in Business, Economics and Finance

Increasing Awareness of Sustainable Development through Storytelling

Sustainability affects all aspects of economic livelihood on our planet Earth. As a value structure, sustainability has two dimensions: (1) preservation and replenishment of natural resources and the environment, and (2) reproduction of human society by providing the social infrastructure for the flourishing of the next generation.

Storytelling is an effective research method to increase awareness of activism to promote sustainable development principles. Stories of Progressive Institutional Change: Challenges to the Neoliberal Economy uses storytelling to demonstrate how social movements have shaped a variety of institutions to achieve sustainable development’s goals of human well-being and ecological balance. In contrast, neoliberalism can be viewed as a value structure that is undermining sustainable human development by elevating the level of risk experienced in daily economic life, prioritizing short-term financial gains, and heightening inequality.

Eight short stories of progressive institutional change depict the importance of human agency in responding to institutional rigidities, overcoming invidious distinctions, and transforming values, habits, and customs. From coffee to tomatoes, from retail to restaurants, from marriage to higher education, from banking to GDP, social movements are reshaping economic institutions to make them consistent with sustainable development. Institutional change that is progressive places long-term thinking—that is, human, environmental, financial, and productive sustainability—at the center of economic processes.

The coffee market is a representative example on a global scale. The history of fair trade coffee certification is linked to the story of sustainable development as a concept and movement. Collaborative work of local farmers, non-governmental organizations, retailers, and governments around the world—supported by increasing consumer awareness—is creating alternative institutions for the production and distribution of coffee. One chapter’s story explores a variety of fair trade coffee standards, including shade-grown Rainforest Alliance Certified and Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center Bird Friendly coffee.

Three chapters explore social movements and the transformation of social practices to improve wages and working conditions for some of the lowest paid workers: retail employees, migrant tomato pickers, and restaurant workers. In one story, activities and demonstrations of the labor-worker-community coalition called the Retail Action Project have led some major retailers to reverse their use of “on-call” shifts and to post work schedules with more advance notice. In another story, farm workers and their allies respond to new economic structures and power relations by developing innovative strategies to double their wages. The story starts in Immokalee, Florida, the fresh tomato capital of the U.S. In a new model of worker organizing, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers realized growers were themselves squeezed by large fast food companies and supermarkets in the supply chain. The Coalition went directly to food giants through their “penny a pound” movement, and convinced companies to sign a Fair Food Agreement with a human rights code of conduct, including higher wages for migrant workers. Today, at many fast food restaurants in the U.S., you are eating a fair food tomato. Restaurant workers have also taken it upon themselves to fight for fair wages. A cooperative enterprise, Colors Restaurant & Bar, serves to illustrate that businesses can operate with multiple motivations beyond profit maximization. The Restaurant Opportunities Centers-United (ROC-U) membership organization operates Colors as part-restaurant, part-training facility, and part-exemplar of “high road” employment practices.

Another story examines changes in norms and customs regarding what does or does not “count” in measuring macroeconomic performance. The chapter interrogates GDP as the standard indicator of economic well-being. GDP emphasizes “growth for growth’s sake” and ignores the more comprehensive ways that people provision, including unpaid and not-for-profit work within families and communities. A network of scholar-activists has promoted the development of satellite accounts through time use surveys. A chapter on the movement for public banks shows how Vermont is using a pre-existing economic development authority to help fund new housing units, green energy investments, and child care.

Students are fighting back, too, so they do not begin their professional careers as members of the working poor. Hundreds of alumni from the private, for-profit Corinthian Colleges Inc. have proclaimed a debt strike, refusing to pay off their student loans. The seeds of this debt resistance movement are sown in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. The activism described in this story raises questions about the provisioning and financing of higher education in the neoliberal era; dependence on student debt has reversed the flourishing of American middle class.

Taken together, the social movements described in this volume provide a broad array of ways of furthering the cause of sustainable livelihoods, locally and globally.

Deborah M. Figart is Distinguished Professor of Economics at Stockton University, USA. She is the author of numerous books and articles on subjects related to work and pay. In 2016, she served as President of the Association for Evolutionary Economics, and in 2006 she was President of the Association for Social Economics.