It’s time for the European Commission to finally make good on its promise to regulate the supply chains that feed into Europe’s single market, argues Richard Gardiner.
Richard Gardiner is a senior campaigner at Global Witness, a climate advocacy group.
As enthusiasm for a European Green Deal swept across EU institutions in 2020, the European Commission made a clear promise: it would change business engagement rules. As a transformative program attempting to ‘’reconcile the economy with our planet’’, the Green Deal clearly needed to address the outsized role corporations have played in the climate crisis. Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders dutifully pledged to reset the power imbalance between corporations, people and the planet by regulating the supply chains that feed into Europe’s single market.
This was based on an emerging consensus across Europe’s political spectrum: voluntary measures to reign in corporate abuse of the environment and of human rights have failed. Under a blueprint supported by the European Parliament, companies would be legally required to mitigate their environmental impact and human rights. Those that failed to do so could be held liable in European courts. Activists around the world cautiously welcomed the pledge.
That caution was merited. Since the promises of 2020, the crises the Commission set out to tackle have only intensified. Yet Europe’s big corporations, hiding behind trade associations like Business Europe, began intense lobbying against the legislation, arguing that it might make doing business more expensive. The Commission has now twice-delayed publishing the proposed new rules, and in May 2021, former corporate executive turned Commissioner Thierry Breton was placed on the file, presumably to counter the more progressive Reynders. Today, we are still awaiting the proposal.
Delayed or not, the legislation will come too late for many victims of corporate abuse. For decades, the supply chains that make up our globalised economy had been invisible to consumers in wealthy consumer countries, as they reliably delivered the products people wanted right to their doorsteps. But they were never invisible to those living in producer countries – the people were thrown out of their homes to make way for large scale agribusiness projects, communities whose drinking water was polluted by destructive mining projects, and the families whose relatives were murdered after protesting against corporate abuses.
Last year, this system burst rudely into European consciousness in the form of a supply chain crisis. Consumers began to notice shortages symptomatic of a deeper crisis, of an exploitative system of snaking supply chains built in the pursuit of cheap commodities, quick profits and impunity for bad corporate behaviour.
The case for reform is even stronger today than it was two years ago when the Commission made its promises. The climate crisis is getting worse, not better, and indeed 2020 was the deadliest ever for land and environmental activists. Global supply chains, many of which end in Europe, contribute to much of this violence, as activists sought to protect their land against destructive industries plundering natural resources to feed the global economy.
Just last year, research showed that significant volumes of Brazilian soy shipped to Europe by big commodities traders like ADM directly contributed to human rights abuses alleged by traditional communities being forced off their land. And in Papua New Guinea, producers of palm oil bought by household European brands like Nestlé has left a trail of devastation, forcing people off their land, bribing ministers, and perpetrating human rights abuses against Indigenous communities. These are just two examples on an almost infinite list – yet politicians are still prioritising the interests of corporate executives over everyone else.
So why is the Commission delaying action and posturing to water down its proposals? Clearly not because any evidence suggested these overlapping crises were abating. A cynic might blame the corporate capture of EU decision making. An analysis last year revealed that politicians at the very top of the von der Leyen commission itself – including the Commission’s vice president and commissioners with vital Green Deal briefs – have until very recently had close ties to the fossil fuel industry. There is also mounting corporate pressure to block the entire procedure.
The good news is we do not have to wreck the planet and abuse human rights to source products. In fact, building more sustainable, ethical, more transparent supply chains is crucial to building resilience. What we cannot do is rely on corporations to get there voluntarily.
The idea that a company can source profitable commodities from the other side of the world at the expense of the people and the planet is one that future generations will surely reflect on with disgust. Without action from the Commission, we are left to wonder if Commission President von der Leyen still believes that the Green Deal policy is the continent’s “man on the moon moment”. Unless promises are fulfilled and bold action is taken, those words will ring increasingly hollow.