EFFAT's view on sustainable development
Sustainable development seeks to "meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” in the sense of balance between economic, social and environmental elements.
- Still, increasingly rapid global changes, from the melting of the icecaps to growing energy and resource demand, are challenging this objective.
The challenges of sustainability are directly linked to our way of living and business methods. The way we produce and consume contributes to global warming, pollution, material use, and natural resource depletion. The impacts of consumption in the EU are felt globally, as the EU is dependent on the imports of energy and natural resources. Furthermore, an increasing proportion of products consumed in Europe are produced in other parts of the world.
The need to move towards more sustainable patterns of consumption and production is more pressing than ever. Though the Commission has continued to set the right framework conditions for doing business in Europe, the question on how to integrate sustainability into this picture remains open.
There are few industries where jobs are affected by problems such as climate change in the short to medium-term as in the agriculture, foodstuffs and tourism sector. If the global warming of Europe’s countryside changes in the medium term, it is agriculture and tourism which will feel the effects first. And if renewable resources are to be used increasingly as a source of energy, that may have great effects on the supply and processing foodstuffs.
In the growing demand for food, the challenge of increasing European production by securing long-term competitiveness of the food industry in a sustainable manner has been strongly raised lately.
In this respect, three elements can be identified in the food chain context:
1) The need to ensure adequate supplies of food for human requirements, enhancing food sovereignty,
2) The need to ensure that human activities in the food processing industry are consistent with the requirement of protecting the environment,
3) The need to maintain a vibrant economy and more employment designed to give a good standard of living and working conditions, notably by facilitating the generation of added value through economic activity.
We need to ensure that the world food system is not competing with the energy sector producing biofuels and that the rights to food safety, food security, food sovereignty and the rights and livelihood of working people engaged in the agricultural and food sector are fully and primarily respected.The food production industry involves various sectors: agriculture, food industry, catering and tourism. Whereas food production impacts on the environment, it also depends on that environment being clean, a vitally important aspect not only for the so-called food 'from farm to fork', but also for the tourism industry.
A development cannot be called sustainable if it places a heavy strain on the workers. If they are made redundant or forced into social penury, the mode of the economical development can’t be justified on the basis of environmental considerations. Moreover, production is not sustainable if it entails work-related injuries or results in a bad working environment for the people employed in the sector.
Lately, the green jobs have become an emblem of a more sustainable economy and society that preserves the environment for present and future generations and is more equitable and inclusive of all people and all countries. Indeed, the green jobs reduce the environmental impact of enterprises and economic sectors, ultimately to levels that are sustainable. Specifically, but not exclusively, this includes jobs that help to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, reduce energy, materials, and water consumption through high-efficiency strategies, de-carbonize the economy and minimize or altogether avoid generation of all forms of waste and pollution.
Green jobs in emerging economies and developing countries include opportunities for managers, scientists and technicians, but the bulk can benefit a broad cross-section of the population which needs those most: youth, women, farmers, rural populations and slum dwellers.
However, many jobs which are green in principle are not green in practice because of the environmental damage caused by inappropriate practices. The notion of a green job is thus not absolute, but there are ‘shades’ of green and the notion will evolve over time. Moreover, the evidence shows that green jobs do not automatically constitute decent work. Many of these jobs are “dirty, dangerous and difficult”. If green jobs are to be a bridge to a truly sustainable future, this needs to change, it needs to comprise decent work. Decent, green jobs effectively link Millennium Development Goal 1 (poverty reduction) and Millennium Development Goal7 (protecting the environment) and make them mutually supportive rather than conflicting.
Our call for sustainable production is a mutual interest we share with consumers. We must work in close cooperation with them – after all, workers are also consumers, and the vast majority of consumers are also workers.
A precondition for high-quality food is that the people producing it have a profound fundamental knowledge of the processes used and of the primary produce it contains. In this view, the sustainability of production should be the overriding objective, and the precautionary principle should apply above all else. How new products and new technologies are assessed also affects working conditions and the working environment of those employed in food production.
Furthermore, if food safety levels are to be high, all workers - especially those handling, producing, processing and selling food – must have in-depth knowledge of the risks associated with deviating from designated procedures. Training and life-long learning are key in assuring their safety and health at work.
Similarly, training and life-long learning have to be part of a “just transition” for those affected by the switch to a more green economy with access to new employment opportunities, noting the importance of dialogue among governments, workers and employers to ease potential tensions and to ensure that all sectors are involved in developing more coherent environmental, economic and social policies.
In short, neither optimal food safety nor the production of high-quality food or sustainable industries can be achieved without parallel efforts being made to guarantee that workers are continuously trained.
Moreover, new technology should only be harnessed if it is sustainable and in line with our long-term goals and provided that it meets consumers' expectations. Justifying its use solely in terms of boosting the industry's profits is not sufficient.
The eco-innovation structure is the core aspect of the European Environmental Technologies Action Plan (ETAP), basically comprising innovative and environmental-friendly projects in the area of materials recycling, sustainable buildings, food and drink industrial processes, green business and smart purchasing.
EFFAT acknowledges that the new production methods could result in greater well-being. We are aware of the employment possibilities given by this new business sector. But before new methods are adopted, they must be carefully considered alongside the risks they may represent to long-term production, as well as health and the environment.
Consumers are often wary of new products and processes. It is important that consumers can fully rely on the food products offered to them, and this will only be possible if production processes are fully transparent. Part of this transparency entails comprehensive labelling of production methods. For instance, where genetic engineering has been used, it is not sufficient for the presence of GMOs to be listed in the finished product. It is crucial for securing consumer’s trust that the use of genetic engineering in the production process be mentioned on the label, if applicable.
We need one sustainable labeling for a wider majority of products promoting social and economic development within the carrying capacity of ecosystems by de-linking economic growth from environmental degradation.
Unless there is transparency with regard to production processes and products, we will experience more food scandals entailing sudden breaks in large-scale production owing to 'disclosures', newly available information, or failings with respect to food safety, which will result in violent reactions on the part of consumers. We need an open dialogue about production methods. In such situations, it is primarily food workers who suffer, but environmental problems can also bring about extremely rapid changes in levels of employment in the tourism sector.
The introduction of new methods could help to improve the bad working conditions characteristic of a large part of the food production sector. There is a tremendous need for research aimed at achieving this goal. Moreover, new forms of work organization could mean better jobs in the tourism sector.
If sustainability is adopted as the key principle for production, the food production sector will remain one of the biggest, most significant areas of activity in the EU. Consequently, striving for sustainable production will be the best way of ensuring optimal working conditions in Europe for the people employed in the sector.
Nevertheless, the European food industry is now facing a fundamentally different “playing field” compared with than a decade ago. In this context, the achievement of the internal market and the evolution of food legislation are also relevant. Increased international trade in food and beverages, and cross-border investments have resulted in significant changes to traditional markets and trading patterns. Therefore, EFFAT is consequent in asking for the respect of ILO standards in the WTO and bilateral agreements along like the case of other standards such as CODEX for instance. Furthermore, the social and ecological standards from the General System of Preferences (GSP+) must be the framework for the international trade relations. The biofuels production example of not having mandatory social standards respected (under Europe’s New Renewable Energy Directive) is a step backwards for sustainability.
Agriculture is in the doldrums in many developing countries, as small farmers find it harder to survive in the web of global trade rules that ironically protect big farms in rich countries but pressurize the developing countries to open up their markets. The structure of the global food market is changing so rapidly that fair trade is now becoming one of the few means by which small farmers in poor nations might survive. A shift from small to large farms will cause a major decline in global production, just as food supplies become tight. Fair trade might now be necessary not only as a means of redistributing income, but also to feed the world.
The sustainable development of European tourism is threatened as well. There is a fast advance in the process of company concentration in the tourism sector that has taken place over recent years. A small number of companies, operating trans-nationally, dominate today’s tourism business like for example some hotel chains and the big tour operators. These horizontally and vertically integrated tourism companies, which bring together under one roof the organisation of a holiday, transport, accommodation and catering, exploit their dominance in price negotiations with local suppliers in the tourism destinations.
Under pressure from this competition, travel prices have dropped dramatically in the last few years. In the labour-intensive tourism sector, this decline in travel prices has also impacted the working conditions of many employees. The dominance of the large tour operators vis-à-vis their suppliers in tourism destinations has even led to interference in the collective bargaining autonomy in the destination countries.
Tour operators must be obliged to break through the vicious circle of ‘cheap bargain’ tourism, which not only cuts their profit margins, but also eliminates any financial room for manoeuvre for them to offer socially and environmentally sustainable tourism. In view of the negative effects of the increasingly cutthroat price war between the largest tour operators, particularly on employment, new approaches must be taken to get the message across to tourists that socially responsible and environmentally sustainable tourism has its price.
Companies can only make a contribution to sustainable development when they make social and environmental concerns an integral part of management. This involves adhering to fundamental employment and environmental standards, and regular reporting on the way how these are being put into practice.
Companies only do genuine justice to their social responsibility when they involve their employees and their representatives in the planning, implementation and evaluation of such measures.
Europe has a global responsibility for considering the social aspects of sustainable development within the agricultural, food and tourism sectors, as it is one of the main markets for these industries, and the home to many companies operating at global level. Trade unions need to continue monitoring the risks assessments for every sector, propose solutions and share best practices in the field of sustainable development.
Brussels, 4th March 2009 (updated)