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Anecdotal evidence suggests that in some countries around the world the recession is having an impact on the levels of carbon dioxide – a gas that plays a key role in contributing to atmospheric warming – and other greenhouse gases being emitted into the atmosphere.

In the European Union (EU), for example, a 1.5% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions has been reported for 2008 (compared to the previous year) for all 27 members of the EU, by the European Environment Agency (EEA). In addition a 1.3% reduction in the EU 15 has been reported – the 15 wealthiest and oldest members of the EU. This reduction has been attributed to lower carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion in the energy, industry and transport sectors which has occurred as a result of the economic recession.

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Similarly, a study in the UK has concluded that there has been a 31% decline in traffic on motorways over the past two years. This story is likely to be similar in other developed countries that have been affected by the recession and where car ownership and use is high. The fall in traffic in the UK is thought to be due to falling numbers of people travelling during morning and evening rush hours as unemployment rises. In addition people who have been fortunate enough to remain employed have made cost-savings by working at home, sharing lifts with other people and using public transport.

The United Nations Environment Programme also argued that 2008 was the first year when new investments in renewable energies were greater than investments in fossil-fuelled technologies.

Whilst these changes may bring some temporary respite for the environment, evidence suggests that as the economic crisis wanes old patterns will be re-established. However, if the recession has provided ample opportunity and motivation for investment in renewable energy in order to replace fossil-fuel based energy use then the recession may well have provided just one, although not insignificant, silver lining.

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Smallholder farmers are the mainstay of agricultural production in the developing world. It is estimated that over 2 billion people in the developing world depend on smallholder farms for their livelhoods.

However, smallholders face several barriers and challenges both for domestic production and production for export. Access to credit is just one of these and has long been a key barrier to production for smallholders, undermining smallholders’ abilities to invest in their farms and production, often leading to declining levels of productivity. In cocoa and coffee production – an important source of foreign exchange and income for many developing country governments and farmers –  a lack of access to credit (or at considerable expense) has meant that farmers have been unable to invest in new trees and have relied on older trees which have declining yields and, therefore, diminishing returns.

The UN has argued that access to credit and financial services is ever more important in the context of the financial crisis and declining levels of remittances, which serve as an important safety net for much of the world’s poor.

In April this year, the first ever meeting of G8 Agricultural Ministers took place. Kanayo Nwanze President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) said at the meeting that:

“Protecting and increasing the access of poor rural people to financial services is even more vital now…the well-being of 2 billion poor people who depend on smallholder farms in developing countries hinges on it…that is why we are encouraging ministers to return home and make sure that in all countries, rich and poor, we work together to keep agriculture at the top of their national agendas”.

IFAD argues that private sector involvement in agriculture is more important than ever, particularly with regard to the provision of services such as finance and marketing. 

For many large businesses who source from smallholders in the developing world, sustainability concerns (related in particular to climate change) are driving projects to ensure that smallholder production is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable. An example of this growing trend is the shift of two major confectionery brands – Mars and Cadbury’s – to using certification (in these cases, Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade) as a means to bring about sustainable production. As part of these transformations, support services are also provided to the smallholders involved, a gap that developing world governments have often been unable to fill. For example Cadbury’s is implementing farmer education programmes that explore best cocoa management practices leading to improved quality cocoa and increased yields and offering enterprise loans to start up farming or small businesses. Several examples  have shown that investing in services for smallholders can be a win-win for businesses.

Let’s hope these trends continue and the recession provides ample evidence of the importance of private sector investment in agriculture.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Crocodile skin, particularly wild crocodile, is prized in the fashion world for its glossy, beautiful appearance and has transcended the often fickle styles and trends of the fashion world, epitomising ‘classic’ and ‘timeless’ fashion. Picture Kate Moss carrying the same crocodile clutch her mother carried back in the sixties. Crocodilians specimens are also traded as meat and hunting trophies.WalletCrocodile-4Crocodilians include all alligators, caimans, crocodiles, gavials and other members of the order Crocodylia. Crocodilians are protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is an international agreement (to which states adhere voluntarily) between governments to ‘ensure that international trade in wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival’.

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The species covered by CITES are listed under three appendixes. Appendix I includes species threatened with extinction. Trade in specimens of these species is permitted only in exceptional circumstances. Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.

All crocodilian species have been included in CITES Appendix I or II in response to the decline in some wild populations as a result of unregulated international trade. A number of more common crocodilian species are included in Appendix II because they are so difficult to distinguish from more endangered species. As a result of CITES the majority of Crocodile leather comes from farmed and ranched (removing eggs form the wild to breed in captivity) sources. Whilst this is thought to have led to a turn-around in crocodlian populations after numbers plummeted in the 1960’s due to high levels of trade, it has also been argued that through removing traded crocodiles from their natural habitat and decreasing the need to hunt the wild crocodile, the economic incentive for conserving the wild crocodile and its habitat is reduced, or removed, alltogether.

James MacGregor argues that demand for wild harvested crocodilians is important in incentivising conservation. He concludes that: ‘in the crocodilian skin industry, or any industry founded on wild resources, is unwise to turn its back on the wild supply; wild crocodilian skins retain some advantages in today’s market—wild classic skins remain at the vanguard of the strategy of luxury brands.’

For several reasons one could argue that the recession might not impact demand for crocodile skin. This could be justified on the basis that:

  • Croc leather has a diverse and growing portfolio of markets and market segments and a continuing allure among customers.
  • Croc leather products are sold to wealthiest, well-established brands have no fear from crisis (as it exists today) owing to liquidity and relatively small cost. However this does account for small portion of the market. Think Beckham with her collection of $US2  million worth of Crocodile leather Hermes Birkin bags.
  • Accessories and ‘classic, timeless’ fashion pieces are increasingly being favoured, including exotic skin goods. The transfer of budget from other products to these could favour sales of croc products.

Despite these sensible assumptions, interviews with experts have revealed that the recession is undoubtedly taking its toll on the demand for wild crocodile skin – some tanneries, for example, have reported ‘no designer orders’ in the Q1 of 2009 and an significant increase in the downgrading and outright rejection of lower quality crocodile skin. Some industry participants are trying to postpone sales of wild skins to see if market conditions improve. For others, crocodile leather goods remain the ‘fastest-growing product line’ notably in the case of Hermes (who owns its own crocodile farms) claiming that “we cannot face demand. We have massive over-demand. We are limited by our ability to train new craftsmen.”

Co-existence in many countries of dangerous crocodiles and poor people has been made possible through provision of strong economic incentives to harvest sustainably. Indeed, many of the wild crocodile skins are produced under the strictest of regimes using sustainable use. Here, often poor hunters and communities are given opportunities to realise the benefits from these species who are often despised for the danger they present to human life. The changes brought about by the recession add fear that a collapse in orders owing to belt-tightening by the world’s elites will reduce their value in situ and reduce the incentives for co-existence. Closely monitoring the impacts of the recession will be key to ensuring conservation and livelihoods are not adversely affected.

Who would have thought that the humble egg would have anything to do with the recession? Yet, eggs have come to epitomise the unexpected impacts of the recession on consumption. Egg sales have risen significantly since the start of the year, offering a cheap form of protein and as an important ingredient for home-made food. As a result of ‘trading down’ consumers have seen their kitchens become a hive of activity again, as we move away from restaurant and pre-cooked meals, to home-made food to save our precious pennies.

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Other impacts of the recession include increasing shopper promiscuity as we feel less loyalty to retailers and chose to shop around to find the best deal. A survey by Experian, a retail consultant, shows that ‘more than a quarter of shoppers say they have been more likely to look around for the best deal over the past six months, and 80% say they have become more aware of the price of goods and services.’ Larger supermarkets have been able to count on 80% of their consumers coming back week after week. But recently, they’ve found shoppers getting much smarter and sharper, searching out value. The public has also become less trusting of big businesses – undoubtedly as a result of watching the banking sector crumble, bringing the entire financial system down with it.

Sales of ‘local’ produce from supermarkets have also risen. Asda claims its sales of local produce is up 55% compared to last year. Asda argues that consumers are doing this because of environmental concerns over ‘food miles’ and also as a bid to support local businesses in time of increased job and financial insecurity. However, sales of organic produce have thought to have declined – showing an often contradictory message in terms of environmental concerns – this may, however, be due to the relatively high cost of organic produce. Retailers, possibly as a strategy to regain consumer trust but also to make money from this growing trend, have also turned their focus towards sourcing locally. At the recently held Scottish Parliament Asda stated it was increasing in sourcing from Scottish producers, up from £16m last year towards a target of £25m this year.

What do these trends mean for sustainable development? What does the trend towards local mean for the livelihoods of small farmers in parts of the developing world and what does the fall in demand for organic produce mean for the environment? It might be too early to answer these questions, but monitoring these trends will be vital for understanding how sustainable development can make ensure the net impact of the recession is not a negative one, particularly for producers in the developing world. Dispelling misconceptions about food miles might be one example of ensuring that our growing preference towards local produce does not have unwanted and unforeseen effects.