Green Cities InitiativeIn September 2020, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) launched the Green Cities Initiative, a program that aims to build more resilient urban and peri-urban communities throughout the world. The FAO is aiming for this initiative to improve social, economic and environmental resilience in 1,000 cities by 2030.

The Urban Boom

The World Bank reports that 4.4 billion people, more than half of the world’s population, currently live in cities, a number on track to more than double by 2050. In the coming years, urban and peri-urban areas will need to respond to increased pressures on infrastructure, affordable housing and transportation systems. These areas will also need to create employment opportunities for a broadening pool of job seekers. With conscious investments in green infrastructure, reforestation and sustainable food systems, cities can increase their resilience in the face of extreme weather while also creating jobs in the process.

An Airborne Warning

The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear the already grim relationship between health and poverty in urban areas. The United Nations Human Settlements Programme (U.N.-Habitat) reports that health risks are already high for urban populations without access to basic necessities like clean air and water, adequate housing and waste management. These conditions aggravate existing inequalities, resulting in inequitable health and economic outcomes.

Globally, the pandemic and its associated economic devastation are increasing inequality and eroding the progress made on numerous Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). According to the FAO, supply chain disruptions, particularly in food systems, and unprecedented demands on hygiene-related resources and services expose the need for city stakeholders to reimagine and rethink the future of their urban systems.

Building Urban Resilience

The Green Cities Initiative is a unique opportunity to take action on hard lessons learned from these ongoing health and environmental crises. Through site-specific strategies that ensure access to green spaces and nutritious foods, strengthen urban and rural connectivity and provide investments in green infrastructure, the Green Cities Initiative takes a holistic approach to human and planetary wellness.

As of November 2022, 80 cities are participating in the Initiative, including Tunisia’s capital of Tunis, Italy’s Bologna, Kenya’s Nairobi and Sri Lanka’s Colombo city. Here are three examples of programs FAO implemented alongside non-governmental and governmental groups in partnership with the Green Cities Initiative:

  • The Initiative helped reforest at least 1.6 hectares of mangrove forests in Quelimane, Mozambique, a project that mitigated flooding risk in the coastal city.
  • In Nairobi, Kenya, an initiative tackled the city’s prevalent food waste, lowering the amount of rotten and unsold produce that vendors leave behind or that people otherwise lose between production and consumption. Some measures included introducing technology and techniques for composting and “biogas digesters,” which turn produce into fuel.
  • Training for women working as street food vendors in Kisumu, Kenya, gave participants business-generating skills and created a ripple effect of positive hygiene and business practices in the city.

A Focus on Poverty

While the Green Cities Initiative is most obviously environmentally focused, the Initiative works to address poverty in a few unique ways, including:

  • Strengthening urban and rural connectivity. Though most of the world’s impoverished populations reside in rural areas, the FAO focuses on the fact that the majority do not live far from a city. By strengthening connections between rural and urban communities, (particularly via food processing and distribution industries) the FAO aims to create jobs and bolster the overall economy of a given region, thereby reducing poverty and poverty-induced migration.
  • Mitigating environmental catastrophe. Environmental risks associated with extreme weather are elevated in high-density urban areas, manifesting in loss of life and economic shocks. Creating resiliency through green spaces and green infrastructure mitigates such risks and their disproportionate impacts on impoverished residents.
  • Building healthy, sustainable food systems. Impoverished residents of urban areas, particularly those living in congested areas or informal settlements, often lack access to clean air, running water and healthy, affordable food. To curb the resulting prevalence of “nutrition-related and non-communicable diseases,” the Initiative aims to increase the availability and affordability of nutritious and urban-grown foods. Tackling food, water and agricultural waste is also a focus, with the Initiative pushing for circular economies overall.

Supporting Local Governments

In February 2020, the World Economic Forum reported that Africa was home to the 15 fastest-growing cities in the world. Across many regions of the continent, the climate crisis already applies particular pressure, namely in the form of an influx of climate migrants in search of stable incomes. In the coming years, urban communities of all sizes will need systems in place to adapt to, prepare for and respond to economic, social and environmental shocks. The Green Cities Initiative, by supporting “local governments in mainstreaming agriculture, food systems and green spaces in local policy, planning and actions,” offers one pathway toward global stability and sustainability.

– Hannah Carrigan
Photo: Flickr

Toxic Skin-lightening Cosmetics
The fact that mercury is a common ingredient in skin-lightening cosmetics poses serious human health concerns. Furthermore, many cultures continue to use toxic cosmetics to lighten skin by suppressing melanin production. Luckily, global humanitarian organizations are now collaborating with several countries to ban toxic skin-lightening cosmetics.

The Harm of Toxic Skin-Lightening Cosmetics

Women and men both use skin-lightening cosmetics to lighten their skin, fade blemishes and freckles and treat acne. However, people who use these products do not realize the damage they can cause because they contain mercury. Toxic skin-lightening cosmetics can cause skin rashes, scarring and digestive, neurological and immune system damage.

Not only are those who use mercury-laden products at risk, but the toxic skin-lightening cosmetics harm children through breastfeeding and other family members when users wash off the products. The washed-off products contaminate the family’s food chain. Moreover, these washed-off products can travel far without breaking down, contaminating both soil and water.

Global Demand for Skin Lightening

The skin-lightening cosmetics industry is slated to grow to $11.8 billion by 2026. High demand stems from a growing South Asian middle class and changing demographics in the Caribbean and Africa. Although the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) bans cosmetics with mercury, it recently found mercury in numerous products that did not indicate its presence on their labels.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury

As more becomes known about the harm of toxic skin-lightening cosmetics, countries and global organizations are mounting campaigns to reduce or eliminate their use. Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka are collaborating as part of a $14 million comprehensive strategy to prohibit mercury from skin-lightening cosmetics and promote the beauty of all skin tones. Their Minamata Convention on Mercury strives to severely limit mercury in cosmetics.  This group set a limit of 1 mg/kg of mercury in cosmetics; however, tests have proved it is difficult to get compliance. In 2018, tests showed that 10% of 300 tested cosmetics in 22 countries exceeded the limit and worse yet, some exceeded the limit by 100 times.

Still, the Mimamata collaboration continues to work towards its goal. The Conference of the Parties to the Minamata Convention on Mercury (COP-5) will have its fifth summit in Geneva, Switzerland during the fall of 2023.

World Health Organization and the Biodiversity Research Institute Leadership

The World Health Organization and the Biodiversity Research Institute are now collaborating with the governments of Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka. They are leading the effort for the Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)-led campaign “Eliminating Mercury Skin-Lightening Products.” This project hopes to eliminate skin-lightening cosmetics that include mercury by:

  • Assisting governments by creating new laws and regulations as well as strengthening those that already exist all in accordance with the Minamata Convention.
  • Improving national capabilities for evaluating and tracking skin-lightening goods.
  • Increasing awareness of the problem in the project nations as well as on a global scale.
  • Enlisting participants in the supply chain in an attempt to prevent the manufacture, sale and distribution of skin-lightening goods.

Moving Forward

The collaboration between Gabon, Jamaica and Sri Lanka and global partners in the “Eliminating Mercury  Skin-Lightening Products” campaign is significant and the fifth Minamata Convention should synergize global efforts to raise awareness of the harmful effects of skin-lightening cosmetics.

– Lauryn Defreitas
Photo: Flickr

Social Impact
Social impact businesses prioritize doing business in a way that actively helps a local or global cause. Over the past few decades, the social impact sector has grown considerably. A perfect example of such an organization is Humana, a Spanish-based second-hand vintage clothing store chain. It recycles used clothing in its shops and then uses the profits from the shops to support community cooperation projects in Spain, Africa, Asia and Central and South America. That is why this non-governmental organization is the perfect blend of fighting for environmental protection and participating in domestic and international humanitarian aid.

What is Humana?

In 1987, the international Foundation Humana People to People brought the Humana vintage store concept to Spain. There are 44 Humana stores in Spain and many more Humana branches throughout the world. The organization collects used clothing in collection bins in cities in Europe and North America where it is sorted and assessed in dedicated sorting centers and then sold in its vintage stores. Humana also sends some of the clothing to Belize and six countries in Africa to further sort, assess and then sell it. Humana works with municipal leaders for the collection and sorting process. By reusing and recycling unwanted clothing, Humana positively impacts the environment. In Spain alone in 2019, the organization collected almost 18 million tons of clothing and footwear.

Humana’s Social Impact

Humana stores may look like any average second-hand retail outlets, but they operate chiefly to make a significant social impact. In fact, Humana aligns with the United Nations 2030 Agenda and offers its support to countries that aim to achieve the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  In Spain, Humana’s income per year is above 25 million euros, generated essentially by the sale of clothing. It distributes its profits to development cooperation projects, environment protection programs, social assistance projects, education and awareness projects and support for clothing collection and social farming in Spain and in Asia, Central and South America and Africa. Importantly, regardless of the social projects, the Humana stores in Belize and the six African countries that continue to sort and assess clothes offer the locals a sense of dignity by offering them the luxury of choice in the realm of fashion, at very affordable prices.

Humana People to People, the parent organization, operates across five continents and in 45 countries. It has supported more than 9.6 people and invested in more than 1,238 project units.

Humana’s Environmental Impact

From 2014 to 2016, Humana conducted a sustainability study of its collection and sorting facilities in Germany to assess their ecological impact. Although the facilities consumed 6,148 cubic meters of water for the entire process chain, they saved 75 million cubic meters of water needed to produce new clothes. The same applies to their CO2 emissions. The process chain generated 5,253 tonnes of CO2, but their activities prevented the production of more than 112,892 tonnes of CO2. Consequently, this eased the strain on the environment by a total of 107,639 tonnes of CO2.

On top of that, these Humana facilities attempted to use as much renewable energy as possible throughout their process chain, which makes a considerable difference. Since only 21,000 MWh of energy was used compared to the potential 602,000 MWh that would have been used on producing new clothing, the company saved approximately 581,000 MWh in 2016 alone in its German collection and sorting centers.

Finally, although the sustainability report only represented a fraction of the entire Humana franchise, it gives an idea of the Humana People to People business model scope in terms of benefitting people throughout the world and the planet itself.

– Alexandra Piat
Photo: Wikipedia Commons