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In the world of sustainability, colonialism is not dead

Decades after the end of colonialism, Western domination in the areas of sustainable development and environmental protection threaten to undermine our efforts towards a more equal, sustainable future.

Last week, Scandinavian fashion label and global It-brand Ganni hardly caused a stir when it closed Copenhagen Fashion Week with a sustainability-themed showcase titled “Life on Earth.” Considering that sustainability is now a consumer trend, it is no surprise that a luxury brand touted as “a magnet for cool girls all over the planet” aimed to boost its street cred with a show that put sustainability at its core.

The problem? Photographs of brown, underprivileged women in developing countries served as the backdrop for a runway of mostly white, European models decked in designer clothing, with no mention of their stories, and how these connected in relation to the brand, or sustainability for that matter.

Anna Nadim Saber, a New York-based fashion blogger, criticised the brand online for being “problematic,” sharing in a long Instagram post: “This is a larger pattern of exploitation in the fashion industry. It is exactly women like those in these pictures who are worst affected by our industry: poor wages and terrible working conditions in sweatshops that manufacture clothing for many Western brands.”

To the fashion industry, she said: “Stop being tone deaf and blind to your own internalised, colonial mentality.”

Saber appeared to be the only voice from the fashion business who called out Ganni’s misstep, but her view picked at a discomfort that I’ve been harbouring a few months into writing about sustainable development.

Ganni’s efforts to promote sustainability were not just misplaced; they perpetuated notions of inequality and Western superiority through the misrepresentation of other communities and the lack of real engagement with global problems.

These “tone deaf” practices by Western brands also reaffirmed the unsettling perception that the global narrative on sustainability deflects blame from and even applauds the actors that have long been the driver of global ills. This is rooted in colonial attitudes and cultural imperialism—issues that stem from the historical relationship between once colonised-states and their ex-colonisers, and unequal power structures between the Global North and South.

Eco-colonialism? 

The term eco-colonialism is practically unheard of in the mainstream conversation on sustainability. However, government agencies and civil groups worldwide have recently used it to refer to the behaviour and policies of developed, Western nations who currently serve as the loudest voices on environmental protection today.

Earlier this year, Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) accused the European Union (EU) of “economic colonisation” for its move to ban palm oil in biofuels by 2020, in a bid to halt deforestation. The country has also claimed the ban to be “discriminatory” as it favours European-grown oils such as rapeseed and sunflower, while diverting attention away from domestic environmental issues.

In an interview, a spokesperson for FELDA said: “It’s the same colonial attitudes, the white man imposing their rule on us from afar.”

Palm oil contributes significantly to the economies of Asian palm-oil exporting countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, where poor, smallholder farmers in these countries account for almost half of palm oil output and thus depend on the commodity for economic survival. 

Europe, in this case, is only considering their own priorities and not those of people in Malaysia and Indonesia, while still using palm oil in everything else from soap and cosmetics to crackers and ice cream. 

Putting a freeze on a crop that is most significant in accelerating social and economic development of many countries across Africa and Southeast Asia carries the shadow of neocolonialism, which includes a powerful state exercising control over another through economic or monetary means.

Another issue that stinks of green imperialism is the plastic waste trade, which gained attention after China banned foreign waste imports in January last year to protect its environment.

Forced to deal with their own rubbish, China’s move was met with backlash from British and American companies, even prompting a senior director at the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries in Washington to say: “Do they (China) care about the global environment or only their own environment because we are land-filling perfectly good materials now because of the actions that they’re taking.”

Some also took the easier route, by redirecting their waste to Southeast Asia and swamping local ports and recycling plants across the region in the process. This led to a backlash from several countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand, who subsequently banned plastic waste imports.

Thailand and Vietnam are among the five countries that were ranked as the most marine polluting countries in the world, making Asia the target of international criticism over their waste management practices and unsustainable consumer lifestyles, despite the fact they are usually at the receiving end of rich nations’ waste.

This has created an unequal picture of global waste, in which developed nations, who are more likely to engage in overconsumption, are deflected from blame. However, most media attention has focused on plastic-choked oceans in Asia while spotlighting environmental movements in the West that want to wipe out plastic straws and switch to more durable, dearer items—lifestyle practices that are out of reach for many in the developing world. 

As this opinion piece by geography experts at the University of Guelph, Canada, puts well: “If we understand waste, not as something produced by the actions of a group of individuals, but rather a product of socioeconomic systems that contribute to making waste and encourages wasting, problems with these dominant explanations arise. We start to see that Western consumers are part of the problem and cannot be absolved of their responsibility.”

The most unsustainable societies are Western societies, but they make it an Asian problem.

Chandran Nair, founder, Global Institute for Tomorrow

Moving away from Western-led sustainability

Chandran Nair, Malaysian founder of Hong Kong-based think tank Global Institute for Tomorrow, writes in his book The Sustainable State that the problem with today’s sustainable development narrative is that it is understood from the perspective of advanced economies rather than developing ones.

He notes that discussions are often led by Western experts who rarely confronted the unsustainable means by which their own economies had grown.

Speaking with Nair at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, he weighed in on our shared view that the Western-dominated sustainability space often rang hypocritical and is reminiscent of colonial habits such as paternalism, victim-blaming and exporting problems.

Furthermore, most sustainability events and panel discussions lacked the diversity that could better represent the issues faced by the majority of the world’s population and were instead populated with white men in suits. This also extends to civil society, where green movements in Asia are often led by Western expatriates. 

This always seemed strangely ironic to me, that the West was leading the world into a sustainable future, after almost worldwide adoption of a Western economic model that thrives on overconsumption has resulted in the pillaging of the earth. 

“The most unsustainable societies are Western societies, but they make it an Asian problem,” said Nair. “Now these societies are also providing us with solutions from their thought leaders. There’s something wrong with this picture.”

That conversation with Nair drove home the flaw in our current narrative: sustainability often focuses on the demands and desires of the developed, and largely Western world, while failing to address the more complex barriers that the majority of the world has towards achieving a sustainable way of life.

Real solutions lie in radically shifting the global conversation to one rooted in local needs and contexts, and coming up with knowledge-based ideas and polices that are independent of Western models. Sustainability has to furthermore be more inclusive of other voices outside of the Western mainstream—especially communites long marginalised by it—by striving for true representation that does not perpetuate damaging colonial mentalities.

Not doing so runs the risk of supporting a global structure of inequality that will do no good to our quest for sustainability.

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