Accepted paper:

Business as usual? Trajectories of environmental upgrading in the South African Cape Flora industry


David Bek (Coventry University)
Jill Timms (Coventry University)

Paper short abstract:

Drawing upon GPN literature this paper explores environmental upgrading within a cut-flower value chain which reaches from South Africa to the UK. Retailer expectations have driven upgrading initiatives but questions arise about the distribution of value, power and risk within the value chain.

Paper long abstract:

In this paper we explore environmental upgrading within cut-flower supply chains located in the Global South. Our analysis draws upon strands of the Global Production Networks literature in order to examine emerging contestations and contradictions within upgrading trajectories evident within the South African Cape Flora sector.

It can be argued that the primary driver for upgrading within the cut-flower industry is via a plethora of certifications and standards, which have been largely developed in the Global North (Bek, Bryan and Timms 2017). We evaluate the experiences of a South African exporter whose primary market focuses upon UK-based retailers. In order to meet retailer expectations, principally Marks and Spencer's 'Plan A' Sustainability strategy, considerable investments have been made within the export company's operations. These investments have led to a set of innovations which can legitimately be described as environmental upgrading, strategically aligned to social and economic upgrading. However, further analysis upstream within the supply networks illustrates how pressures imposed by lead firms regarding price, quality and timeliness result in practices that are not compatible with environmental upgrading.

Thus, whilst the notion of upgrading provides important insights into trajectories of change, its explanatory power is limited. Deeper questions need to be asked about value capture, power and risk within the supply chain (Ponte and Ewert 2009; Fernández 2015; Coe and Yeung 2015). The modus operandi of sustainability standard governance systems render these issues largely invisible to downstream stakeholders thus largely perpetuating non-transformative 'business as usual' relations between participants in the value chain.

panel I5
Environmental upgrading, trade and globalisation: implications for sustainable development