Tess Czerski, a Dutch undergraduate student and intern with the RACI Project in Bali, Indonesia, says local entrepreneurs in developing countries are harnessing sustainable practices at an astonishing rate – leaving far behind Western enterprises, which are paralyzed by the current economic situation.

By Tess Czerski

Walking through Ubud feels like walking through an idealist’s paradise.

A market in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

Most cafés and shops in this artistic town in the middle of Bali have integrated sustainable initiatives into their business plans through offering countless vegetarian choices in the warungs and selling furniture and other products made from fast-growing bamboo. This interest in sustaining the local environment and communities not only attracts eco-tourists and NGOs, but also local Balinese business owners and entrepreneurs, who have noticed that a passion for green, clean and community helps their sales. The involvement in sustainability has even spread to surrounding villages. For instance, in Ubud’s neighbouring village Penestanan, the coffee shop Kopi Desa buys its coffee from a nearby farmer and roasts it every morning in the shop itself. Although the costs to roast the coffee on the spot are higher than buying it already roasted, the practice is continued because it’s what the consumer wants.

Who started this sustainable movement here in Ubud and Penestanan – locals or tourists? This might be too difficult to answer, but interestingly, this movement is still going strong in a developing country, whereas the West is still struggling to maintain its sustainable agenda. In the face of “the systems” collapse, Europe in particular is prioritizing quick economic growth and governmental stability over sustainable goals. European leaders are in a daily debate on how to save the euro zone rather than the environment. In the USA, the early presidential campaigns of Obama and his challenger Romney promise their voters economic solutions to the financial crisis, not sustainable ones.

Dealing with these crises, the implementation of sustainability and climate treaties are neglected, as the expenses of sustainability would counteract measures against the crisis. This month’s Rio de Janeiro+20, reflecting on the 1992 conference in the hope to reach new agreements on climate change and poverty reduction, is feared to follow Copenhagen’s failure. Western countries have shoved the long cooking issue of “sustainability” from their plates for the fast food issues. Other upcoming countries such as India and China keep on eating fossil fuels at the expense of traditional communities and unique environment to get what the West is losing: wealth and economic growth.

Although sustainability remains a hot topic in the West for (usually well-off) consumers, many local businesses also seem affected by a lack of innovative initiatives. At the bagel shop where I worked in Amsterdam, my boss raised the prices and avoided expensive organic products, which usually are more expensive than ‘regular,’ non-sustainable products, seeing its customers rate and profit decreasing. At the same time, other inventive entrepreneurs have established some successful, ‘hip’ businesses, working together with local producers and charities. Hence, business owners in Amsterdam, and across the West, seem to be divided between playing it safe or playing it sustainable. From what I have seen in Amsterdam, it seems that gambling on sustainability is the safest strategy.

The local businesses in both Amsterdam and Ubud appear to have a different view on sustainability as a source of income. Sustainability is typically pictured as an intersection of three roads: social justice, leading to social equality and improved livelihoods of communities; environment, aiming for limited use of natural resources and pollution prevention; and economics, which seeks to attain profit and efficiency. Where Amsterdam’s businesses have decided to obstruct the roads to social justice and environment in order to develop the economic road, Ubud’s entrepreneurs have chosen to take up all the roads and the different vehicles driving them to reach a sustainable and economically successful business. Ubud’s small business owners could also have chosen the conservative Western road in managing their businesses, but by meeting their consumers’ sustainable demand, they generate profit. Granted, the traditional Indonesian lifestyle – living according to the seasons and from locally harvested organic foods – allows locals to leave a small ecological footprint. In the Netherlands, however, limited space for organic cultivation of foods prevents prices from matching the cheap buys in Bali. Amsterdam’s road, heavily travelled by businesses failing to adopt environmental and social initiatives, can only be a dead end. Loosing contact with the people and opportunities around your business means losing contact with your consumers, who are, despite of the economic crises, still aware of today’s social and environmental issues.

The local businesses in developing countries that are employing sustainability to their advantage are starting to surpass those in the West who are trying to achieve the same sustainable goals. These entrepreneurs have chosen to see sustainability as an opportunity rather than an obstruction to economic success. In order to achieve similar results, local Western business owners should not be afraid to mix sustainable initiatives of their direct environment in their businesses.

Likewise, world leaders should include social and environmental issues and perspectives in their solutions for the relatively short-term economic and political problems in order to tackle long-term challenges at the same time. Driving this multidisciplinary (social, economic and environmental) road of sustainability allows both local businesses and global politics to carry both the loads of the economic crisis and the challenge of sustainability to a safe home. In this way, the sustainable practices of organic farming and community involvement can spread beyond the borders of the culture-rich village of Ubud.

Photo: by Tinofrey via Wikimedia Commons

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