Is globalization to blame for our environmental problems?

Following the debates in the newspapers, it seems globalization is to blame for a lot. It’s often described as the root cause of some of society’s big problems. Globalization causes inequality, financial crises, unregulated multinationals that act freely on a global scale, environmental pollution etc. An assumption in these debates is that globalization exists. However, few of us take the time to define what we really mean when we say globalization.

This however, is not how we do it at the introductory course ‘Companies and society’ which I teach at Örebro University business studies bachelor program. In the course, we review three perspectives on what globalization is and discuss whether it’s a good thing and lastly the students write a report on a company in the food sector as an example of globalization.

Teaching this course has fundamentally changed my view of globalization. While I used to assume that globalization is a fact, I don’t anymore believe we have ever had globalization. In fact, nowadays I concur with the ‘historical perspective’ on globalization i.e. that the economy, mobility and trade has, throughout the history, been highly international but never global. Even today we know of a few tribes who are undoubtedly isolated from the rest of us. Some countries are very interconnected, but not others. So maybe internationalization is a better word, if this is what we really mean?

Unlike me, however, most students agree with one of the other two perspectives on globalization in our course book: that globalization is a fundamentally new phase in recent history or that the term at least captures some critical new aspects of modern times.

Nevertheless, when the students investigate companies and globalization, they capture some of the acute sustainability issues in the food industry today. Thus not only do the students learn about globalization and read quotes from Stiglitz and others, they also get up to date on current sustainability issues in the food sector, such as how the industry calculates climate impact of chicken meat. Chicken is often argued to be a climate smart meat choice, but, as the group thoughtfully discussed, it depends on how you calculate and whether you include the climate impact of the feed (often imported soy). I have written about the fallacy of CO2 calculations on this blog before. It’s often overlooked that there are multiple ways to calculate climate impact of food.

Another group discussed the use of imported palm oil, often from Indonesia, in food products. By now most of us know that palm oil should be avoided or at least certified if we use it. However, this group of students highlighted that palm oil requires less land than other kinds of oils that could replace it and thus that the sustainability consequences are not clearcut. Clearly, we don’t want to use more land than necessary for food production. So there are both positive and negative environmental consequences of palm oil. How do you trade off one environmental consequence against another?

Two other groups discussed fish, a food that is rarely recognized as an environmental problem. One group mentioned how the fish feed used in aquaculture drives overfishing of the seas, something I have written about here before. The other group instead focused on sustainably caught fish, MSC certified fish, but that the company ships it half-way around the world for filleting by hand in China and then back to Scandinavia. While this seems illogical, the group explained that it means more of the fish can be used compared to machine filleting.

Overall, we learned a lot not just about globalization but also about how and why companies act as they do. Some of these behaviors seem unreasonable as an outsider. However, we need to identify not only the consequences of these ‘global’ corporate behaviors but also understand the rationale behind them. There is a reason and context to why the company started doing things as they do. Only when we understand this can we find alternative solutions.