VALUMICS partner Elise Huber on behalf of IDDRI, attended the Conference on “Sustainability and Competition: Bridging two Worlds to enable a Fairer Economy” organized by the Fair Trade Advocacy Office in Brussels on 24 October 2019
Today, competition policy is often viewed as an obstacle to sustainability in the food system. Indeed, as the dominant interpretation of antitrust law does not take into account public interest objectives (environmental, social, etc.), it has a chilling effect on potential industry initiatives and collaborations to collectively introduce more sustainable products in food supply chains. In light of this issue, the goal of the conference was to interrogate whether competition law should/could appropriately integrate sustainability objectives into its framework and to present multiple potential ways forward on this issue. To this end, two main pathways were highlighted:
- The ‘high road’, which would aim to radically reform competition policy so that it takes into account matters of public interest – and in particular the EU’s environmental objectives – beyond mere economic considerations (i.e. low prices for consumers). In some experts’ view, sustainability should indeed be integrated in the antitrust assessments by virtue of its primacy as an overarching objective of the EU (cf. Article 3 TEU and Article 11 TFEU). However, many antitrust specialists rejected this option, asserting that complex environmental questions went beyond the scope of their work.
- In comparison, the ‘low road’ would involve other less “radical” solutions, such as integrating the environment into competition policy decisions by assigning a monetary value to it or using regulatory pathways to constrain the development of the market. This was generally the position adopted by the Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager: “The answer is not to change the rules of competition but rather to put in place new regulations to make the world more sustainable… It is important to not put on competition law things that regulations should solve.”.
Beyond this debate regarding the role of competition law, the conference highlighted another general tension between industry professionals who shared concrete examples of competition rules’ hindrance to sustainability initiatives (see for example, the Chicken of Tomorrow case in the Netherlands) and sustainability and competition specialists calling onto companies to be bold initiators and not wait for a formal change in competition law.
Brought together in a single room, the sustainability and antitrust thought bubbles pointed out the key tensions at hand between the economic and environmental objectives at the EU level. In the context of our VALUMICS project, this conference brought a clear insight into specific policy options to foster fairer and more sustainable food supply chains.