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Symposium Summary: Environmental Offshoring

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

Nico Mira, KASA Sustainability

Sophia Symposium - Environmental Offshoring: Implications for East Asia's Regionalization and Sustainable Development (2022). From left to right: Simon Olsen, Maiko Nishi, and Takeshi Ito. Credit: Beatrice Melo.

On March 15, 2022, Sophia University in collaboration with the Center for Social Development Studies (CSDS) at Chulalongkorn University hosted the KASA-affiliated symposium on the theme of “Environmental Offshoring: Implications for East Asia's Regionalization and Sustainable Development.” The symposium sought to explore the interdependent relationship between society and nature in East Asian regionalism, focusing on how various development policies and bilateral and multilateral agreements shape and impact human and non-human actors and their environments. The symposium was held in a hybrid format with both online and in-person participation.

The opening remarks were shared by Prof. Takeshi Ito (Co-organizer and Professor, Sophia University). He explained that the purpose of the symposium was to examine how critical research perspectives on political economy and political ecology can improve understanding of how nature and society interact with each other and remake environments at multiple scales—although often with costs and benefits distributed among actors unequally. Environmental offshoring is the term used by the symposium to emphasize the ecological exchange between seemingly distant places more explicitly and relationally. The invited speakers approached this topic from several focal points, and presented over three panels.

Opening remarks shared by Prof. Takeshi Ito (2022). Credit: Beatrice Melo.
Panel 01: Ecological-Economic Connections in East Asian Regionalism

The first panel explored the ecological-economic connections in East Asian regionalism through research presented by Takeshi Ito and Prof. Carl Middleton (Co-organizer and Assistant Professor, Chulalongkorn University). They proposed that environmental offshoring should be considered a process that reworks nature-society relations to suit the production of the type of relations that facilitate enclosures, the commodification of resources, and the expansion of capital.

Their paper underlined this by a relational analysis of Japanese investments and development assistance in Thailand, much of which has been poured into water management projects that include the transfer of Japanese technology and know-how. The Thai floods of 2011 were a catalyst for that, affecting the supply chain of hundreds of Japanese companies operating in Thailand, prompting an increased emphasis on river and flood management by Japanese development organizations to protect production sites from further natural disasters, while also securing access to necessary resources for continued capital accumulation—serving both Japanese and related Thai private sectors’ economic growth objectives. For Ito and Middleton, this represents a new form of international cooperation that extends governance beyond borders and is embedded in regional economic integration and supply chains.

The paper's discussant, Prof. Kaoru Sugihara (Professor and Program Director of the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN)), contributed with two overall points, which were well-received by the speakers. First, if assuming that regional and global commodity chains drive environmental offshoring, one should be aware that the industrial cluster is what creates these supply chains, to begin with, which in its turn makes the Asian dynamism of exchange. Second, any attempt to understand environmental offshoring in the Asian context should include the role that urbanization plays in it as well.

The panel concluded with some questions on the trend and nature of Japanese environmental offshoring beyond the case of Thailand, to which the presenters responded that management and mitigation now seemingly must be seen as a package of international cooperation and can be observed in other countries within the region where Japan shares economic ties.

Panel 02: Environmental Dynamics in Southeast Asia

The second panel moved the symposium theme into the environmental dynamics of Southeast Asia through two presentations with food-related supply chains in focus. Prof. Paul K. Gellert (Associate Professor, University of Tennessee, Knoxville) and Prof. Ian G. Baird (Professor, University of Wisconsin–Madison) were the two participants in this panel, serving both as presenters and respective discussants on each other’s papers.

Gellert was the first to present his research on the political ecology of Southeast Asian palm “waste.” His presentation touched on the topic of environmental offshoring by examining the development of palm oil as a flex commodity, arguing that the palm oil supply chain illustrates the tension between China’s rising hegemonic power and multipolar role, by the reshaping of socio-ecologies in plantations in the semi-peripheries of Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as dairy operations in New Zealand. In the former two, an extensification process can be seen amidst the growth of palm oil that is spurred by Chinese imports, and which has led to an increase in biomass waste and deforestation. In New Zealand, meanwhile, Chinese investments to meet the demand for dairy products in China have led to an intensification of the New Zealand agricultural industry. The palm biomass waste has increasingly also become a common type of feed for dairy cattle there, as a replacement for grass, due to the ecological consequences from that same intensification process. Japan’s interest in biomass as renewable energy further adds to the complexity of palm oil and its socio-ecological impacts.

The following discussion of Gellert’s paper raised some interesting points. Baird suggested that the research could benefit by including more details of palm oil’s implications closer to the “ground”— how nature-society relations changed and impacted smallholders’ livelihood and local environments. One of the other panelists, Dr. Simon Olsen of the Institute for Global Environmental Strategies (IGES), joined in too, with a brief comment that a fitting title for the paper could be “Offshoring of the Western Diet and Associated Problems,” before asking about the tension between food production, renewable energy, and climate objectives in dairy production, with considerable methane emissions stemming from it. Baird pointed out that an easternization of diets could be seen as well amidst increasing global rice consumption, which has its own associated problems with methane mitigation.

Discussion session with Prof. Paul K. Gellert and Prof. Ian G. Baird (2022). Credit: Beatrice Melo.

That led nicely into the second presentation of the panel, in which Baird himself shared his research on the different certifications of organic rice and its impacts on farming and lowland cultivation in Thailand and Laos. For farmers to export their rice as organic, it must be certified, and the certification standard is different depending on where it is exported to. In Thailand, where most rice is exported to North America and Europe, the industry follows a process-based certification, which emphasizes regular inspections of farming operations to ensure authenticity. In Laos, on the other hand, the certification process has a product-based approach that emphasizes the testing of chemical residues, which is the standard for the Chinese market for which Laotian rice is mainly exported. These two different standards create certain understandings of how organic rice is perceived and produced in the local contexts of the producing countries, which highlights the ideological differences between the importing areas. In the West, the perspective is mainly on the impact on the environment and the farmers, whereas in China focus is primarily on consumer health standards.

In the discussion session, Gellert and the audience were curious to understand the more detailed environmental impacts of the organic rice certifications in the mentioned countries. Baird shared that in the case of Laos, the variety of different types of rice had decreased, wiping out the production of certain native rice species. He concluded that the full extent of the environmental impacts from these certifications is not entirely clear-cut since it can help raise environmental protection, but also alter the local ecology itself as in the example of Laos.

Panel 03: Socio-Ecological Systems Governance in Asia

After a well-deserved lunch break, the third and final panel of the day was held, focusing on systems of social-ecological governance.

In the first of two presentations, Dr. Maiko Nishi from the United Nations University for Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS) shared her research on the challenges and opportunities for sustainable supply chains of medical and aromatic plants (MAPs). This continued the discussion on certificates and standards’ role on environmental offshoring, which was widely discussed in the preceding panel. She explained that MAPs are a growing, global market, with most of the exports going to Europe, the United States, and Japan. Although various benefits can be argued for in the source countries of MAPs—such as affordable healthcare, livelihood security, and employment opportunities—the pressure on these wild resources is creating environmental challenges. The development of the FairWild Standard (FWS), a voluntary global regulatory framework that can be applied to manage the wild species and their habitat with socially responsible business practices, was shown by Nishi as an example of how to develop more sustainable supply chains to combat some of those challenges.

Olsen thought that the presentation was a great example of how environmental offshoring could benefit from a more flexible definition to include social and livelihood aspects. He further found it interesting how the West, which largely has abandoned traditional knowledge systems, now has emerged as the main consumer of MAPs but was worried about how the increased demand has affected the access of the people and localities producing it, something which members of the audience also were concerned about. Nishi explained that voluntary sustainability standards try to ensure access and preserve the cultural heritage often connected to MAPs, although exploitation of specific species and environmental degradation will be difficult for it to fully halt.

In the final presentation, it was time for Olsen himself to present. His paper explored the disconnect of environmental offshoring seen in government commitments to international agreements on sustainability. By examining the most recent ranking of countries’ performance on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and comparing it to measurements of GDP, spillover effects, and ecological footprints, he showed that countries that tend to perform well on the SDG rankings are generally the more prosperous nations, but also the ones using more natural resources and creating more negative social and environmental impacts in other countries. He argued that some countries will likely achieve the SDGs, but not the world as a whole since it already is transgressing many of the Earth’s biophysical boundaries. Olsen shared a few existing initiatives that could potentially reduce environmental offshoring, such as the EU’s Green New Deal, which includes a taxonomy of environmentally sustainable activities; the G7’s commitments to sustainable supply chains; and the concept of Circulating Ecological Spheres (CES) in Japan, which argues for more local and seasonal products and services along shorter and more resilient supply chains.

Middleton, as the final discussant, reiterated the point made by Olsen that there is a need to be careful of drawing excessively far-reaching conclusions based on numbers and further added that these calculations also mask inequalities within countries on unsustainable practices. He also wondered how the SDG framework eventually could be improved or replaced, something which the following Q&A discussion centered on. The response and conclusion of the final panel from Olsen was that it could benefit from an increased focus on various local participatory democratic solutions. The SDGs — despite their shortcomings —still represents a step in the right direction, and one way to improve could be by emphasizing the importance of the often neglected SDG 10, which is about inequality.

Symposium Conclusions

After a brief coffee break, the symposium concluded with an open panel discussion to synthesize the conclusions of the day. The panelists agreed that environmental offshoring as a concept could be approached from different perspectives as the three panels did so. It was also stressed that depending on the type of commodities, the results of environmental offshoring could have various impacts—positive and negative—and that a more nuanced view that understands supply chains as relational rather than just hierarchical would better capture many of these complexities.

Lastly, it was pointed out that environmental certificates could be considered an institution that enables environmental offshoring. Supply chains affect values and perspectives on how to think about the natural environment. Since they are likely to continue playing a part in the future, the critical next steps lie in finding a way to incorporate increased care about the environment within them.

Photo with symposium organizers and (in-person) speakers (2022). From top left, to bottom right: Nico Mira, Shihoko Shimada, Beatrice Melo, Ami Huynh Giang, Michelle Sta. Romana, Simon Olsen, Takeshi Ito, and Maiko Nishi. Credit: KASA Sustainability.

For further information, please visit the Environmental Offshoring Symposium webpage

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