Pamela Mar explores the distinction between the meaning of sustainability in the East vs. the West and concludes that “sustainability does not travel well.”
…the definition of sustainability – i.e. progress which stems from balancing economic, environmental and social priorities – may resonate globally, but the strategies for implementing it have to be tailored to local circumstances.
Mar emphasises the difference between the West’s sustainability strategies vs. Eastern needs and concerns. In Western terms sustainability applies largely to the environment and does not address the concerns of labor:
US-style capitalism is unique in the advanced industrial world for how the fruits of the industry are shared: while labor is being squeezed, capital collects on the gains. In other words, real wages for the American worker have been falling steadily since the 1970s even though productivity has grown. Elizabeth Warren recently noted that if wages had kept up with productivity growth since 1960, the minimum wage today would be US$22 an hour instead of just above US$7. This also helps to explain why the US CEO-worker wage gap is the highest in the developed world. What does all this have to do with Wal-Mart and sustainability? In an economic environment, where it is both socially and legally acceptable to undervalue their workers, companies will adapt their strategies thereon. So, sustainability in the United States has very little to do with employment, and a lot to do with the environment.
In Eastern countries, economic concerns are so pressing that Asian sustainability agendas put people first:
Asian consumers are notorious for their unwillingness to pay more for a greener product; laws on recycling and wastage are weaker here; and Asian companies may lag in their environmental disclosures. Only 32 per cent of companies in Asia choose to respond to the Carbon Disclosure Project information requests, whereas the overall global response rate is above 80 per cent. Over 670 million Asians lack any access to electricity; nearly two-thirds of the people in developing Asia have no access to safe drinking water; and over 800 million still live below the poverty line of US$2.50 per day. Today, despite all the progress made under the Millennium Development Goals, the challenge will only increase as the population of Asia expands by at least a billion by 2050 if not sooner. Against this backdrop – it is only natural that Asian sustainability agendas put people first. So, sustainable development in Asia is about investment, infrastructure, and industrialization to create jobs and growth, which will give the poor a way out of poverty. It is also about creating community services for the poor – focused on education, health, and women and children – while these public services are established on a nationwide basis, and companies have long put millions into these areas, perhaps to the neglect of their environmental agendas.
The failure of the UNFCCC negotiations to achieve a binding deal on global emissions reduction can thus be read as the failure of the developed world at trying to impose an “environment” first mentality on the developing world, which questions why people shouldn’t come first. In other words, sustainability agendas must be tailored to local circumstances in order for it to be meaningful.