The link between circular economy & sustainability- a case with H&M

This morning, I introduced the case we will be working on this autumn on my course at the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH): managing business towards a circular economy and sustainability. The case is in partnership with H&M who is also a partner of the Ellen MacArthur circular economy initiative.

As I’ve written about before, I was not an early adopter of the circular economy. I do, however, teach circular economy as a trend in the sustainability area both at Örebro University and NHH. The more I reflect on the concept, the more of a convert I’ve become. So I thought I’d share some of my aha-moments about the circular economy and sustainability with you here.

First of all, what do we mean with sustainability? The established definition is from the UN Brundtland report (1987):

Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

As Kuhlman & Farrington (2010) (one of our key references in the NHH course) writes, this sustainability definition addresses the tension between mankind’s aspiration towards a better life on the one hand and the limitations imposed by nature on the other hand. This tension between social welfare and natural resources is more often than not ignored in the business debate on sustainability. We often pretend it does not exist. And of course, there are many win-win situations where environmental or social measures also bring down costs and/or increase income.  There are definitely low hanging fruit, efforts that are win-win or at least come at no cost.

However, there are cases where tension between social well-fare and environmental sustainability undoubtedly exists. The pharmaceutical industry is a prime example. The industry argues that it provides tremendous social benefit by saving lives (or at least reducing suffering) but the environmental pollution, especially chemical and water pollution, is high, both at production  and consumption sites. Why do such tensions between social well-fare and natural resources occur?

Operating in a closed system

Some of you might have heard about the Planetary Boundaries. Professor Johan Rockström and co-authors defined nine environmental boundaries we should stay within to ensure a stable living environment (see picture, borrowed from the 2015 article). What this figure tells businesses is that we are operating in a closed system. If we mismanage certain environmental resources, such as biodiversity and chemical pollution, we cannot compensate for these in other ways. If we cross these, there is no functional living environment we can operate within.

 

Why a linear business model does not work in a closed system

Now the problem with a linear business model (which most businesses have and what we often teach students) is that it treats input to businesses (and its outputs) according to the value chain- the business uses certain input and through a number of processes produces some outputs. These inputs, resources, the business uses appear to just exist. The environment is there for us to use and not affected by our use. Likewise, outputs and externalities from our production  just go somewhere. However, as the 1990 chapter on circular economy by Pearce and Turner states, eventually the waste we produce will affect the availability of new resources. And the accumulated waste affects our well-being too. The fact that business operates in a closed system has to be taken into account. Certainly for global businesses.

Now from the planetary boundaries perspective, the best would of course be to minimize consumption and for us to produce less in order to spare the environment and stay within the boundaries. This is in line with the minimalism and anti-consumerism movement. If we consume less, we do not need to produce so much. We can share, mend and repurpose etc. This is admirable and has a place, especially in societies with overconsumption. It is my approach to my own wardrobe situation. However, at this point in the debate, someone will throw in the argument that we cannot deny developing countries the same social benefits we have allowed ourselves. If we have been flying for decades, why shouldn’t they be able to?

Kate Raworth, with a background at Oxfam, illustrated this pedagogically in her ‘Doughnut Economics‘. It is a fact that there are large groups of people that are not getting their basic needs met. And to achieve progress on this point will in many cases require use of natural resources. Here, the tension between the social development and the availability of natural resources the Brundtland report sought to address is very clear.

Consequently, Raworth put those basic social needs into Rockström’s figure, in the middle, to illustrate that we want to maximize the social well-fare of people while at the same time staying within the planetary boundaries. We want to operate, she argues, within the green ‘doughnut’ formation in the figure.

Sustainability is getting the maximum social value while staying within the planetary boundaries

Working along the lines of minimizing and restricting consumption can, at least in some cases, thus deny us social value. Similarly, what many sustainability-minded businesses do is to try to minimize the waste and externalities from production. To reduce the ‘shadow’ of business, make them ‘tread lightly’ on the environment. There are many impressive initiatives with zero waste factories and water reduction regimes. These are all good, no doubt about it. We need these kinds of initiatives. However, the circular economy further adds that ‘waste’ should not simply be removed but could also become a resource for us to use. It’s a fact that we need some amount of production and that it uses resources and that there will be some amount of waste. What can we do with the remaining waste? How can we turn it into resources?

As this post is long enough, I will simply have to write about the challenges with making waste into circular resources in a follow up post. Still, I hope you see, like I do, why there is a case for circular business in a sustainable society. And I’m so excited about our case with H&M and what the students will come up with.

Why is it so hard to resist fashion?

And maybe even more so, the sales?

It’s three years this August since I gave up conventionally produced fashion. Three years ago I decided to only buy sustainably produced fashion. Many of the items I subsequently bought (Veja shoes, Serendipity organics sweater, my Palmgrens bag) are still wardrobe favorites. The only time I cheated was when buying a pair of Chloe pants at the sales that winter (that in the end didn’t fit me and ended up with my sister). One and a half years ago, I decided I actually didn’t need any new clothes at all. The same month I traveled to London during the sales and  found it really challenging to resist shopping. I decided to not even enter the big department stores to resist fashion shopping. Shopping abroad and the sales-  getting expensive fashion cheap- is somehow so very hard to resist.

It also seems that fashion is more difficult to abstain from than other kinds of shopping. I recently finished the book ‘Not buying it’ by Judith Levine. Levine and her husband decide to only buy the very necessary goods (basically groceries) during a year. The book is a personal reflection on this experiment. They obviously save lots of money but also find certain types of socializing tricky. Interestingly, the only times Levine does cheat is in the fashion department. One time she cannot resist a second hand store when on vacation. She cheats a second time at the sales of her favorite fashion brand. Thus of all the kinds of consumption she has to abstain from- restaurants, books, interior design- fashion turns out to be the most difficult. And particularly when traveling and at the sales.

Funnily enough, Levine uses some grey area shopping strategies, just like me. In the book, friends buy her cinema tickets and give her presents, things she isn’t allowed to buy herself, since she has the shopping-ban. Similarly, I’m getting a year’s supply of Swedish Stockings nylon stockings for my birthday (so excited to try them!). These days when family wonders what I would like for my birthday, I tend to want something very specific in the wardrobe area. Is this cheating? It’s at least a grey area. And a way for family members to give me something I very much need as a gift.

Levine’s ‘Not buying it’ initiative was partly motivated by financial reasons but also has a political undertone. Unlike her, I don’t see anything wrong in paying someone for a service or a good as long as you can afford it and its production and consumption is environmentally and socially sustainable. My own shopping-ban is a way to stop my own overconsumption of fashion. To use what I own and get a manageable size wardrobe.

The general problem is really that so much of our consumption is not environmentally and socially sustainable. If we fix this, change production and end-of-life processes so that they are sustainable or even circular, I don’t see any reason to limit consumption.

If you are not politically against financial transactions and/or markets, there is nothing wrong with paying someone for providing you with a sustainable service or good.

A second year of no-shopping?

At the end of a year of no clothes shopping, I concluded that I would not be able to continue another year. Despite ending the year with ca 540 items in my wardrobe, I saw ‘needs’ that meant that I would have to resume shopping this year.

Five months into 2018 and it turns out I was wrong. There have not been any urgent needs that I have had to address. Sure, I am running low on nylon stockings (but still I’ve managed 1,5 year using only my stash!). The boots are getting worn but they are still fine with a bit of leather balm. Clearly, I overestimate how much I wear items. In this part of the world, seasons change so fast so clothes/shoes are used only a few times before the weather is too warm/cold and the items get stored away again. The wardrobe gets worn oh so gently.

A friend asked how much time I spend mending. Yes, mending takes time. In fact, I’ve kept track of how much time I’ve spent mending the last four months. As a general pattern, I mend more when I have time to do so and less when I’m too busy. Only natural. What happens when I’m busy is that I get professional help with the mending and I’ve kept track on that too this year. So far it looks like this:

February: 32 min mending, no professional help

March: 15 min mending, professional help SEK 1600 (including mending,  dry cleaning & shoes repair)

April: 10 min mending, professional help SEK 2600 (including dry cleaning & sewing)

May: 1,5 h mending, no professional help

So I don’t spend a lot of time mending, but when I do I get a lot done (17 mends overall). I had five occasions of professional mending/sewing to a totalt cost of SEK2500. Two instances of shoes repair to a total of SEK 500.

From a financial perspective, it makes sense to mend things yourself. It’s fast and cheap. However, in very busy times, it might make sense to get help and save the stress of possibly not having the clothes ready for when you need them. I get help with mending and sewing from my dry cleaner and yes the cost adds up. Above all, less dry cleaning would save both the environment and my wallet. In once instance, I successfully avoided the dry cleaner by washing outerwear in the washing machine, after realising that it was mostly cotton and thus supposedly washable despite the label saying dry cleaning. Shoes repair I’m happy to leave to the professionals at all times.

I’m also happy to report that almost half way through 2018, my wardrobe is  minus 2 items. I went plus 8 when I inherited some clothes, mostly outerwear, from my great-aunt. In addition, since January, I’ve worn out 10 items (mostly basics). Since I don’t expect to suddenly inherit more clothes (fingers crossed!) and if I successfully keep other temptations at bay, I hope the wardrobe content will decrease even more. I am, as we speak, selling a pair of hardly worn Converse All Stars on auction site Tradera. That’s another minus one.

So to sum up, I’ve now managed 1,5 years without wardrobe shopping and, since the start, reduced my wardrobe with six items. It’s safe to say that I will never have a minimalist wardrobe. And that’s not the issues here either. I love my clothes. I just need to wear them instead of getting new ones all the time.

Another sustainable wardrobe challenge: Me made May 18

April ended with Fashion Revolution week, a yearly event that commemorates the Rana Plaza disaster (and which I’ve blogged about before).  This year marked its five year anniversary and brands such as Danish Serendipity Organics and Swedish Asket answered the challenge and showed their customers how their products are made. Fashion Revolution week thus clearly has an impact on companies and encourages another level of traceability in the supply chain. It’s not enough to know where things are made, but also by whom, how and by what materials. I’m already looking forward to next year, new companies accepting the challenge and seeing where this movement will lead.

As a very appropriate follow-up, May starts with the social media event ‘Me made May‘. The initiative involves wearing garments where your own hands have been involved in its making. As Fashion Revolution originator, Orsola de Castro, says: the less we know about how our fashion is made, the less we connect with it. It’s much more difficult to throw away a garment you’ve put lots of effort into making yourself than something you’ve bought cheaply at the store. Consequently, making clothes yourself is often an eyeopener and makes us realise how the cheap prices of fast fashion should be impossible. Learning about seams and finishes, we learn to recognise the difference between high and low quality garments. There are thus many good reasons to at least try to mend, alter or even sew clothes yourself.

Me made May was started nine years ago by blogger Zoe Edwards in order to make the home-sewing community connect with the items they’ve made. I join the challenge this year since I finally came up with a doable challenge for myself. I will wear, each day of May, at least one garment which I’ve either sewn, altered or mended myself. After one year and four moths without shopping I’ve  mended a lot of my wardrobe, so this should be doable. I also expect my few homemade garments to get some extra wear this month. You can follow my progress on Instagram. You can also sign up for this year’s #MMMay18 here.

The wardrobe audit: 2017 in review

Despite a year of not shopping any clothing my wardrobe is still full. Very few things got worn out last year. And, miraculously, things we’re added to the wardrobe without shopping. Consequently, I was quite curious to know if I expanded or reduced my closet last year. Basically, did I go plus or minus wardrobe-wise.

So I counted all my clothes the other day. I even put them in an excel sheet. If you google ‘count your clothes’, you’ll see that I’m far from the first person on earth to do so. It seems that an average, non-minimalist, wardrobe contains between 200- 500 items. Needless to say, I’m in the upper range, ca 540, including outerwear, swimwear, formal wear i.e. basically all form of clothing but no accessories or shoes. I might include these too in the future though.

To my defense, I haven’t given away clothes to charity shops the last couple of years because of sustainability reasons. As Karen Templer defined slow fashion, it’s about “wearing each item (whatever it is, wherever it came from) for as long as it lasts, extending the lives of things through care and mending, and re-homing anything that doesn’t work for you.” I think the last term ‘re-homing’ is important, making sure the item gets a new home, which isn’t the case of charity shops these days.

Reviewing last year’s wardrobe outflows, I re-homed a silk shirt and tank top to family members. I threw away some underwear, socks, and nylon stockings (after already mending them several times, thrown in the trash). Two t-shirts torn beyond mending  became rags to clean with (I remember my mom saving worn out clothes for rags when we were kids, when did we quit this habit?). A pair of jeans with broken zipper is stored away to use for second life sewing  somehow, i.e. practically they’re no longer in the wardrobe (anyone knows how to mend such zippers?). In total, I parted with ca 10 items.

On the inflow side, I sewed a scout tee from silk scraps in my fabric stash. I knitted a dark blue wool sweater (a knitting project my mom started but had abandoned). I found a 70/80s Austrian wool jacket and skirt at my parents that joined my wardrobe as well as mom’s old 80s salt and pepper wool coat. My sister trusted me with a torn Marella blouse that I mended and made sleeveless (on the picture). Thus six items joined the wardrobe. 

All in all, my wardrobe went minus four items last year.

At this pace, it will take a 135 years to wear out my wardrobe. Seen like this, it looks like my shopping days are over.

There were also a few items that neither added or subtracted but simply changed categories. A red wool jumper left the ‘wool sweater’ category and joined the ‘wool cardigan’ group. This refashioning of a sweater into a cardigan following Worn values tutorial was a success, I have been wearing the ‘new’ cardigan a lot, I never wore it as a sweater. And instead of 27 wool sweaters I now ‘only’ have 26. The wool cardigan category went from 17 to 18 accordingly.

As a knitter, it becomes quite obvious here that one might not need more than 26 wool sweaters. I so very much enjoy knitting sweaters and cardigans but will I wear them? There are, in my climate, maybe six months of wearing wool sweaters and cardigans, ca 180 days. Assuming that you wear either a cardigan or a sweater, not both at the same time, it means that I can wear each sweater/cardigan four times during the season. Basically, it will take many years to wear out a sweater when it gets worn maximum four times a year. Consequently, I have to rethink my knitting habits. While I can finish knitting my current projects, there is now a ban on starting new sweater/cardigan projects for myself. To tell the truth, I did not suspect I had such an abundance of knitwear in my wardrobe before I counted it.

While I was doing my wardrobe audit Worn values posted a review of her slow fashion year 2017. Interestingly, she calculates not only how many items joined her wardrobe but also at what cost. Since I had a year of no-shopping, I paid nothing for new items last year, the only cost was shortening the hem of a skirt (because I was too lazy to do it myself) to the cost of approximately 200 SEK. I also put new soles on few pair of shoes. It would have been very interesting to compare this amount to what I used to spend on my wardrobe. Of course, I never calculated what I spent on my wardrobe before (a passionate shopper doesn’t want to know)  but I suspect I’m saving around 30 000 SEK a year.

During 2018, I would like to not only keep track of in- and outflows but also of how much mending I do.  Sometimes I feel like mending is all I do, so quantifying it would be a way to highlight the effort I put into my wardrobe.

Previous posts about my quest for a sustainable wardrobe: “Is owning less more sustainable“, “2017, the year without shopping“,  “A month without shopping“, “The health bonus of no-shopping: reduced chemical exposure

The health bonus of no-shopping: reduced chemical exposure

Last year’s resolution of not shopping any clothes brought many benefits: saving money and the environment, reducing waste and getting a closer, more personal relationship to my closet. There is one aspect, though, that I have thought less about but that I was lately reminded of: reduced chemical exposure. It might even be one of the more important benefits of not shopping.

We all have hundreds of chemicals in our blood, many of which are hormone disrupting. And this is in Sweden and the EU where we at least have the REACH chemical regulation. The US has much less regulation, which is discussed in the documentary STINK (can really recommend this documentary, there is a lot of useful information in it).

New clothes are made, dyed and treated with chemicals and these chemicals can end up in our blood stream with serious effects. We were recently reminded of this fact by the H&M burning-clothes scandals (but it applied to numerous other brands too!). One of the reasons the companies are burning seemingly good clothes is because they contain harmful levels of chemicals and substances. Although it is in fact good that we are not sold these items, it is a reminder of the fact that such chemicals are in the clothes at some level. One could question why the companies do not simply remove these harmful chemicals from the production, as our minister for the environment did in the H&M reportage.

One way that chemicals, such as triclosan, gets into our bodies is thus through clothes. I remember buying a pair of jeans some years ago that smelled terribly, “I smell like a walking pool #toxicfashion” I tweeted. I washed the jeans and continued wearing them despite the lingering smell. If I had known what I know now, I would have understood that the smell could be chemicals that would end up in my body and do damage there. I would have returned the jeans to the store.

In the STINK documentary, the story starts similarly with a pair of smelling pyjamas. However, unlike me, the father in the movie realises not only that it’s a sign of chemicals but also that these might be really dangerous to his kids. His wife has recently died in cancer so he realises that some of these chemicals could even be carcinogenic (spoiler alert!- they are).

The obvious benefit with not shopping is that you are not introducing new items and their chemicals into your wardrobe and to your body. If you also consider more environmental friendly washing options (for example avoiding dry cleaning), this will reduce an overall chemical exposure. Shopping second hand, for example for your child, has similar benefits because the clothes have been washed already multiple times which should reduce the chemical content.

One aspect the STINK documentary does not discuss, and which thus is a weakness from a sustainability perspective, is where the chemicals used in production and that result from when we wash our clothes end up: in the environment and in our waters. But I guess you cannot tell all in one and a half hour.  This part of the story has also been brought up elsewhere, for example in the True Cost movie.

Is expensive fashion more sustainable?

You might, as I once did, think that you avoid the sustainability issues in fashion because you don’t shop at H&M, Gina Tricot, Dressman etc.

The short answer is no, expensive fashion is not necessarily more sustainable. Luxury production in Europe should guarantee better working conditions and less chemicals, but only a few luxury brands still produce in Europe. Those who do might only produce certain parts of the collection in Europe. And ‘Made in Italy’ can these days mean made by Chinese in Italy. Even when something is made in Europe, the fabric may be imported. Luxury brands often source their materials from outside of Europe and then we have the issues with conventional cotton and synthetic fibre etc.

There are also environmental issues with the chrome and heavy metals involved in tanning of leather. If you do want a new luxury bag, check where the leather came from, that it can be tracked to sustainable farming, and for vegetable tanning. I found that Swedish brand Palmgrens had a longstanding relationship the Italian farm the leather derived from and used vegetable tanning processes for a certain bag. Thus it’s the last bag I’ve bought, before my current year of no-shopping, and I don’t feel I compromised on design just because I focused on sustainability.

Another issue with luxury brands is that they don’t consider the environmental impact of care. Many put dry cleaning on the care instructions (as on this Ralph Lauren jacket, made in the Philippines) which isn’t environmentally friendly. And, in many cases, the items are better cared for by hand washing. I don’t know how many times the dry cleaner couldn’t remove stains and when I try at home, as a last resort, it works perfectly. Money and chemicals wasted.

The luxury conglomerates seem to lack a thorough understanding of sustainability issues. For example, when LVMH reports on biodiversity, they write about how they finance biodiversity research rather than how they take biodiversity into account in their sourcing of raw materials. Now I am all for funding research, of course, but certain issues we already know a lot about, such as pesticides and biodiversity. We can act on these today.

Similarly, it is admirable that Kering has developed the Environmental Profit and Loss account (which I often teach to students) but more important is how they handle their everyday sustainability challenges. I searched for organic on Kering’s website and only found ‘organic growth’.

Taking the opposite road, many cheap brands are not as diligent about working conditions and where things are made* but are instead rapidly increasing their share of ‘better’ or organic cotton and renewable fibre. They hardly ever prescribe dry cleaning. But then again they don’t make clothes that should last.

Thus while some brands are working on social issues and others focus on some of the environmental, few brands cover all the necessary issues. Those who do are generally those that started their business with a sustainability focus. These brands are generally slightly more expensive than fast fashion but usually much cheaper than luxury brands.

So the answer is no: price is not a good indicator of sustainability.

* The Inditex group (Zara, Massimo Dutti etc. ) is an interesting exception. Around 60% of their suppliers are located in proximity to the headquarters in Spain.

Slow Fashion in memory of Rana Plaza

This week it’s four years since the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh . 2500 workers were injured and 1129 killed when the eight-storey factory collapsed. This event is commemorated with the Fashion Revolution Week each year. Customers and consumers are encouraged to ask their brands ‘who made my clothes?’. Consequently, social media is buzzing with activity and many brands have shared pictures and stories about their production, for example Serendipity Organics and many more (to see the brands and their stories follow @fash_rev on Instagram). Even conventional fashion media, such as British Vogue, report on the activity.

Many of those active during Fashion Revolution Week are also all year round Slow Fashion proponents. Karen Templer of Slow Fashion October did a thoughtful  blog post defining ‘Slow Fashion’ as considering the human, environmental and monetary cost of clothing as well as taking full responsibility for what we own:

By take responsibility, I mean commit to wearing each item (whatever it is, wherever it came from) for as long as it lasts, extending the lives of things through care and mending, and re-homing anything that doesn’t work for you.

Independent pattern maker ‘In the folds‘ organised an Instagram challenge to direct attention to the time and skill it takes to make clothing. Most clothes are still made by hand and it should be valued, whether we do it ourselves or someone does it for us, she argues.

Elisalex of ‘By Hand London‘ made tutorials for Fashion Revolution Week on how to embroider and sew on patches to cover wholes, imperfections or just to make items more fun. The purpose is to make our clothing more useful so that we use what we have instead of buying new or throwing things out. The workers put a lot of effort into making clothing for us, one way to value their work is to give the clothing a long life (find my strategies for doing so here)

It seems to me that the Slow Fashion movement is here to stay. It is starting to have a presence in social media all year round. Fashion Revolution Week keeps the memory of Rana Plaza alive and educates customers and consumers about social responsibility in fashion production. The question is if the brands are changing their ways as fast as their customers are learning about the issues.

The Rana Plaza disaster shouldn’t have happened but it did. Supporting better and safer business practices is one way to commemorate the events.

Can conscious consumerism change the world?

Last week, I heard from two sources that conscious consumerism, i.e. using your purchases to support good business practices is not enough. In this podcast, Stiv Wilson argues that we need to get political instead. Which is exactly what their organization Story of Stuff is all about. This article by blogger Alden Wicker states it a little more harshly:

“Conscious consumerism is a lie. Small steps taken by thoughtful consumers—to recycle, to eat locally, to buy a blouse made of organic cotton instead of polyester—will not change the world”.

These kinds of arguments are used in two contexts: those that want us to get involved politically instead, as in the above two cases, or those that want to give up, ‘it doesn’t matter anyway’, ‘we can’t change the system’ and so on.

Unsurprisingly, I do believe my purchases matter. I believe in political power too. I also believe I can make a difference with my research and teaching. Basically, let’s use the means that are available to us and with which we are comfortable. Some people are comfortable marching for environmental causes, others are more comfortable changing their purchasing behavior. However, like the politician that argues for public service and then doesn’t pay the tv-licence, it is desirable to try to be consistent.

How could then purchasing behavior make a difference? Will H&M or Varner notice that I am doing a no-shopping year? No, they will not. Most likely we cannot affect H&M and Varner politically either. They are private companies, not states, and they can shop around for the tax and environmental rules that suit them, if they like.

So the impact of purchasing behavior depends on who you are trying to affect and how important your purchases are to them.

My local organic food store in Bergen has only so many customers and I purchase most of my food there. They would notice if I move. The people I purchase food from at the farmers market might notice (Bergen’s farmers market on the picture above) . Based on this fact, I feel quite comfortable telling people to stop buying from the fashion giants (they will not notice) and start buying from small sustainable brands (who will notice). For small businesses, your purchase does make a difference.

At this point, the ‘elitist’ argument usually appears. The small sustainable brands are more expensive. Not everyone can afford to buy all their food at the organic food store. This is absolutely true but it is not an argument against conscious purchasing behavior generally. We who can afford the sustainable brands have a bigger environmental footprint than people with less purchasing power. It is more important that those with the biggest environmental impact and who can afford do change their behavior. Moreover, buying food directly from the farmer is not necessarily more expensive. Second hand stores are terribly cheap.  Most likely, we could all save money by buying less and learning to mend.

But how do we affect the big companies that are larger than states and that we cannot affect by vote or with our individual purchases? I think maybe social movements can play a role here. These companies are at least concerned with trends among customers. How large groups of consumers behave affect their business. Now I might have prided myself in being the only one I know that is on a shopping fast. Getting active on Instagram, however, I soon discovered that there are many more like me. You could even say I am late to the trend. We are not as unique as we might like to believe. If I decide to only buy grass-fed local meat, there are many more like me, acting on similar impulses. Most likely we are already part of some social movement or trend, whether we know it or not. And, as group, how we behave does concern these companies.

So, in my opinion, our consumption does impact the world and if you choose to purchase consciously it will too. This, however, is not an excuse for politicians and companies to not do their job and instead put all responsibility on the consumer’s shoulders (as happens all to often). We have some big challenges, so we all need to do our best.

When pollution comes back to haunt us

You might remember the cadmium in imported rice scandal or lead in imported rice scandal. These are examples of heavy metal contamination of imported foods. ‘We import foods from countries with too low environmental standards’, you might think. And that’s true.

But how did the heavy metals end up in the foods? How did a fifth of China’s farmland become contaminated? Countries like China and India have for quite some time been producing for our consumption. It has been attractive because of price, but it has also been done under lower environmental standards. One example is the dyeing of clothes. Another example is the production of pharmaceuticals. We know that these industries pollute the water and soils (and there are of course further industries in this category). We also know that residuals of the toxic waste may remain in what we import.

So, ironically,  when these countries produce for our consumption, the resulting pollution comes back to haunt us in the foods we import.

Even more ironically, while contamination of soils in India and China is spreading, we are in Scandinavia placing buildings on uncontaminated good soils that used to be farmland. The national strategy is to rely on imports, both of foods and other kinds of manufacturing. When this is the strategy, we have an interest in the countries that we are now dependent on. It is in our interest that their farmland and water supply remains uncontaminated so that they can continue to produce for us. There is only so much farmland in the world. If our strategy is to rely on imports, then we need to be concerned with the pollution in the countries we import from. Because it is not only the local population’s food supply that is contaminated, it’s ours too.