While it’s undeniably true that some of the world’s most high profile businesses are undertaking – and very effectively communicating – some exciting, innovative and important sustainability initiatives, it’s important to remember that global economic activity isn’t all glossy.
Indeed, much of it not only goes unremarked, it can slip beneath the radar of even the most august of supra-national monitoring and regulatory bodies. Not so much the black economy, perhaps, as the unseen economy. The problem is that, whilst it may be unseen, the developed world might still be complicit in fuelling it – albeit unintentionally.
Take the case of artisanal and small-scale (ASM) mining which, according to Greg Valerio writing for Guardian Sustainable Business1, employs some 100m people globally. (Yes, that makes it one of the largest industries by employment in the world.) As he points out, in the Democratic Republic of Congo for example, miners are typically faced with a Hobson’s choice. Having toiled in conditions that most of us would find difficult to imagine let alone endure, they either sell the precious minerals they have unearthed to a local trader – and who’s really keeping track of where it goes from there? – or they and their families don’t eat.
The point is that it is all taking place in a chaotic, dangerous, unregulated environment. The OECD et al may set standards, and businesses at the other end of the supply chain (and not just in the West) may receive their CSR plaudits for living up to those standards. But scratch beneath the surface and you may well find a somewhat murkier reality.
It’s easy to quote published statistics from this source or that source to support what we want to believe. But maybe, sometimes, we need to take a closer look at the unpublished reality.
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