Fair Trade: The Damage of Global Trading

Until recently the cost of global trade on the environment has been little known. Yet as supply chains lengthen, and demand for products from every corner of the world increases, biodiversity degradation is inevitable. A study recently published by a team of researchers from the University of Sydney highlights just how unsustainable our trading practices have become. Through the course of their five year study, this team examined more than 150,000 commodities (manufactured in at least 187 countries) and made available to consumers through more than five billion global supply chains.

Among the information expounded was overwhelming evidence of the environmental damage in poorer countries largely responsible for exporting goods to wealthier nations. As interest in certain goods increases, so too do the crippling effects of the trade. “Until now these relationships have only been poorly understood,” explained Manfred Lenzen of the University of Sydney’s Integrated Sustainability Analysis group, and lead author of the study. Through their work, they hope to change these foggy notions into certainties.

For the most part, better developed countries like Japan, the United States and Western Europe are feeding this trade as consumers seek items from the around the world more and more often. Countries like Indonesia and Madagascar are left with a crippling environment due largely in part to their exported goods (it is estimated that approximately 50 to 60 percent of the biodiversity in Madagascar, as well as Papua New Guinea, has already been lost due to this). What is more, it is believed that almost one-third of the world’s animal species are threatened due to global exchange—with at least 171 species in Papua New Guinea alone dramatically threatened.

Additionally, it is no secret that the ivory and exotic medicine market in East Asia is threatening populations of elephants and rhinos in the wild; and forests are consistently eradicated (clearing vital foliage and animal habitat) in order to make way for coffee and cocoa plantations. In the journal, Nature, the study’s authors expressed their sentiment: “There is increasing awareness that developed countries’ consumption of imported products can cause a biodiversity footprint that is larger abroad than at home.”

Malaysia’s rubber exports, overfishing in Thailand and the Philippines, Colombia’s bananas and tobacco, as well as mining for mineral in Ghana are already raising the alarm in their respective regions. And as long as consumers are still willing to pay for beef from Brazil, palm oil from Indonesia and coffee from Mexico, this will be a continuing problem.

It is time that consumers in developed countries are made aware of the ramifications of their decisions. Currently, nations with the most financial pull are so far removed from the issues that are taking place in other parts of the world—where our goods come from—and this needs to change. Authors of the report suggest providing products with sustainability labels in order to bridge this gap, as well as better management of the supply chains. As we become further entwined in the web of our global economy, consumers should not be left unaware about the impact their choices have on the rest of the world.

To bridge this information gap, merchandise being bought and sold in American markets should come equipped with sustainability labels in order to better inform the buyer of the true cost of the product they are purchasing. There is no doubt that it is going to take some radical thinking, but in this case especially, knowledge is power.

To petition for sustainability labels in America, please sign here.


Photo Credit: tradegov.files.wordpress.com/2011/12/istock_000005911832small1.jpg

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