What is the meaning of a culture of sustainability?

Prof. Dr. Carola Strassner, endowed professor of sustainable nutrition at the Münster University of Applied Sciences, writes in the AoeL 2012 Special Issue on the concept of sustainability: to satisfy the needs of the present in a way that there is no risk that the needs of future generations may not be satisfied. Many now refer to a mantra of three elements, or pillars of sustainability: ecology, economy and social issues.

Sustainability in the daily practice in China

Maximising the development of these three pillars is indeed a positive guideline to the development and safety of the entire ecological process in terms of resource conservation – an economy based on consistent fairness, partnership, support and understanding, and a development in which the necessary social needs of the market participants are met, especially of poor farmers in developing countries.

1. Sustainable ecological processes, taking tea cultivation as an example

For organic farming in developing countries, sustainability means not only bureaucratically complying with European regulations on organic farming, but also creating real farming and nutrient cycles that have a positive impact on humus formation and soil fertility, which serve the protection of the environment and the climate and positively support the future nutrition of mankind. In addition, such processes must be supported with proper advice and good quality management, and the implementation must be controlled permanently, practically and completely.

2. Sustainable economy exemplified by tea cultivation

For the economy – and thus for all market participants who trade in organic products – this means gradually abandoning old trading structures and developing a form of pricing that is not based on the market but rather on the costs of production and fair marketing opportunities. Such prices will vary individually depending on how the development of sustainable processes has progressed and the sales of the total production have been secured. In this respect, the trade has a great responsibility.

Fair prices for sustainably produced goods can only be realised if a market for sustainable products is established. As long as there is a majority of market participants who do not want to reward sustainable development, there is little chance for a successful and swift development of a sustainable ecological process. If it is always about the lowest possible price, then the market situation becomes increasingly unfair and exploitative, to which many market participants still turn a blind eye. If producers do not generate the revenue they need to cover their production costs in organic farming, then they have to reduce the costs of production to compensate for losses, in the social sector and by paying their employees and farmers poorly. At worst, they are forced to violate the sustainable process. All of this happens because we do not have a culture of sustainability in the global economy, nor in the organic economy. These aspects of unfairness and exploitation play a very important role in the violation of organic farming in developing countries. In contrast, in Europe it hardly matters whether market participants drive producers with unfair prices into a hopeless economic and social situation that does not allow the ecological process to be implemented properly at all.

3. Sustainable social responsibility, taking tea cultivation as an example

In developing countries, sustainable social responsibility of the market participants for the farmers and employees of an organic tea plantation is inextricably linked to the success of the sustainable organic farming. The farmers and employees of an organic tea plantation do the extra work caused by organic farming. In tea growing this means, for example, the very hard physical work pulling up weeds by hand or plucking the tea. For high-quality teas, up to 20,000 tea leaves have to be picked individually by hand to obtain one kilo of tea. For the entire organic agricultural work including tea harvesting and pre-processing of the tea, self-employed smallholders receive about 35 to 50 euros per month. Seasonal workers receive the legal minimum wage of about 2 euros/hour. They are rarely paid extra for the extra work in organic farming.

Machine support can only provide limited relief and is often non-existent for cost reasons. Compost production and its application in high altitudes on mountains and in rough terrain is also hard work, which must be carried out predominantly by hand. Yield losses, which arise in organic farming, must also be borne by the smallholders. Often the farmers were not even asked for their consent before switching to organic farming. In most cases, smallholders do not know what organic farming means, nor do the producers, who are often only interested in higher export prices, which are usually realised for organically produced products with organic certificates. 

There are hardly any affordable advisory structures in China and to get organic advisory services is practically impossible for farmers and producers. Nevertheless, organic certificates are issued.

These structures are not sustainable and together with the too low export prices they contribute to conscious or unconscious mistakes being made. Farmers are virtually forced to violate the rules of organic farming for economic reasons.

In China, it is relatively easy for European importers to select as suppliers agricultural companies who comply with Chinese labour law and thus with ILO (International Labour Organisation) standards. Importers could thus opt out from exploitation and lawlessness by favoring companies who lease the land from the smallholder farmers and hire the former smallholders as workers. These companies are obliged by law to conclude employment contracts with all employees, complying with Chinese labour law. This regulates statutory working hours, the right to health insurance, accident insurance, pension insurance and a minimum wage. However, for importers who opt for such social sustainability, the result is that production costs of thus produced goods are higher, and the price of their products will be correspondingly higher.

Therefore, rather few importers make use of this choice, or they are too comfortable, not conscientious and responsible enough, or do not know these choices. Sustainability certifications and Fairtrade certifications do not ensure such fair working conditions, as they promote exploitation and lawlessness by certifying smallholder structures in which exploitation takes place.

Updated 29 November 2022