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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.

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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.

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.

One thing that can be said for the recession is its ability to be thought-provoking. Having read an article about rising demand for meat and leather and its damaging impact on the Amazon and on its significant contribution to greenhouse gases (GHG) and climate change, I pondered how the recession might either exacerbate or alleviate deforestation through its impact on meat demand.

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There are several things that could happen:

  • Total demand for meat decreases as it’s a relatively expensive form of protein. This trend is supported by other changes in consumption, for example the increase in sales of eggs, which offer a cheaper protein source.
  • Demand for more expensive or ‘niche’ meat decreases (for example organic, or free-range meat, which may have less negative impacts on the environment, because it is less intensively farmed), whilst overall demand for meat remains static (picture meat on this graph).
  • Demand from the developed world drops for beef from international origins decreases, as ‘local’ produce becomes more important. These farming systems may have less direct impact on the rainforest, but their environmental impacts remains unknown and they will still contribute to GHG emissions.

In the first scenario – where total demand for meat drops, this may be a positive for the environment. In the second scenario, the impacts on the environment are likely to be negative. In the third scenario, the impact on the environment is uncertain.

To complicate matters further is the impact changing demand will have on the livelihoods of those who rely on meat production and for those who already have limited incomes to afford meat, the recession may shift consumption to wildmeat or bushmeat (much of which is illegally hunted and can contain endangered species) as a cheaper alternative.

What the recession has certainly shown us is just how interconnected income, consumption and sustainable development really is.

I recently posted a piece, admittedly riddled mainly with questions, about how the recession would impact wildlife trade, land use, conservation and the balance between legal and illegal trade. Although a relatively small case-study in the global scheme of things, Argyll in Scotland, has demonstrated just what could happen as the economic going gets tough:

One unexpected consequence of the recession is that the needs for cheap meat and money-making are combining to bring DIY wildlife crime gangs to Scotland to poach Roe, Red, Fallow and Sika deer. There is already a lively black market for cuts of meat from these animals (Strathclyde Police).

Other anecdotal trends do suggests that this rise in poaching is not necessarily confined to Argyll and may be having more serious effects in terms of undermining sustainability, elsewhere. The Born Free Foundation has argued that ‘rising food prices, another rash of crop failures, wide-ranging impacts of the global recession, will lead to a rise in the ‘bushmeat’ trade in Kenya’. This is thought to be detrimental to conservation because a portion of the bush meat contains endangered species. A survey in 2004 revealed that 40% of meat being sold as beef or goat in certain Nairobi butcheries was either wholly or partially bushmeat – it would be useful to update this research and understand the extent to which the recession is impacting illegal wildlife trade.

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Source: Wildlife Works Ltd

Whilst on the surface it may seem that trade in illegal bushmeat is only damaging to the wildlife it affects, Born Free’s Senior Wildlife Consultant argues that “this is not just about saving individual animals, important as that is.  It is about preserving functioning eco-systems that bring benefits to every person on the planet.  The ecosystem services provided by Africa’s forests and savannahs include rainfall, carbon storage and stabilizing the global climate, so we all have an interest in preventing a few profiteers from destroying these globally important ecosystems for personal gain.”

Illegal hunting and trade of wildlife, removes the economic connection between habitat (or land) and wildlife, undermining economic incentives to conserve habitats and, as a result, environmental sustainability – not just in the specific country concerned, but globally.

Whenever a situation changes some business somewhere will probably find a way to benefit from it.  A company within the Mitsubishi conglomerate seems to be onto a winner by cornering the market in bluefin tuna, buying 40% of current (vastly unsustainable) supply.  They are then freezing much of this stock at -60° allowing it to be stored for several years and released onto the market at a future date.

 The International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT) was formed in 1969 when stocks of Atlantic bluefin were abundant.  It is little wonder that their failure over the last 40 years (bluefin stocks are 10% of their levels in the 1970s) to limit bluefin catch at sustainable levels has caused many in conservation and fisheries science circles to say that ICCAT really stands for the “International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna”.

Bluefin tuna has evolved to be a highly efficient predator.  Their circulatory system can increase their blood temperature to increase the efficiency of their core muscles providing them with outstanding acceleration and a top speed of 45mph.  They have one of the highest hemoglobin counts per unit of blood of any fish allowing rapid delivery of oxygen to their muscles.  A human analogy would be a Tour de France rider using EPO.  The only downside of evolving such an incredible combination of circulatory and muscular systems is that it makes the bluefin one of the tastiest fishes around and a key ingredient of many types of sushi.

Tunas are becoming incredibly valuable.  Last year a 276 Kg fish sold for $55,700 (that’s about $200 a kilo!). Mitsubishi claim only to be freezing to maintain year round supply, however they have a clear incentive to build up a stockpile, under either of the two possible tuna population scenarios:

Scenario 1

The ICCAT heeds its scientists and implements a total ban on bluefin tuna (hopefully in time to prevent population collapse).  Supply of bluefin entering the market stops leaving Mitsubishi with a monopoly supply of a highly valuable fish.  Prices climb to astronomical heights.  Mitsubishi make a killing.

Scenario 2

The ICCAT ignores its scientists and allows bluefin tuna to be fished to extinction.  Supply of bluefin entering the market stops leaving Mitsubishi with a monopoly supply of a highly valuable fish.  Prices climb to astronomical heights.  Mitsubishi make a killing (twice).

Research exploring the link between the credit crunch, trade credit and export horticulture in previous financial crises, shows that sharp falls in the availability of trade finance did cause problems for exporters – for example, Indonesia during the East Asian financial crisis of 1997, as international lenders withdrew from markets perceived as risky, to reduce their exposure.

However, in today’s economic climate, research is ‘lacking hard evidence‘ to confirm that declines in world trade are linked to trade financing.

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In recent research carried out by John Humphrey, where he surveyed 30 African export firms, none reported trade finance problems, despite the WTO warning of ‘substantial falls in trade credit, increasing lending costs and credit rationing’ in the context of today’s financial climate:

‘As of February/March 2009, very few of these firms faced any problems with respect to the availability of trade finance. What explains this finding? One factor was the resilience of the domestic banking system. Firms reported that credit in general is available from domestic banks as long as firms showed themselves to be creditworthy. Horticulture firms are considered good risks by local banks, so they did not have problems accessing finance.’

In addition to being regarded as ‘good risks’ by domestic banks, many horticultural firms benefit from inter-company credit, between exporters and producers for example and this lessens their direct reliance on the domestic banking system.

Nevertheless, these conclusions cannot be applied to the whole of the developing world, or indeed blanketedly to Africa. In South Africa, for example, it is thought that some exporters and producers of citrus fruits have been hard hit by ‘bad debtors’. Humphrey also argues that anecdotal trends in Latin America and the Caribbean, show that exporters are suffering as banks withdraw their credit.  In addition the recession is thought to be having an impact on small-traders and co-operatives who don’t necessarily have the trade ties to access inter-company credit.

Despite the incomplete conclusions about trade finance and its impact on trade, initial results for the first quarter of 2009 show that the recession is taking its toll on exports, as trade falls. Results recently published by USAID and the HCDA in Kenya, report a 17% decrease in horticulture export quantities in January, a 16% decrease in February and a 10% decrease in March. This translates to even stronger figures in terms of value, with a 32% decrease in $US earned through horticultural exports in January, a 26% decrease in February and a 16% decrease in March. This undoubtedly is having an effect on employment. One Kenyan source suggests that two major flower companies have laid off over 800 people between them, with more job losses to follow. In addition some Asian vegetable exporters have ceased to operate, and so called ‘briefcase’ exporter have stopped trading – this is regarded as a sign in the industry that the market is suffering.

As the horticultural sector starts to feel the pinch, suppliers are also affected in terms of the costs of seeds, fertilisers, protective clothing, transport, irrigation, and other inputs. Also, because cash flow on farms is tight, suppliers often receive late payments, exacerbating the situation.

The loss of earnings from horticulture will have nationwide repurcussions for many countries- in Kenya, for example, 80% of the population is reliant on horticulture for their livelihoods and as jobs are lost and incomes fall, so will the purchasing power fuelled by export horticulture, creating a ‘ripple’ effect throughout the entire economy. In some ways the recession is highlighting more than ever, the benefits of sustainable trading relationships between retailers in the developed world, importers, exporters, and producers in the developing world.

Although no-one would want to suggest that a lengthy recession is a positive thing, research-wise, it has allowed us to see what kind of things happen in an economic downturn and in particular, when consumers start to either feel or perceive their disposable income dropping.

For example, a recent article by the BBC discusses how consumers in the UK shopped in April 2009, as compared to April 2008. The results are pretty startling – sales of baked beans are up by 21.6%, budget lines by almost 23% and there is a depressing story for organic produce – as sales have decreased by 10.6% when compared to the previous year. The story is even worse for March 2009, when there was a 21.6% drop in organic sales.

The most obvious trends of customers replacing a higher-end product, with a similar but less expensive substitution is Champagne and sparkling wine – sparkling wine sales were up 9.9%, whilst sales of Champagne were down 9.0%.

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Falls in organic sales and increases in budget lines may bode poorly for the environment, but other trends may work in its favour. For example, unit sales of low-energy light bulbs have grown by 38.8% (although value has fallen due to price drops for the bulbs – from £1.25 to 87p). Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, air traffic at Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Southampton airports has fallen as passenger numbers decreased 2.3% in April compared with the same month in 2008.

And people are driving less –  London’s congestion charge was paid just under 9.5 million times in the first four months of the year, which was down 9.8% on the same period last year. Similarly the number of people crossing the Severn bridge was also down, whilst railway passengers grew slightly.

Unfortunately the overall impact of these trends (both the positive and negative, for the environment) won’t emerge until the recession has ceased, but let’s hope the positives will be permanent lifestyle changes.