Tag Archives sustainability

I know what you did last summer: are destination conferences a problem?

Year in and year out, academics send themselves halfway across the world to attend conferences. In an age in which flying for leisure is fast becoming a taboo, are such conferences in which academics and their universities pay large sums of money to converge for brief moments to present their research and to network also becoming impermissible? And are they even more concerning when they take place in ‘exotic’ places at convenient moments – are destination conferences a thing, and are they a problem?

Most of us have been invited to a destination wedding – one where you travel to an unusual location where your friends/colleagues/family members choose to get married. At a safari lodge, in a forest, on an island, on a holiday farm, in the snow, or even in a different country – Thailand, Scotland, Finland, the Maldives. Anywhere that seems romantic, really.

If you’re anything like me, such invitations make you grind your teeth: you would love to go, because the locations are often idyllic and a wedding will make them even more so, but the costs of attending a wedding half the world away are astronomical. It’s not just about a plane ticket and the accommodation: meals, excursions, wedding gifts, and outfits add up to make it an expensive few hours of celebrating someone’s matrimony. And then there’s the emissions – in an age where flying is the new smoking, we’re thinking twice before hopping on a plane to visit a friend, watch a concert, or explore a new city.

Over the years, I’ve missed quite a few weddings in the country in which I was born and raised because I simply couldn’t justify flying there just for that. These weren’t even destination weddings to the couples who organised them, but to me, living at least twelve hours away by plane, they were. Those weddings that I did manage to attend took place when I was home visiting my family – over the Christmas period mostly. But I don’t fly somewhere just to attend a wedding. No matter how close I am to the couple to be wed.

This brings me to the idea of a destination conference and whether this is a thing. Are academic conferences organised in far-away places to lure academics into attending? And should we be saying no to this form of external validation?

Two things made me ponder this. First, I recall a conversation I had with a colleague some years back. We were discussing the conferences that we’d like to attend that year. Our university makes available money so that we (PhD researchers) can travel to and present our research at one or two conferences per year. My colleague suggested attending a conference in Hawaii. I was enthusiastic, of course, because who doesn’t want the chance to explore a major travel destination, mixing business with pleasure? When I asked him what the conference was on, he told me, and I realised that I in no way could attend. My research was in a totally different field and I could not adjust my proposal to fit the conference theme.

That got me thinking about why we as academics attend academic conferences and which of them are actually directly relevant to our research. If we present our work at these conferences, is it because it is good practice for becoming future academics? Are we presenting our research in area-specific sessions attended by peers that we respect and possibly want to collaborate with? Or are we presenting something vague in panels with general titles without the aim of actually using the conference to put forth new ideas and start with ground-breaking interdisciplinary work?

The second occurrence is more recent. I recently decided not to attend a large biennial conference set to take place in Portugal during this year’s summer holidays in person, even though I am co-convening a panel with a senior researcher. Fortunately, the conference is hybrid, which gives participants the option of attending online. Before the covid pandemic, this was not even an option, so we have come a long way. Meeting online is now just as acceptable, although not quite as desirable, as meeting in person. But hundreds, if not thousands, of conference participants will flock to the southern European country in July for the conference, which takes place over the course of a few days.

The decision not to attend the conference is based on the unwillingness both to fly within Europe, for whatever reason, and to attend a conference in an ‘exotic’ location just for the sake of doing so. I’d already sworn off flying within Europe for leisure – my partner and I had driven 2,000 kilometres over two days during the December holidays to visit his parents in Italy and had returned in the same way – and now I was doing the same for work. I’d always disliked conferences because of the massive expenses that have to be incurred to deliver half-hour presentations (registration fees, accommodation, travelling) and the purpose, which I sometimes feel is seldom more than ‘showing face’ and trying to remain relevant in a certain academic field.

Nevertheless, you’d think that I’d be attending a conference where I was co-convening a panel. My hesitance to do so, even with funding available to send me there, is interesting to me. It makes me wonder whether my aversion for academic conferences in general has turned into an aversion for ‘destination conferences’. Would I be just as hesitant if the conference were to take place in Portugal in the middle of the winter, or if it were to take place in a cold and dreary country, for example Ireland or Germany?

And is there anything wrong with academics going places for conferences? Is it still an unfortunate necessity if you as academic want to make your voice heard or make it in this cut-throat academic world?

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher studying how changes in urban water availability affect human-water relations. She has co-authored a book called Bron on how residents of Cape Town navigated the near-collapse of the city’s water system. She has been editor of Bliss since 2017.

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Fashion and Beauty in the Tower of Babel: how Brazilian companies made sustainability a common language at COP27


Fashion is one of the most polluting industries in the world, plagued by sky-high greenhouse gas emissions, mountains of excess clothing manufactured and cast away each year, and the widespread use of fossil fuels in producing synthetic fabrics. A roundtable organized at COP27 drew together Brazilian companies who are leading the pack when it comes to sustainable fashion and beauty. Panel conveners Luciana dos Santos Duarte and Sylvia Bergh summarize the main takeaways and what it implies for the role these industries can play in helping address the challenges posed by climate change. 

Tower of Babel. Source of image: Ancient Origins

The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) can be compared to the biblical Tower of Babel. Stretching into the sky, in the tower thousands of people suddenly had their speech confused by God and could no longer understand each other. But still they continued to talk. COP can be seen as a metaphorical Tower of Babel, convening thousands of people from different contexts who speak different political and economic languages to continue talking about climate change, a phenomenon that is as contested as it is complex.

COP represents the most ambitious event in the world to deal with the challenges posed by climate change. Most recently, COP27 brought 35,000 people to Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. The private sector was well represented, with a range of companies sharing their diverse approaches to pursuing sustainability and demonstrating their commitment to corporate social (and environmental) responsibility and their adherence to one or several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In attending the conference, on the one hand they were able to position the discourse on sustainable business practices at the UN level, while on the other, no references were made to unsustainable practices. In the end, obscuring these seemed to point to greenwashing. In other words, the myriad approaches to and vocabularies around private sector sustainability make it difficult to separate fact from fiction.

The fashion industry alone is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions – more than that of all international flights and maritime shipping journeys combined. Yet this is often obscured, with the responsibility to reduce, reuse, and recycle placed on individual consumers instead. In light of this, we hosted a roundtable on fashion and beauty at COP27. The aim of the ‘Sustainable Fashion Made in Brazil’ roundtable, one of just three main events on fashion at the conference, was to critically understand how companies approach sustainability.

We chose to focus on Brazil, as it is one of the main producers of fibers, textiles, leather, and apparel in the world. While the country is still trying to regulate the fashion sector towards sustainable practices, its biggest corporations are adapting to international requirements and to what they believe is sustainable. We believed that the discussions could help the companies learn from each other while perhaps also helping ignite similar discussions in other contexts.

Roundtable about fashion and beauty at the UN Climate Change Conference COP27 hosted by Luciana Dos Santos Duarte. Source image: Sylvia Bergh

In partnership with the NGO Responding to Climate Change, the Ethical Fashion Brazil agency, and the Civic Innovation research group of ISS,[1] the roundtable brought together fashion corporations Grupo SOMA, Lojas Renner, and Malwee, as well as beauty companies Laces and Hair and Simple Organic to talk about efforts to make fashion sustainable in Brazil. Okeanos, a Miami-based supplier of plastic made from Brazilian stones that is producing sustainable hangers for the fashion industry, was also present.

Here’s what the companies who participated in the roundtable have been doing:

Grupo SOMA has a market value of close to 1,8 billion Euro. Although it owns several brands which are not known to be sustainable,[2] at COP27 it showcased a project by one of its brands, Farm Rio, which produces jewelry made by the Yawanawá indigenous women in the Amazon rainforest.

Like Grupo SOMA, Lojas Renner is one of the 150 companies in the world to have signed the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action, an initiative[3] of the UFCCC through which fashion companies pledge to achieve net zero emissions by 2030.

Malwee is one of the biggest fashion companies in Brazil. With “six brands [4],” it manufactures 45 million pieces of clothing each year. It is moving toward sustainability through textile engineering, and the company is carbon neutral (due to the 1,5 million square meters of preserved nature of its own Malwee Park, which is open to the public).

Beauty companies Laces and Hair and Simple Organic are two cases of sustainable entrepreneurship focused on innovation. At the conference, Laces and Hair referred to nature to describe their business practices, for example their goal to “repair damaged hair with nature”. Simple Organic was a beauty startup until it was bought by Hypera Pharma so it could scale up its production of organic skincare and make-up. The product communication expresses values of diversity and gender neutrality. Among its innovations, it developed biodegradable plastic bags that will become fish food if they end up in the ocean, and they are launching a sunscreen that is reef friendly.

After a round of presentations, there was time for discussing problems companies face and ways of overcoming these. Based on a fashion report compiled by high-school students for the Model United Nations educational simulation (MUNISH 2022), we developed some questions to guide the discussion. Why? Because high-school students represent the generation who is (and will be) most affected by climate change, and who should have the right to dialogue with the big players. Two solutions they suggested and that we then discussed were 1) taxing fast fashion, and 2) identifying products that are not sustainable (like the letter T for Transgenics on food packaging in Brazil).

The roundtable participants believed that before taxing companies that are not engaging in sustainable production practices, the government should do more for those companies that are sustainable. “We need more regulation, inspection, control, and certification,” said Malwee’s representative, in addition to “investing not only in buying carbon (credits) but reducing the environmental impact of the production processes”. Lojas Renner’s representative said that “almost all regulations come from Europe and North America” and acknowledged the efforts of the Brazilian Textile Retail Association (ABVTEX) to regulate the fashion retail chain in Brazil. She also said that her company is trying to comply with the new requirements before they become a regulation.

When asked about the National Policy for Solid Waste, a policy enacted by the Brazilian government in 2010 that criminalizes the disposal of textile waste as ordinary waste despite lacking enforcement, participants argued that the companies should be responsible for their own environmental impact. For instance, they could choose not to work with suppliers who are not certified according to the regulations.

Most participants agreed that they need to educate their consumer about what is sustainable. In this sense, they are selling not only products, but also creating a service to raise awareness on sustainability. Social media is a vector for education, but at the same time, it is a tool to create desire, which in turn creates revenue. In this sense, growth and degrowth are related to the consumer acceptance of the brand and to business as usual, not to an environmental movement.

When asked about the paradigm that 90% of the consumers buy a product because it is trendy, and only 10% because it is sustainable, they agreed that sustainability should become an intrinsic motivation. They need to change the way in which they produce, but not the product, or at least not the product aesthetic, in order to engage in the ethics of sustainability.

“We don’t need to make sustainable fashion, but fashion sustainable” – Malwee representative

Roundtable Sustainable Fashion made in Brazil at COP27. Source image: Greg Reis for Harper’s Bazaar Brazil

Although the presentations and the discussion during the roundtable showed different approaches to sustainability, the companies’ representatives converged on some topics like taking responsibility for the climate impacts of the fashion value chain and not expecting the government or consumers to lead the transition to sustainability. From a single project of jewelry in the Amazon to neutralizing the carbon footprint of the whole value chain, their different strategies serve as inspiration for our understanding of the role of fashion and beauty industries in addressing the challenges of climate change.

Please see this page for a longer version of this article.

[1] The event along with a social media campaign forms part of the activities of our research project ‘Transmedia Sustainable Fashion made in Brazil – Documenting the Roundtable at COP27 UN Climate Change Conference and exploring creative strategies to communicate scientific research’, sponsored by the Civic Innovation research group of the International Institute of Social Studies (Erasmus University Rotterdam).

[2] Grupo SOMA includes the following Brazilian brands: Farm, Farm Global, Fabula, Animale, Cris Barros, Foxton, NV, Maria Filó, Off Premium, Hering, Hering Kids, Hering Intimates, and Dzarm.

[3] It is not clear whether the initiative fosters genuine dialogue among companies, and whether it undergoes any external (independent) evaluations.

[4] Malwee, Enfim, Malwee Kids, Carinhoso, basico.com, basicamente.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Luciana dos Santos Duarte is doing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil) and Development Studies (International Institute of Social Studies, ISS/EUR). She holds a master’s degree in Production Engineering, and a Bachelor degree in Product Design. She is also a lecturer in Industrial Design Engineering at The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS).





Sylvia I. Bergh, Associate Professor in Development Management and Governance, International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR), and Senior researcher, Centre of Expertise on Global Governance, The Hague University of Applied Sciences (THUAS).

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Food saving: too good not to commodify

Food saving apps like “Karma” and “Too Good to Go” promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while providing affordable take-out meals – but what does the commodification of food saving really entail?

As a university student living in a country with high living costs such as Sweden, where even a conventional cucumber can cost you 2 Euros, you have to figure out how to get your hands on cheap or free food pretty quickly. For me, dumpster diving, as well as taking home the left-overs of the local student pub where I volunteer as a cook, does the trick. Friends unwilling to climb into dumpsters prefer food-saving apps like „Too Good To Go“ (TGTG) or „Karma“.

These apps promise a win-win-win-win situation: restaurants can make money off food they would normally have not been able to sell, customers get good food at a discount price, the apps take a percentage of the revenue, and lastly, food waste and its negative effects on the climate are reduced.

“Radical Slacktivism” marketing campaign by for-profit food saving app Karma. Source: karma.life.

These apps never captured my interest – after all, I already have my bases covered, and really do not need another app to clutter my home screen and divert my attention. Yet that changed when a fellow climate activist drew my attention to Karma’s “radical slacktivist” marketing campaign.

The campaign accuses the climate movement of being judgemental and engaging in “doomsday storytelling”. Instead – they argued – by using Karma you can save the world in a fun way, simply by downloading an app and eating food: how cool is that?

Reducing food waste clearly is an important step in achieving climate goals: the Karma company itself mentions that food waste is responsible for 6% of global greenhouse emissions. But food waste is generated at every stage of the supply chain, from agricultural production to domestic consumption, and it is not entirely clear what share food waste from restaurants makes up. Karma suggesting that combating food waste in restaurants will “save the world” is therefore not only wrong, but also obscures the wider parts of the problem.

“Radical Slacktivism” marketing campaign by for-profit food saving app Karma. Source: karma.life.

It may very well be that “Karma” is simply using this offensive campaign to generate controversy, hoping to achieve more publicity and recognition this way. However, the campaign’s message – just use our app, and don’t bother with the climate movement – reveals a deeper problem: Karma proposes a technological fix to food waste, and ultimately becomes invested in upholding the status quo in order to keep profiting off the overproduction of food. This eco-modernist narrative not only shifts the focus from systemic change (which the “judgmental” climate activists demand) to individual consumption under a “green growth” capitalism – it also appropriates the ideas of pleasure activism, which is an emerging strategy pioneered by black and brown peoples. Pleasure activism seeks to make the struggle for justice and liberation a pleasurable experience, and connecting through food is an important part of it.

The idea to work with businesses to prevent food waste is not new either, however until the emergence of apps like TGTG and Karma, this took place largely outside the capitalist system. Volunteers would pick up food from individuals, retailers and producers, and distribute it for free, or use it themselves. A platform for facilitating this, foodsharing.de, was founded in 2012, and nowadays is also organized through an app. However, by selling food that would otherwise end up in the trash, the for-profit apps have commodified food saving, assigning an exchange value to food that would have otherwise been considered waste.

Interestingly, it is the CEO of Karma, Hjalmar Ståhlberg Nordegren himself who has called into question the business model of its competitors, by criticizing them for incentivising overproduction. TGTG, which sells mystery bags that can be bought days in advance, has admitted to calling businesses informing that any left-overs they have at a specific time, would be very likely to sell via the app. This may very well tempt businesses to produce a surplus to be sold at discounted, but still profitable prices.

Karma meanwhile requires businesses to upload the exact products that they have left over, which they hope will allow them to devise an algorithm that can alert businesses ahead of time when they are likely to overproduce. By preventing surplus food from even being produced, the businesses will not have to sell it at a discount price, thereby improving their bottom line even more – in theory. In practise, businesses still stand to make a profit from selling discounted food, if at a lower profit margin: as long as they sell them for more than production cost and provided this doesn’t reduce the amount of food that is sold at a normal price.

Too good to go bags in a supermarket dumpster. Source: @anurbanharvester on instagram.

This is the issue for supermarkets: buying discounted food from supermarkets will cause consumers to buy less food at a normal price. That is why supermarkets often put a cap on the amount of bags they sell via TGTG. For restaurants meanwhile, selling discounted food is likely to win them new customers, who would not have purchased products from them in the first place. Aside from selling food at full price to regular customers, they now have an additional revenue stream from eco-conscious and price-savvy customers that want to save money and/or help the environment.

Political Ecology teaches us to be wary of “win-win” narratives. While Karma and TGTG may make quality food available for people who would otherwise be unable to afford it, there are “losers” in this situation too: while these apps are commodifying food that would otherwise have been thrown away, they can also end up commodifying food that would have been recovered by non-profit food-saving organisations.

Food saved by the non-profit organization Food Saving Lund. Source: @foodsavinglund on instagram.

A friend of mine, who is active in our local food-saving community, confirmed that businesses are already declining cooperation with non-profit food-saving efforts on the grounds that they have already partnered with Karma or TGTG.

So what’s the bottom line? For-profit food saving apps are unable to fully tackle the problem of food waste of supermarkets, and are likely to merely establish an additional revenue stream for restaurants to broaden their customer base. While they may be able to establish partnerships with businesses that would be unwilling to give away their food to non-profit food saving, the for-profit apps also encroach on the already limited spaces that have been established around decommodified food. At the same time, dumpster diving remains on the verge of illegality. While the spots I frequent don’t engage in actions of deterrence such as locking gates or pouring chemicals on the food, more high-end expensive foods like vegan meat-substitutes sometimes have their packaging intentionally slashed to make them unattractive to dumpster divers.

Legalizing dumpster diving could be a start to make sure more food is diverted from the waste stream, but actually eliminating food waste will require far broader action. There is not only a need to reshape our collective consumption habits –for instance, not expecting all our apples to be without blemishes, and all our bananas without a single black spot?– but we also need to dismantle the economic system that incentivizes food overproduction and that maintains a highly unequal access to food and nutrition.

As long as food is treated as a commodity, it has a market value that is dissociated from its value of feeding people. This makes it more profitable for a supermarket to throw away food rather than give it away for free, and risk “losing” a paying customer; and to keep shelvesf fully stocked until the evening and throw out the excess, rather than risk running out of stock in the evening and having to turn away customers. Decommodifying food however will require a climate movement committed to naming the capitalist system as the culprit behind food waste – “radical slacktivism”, as suggested by Karma, is just not going to cut it.


This blog was first published in Undisciplined Environments.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Juliane Miller is interested in imagining better futures. She recently graduated from the Masters programme in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science at Lund University, Sweden with a thesis on the contributions of German energy cooperatives to energy justice.

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How recognizing the Amazon rainforest as non-human helps counter human-driven ‘sustainable development’ interventions

Projects introduced in the Amazon rainforest to ‘protect’ it from harm hardly ever follow this objective; instead, they represent human interests while negating the interests of non-humans. But the rainforest as non-human also deserves the right to be represented. Luciana dos Santos Duarte in this article draws on developments in three academic fields to show how non-humans can become recognized in such projects.

Known as the Green Hell , the western part of the Amazon rainforest stretching across Brazil has been a stage for many projects that claim to save the world in the name of ‘sustainable development’. These projects are often conceived using the problematic paradigms of ‘new’ and ‘modern’ (for example introducing ‘new ways to…’), and other buzzwords like ‘Forest 4.0’, where technology is always the presumed answer to sustainable development issues because it ensures the making of profits while saving the forest.

Although we are living in the Anthropocene[1], slowly pushing the button of self-destruction, entrepreneurs motivated to ‘save the world’ are not an endangered species. They create projects connecting a company (buyer), an NGO (to provide technical assistance and credibility in the forest), some cooperatives (workforce of rural farmers), multilateral banks (investors), and the Brazilian government (subsidies). All these actors (called stakeholders) are humans, as are their creations (e.g. corporations). They constitute culture and are Culture.


Dichotomous thinking

But what about the Amazon rainforest? The forest, or the ‘stage’ that these actors occupy, is seen as ‘just Nature’, assumed to be separate from ‘Culture’ – something we can literally step on, extract, and reshape based on our will. These binaries – culture/nature, human/non-human – feed the paradigms mentioned above, allowing them to permanently exist in the forest and enabling them to come and go. Like waves, the projects go to the Amazon in accordance with anticipated opportunities for profit. Then, they go away. They incorporate ‘new’ ideas, but do not maintain previous ideas.

There is a key difference between humans and non-humans according to French anthropologist Philippe Descola (author of Beyond Nature and Culture, 2005), “Humans are subjects who have rights on account of their condition as men, while nonhumans are natural or artificial objects that do not have rights in their own right”. Therefore, exercising authority over a certain domain of affairs is considered exclusively human. We humans think from the top down, representing our Culture, and are not so diplomatic with Nature.


Diplomacy for non-humans

As part of Culture – because it is a human invention – diplomacy mediates between different interests, traditionally benefiting humans, but not non-humans[2]. However, the complexity of this mediation between the interests of hundreds of cultures and nations around the world, which we can see on daily news (wars, terrorism, etc.) becomes overshadowed by the need to mediate between human interference in nature and the right of existence of the thousands of animal and plant species (to highlight just two categories of non-humans) that are dying due to deforestation, pollution, etc.. Due to humans, non-humans are disappearing.

The lack of representation of Nature in ‘sustainable development’ projects leads to the core question: How can we think about diplomacy for non-humans in Nature?

My positionality allows me to answer this question not as a diplomat, but as a product designer pursuing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering and Development Studies, inspired by the outputs of my research in the Amazon. In saying that, and recalling a famous quote on creativity by Albert Einstein, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”, I offer three different paths that could possibly inspire a more concrete answer to diplomacy for non-humans: Law, Anthropology, and Industrial Design.


The right to representation

In 1972, Christopher D. Stone wrote the breakthrough article; “Should trees have standing?”, launching a worldwide debate on the basic nature of legal rights that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. He based his argument on the reasons why nature should be represented in court, for instance remembering that children in the past were seen as objects without rights or just an extension of their parents until their rights became recognized. Also, if non-humans like corporations can be represented by lawyers, why not trees and rivers?

Indeed, half a century after this seminal article was published, Whanganui River in New Zealand became the first river in the world to finally be represented in court [4]. The Maori people had been fighting for over 160 years to get it recognized as a legal entity. The river’s interest is now represented by one member from the Maori tribe and one from the government.

Regarding the field of anthropology, some scholars have been placing non-humans at the same epistemological level as humans, for instance, making science from what is the form of life of indigenous peoples, creating ideas like pluriverse[6]. However, our indigenous brothers and sisters do not know that their thinking-feeling can be framed in such fragmented terms. They do not see or live the Nature/Culture division. They are Nature.

Likewise, we as humans can be Nature, too, in our rational thinking and our creation of science and projects. As a lecturer in the field of Design, I am teaching my students to represent the voices of non-humans in their designs and to consider their positionalities in the design process. I believe that the agency of a lawyer should start at the embryonic stage of a project, amplifying the agency of the designer. In other words, the designer can represent Nature and non-humans through design inasmuch as they can do this for humans, mediating between the two as diplomats do. We become Nature by allying with Nature in our human activities.


The way forward

Once a project is in the Amazon, where we find thousands of non-human species (animals, plants, spirits), there is a lot of work to do – for anyone who can recreate their agency and their positionalities in projects, either for an entrepreneur, a scientist, a policy maker, or a designer – before we can go to court or march on to the apocalypse.



DESCOLA, Philippe. Beyond Nature and Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 488.

ESCOBAR, Arturo. Sustainability: Design for the Pluriverse. Development, 2011, 54(2), pp. 137-140.

LATOUR, Bruno. Telling Friends from Foes in the Time of the Anthropocene. In Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil & François Gemenne (editors). The Anthropocene and the Global Environment Crisis – Rethinking Modernity in a New Epoch, London, Routledge, 2015, pp.145-155.

HARAWAY, Donna. Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantatiocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin. Environmental Humanities, vol. 6, 2015, pp. 159-165.

HUTCHISON, Abigail. The Whanganui River as Legal Person. Alternative Law Journal, vol 39, 3 2014, pp. 179-182.

ROBINSON, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future. London: Orbit, 2020, p. 576.

STONE, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing?–Towards Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Southern California Law Review 45, 1972, pp. 450-501.

STONE, Christopher D. Should Trees Have Standing? Law, Morality, and the Environment. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 264.

VIVEIROS DE CASTRO, Eduardo. From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Aivinity in an Amazonian Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992, p. 428.

WALSH, Catherine. Development as Buen Vivir: Institutional Arrangements and (De)colonial Entanglements. Development, 53(1), 2010, pp. 15-21.

[1] The Anthropocene is a concept proposed as a geological epoch to mark the impact of humans on Earth, like changing the climate and causing irreversible damage. According to Latour (2015, p. 2), the Anthropocene is “the best alternative we have to usher us out of the notion of modernization. […] Like the concept of Gaia, the risk of using such an unstable notion is worth taking. […] The use of this hybrid term made up of geology, philosophy, theology and social science is a wakeup call. What I want to do is to probe here in what sort of time and in what sort of space we do find ourselves when we accept the idea of living in the Anthropocene.”

[2] The recent launched science fiction, or climate fiction, book ‘The Ministry for the Future’ (ROBINSON, 2020) provides some insights in breaking this tradition. In the plot, a body stablished in the Paris Agreement acts as an advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens as if their rights were as valid as the present generation’s – humans considering their own non-humans.

[3] The status of legal personhood has been broadened in the course of history. For instance, slaves were once treated as property; however, with the abolition of slavery – a process, not a single event, in many countries – slaves were no longer regarded as property but as legal persons (HUTCHISON, 2014). Likewise, the status of legal personhood for nature – Stone’s idea – has been impacting courts, the academe, and society, which can be read in his book launched almost fifty years after the original article (STONE, 2010).

[4] In practical terms, it means the river can be represented at legal proceedings with two lawyers protecting its interests – one from the Maori, the other from the government. The Maori also received a NZD 80 million (USD 56 million) settlement from the government after their marathon legal battle, as well as NZD 30 million to improve the river’s health.

[5] Viveiros de Castro (1992) had proposed the term ‘perspectivism’ for a mode that could not possibly hold inside the narrow structures of nature versus culture. By studying indigenous people in Brazil and their shamanic practices, he saw that “human culture is what binds all beings together – animals and plants included – whereas they are divided by their different natures, that is, their bodies” (Latour, 2009, p. 1).

[6] According to Escobar (2011, p. 139) “the modern ontology presumes the existence of One World – a universe. This assumption is undermined by discussions in transition discourses, like the buen vivir” (in Spanish, or suma qamaña, a concept from the indigenous people Aymara, in South America), and the rights of Nature. For Walsh (2010, p. 18), the concept of buen vivir “denotes, organizes, and constructs a system of knowledge and living based on the communion of humans and nature and on the spatial-temporal-harmonious totality of existence”. Coming back to Escobar (idem), “in emphasizing the profound relationality of all life, these newer tendencies show that there are indeed relational worldviews or ontologies for which the world is always multiple – a pluriverse”.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Luciana dos Santos Duarte is doing a double-degree PhD in Production Engineering (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil) and Development Studies (International Institute of Social Studies). She holds a master’s degree in Production Engineering, and a Bachelor degree in Product Design. She is a lecturer in Industrial Design Engineering at The Hague University of Applied Sciences. Part of her research is shared on her website ethicalfashionbrazil.com


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From corporate greed to sustainable business practices: how slow and steady wins the race

So often we think that ethics and business do not blend, and too often we are proven right. But what if this is not always the case? What if there were a way for profit to be generated and for companies to grow, with the only compromise being the time taken to do so? In this article, Niyati Pingali argues that companies do not have to forgo their profit objective – adopting a more-is-more mindset that entails engaging in a slow process of forging and consolidating ethical and sustainable business practices can drive immediate change in the sector, an intervention that can sit well alongside larger degrowth agendas.

Hamstrung by corporate interest

About halfway through the 2015 movie The Big Short about the 2008 financial crisis instigated by a crash on Wall Street, investor Mark Baum and his band of cynical, dogmatic investors take a trip to Moody’s, the reputed financial ratings agency, to ask them why they were actively assigning AA and AAA ratings to housing mortgage bonds (these being two of the highest ratings a bond can receive, representing a bond comprising sound mortgages that are assigned to people with good credit scores and a history of repaying debts) when the bonds should have been rated lower. One Moody’s employee replied in a straightforward manner: if she and her colleagues didn’t rate these bonds AA at least, banks would go down the road to S&P or any other established ratings agency to get themselves rated “appropriately”.  This confession stuns Baum and his colleagues: the system is rigged, and those who could be fixing it are themselves hamstrung by corporate interest.

Which is why it was fascinating to me to learn that in 2019, Vigeo Eiris, an established independent environmental, social and governance (ESG) research and consultancy services company, was bought over by Moody’s and rebranded. Eiris was originally founded in 1983 and dedicated itself to equipping businesses to help manage risks and increase their social impact. It came up with a global ratings system that ranks companies based on their efforts, involvement and long-term practices in good governance and sustainable business (Vigeo Eiris, 2019).[1]

Immediately upon reading about the acquisition, alarm bells started ringing in my head. However noble the goal of a ratings agency to start accounting for the value of a stock or company based on its commitment to protecting the environment and society, if a company like Moody’s has found itself behaving unethically on the ground not even 20 years ago, what’s to say that an ‘independent’ research agency under the Moody’s umbrella would be given the autonomy to act ethically and by extension have the authority to publish unimpaired, unbiased, verifiable facts even if they disparage their ‘mother’?

While no empirical evidence (beyond anecdotal) exists to prove that this will be the case, it’s clear that potential censorship, should Moody’s not uphold its end of the bargain, would lead to fallout, resignation and, as experience indicates, the start of a slippery slope from ‘ethical’ to ‘convenient’.


Sidelining ethics in the name of profit

Sadly, this is not the first time a company has lost its ethical backbone. Think for example of the   of Timnit Gebru, the Ethiopian-American AI researcher working in the ethical AI research team of Google who parted ways with the company because of ‘irreconcilable differences’. While now universally acknowledged to be a consequence of machine learning based primarily on easily accessed data (usually from the internet, which in and of itself is a biased source), the issue Gebru and her colleagues tried to make Google see (and by extension help amend in its products) was that its existing AI-powered products were foundationally flawed and required a series of very different datasets and priorities to redress the balance. She and a number of colleagues were eventually driven out of Google for their criticism.

In doing this, Google has shown that, like many other companies, it is focused on building harmony (and, obviously, its bottom line). To anyone following what’s going on around the world, this is hardly breaking news. Indeed, my own experience in corporate social responsibility (CSR) for a multi-national corporation proved the degree to which my efforts at protecting and promoting the company’s good potential and community-relevant ties were deprioritized.

While indeed the revelation made here that companies (particularly larger ones) prioritize profit over society is not a new one, it is important to consider the impact the concept of ethical business can have. In this, I do not refer to social enterprises (although they are highly beneficial), or even the established Creating Shared Value (CSV)  business strategy that companies like Friesland Campina have successfully adopted. Instead, I am talking about a more-is-more mindset: electing to grow slowly but consciously – keeping profit at the fore but being more selective and long-term about the partners one chooses to work with.


More is more: how partnering mindfully can pay off

The good news is there are companies who are doing this. Take Jeevanti, a now non-operational for-profit healthcare company in western India whose aim to build world-class healthcare facilities in small Indian towns. Their business approach was to lease existing hospitals and nursing homes, and work with local medical professionals, staff and support services such as catering and cleaning services within said towns, and source locally manufactured medical technology, thus creating locally rooted value chains with the hospital at the centre. Ironically, the business closed due to the high demands and questionable practices on the ground by a member of the (systemically corrupt) Indian medical fraternity involved in the project, not because the vision or business function itself proved unviable.

Or consider abillion, an upcoming social media platform catering to vegans and sustainable consumption. When I asked the founder about the issues around discrimination in AI, and the effect that automatised feedback could have on the system, he said it was about feeding their system the right kinds of information – echoing Gebru’s crusade to include a wider variety of data into the existing data universe. In this case it is about training the system to recognise vegan versus non-vegan content and believing in the users of the platform to be ethical in their buying, selling, and sharing practices. It sounds idealistic and I was initially sceptical, but his argument about the majority of people wanting to actively protect the integrity of the platform convinced me.

Both companies grew (one continues to grow!) despite this ‘counterintuitive’ business logic. These examples make it clear that the socio-economic impact of slow, steady, community-AND-profit-centric growth cannot be underestimated.


Putting mind over money

At ISS we often talk about the concept of degrowth. This topic is hotly debated in class and over drinks, its merits and flaws laid out and sliced up a thousand different ways until, inevitably, we come to the (in)conclusion: in today’s day and age, an inaccessibly inordinate number of things in our socio-politico-economic psychology will need to shift to make happen even a tenth of what degrowth asks for. In essence, in today’s day and age, degrowth is an impossibility, available only to those privileged enough to know the concept, or to afford surviving in it.

Which leads us to what is left that perhaps can actually be done to get out of this quagmire and what it will take for companies like Google and Moody’s to dig us out. It’s a simple matter of putting mind over money, taking the long route and, like the turtle, winning the race based on resilience, stability, and keen determination.

[1] Moody’s, on the other hand, was established in 1900 by John Moody with “a vision to widen access to information and establish a global language of credit” (Moody’s, 2022). They have achieved this and more by incorporating research and risk assessment services into their consultancy repertoire, becoming one of the leading risk assessment and ratings services in the financial world. Their website states upfront their commitment to “bring transparency, expertise and trust to bond transactions”, all key buzzwords that customers, and importantly, the average street consumer, genuinely seek.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:

Niyati Pingali is currently completing her MA in Development Studies, focusing on governance and development policy. As a former corporate employee, she knows the cost and the benefits of capitalism and plans to dedicate her life to changing the narrative to ensure both people and the economy benefit equally: a feat that sounds impossible but she knows can happen.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

The revival of Brazil’s cacao sector: is anything really changing? by Lee Pegler and Luiza Teixeira

Bouncing back from a devastating crop disease (vassoura de bruxa), Brazilian cacao producers are showing a different face. Many of the old plantations have been ‘taken over’ by younger family members who seem keen to present more sustainable products and methods. As discussed here, a 2017 visit and forthcoming research seek to evaluate the development significance of these changes.

In a 2017 seminar, the State University of Santa Cruz (UESC) brought together farmers, buyers, technicians, and governmental experts (plus a few academics) in an attempt to discuss challenges and prospects of a sustained revival of Brazilian cacao and chocolate production. UESC and the town of Ilheus are pivotal as they sit at the northern edge of the main cacao-producing region of Brazil[1], an area that still boasts over 40,000 farms/farmers. Brazil itself seems set to move from number 5 to number 4 in the ranking of global producer nations. What difficulties are involved in such a move and, more pointedly, what do the various actors really mean by sustainability?

In fact, this question concerning the (social) sustainability of the Brazilian cacao chain has a very pertinent historical precedent. When we look back to the novels (e.g. Gabriella) of Jorge Amado (a hero of Ilheus himself)[2], with their vivid dramas highlighting powerful farmers (treated as Coronels/coronéis), hierarchical social relations, slave-type conditions and sexual exploitation in the cacao sector, it comes as no surprise that Brazil is the only one of the large cacao producers for whom small-scale farmers have not dominated national production estimates. This concentration of wealth and power also came to be reflected, at a consumption level, in comments about local farmers “travelling to Paris to have a haircut” (during the heyday of local cacao production).

Most importantly, from a global development and social justice perspective, what is important to examine is the likelihood that the sector’s revival will mean real change to both the social mindset and practice of a resurgent farmer class. Has the recent shake-up in the market, production quality/reliability, and a new era of farmers been enough to lead to substantive change in social relations on farms and within the chain? On this, the seminar and field visits canvassed a very practical range of concerns and viewpoints on what was needed for a revived and sustainable sector.

Discussions in the seminar and at technical facilities focused on scientific quality processes in the field, the laboratory, and on production and marketing. The greatest strains appeared evident between established/large producer families and new or smaller facilities, social actors (communities/cooperatives), and the like. Sustainable production and commercial practices remained fundamental to all, but as this moved to questions of collective action, inter-group cooperation, and substantive changes to social relations on the farm, a sense of unanimity became far less clear.

Without doubt, all agreed that they had moved substantially from earlier modes of production and that child labour, bonded conditions, and the like no longer existed. Field visits even gave good impressions that more participative production, land sharing and autonomy had emerged alongside some impressive on-farm ‘tree to bar’ and social cooperative ventures in local communities (assentamentos) and within some large-scale farms.

Yet the extent to which this has changed and implications from a labour security or social justice perspective could not be gleaned from this brief visit. Even from a solely production point of view, the question of sustainable practices is strongly debated, as is evident from issues such as whether random planting, full sun, or shade tree plantation areas (let alone mixed crop/multiple livelihood strategies!) should be promoted. Yet each has quite specific implications for worker/small scale farmers and community development.

Not uncommon questions about the reach and depth of local (e.g. Project Cacao), sectoral (Cacao Connect), company (Body Shop/Tony Chocolonely), and multi-actor/international coalitions (e.g. Coco Action via UTZ, ICCO) to promote ‘best practice’ have also arisen. The community does not appear to be united in terms of what the various forms of multistakeholder alliances might be able to do in terms of representation and ‘teeth’ (to enforce any common agreements).

Further work on this case study (as part of the ISS Brasil Plan/GOLLS project) took place during 2018, involving staff of ISS and UESC. We soon plan to provide a more consistent overview of ownership and production models in the south Bahia/Ilheus region and to set up a series of case studies of: a) local social sustainability, and b) the governance of sustainability processes, for staff and students to pursue during 2019.

The broader question behind this research is whether structural, market, and generational change has allowed a greater link to be made between economic upgrading (of the cacao chain) and the upgrading of social conditions and relations (i.e. greater social justice) in a situation where Brazil is seeking to find a stronger place in the global market (for cacao/chocolate). This requires not only a methodical analysis of chain governance and of production and social relations (at market, community, and family levels), but also further reflections on how we study, interpret, and classify ‘well-being’. How far have we really moved from the vision of Jorge Amado?

[1] And all exports (both raw cacao and more finished goods from the area) move out of the Port of Ilheus.

[2] The well-known Brazilian romantic/historical novelist – see for example Amado, J. (1958 – 1ST ed.) Gabriela, Cravo e Canela, Livaria Martins Editora, Sao Paulo.

About the author:

IMG_0726Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.

Foto_Bliss copy.jpgLuiza Teixeira achieved her PhD in Public Administration and Government, in 2016, and her dissertation theme focused on Public Participation in Municipal Legislative Branches in Brazil. Luiza is a Professor at Santa Cruz State University, in the Administration and Accountancy Department. Recently she has been involved in research projects on the field of Public Administration, especially with the themes of Public Participation, Social Control, Accountability, and Local Development.