biggest driver for certification is thought to be that of securing supply and guaranteeing the sustainability of supply. This they regard as a necessary investment, rather than a cost.  

Cadbury’s may well be on to something here, as prices for cocoa rise due to shortages in supply, and as they have the added benefit of reduced reputational risk and increased shareholder value. This can only be a positive thing as the recession has severely undermined our faith in big businesses. Undoubtedly the commitment of a brand like Cadbury’s will only encourage others to follow suit and this trend is already emerging. Mars has pledged to buy 100% of its cocoa from sustainable sources by 2020,  working with the Rainforest Alliance. Nestlé, meanwhile, is working with the International and World Cocoa foundations.

to letAs the recession appears to continue unabated, it becomes clear that in any given situation there will always be winners and losers. And the recession is no exception.

As new building developments stand empty and construction sites remain unfinished it becomes evident that the recession has paused the purchase and development of new residential and commercial space. In the U.S. some states are removing or reducing impact fees – charged by municipalities nationwide to pay for the additional services that come with increased development, such as schools, sewer lines and roads – to try and bolster development in these financial trying times (Boston.com).

Whilst the financial crisis has halted development and expansion for the vast majority, others are using this ‘construction pause’ as an opportunity. Some retailers have been able to benefit from falling land and property prices and the quicker processing of planning applications, to expand their operations into both new land and deserted ex-retail space.

Seemingly unaffected by decreased access to credit, large retailers are snapping up land and new developments. With retailers like Woolworths and Zavvi going bust, new sites are constantly emerging and this pattern is likely to continue as long as the recession does. For example, earlier this month Sainsbury’s announced that it would seek to raise additional capital worth £445m as a direct response to the opportunities currently available to develop new space. This investment will enable Sainsbury’s to open an additional 15% gross space, equating to 2.5m sq ft of additional selling area, over the next two years.

Morrisons also announced in March 2008 that it had identified up to 100 new locations which could accommodate one of its stores and would therefore add a further one million square feet on top of what was initially set out within its ‘Optimisation Plan’ (IDG).

Whilst on the surface this may seem like a simple trend of expansion, for supermarkets in particular, expanding retail space is an important factor in gaining market share and cornering markets, particularly to anticipate increased sales when the recession ends. This spatial expansion has ramifications for the smaller or independent stores who may no longer have the same options in terms of their own expansion into new retail space and may be crowded out by chains of supermarkets that come to dominate the high street.

The recession serves to amplify strengths and weaknesses – almost a process of natural selection – as the strongest and largest (in terms of size and financial strength) are better able to hold their position and even better it, whilst the smaller and weaker retailers are likely to struggle, at best maintaining their position, at worst, folding. To reiterate then, there are always winners and losers but closely monitoring this trend and what it may mean for suppliers and producers, particularly in the developing world, may reveal a great deal about supply chain dynamics and the impact these dynamics have on producers, either positive or negative. This could ultimately help better inform policy.

Recession, tighter finances, job loss and other consequences impact crime types, levels and location. Crime by its nature tends to be localised, yet some cause global ripples.

ayeFor instance, there are strong links between rural development in developing countries and illegal drugs trade and use. Most of the supply comes from developing countries, such as The_Golden_Triangle. Small farmers, small crops, high value, low visibility.

While demand is widespread, it is concentrated by volume in developed countries. US leads illegal drug use.  New Zealand is a close second. And there is emerging evidence that demand for this illegal category appears recession-proof.

Yet, production evidence from the fields are opposite – opium cultivation in Afghanistan fell by 19% in 2008 while cocaine production in Colombia dropped 28%, says new UNODC report .

Does this show success in eradication techniques? such as increased incentives for rural farmers to change to alternative produiction and livelihoods? What does higher demand and lower supply mean for producers? For conventional goods, we would expect some higher prices and possibly stronger bargaining position. But this is uncoventional production, supply chains, trade, export, import and sale.

The complex trade has a range of trends:

  • One of the major reasons for this year’s drop in supply is what one drugs official called a “perfect storm“. With falling opium prices – more farmers opted to grow wheat, which has seen prices shoot up.
  • Production and consumption of synthetic drugs are reported to be growing. 
  • Traders and middlemen are reported to becoming stronger, competition among middlemen is becoming fiercer.
  • Purity levels and seizures in main consumer countries are reported to be down.

This appears to be bad for the coffers of rural parts of developing countries, but there are signs that production of synthetic substances has shifted to developing countries – reportedly in the Greater Mekong sub-region – and yet mostly in urban areas.

While Sustainableslump never condones illegality, we all live alongside this trade, we venerate it on TV and our police and governments tolerate it. Recession proof trades that provide resilient support to rural populations in developing countries have distinct advantages from a development perspective and raise arguments about official interventions even support along the supply chain. A shift to urban production raises many questions about the nature and targeting of support to these countries and our role in helping these countries develop appropriately.

Meat eating and its connection to climate change has suddenly come to dominate the media, with the likes of celebrities Paul McCartney, Kevin Spacey and Chris Martin (Coldplay) urging people to have one meat free day a week (Reuters, Bloomberg). As mentioned in a previous post, animal protein production (particularly large-scale) is a bigger contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally than the transport sector – it is responsible for 18% of greenhouse gases (this includes both gases emitted from livestock and land use change). Greenpeace estimates every kilo (2.2 pounds) of beef eaten represents about the same greenhouse-gas emissions as flying 100 kilometers (62 miles).

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Unfortunately the types of gases livestock release (Methane, Nitrous Oxide) have far more powerful global warming power and potential than the typically demonised CO2 (nitrous oxide, for example, has 296 the global warming potential of CO2). This direct impact on climate change is exacerbated by the loss of forests to accommodate this growing industry, particularly in tropical zones such as Brazil and South America, that have significant potential to store carbon and help slow the current alarming rate of climate change. To add to the severity of the situation, production of meat is estimated to double from 2006 to 2050 (FAO, 2006), driven by growing demand in low and middle income countries as incomes rise.

Whilst climate change is evidently a serious issue, its consequences for society, particularly in the developing world, is of particular concern. Research suggests that the developing world is most vulnerable to climate change and its effects will be most strongly felt in the developing world. For example, whilst changes in the climate may be positive for agriculture in the developed world, the developing world is likely to see significant reductions in yields, due to decreases in rainfall and increases in temperature: ‘Results from a case study in Mali ..indicate that climate change could reduce forage yields by as much as 16 to 25% by 2050 and crop yields with a reduction from 9% to 17% for sorghum. In contrast pastures in cold areas are expected to benefit from rising temperatures’ (FAO, 2006).

I previously asked how the recession might impact demand for meat – suggesting that the recession could both reduce the amount of meat being bought (as a relatively expensive protein source and consumption being strongly correlated with income) and reduce the quality and types of meat being purchased. Some anecdotal trends suggest that this has been happening, particularly in the US. One industry expert argues that people are eating less beef, pork and poultry and that per capita consumption in the US is the lowest its been since 1982. In addition, people have been buying cheaper cuts of meat. This fall in consumption may give sustainable development a temporary reprieve from the negative impacts of animal protein production, but there are equity issues to bear in mind.

There are important differences in regards to global patterns of meat consumption. Whilst 100 million people go hungry and could benefit vastly (both in regards to physical and mental capacity, particularly children) from an introduction of more meat and dairy products into their diets, 1 billion people are either overweight or clinically obese and are far more prone to suffering from cardio-vascular disease, diabetes mellitus and some cancers because of excessive meat consumption. In India people consume 5kg per year of meat on average whilst in the US people consume 123 kg of meat, on average, per year.

The recession is likely to undo some of the economic growth and associated income gains in the developing world, potentially reducing any increases in animal protein consumption that are much needed. Meanwhile, for a vast majority in the developed world, the recession and any reductions in consumption may bring much needed health advantages and be benefical for the environment and society. Let’s hope the recession instills deep-seated changes in regard to how much animal protein consumption is necessary and ethical in the developed world. Maybe, just maybe, the recession has added fuel to Paul McCartney’s fire.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) has commissioned a report by Economists at Large assessing the value world wide of whale watching to support their position of an outright ban on whale hunting at the current International Whaling Commission meeting.  The report estimates that whale watching generates $2.1 billion per year.

The director of Ifaw, Patrick Ramage, is quoted by the BBC as saying “Whale watching is clearly more environmentally sustainable and economically beneficial than hunting and whales are worth far more alive than dead.”

Mr Ramage is setting up the economic argument as an “either or” but various people (such as the Icelandic whaling commissioner) have suggested that you can have some of both.  We’re back to economics 1.1 as shown in the diagram below.  The curved line shows the marginal rate of substitution between eating whales and watching whales, and the straight budget line shows the relative price of the two goods.  The “optimal” point is (theoretically) where the gradient of the lines are equal.  At this combination the maximum value is extracted.

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This piece of basic under-graduate economics probably gets us not very far to the answer of “how much hunting, how much watching?” but it does go some way to debunking the argument that if one good is more valuable than another you should only produce the first good.  People corporately probably want a bit of both.

And what of the recession? How does this affect the logic of maintaining whale populations as tourist attractions?  Again considering the properties of the two goods in the model above may be useful. Consuming whale watching is by its nature lumpy. To go whale watching I need to travel to the country in question, probably as part of a larger holiday and I will probably do various other touristy things while I’m there.  When money gets tight it is difficult for me to cut the cost of the combined single good of “holiday to a place where I can go whale watching.” As such I’m likely not to go at all, or to go to some place cheaper without whales.  My demand for whale watching is reduced by 100%.

The problem is that whales can only be watched whole and in their natural environment. However if I shoot the whale, cut it up and put in tins it becomes a lot more transportable and less lumpy (economically speaking, I’ve never eaten whale so can’t comment on its texture). If say I would usually consume ten cans of whale meat in a year and money gets tight, presuming whale meat to have a cheaper substitute, I can chose to consume only eight tins this year. My demand for this product has only reduced by 20%.

As with so many good and markets considered by Sustainable Slump the consumption is defined by the properties of the goods themselves but also there substitutes. Is whale watching a luxury good? Probably. Is global travel going to get more expensive in the future? Probably.  Will whale watching still be worth $2.1 billion if the recession continues? Possibly not.

Debate has raged over the ability of luxury fashion to contribute to sustainable development and of the industry’s potential to be a trailblazer in setting an example of how business can contribute to wider ethical, social and environmental good. The recession has brought this debate into even sharper focus.

A report by WWF entitled Deeper Luxury argues that: “Luxury companies must do more to justify their value in an increasingly resource-constrained and unequal world. Despite strong commercial drivers for greater sustainability, luxury brands have been slow to recognise their responsibilities and opportunities. We call upon the luxury industry to bring to life a new definition of luxury, with deeper values expressed through social and environmental excellence.” It rates ten luxury brands on their environmental and social performance and none score highly.

Others argue that despite their reputation for being less than ethical that ‘change is in the air’ for luxury brands. The guardian argues that “Major players [in the luxury fashion industry]….appeared to be tripping over themselves to reduce energy consumption, announce water projects or phase out excess waste (in an industry where faulty or end-of-line products are incinerated to “protect” the brand) at a recent sustainable-luxury conference in Delhi. Meanwhile LVMH, returned to the FTSE4Good Index Series, has just become a shareholder in Edun, the socially conscious clothing company set up by Ali Hewson and her husband Bono.”

Luxury fashion has not been necessarily immune from the financial crisis, but it has certainly been faring better than its less luxurious counterparts. Some luxury brands have bucked all recession trends with Hermes and Mulberry reporting strong profits for the first quarter of 2009, particularly with the sale of accessories, such as handbags, which satisfy consumers’ shopping itch and are longer-lasting and more versatile than a season-only dress. Hermes and Mulberry have effectively targeted consumers move away from conspicuous consumption: ‘Mulberry with its authentic and understated designs is striking a chord, not just in the UK, but also worldwide, because over-the-top extravagant consumption just isn’t in favour right now.”

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Does luxury fashion therefore have an even more important role to play in upholding high social and environmental standards in the context of a struggling global economy where other sectors struggle to survive and perceive their immediate priority to be their bottom line, let alone a second or third bottom line?

Sustainable slump argues that the recession is an ideal opportunity for luxury brands to forge a new image for themselves based on real, reportable and transparent efforts towards environmental and social sustainability. This will provide an important source of competitive advantage and consolidate market share, even whilst the recession rages, adding value for consumers – not just through the quality and presitge of their brand, but through their potential for superior environmental and social perfomance – and setting a precedent for how businesses can work with producers (and all the players in the value chain) and the environment to deliver long-lasting, meaningful change at scale.

The UN approximates that an additional 100 million people will now go hungry as a result of the recession, as total numbers of those suffering from hunger hit 1 billion – a 6th of the world’s population. Many experts predicted that the recession would impact poverty levels, despite the recession’s origins in the West, and that through rising unemployment and food prices and falling incomes, hunger would be ever more pervasive. Despite these predictions they had not been quantified, until now. And what a depressing figure it is, demonstrating how something so seemingly detached (sub-prime mortgages) has led to the undoing of significant progress made to date. This number has fed fuel to the debate of just how globalised the economy has become.

In Asia and the Pacific, an estimated 642 million people are suffering from chronic hunger; in Sub-Saharan Africa 265 million; in Latin America and the Caribbean 53 million; in the Near East and North Africa 42 million; and in developed countries 15 million in total (FAO).

Whilst the crisis appears to have been indiscriminate for the poor, it is thought to have affected urban populations more severely than rural areas, due to the stronger connection between jobs in urban areas and falling export demand and foreign direct investment. However, rural areas have been by no means immune and migration from urban to rural areas has become a phenomenon. Remittances have also thought to have declined this year as a result of the recession, delivering another blow to the poor, whilst more recent falls in food prices have yet to benefit the developing world:

“While food prices in world markets declined over the past months, domestic prices in developing countries came down more slowly. They remained on average 24 percent higher in real terms by the end of 2008 compared to 2006. For poor consumers, who spend up to 60 percent of their incomes on staple foods, this means a strong reduction in their effective purchasing power.” (FAO).

The FAO Director-General, Jacques Diou, has argued that investment in agriculture is vital as a solid basis for further development and economic growth and because of the dominance of agriculture as the mainstay for a significant proportion of the developing world.

Whilst a clear solution may not be obvious, what is clear, is that this is a global recession, with global ramifications and one that makes us all responsible for its solutions. Even though the ethical and moral grounds for eradicating hunger are powerfully clear, the threat posed to global peace and security makes finding a solution a global imperative.