When Environmental Sustainability Masks Unsustainable Employment
The drive by food delivery platforms to achieve environmental sustainability through the reduction of plastic use belies the fact that these firms do little to create sustainable employment.
A new World Bank report released in July 2022 has highlighted the extent of Vietnam’s plastic pollution crisis, and drawn attention to how the rise of food delivery platforms is contributing to the issue. The platforms, government agencies, and civil society organisations (CSOs) have taken measures to address the crisis and the broader problem of environmental sustainability.
It is important, however, to note that environmental sustainability — including how to reduce plastic use by food delivery platforms — often serves to mask, or ignore, issues sustainable employment and decent work. The former refers to jobs which are stable and enduring; the latter is used by the International Labour Organisation and other entities to refer to work which is secure, has fair conditions, a living wage, and social protection. Therein lies the rub: touting the term “environmental sustainability” belies serious labour issues in Vietnam’s platform-based food delivery sector, which are well documented. Such an approach allows companies to receive praise for environmental efforts while failing to ameliorate the low wages and poor conditions faced by drivers.
Vietnam is, in the words of the World Bank Country Director for Vietnam, in the grips of a “plastic pollution crisis”. Per capita plastic consumption increased from 3.8kg in 1990 to 41.3 kg in 2018. Only around one-third of the plastics is recycled. Vietnam is in fact one of the top five plastic polluters of the world’s oceans.
The rise of food delivery platforms has worsened the issue, “drowning” Vietnam in plastics. The recent report by the World Bank showed that takeaway food packaging is the biggest cause of plastic waste. Through a survey of items polluting Vietnam’s waterways, the Bank found that plastic waste accounts for the majority of waste in Vietnam’s rivers and coastal sites (94 per cent by the number of items, and 71 per cent by weight). Of this, takeaway food packaging was the most abundant source of plastic waste (44 per cent by number and 35 per cent by weight).
These findings have been corroborated by other research and reports. For example, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) discovered a significant increase in plastic pollution during Vietnam’s series of Covid-19 lockdowns and social distancing periods, as more people were stuck at home and ordering food through apps. This increased level of plastic waste has not decreased post-pandemic. Another study, focused on China, also found a link between air pollution, app-based food delivery and plastic pollution. When air pollution levels rise, office workers are more likely to order food delivery instead of going outside for lunch, causing an increase in the volume of plastic waste. The researchers suspected that the same also happens to other countries in Asia, including Vietnam.
“ … platform companies’ rhetoric about achieving sustainable development amounts to weasel words, in that they fail to ameliorate or even acknowledge drivers’ precarious working conditions, long hours, and low wages. The fact that the two issues are often discussed separately allows platforms to receive praise for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) efforts, while doing little to improve livelihoods for drivers.”
The issue is starting to be recognised and addressed, although some proposed solutions are questionable. A former driver of a food delivery platform, in an opinion piece about the copious amounts of plastics that came with each delivery, suggests that the solution lies in individual behavioural changes, urging readers to prepare food at home (rather than ordering), or going to eat directly at the eateries. Similarly, Baemin, the South Korea-based food delivery platform owned by Delivery Hero, has recently shifted the focus of its environmental initiatives in Vietnam to encouraging changes in individual consumers’ behaviours, including through options for them to pick their meal options sans cutlery. Some of the recommendations in the World Bank report are along similar lines, suggesting that the Vietnamese government should make “voluntary agreements” with food delivery platforms to add an option for customers to forego cutlery.
Simply asking customers to reduce plastic cutlery, however, will not lead to a major reduction in plastic waste. The myth that changes in individual consumption habits will have meaningful impact on environmental problems has been widely debunked. Indeed, it may make the problem worse as it distracts the relevant stakeholders from necessary major structural changes. Thankfully, some more serious measures are also being proposed. The World Bank report, for example, also recommends charges for or bans on single-use plastic items such as straws or food containers. In addition, the Vietnamese government, for its part, has already committed to banning the production and import of plastic bags by 2026, and of most single-use plastic items by 2031.
But there is a much more fundamental issue here: environmental sustainability is being used as a way to mask or ignore, the issues of sustainable employment and decent work, something that has also been critiqued in the United Kingdom. Baemin, for example, has used the fact that it is undertaking some environmental measures to declare that it is contributing to Vietnam’s sustainable development. Similarly, Grab, a regional behemoth in ride-hailing and food delivery, also declares it is committed to sustainable and inclusive growth through, among other things, reducing its environmental impact. Such statements disregard the fact that platforms still deny drivers basic labour protections and benefits by classifying them as “partners” rather than employees. Indeed, Grab has also announced a reduction in incentives for drivers in a bid to boost profitability.
In short, platform companies’ rhetoric about achieving sustainable development amounts to weasel words, in that they fail to ameliorate or even acknowledge drivers’ precarious working conditions, long hours, and low wages. The fact that the two issues are often discussed separately allows platforms to receive praise for environmental, social, and governance (ESG) efforts, while doing little to improve livelihoods for drivers.
Instead, to truly contribute to sustainable development, food delivery platforms should, through government regulation, be forced to play a role in contributing to what trade unions call “climate justice” or a “just transition” – becoming more environmentally friendly while also creating decent and secure work for their drivers. Earlier this year, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a global union federation comprising many transport sector trade unions worldwide, released a report on A Just Transition for Urban Transport Workers, highlighting cases around the world, including app-based transport workers fighting for a just electrification of vehicles in Hyderabad, and providing a list of ten points for a transition to reduce carbon emissions and lessen existing in equalities. The list included job guarantees, pension support for workers nearing retirement and health and safety issues. In Vietnam, platforms, workers, and authorities should take note.
Joe Buckley was Visiting Fellow at the Vietnam Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.