Public Works and Government Services of Canada (PWGSC) spends $14 billion dollars 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 percent of Canadians believe farmers and workers should receive adequate compensation for their labour; 86 percent 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 percent believe third-party certification is the “best way to verify the claims of a product.”

In October 2010, in accordance with the

, 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 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. 

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, Nova Scotia 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.

Currently, many products exported from developing countries face insurmountable trade barriers. In light of these challenges, Fairtrade certification is a global auditing process that emphasizes producer empowerment. It provides supply-chain transparency for goods whose market conditions are generally poorly understood, thus ensuring certified co-operatives receive competitive wages and practice environmentally sustainable production methods. Fairtrade certification standards forbid the use of child labour, and workers benefit from social premiums that finance community development projects such as constructing storage facilities and schools, and improving value for exportable goods.

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?

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