Sustainability’s Inequality Problem

Does sustainability have an inequality problem?

Last week I was on a mini expedition above Zermatt staying in a mountain hut. The conversation got around to the price of staying half way up a mountain. Was it expensive for the experience? Considering the outside toilet, one tap of running water for 30+ people, rather cramped sleeping conditions and CHF10 for a bottle of water, at first glance we thought so.

Then we considered the logistics of getting food and drink up to 2700m and providing a rather good three course meal for everyone. It led us to debate the true cost of providing food, drink and accommodation, whether it be in a hut with a view of the Matterhorn or down in the valley. At which point we became convinced that it wasn’t expensive. But we also concluded that charging a true price for stuff may mean that it is not accessible to everyone. And that was the insight.

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Next week I am moderating a session at a conference where we will talk about organic agriculture and improving livelihoods of small holder farmers. The common link between these is externalities and how much we pay for the the food we consume. The short answer is that food is too cheap…for some. Keeping food cheap for consumers is entrenching poverty for farmers. Meanwhile those who can afford it can buy the higher cost food with the lower pesticide residues etc etc

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In driving sustainability are we reinforcing inequality? Certainly inequality is a barrier to mainstreaming sustainability, but our discussion did not get as far as figuring out the cause-effect relationship. The altitude was getting to us by that stage.

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The pharmaceuticals industry has a way to deal with accessibility, and therefore address inequality, through different pricing models and subsidies to reach those unable to pay the full price. Governments and foundations step in to pay for this and improve accessibility.

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When it comes to sustainability maybe its time to recognise the limitations of the market and voluntary approaches. Perhaps it really is time for a change in the taxation system, to taxes resource use and negative externalities. If there was then a mechanism such as lower labour taxes, or transfer payments to the less well off this would in turn improve the accessibility of more sustainable products. Ex-tax.com your time has come (but I know you know that).

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Until the discussion in the hut about sustainability and inequality, I’d never really thought through the connection between sustainability and inequality. But its obvious. If we want to be sustainable then we need to pay design more inclusive approaches that also deal with inequality.

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