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Shifting the way the world shops (commentary)

Alex Diment is participating in the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia. He presented a talk based on this blog below about how the consumer in New York City or elsewhere can a make a difference on conservation issues facing habitats continents away with the choices they make in the grocery store. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

Pitaya or dragonfruitPitaya or dragonfruit

If you are what you eat, then just as true, you are what you buy.

From organic, fair-trade, responsible palm oil, Wildlife Friendly, and most recently deforestation-free, consumers can cast their lot with a variety of eco-friendly labels and define who they are by what they buy. It gives someone in New York City the chance to contribute to forest protection in Indonesia by using their wallets to influence the sustainability of the supply chain that serves them with goods.

The consumer’s role cannot be underestimated; conscious consumers can help to shift the social norms and support responsible supply of agricultural or forest products. To get sustainability into the mainstream, the world needs to shift its shopping habits, minimizing environmental damage, and taking the environmental costs of the products (so-called “externalities”) into account in the price they pay.

As this happens around the world, market pressure is applied to mainstream companies to engage in environmentally-friendly practices.

Yet, adding “ECO” to the name of your product is far too easy, with no guarantees that the product is truly benefiting nature: so a whole array of labels and standards have been launched. But the flood of such eco-labels in the market has confused consumers and reduced their ability to discern the reliability of the labels and their products.

Does product certification reap actual benefits for the environment? The answer (and the assurance to consumers in the credentials of the product) lies in the standards behind the certification label.

For a product to be labeled as “Wildlife Friendly,” for example, it has to fulfill a carefully designed set of standards to make sure the product is genuinely helping, including conservation agreements and livelihood benefits for farmers. These standards have to be ecologically and socially robust, and importantly, have to be monitored for compliance by an independent agency – only then can the consumer be confident that their dollars or Euros are supporting what is promised on the label.

Ibis Rice, a certified Wildlife Friendly product, is one example where certification is working for the environment and poor farmers in Cambodia. Through improved farming practices and access to higher-value markets, Ibis Rice farmers are both conserving natural habitats and earning a better living.

In the process, they are helping to save over 30 critically endangered species including the Giant Ibis, Cambodia’s national bird and the number one species on the EDGE list of evolutionarily distinct, but critically endangered birds.

The giant ibis. Photo by Omaliss KeoThe giant ibis. Photo by Omaliss Keo

With support from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), farming communities living inside protected areas are able to achieve higher prices for their rice, in return for abiding by agreed land-use plans and no-hunting laws. The communities have organized themselves to market their top-quality jasmine rice through a village committee.

The program’s success has come from genuine buy-in and ownership by local communities, and a national market willing to pay a premium for a quality, environmentally positive product.

As a testament to success, the number of critically endangered bird nests has increased substantially since the start of the scheme, and another vital outcome for long-term conservation has been the development and strengthening of village institutions in a country with a recent history of weak governance and impunity to rule-breaking.

So the next time you open your wallet, speak up for conservation and chose a certified eco-label. You are part of the critical mass needed to shift the way the world shops.

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