Public Works and Government Services of Canada (PWGSC) spends $14-billion on goods for departments, agencies and crown corporations, yet it is difficult to ensure that purchases of international products such as coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar and cotton uniforms don't exacerbate issues of poverty, child labour, human trafficking and sweatshop labour. This is because typical global supply chains lack transparency.
Canada has a long-standing foreign policy to protect children's rights and eliminate child labour. Our government recognizes international agreements such as the ILO Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Forced or Compulsory Labour and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We also have a noted reputation for humanitarian assistance, particularly in Africa.
Our support also goes beyond policy. An international consumer perceptions survey, conducted by GlobeScan in 2011, identified that more than 90 per cent of Canadians believe farmers and workers should receive adequate compensation for their labour; 86 per cent of Canadians believe minimizing environmental damage and combating human rights violations are important for companies sourcing products from developing countries; nearly half of Canadians regularly purchase ethically sourced products; and 71 per cent believe third-party certification is the "best way to verify the claims of a product."
In October, 2010, in accordance with the Federal Sustainable Development Act, Environment Canada published the Federal Sustainable Development Strategy (FSDS), seeking to shrink Canada's environmental footprint by transforming government procurement. As of February, 2013, Environment Canada called for public consultation in developing the program further.
The FSDS has laudable targets for international best practices. It features green procurement targets such as reducing ink consumption and paper waste. The problem is that while the strategy discusses greening procurement, there is no mention of sustainable development within the context of eradicating poverty. This represents a significant missed opportunity going beyond "greening" and addressing social issues within developing countries.
The emphasis on poverty eradication was a major outcome within 'The Future We Want' – the final document from the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNSCD) Rio+20 – a publication which the FSDS dutifully acknowledges.
Canadian universities and civic governments have demonstrated strong leadership in transforming procurement.
In 2011, the University of British Columbia became Canada's first Fair Trade Campus. The university and its suppliers committed to purchasing fair trade products when available. According to UBC data , in 2010 and 2011 this accounts for 8,975 kg of coffee (nearly 1,436,000 eight-ounce cups), 429,000 tea bags, 2,300 chocolate bars and 1,885 kg of bananas.
Following UBC, Simon Fraser University, the University of Guelph, Selkirk and McGill University have earned the designation. There are also 16 Fair Trade Towns in Canada, where municipalities have made similar commitments. Wolfeville, N.S., became Canada's first Fair Trade Town in 2007, and Toronto's recent designation made it the largest Fair Trade City in North America.
These programs have secured long-term and large-scale commitments in supporting sustainable development, and in most cases, resulted in minimal cost increases for the institution and the consumer. They also represent replicable and scalable models for larger government institutions that will not burn a hole in Ottawa's wallet.
As public institutions commit to buying fair trade products, they send a message to businesses: social sustainability is a priority.
The collapse of the Bangladesh garment factory revealed our naivety when it comes to the consequences of cheap labour.
Canada, in consideration of our commitment to protecting human rights and upholding peace and security, has an allegiance to mercy. Our legacy is built upon efforts demonstrated by organizations working in conflict zones in the Congo and our troops rebuilding broken governance systems in Afghanistan. This legacy seeks to protect the powerless, and perhaps represents the most recognizable aspect of our identity abroad as respectable global citizens.
Given this context, does it make sense for Canada to fight child labour through its foreign policy with one hand, yet purchase questionable goods with the other?
Authors' note: On June 14, the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN) recommended the Government of Canada adopt Fairtrade certification for centralized purchases of uniforms, food and beverages.
Sean McHugh is the founder and executive director of the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN). Sasha Caldera is a 2012 Professional Fellow with Engineers Without Borders Canada, and a board member of the Canadian Fair Trade Network (CFTN).