Ms von Reden, does SDG12 mean renouncing consumption?

Sustainable Development Goal 12 calls for sustainable production and consumption by 2030, which is what the certification organization Fairtrade Germany is dedicated to. But how far are we from reaching this goal, and what has already been achieved? Bettina von Reden talks about diversity, renunciation and more awareness.

© GIZ, Johannes Funk, 2022

By Dr. Bettina von Reden

Dr. Bettina von Reden has been Head of International Project Cooperation and Fundraising at Fairtrade Germany since 2022. Previously, she headed the Policy and Development team for almost five years and was a consultant for international project partnerships.


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By Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

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Dr. von Reden, let's try to approach SDG12. Do we have to consume less to achieve it?
Above all, we need to consume more consciously. This has many facets. It includes consuming local, seasonal or regional products, but also fair-trade products, which of course come from the global South and are produced according to strict social and environmental aspects. Coffee, cocoa or tea are not grown in Europe.


What does SDG12 have to do with agriculture and food security in general?
SDG12 is about sustainable production and consumption of all products, including food for all people worldwide. Food production starts in the field and goes all the way to the plate. First and foremost are the people who work in the fields. This production must become more sustainable, and it must be ensured that not only products are grown that bring people an income, but also sufficient food for the local and regional supply. During the Covid pandemic, we saw what it means when international and regional supply chains suddenly stop working. In some regions, this meant that people were starving even though they lived in rural areas. Local supply of sufficient food must therefore be part of sustainable agriculture. This requires funding, knowledge, and know-how. That's another reason why fair trade is so important: It can ensure that funding and know-how are available locally through fair trading conditions and partnerships. At the other end of the supply chain, it is then a matter of enabling consumers to recognize sustainable products and know what is behind them so that they can make a conscious purchasing decision.


How much is the fair trade sector growing?

Fair trade as a whole has grown every year since 2005, most years by double digits. That is already significant. But still, there's a lot of room to go to reach 100% fair trade.


What role does aquatic nutrition play in food security?
I think an important one. In fair trade, it does play a very minor role. But still, of course, the relevant agreements are incredibly important: They must ensure that stocks are not cleared by international trawlers - and that then no fish at all arrive on the coasts for the local population.


What constitutes good food security?
Growing globalization has led people to rely a lot on "cash crops," including for export. That's understandable and reasonable since they wanted to make money. So, the focus has not been on products for local food. For a long time, fair trade has aimed to open up investment opportunities and create awareness so that people will, among other things, grow more diverse food crops again, and thus more for their own food security. But any change in cultivation requires knowledge - and always an initial investment. Without fair trade, this is often not even possible.


Economies and jobs depend on consumption. Would achieving SDG12 mean that value creation and prosperity are reduced?
It doesn't have to, as you say, it's about value creation. Fewer but more valuable products can sustain our prosperity in a sustainable way.


Currently, many products are still produced and consumed in a way that is anything but sustainable and thus more likely to destroy global prosperity and values, which, for example, also consist of an intact environment and functioning social systems.


Especially many agricultural products, but also precious metals, textiles etc. are produced under very exploitative conditions and traded at low prices. And this leads to the fact that people must grow or produce a lot of these products, so that there is enough to live on. If they were to earn more, they could grow less of the one product and use the land for other products for income diversification and food security - a benefit for general prosperity.


That would make products more expensive for consumers.
Not necessarily. Fairtrade products are available in every price category. But certainly, some very cheap products could no longer exist that way. We need to understand what it means to have many of the costs that are incurred in the production of supposedly cheap products being passed on to the public at the moment - the so-called externalization of costs. This means that the consequences of water and air pollution, the consumption of resources, or social grievances and the costs that are incurred by the public as a result are not yet reflected in the end consumer price for a large proportion of products. So, they are only apparently cheap. In reality, we all pay for them. With fairly traded products, we are already getting closer to "true costs." We have studies that show how the environmental and social footprint of the production of bananas, for example, is reduced when they are grown under fair conditions.


Where are we right now in terms of sustainability in consumption and production? When will it become mainstream?
I would like to have a crystal ball for this question (laughs). But because of the growth in fair trade, we are optimistic and positive. This is still an issue for people, it interests them, also in the context of climate change. Consumers are interested in it and want guidance on how they can consume consciously and sustainably. And yet, of course, we still have a lot of potential for fair trade and organic products - preferably both combined - in terms of market share. Overall, this development is perhaps now accelerating: In the EU, mandatory laws for human rights along supply chains are just emerging, an anti-deforestation directive and soon a green claims directive, which means that companies must take more care about what they say about their products and what is declared as sustainable. In five years, we won't be done with this development. But the momentum toward sustainability is clearly increasing.


Who is driving this development?
This must happen at all levels: Legislators must create the framework conditions. Companies can also do more - trade and sell more products under fair trade conditions and anchor comprehensive sustainability criteria across the board. Fairtrade has also developed even higher reference prices for some products, which can be paid voluntarily over and above the Fairtrade minimum prices and premiums, to move in the direction of a living wage and to enable the producers to make further investments, as already mentioned. But it is also up to us as citizens and consumers:


Only if a significant number of people show that they care and that they are willing to make purchasing decisions and perhaps even voting decisions dependent on sustainability criteria, then something will happen.


So, most of it comes from the bottom?
A lot is being pushed by citizens and consumers. And I believe that this must continue. But you also need the companies to follow suit. And of course, the whole thing shouldn't just happen in Germany; it must be a worldwide development. A lot is already happening in many countries, including in the so-called Global South. Let's look at India: there is a large and constantly growing middle class, and also an upper class, which has begun to develop an awareness of sustainability. In 2017, over 50% of Indians interviewed in a study said that they would like to consume more sustainably, but so far don't know how, and can't find any corresponding products.


How can this be changed?
The fair-trade movement is doing a lot to bring about change, in part also with support from the BMZ or the EU, for example. In India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico and many other countries, there are projects and movements to anchor fair trade and sustainable production locally: there, you can now partly find fair trade products from your own and neighboring countries on the supermarket shelves. The distinction between the country of production and the country of consumption should be abolished:


Where there is production, there is also consumption, and vice versa, and more value creation must take place locally. This, too, is part of long-term sustainability.


One subchapter of SDG12 is the prevention of food waste. What can be improved in Germany, for example?
This has a lot to do with the appreciation of food and with prices. We are one of the countries in which the least per capita income is spent on food - compared to France, Switzerland, or Scandinavian countries. That means our overall appreciation for food is not that high. That has changed a bit over the last 20 years. But many people in Germany still like to buy cheap, even now with inflation. People are already very price sensitive. And sometimes this results in nonsensical behavior, such as buying more of a product than is needed because it's on sale in bulk, or because some products are so cheap that it doesn't seem to matter. More awareness could certainly help here, but so could more options like unpackaged foods that can be purchased specifically based on need.


Is one reason for food waste in the global North sometimes that there is a huge range of offerings? If you go to a supermarket now, there's a long shelf for jam, a long shelf for chips - and so on.
But how do you regulate something like that? It's hard to stipulate that there can only be a maximum of ten jams per supermarket. Perhaps something like this would happen automatically if food were more highly valued and had a reasonable price.


Is SDG12 the most difficult Sustainable Development Goal to implement? Or is it because it is perhaps the most comprehensive? At the end of the day, it is about the transformation of societies.
It is relatively complex because it affects very many areas of life and because it encompasses everything from the global South to the global North. But that's what makes it so interesting at the same time. It's a great goal, I think. It shows in a very direct way how everyone is called upon to participate so that we can manage to live within planetary boundaries. With all the SDGs, it depends very much on the will, the political will, to set certain framework conditions and the will of the people, within the scope of their respective possibilities in their private lives and at work, to participate in this. And for this, awareness work is needed so that people understand why they should change something and how this can benefit them personally.


This reduction in diversity that you mentioned sounds immediately like sacrifice.
But it's not really about renunciation, it's about looking at what we would gain if we had great, sustainable products that we could consume with a clear conscience. And where we no longer have to think about whether there might be child labor or forced labor involved, or banned pesticides, or a poisoned river, or an expulsion of indigenous peoples from their ancestral lands.


As a consumer, you feel somewhat helpless.
Yes, all this is hitting us in the news. Many people say: I don't want to support such things.  There are only a few who think: I don't care. But many feel overwhelmed by it. That's why


I believe that fair trade and organic products can provide orientation. And it's not about doing without, but about a different form of consumption, a different form of enjoyment and a different form of good living.


And I believe that we have enormous potential here and that this will be a very good development for everyone.


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