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16 April 2015

How the Manifestos Measure Up for Green Business

polling stationSo, the UK election rumbles on and this week we had the Party manifestos. So what do the parties offer on sustainability? Trying to be as objective as I can*, here's my quick and dirty review of the five national parties, in order of current number of seats in Parliament:

1. Conservatives

Big Headlines (ie mentions in key pledges):

  • None


  • Reaffirmation to meet international commitments on climate change.
  • Pro-fracking.
  • Investment in renewables but with an emphasis on 'cost effectiveness'. Halting 'spread of onshore wind farms'.
  • Every vehicle to be zero emissions by 2050, double cycling, investment in railways.
  • 'Blue Belt' of marine reserves.

My verdict: Token effort – and a mixed bag at that.


2. Labour

Big Headlines:

  • None.

Detail: Read the rest of this entry »

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14 April 2015

Five go mad in London

boys in London

I'm down in our capital city with the family for a short break. The two bigger boys were very keen to come because of various school projects, and the little one – well as usual he just has to lump it!

As usual, on holiday, I have my eyes peeled for anything sustainability-related.

I remember musing on my way back from Bruges back to Newcastle by train in 2009 that in Belgium you saw at least one solar array in every village or suburb, but virtually nothing on the English side of the Channel. Oh, how that has changed. Not only is there a huge amount of roof-mounted solar along the East Coast Mainline, but we passed at least 3 field-sized solar farms and plenty of wind turbines dotted here and there. It is no surprise to me now that UK solar installed capacity doubled in 2014 – you can see it.

We're staying at a genuine Airbnb house – a real family home as opposed to a regular rental – and our first proper use of the new sharing economy. The house is lovely, but you do have to put up with your host's tastes – there is no cafetiere, garlic press or, believe it or not, wine glasses. We can improvise on the former two, but bought them 4 cheap wine glasses (I hope that isn't taken as an insult as we can't take them with us). The other problem is trying to stop 3 rather excited and rambunctious boys from trashing the place...

Another thing I've noticed is you can now use a contactless debit/credit card in lieu of an Oyster card for London transport. This opens up the flexibility of London public transport for the casual visitor. Anything to remove barriers to the greener option wins in my book and, when my Oyster card runs out/gets lost again, I think I might give up on it.

As well as the tourist traps, yesterday we went to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London in Barnes, not that far from the heart of the City - amazing to see what you can achieve if you leave a little space for nature in our urban sprawl.

I know I'm an irrepressible optimist, but going on a holiday allows you to see things afresh in a way you don't on a business trip. I am utterly convinced that, no matter what the doomsters claim, we are moving in the right direction.


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9 April 2015

Do you need a sustainability qualification to succeed?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I discuss what kind of sustainability qualification will help your career - and what other skills you need to succeed in this career.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!. Our stockpile is running a bit low, so fire away!


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7 April 2015

On sustainability, feelings beat facts. Fact.

Environmental data and analysisLast week we had another fantastic turnout for our annual Green Academy on employee engagement for sustainability. There were some really big names taking part – including some who are seen as sustainability exemplars.

The two points I really try to hammer home on these sessions are:

  • People's feelings are a much stronger driver for their behaviour rather than rational thought;
  • You can't bludgeon people into changing their feelings.

You can see this in the climate debate where a significant chunk of the population still 'feels' that climate change can't be real despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is and manmade. It just doesn't feel right to them. Instead they cling to some very flimsy straws which appear, superficially, to reassure this position – an extreme form of 'confirmation bias'.

My response, Green Jujitsu, is to start at any point where the sustainability agenda and the feelings of the audience overlap. So if you are talking to a climate sceptic, it may be that energy security, local air quality or job creation through the low carbon economy are better starting points than statistical analysis. For engineers, getting them to solve sustainability problems will produce positive feelings about the agenda as they love to solve problems. For health care professionals, finding solutions which save carbon and improve patient care will hit the right button.

So the first principle of employee engagement must be to respect people's feelings. Not just because it is right to do so in a moral sense, but also because it's right to do so in a practical sense.



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1 April 2015

Jeremy Clarkson, Eco Warrior?

Jeremy_ClarksonAnybody taken in by the Guardian's 'interview' with a recalcitrant Jeremy Clarkson where he apparently eschewed his old gas guzzling ways and took up the way of the tree hugger? I must admit it caught me out for a moment on Radio 4 before I realised the date.

It made me think, though, about the process of people becoming eco-aware.

For most people, it is a gradual process of ramping awareness until one event tips them over the edge. My own 'Road to Damascus' moment – seeing massive ecological damage from a nickel smelter in arctic Russia – was less about awareness of the problem and more about the realisation that, as an engineer, I could and should do something practical about such damage. But it often requires an immersive experience to do this – reading a plaintive article in the press is rarely enough.

In my experience, true Damascene conversions should be treated with care. I have met too many snake oil salesmen and obnoxious self-righteous gits who claim to have undergone such a zero to 100% overnight. And just imagine being preached at by Jeremy Clarkson. Shiver.


Photo Ed Perchick, cropped version used under the Creative Commons Licence 2.0



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30 March 2015

Marks & Spencer's Living Wall Comes to Life

mands green wall
It was my forty-mmmth birthday yesterday and I had a lovely day – breakfast in bed, pub lunch, birdwatching (yellow hammer, willow tit, water rail the highlights), a beer in the sun and dinner. But an completely unexpected treat on the way home was seeing the newly installed 'living wall' at Marks & Spencer lit up in all its glory.

The wall is 167 square metres, constructed from nearly 16,000 individual plants, and is designed to bring birds and insects into the centre of Newcastle. I'm sure the bees in the hives on the roof of Fenwicks just down Northumberland Street will be highly appreciative.

And if you think this is just green bling, the store is getting a massive sustainable energy makeover with intelligent door sensors and a system to use waste heat from refrigeration internally.

Great to see M&S continuing to forge the path on these issues – and even better that its on my doorstep!


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27 March 2015

When 'ethical' can be unethical...

business angel

A very interesting point was raised by a Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group member at last week's meeting:

The easiest ethical choices are often not very ethical, for example it is easiest to avoid buying conflict minerals by avoiding buying from the Democratic Republic of Congo altogether, but you’re actually hurting a country which desperately needs a stronger economy. You should be supporting the 'good' mineral sector.

Wow! That triggers a whole load of questions in my mind:

  • Where does the boundary of ethical responsibility lie?
  • How do you assess the ethical implications of what good things you could do, but aren't doing?
  • Is it ethically OK to wash your hands of an issue like this, or should you dive in and try and solve it?
  • Is there a responsibility for corporations to use their buying power for good?
  • The press and NGOs have a tendency to take a very simplistic black and white view of business ethics issues – ironically given their own ethical missteps – what's their responsibility to be objective and not chase a headline?
  • Can 'ethical' legislation do more harm than good?
  • When is it right to walk away?

Answers on the back of a postcard, please!


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25 March 2015

Sustainability Across the Generations


Last Friday we held the tenth Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting at the wonderful Lumley Castle in County Durham. The topic was 'Sustainability Across the Generations" – how do Baby Boomers, Gen X-ers and Millennials respond to the sustainability agenda?

As usual there was no Powerpoint, just facilitated discussion using one of my large templates (which you can see on the table above). We generated a whopping 78 learning points. Here's a selection of those:

General Generational Issues

  • You need to listen to the pulse of the organisation;
  • Generational profile of customers more important for B2C than B2B organisations;
  • There is an age profile up the reporting structure of established organisations; those with authority tend to be older, but we need to attract the next generation in towards the bottom;
  • As people age they tend to become more pragmatic and less idealistic;
  • There is a regional context – eg US millennials are quite different to Chinese millennials.

Baby Boomers

  • This is the generation which first became broadly aware of sustainability, for example via Silent Spring;
  • Anathema to ‘waste’ may be a more powerful hook than, say, climate risks;
  • Some may fear that their skills will become obsolete in a low carbon world;
  • “We’ve always done it this way” is a tough barrier to overcome;
  • Legacy is a powerful driver – especially for senior management – what kind of organisation would you like to leave behind you?
  • Coaching is often better than training for this generation – ‘arm around the shoulder’;
  • “I would like your help with…” is a good opening gambit.

Generation X

  • Grew up with the maturing sustainability agenda, eg the 1992 Earth Summit;
  • The ‘change generation’ – sees upsides and downsides;
  • This generation is now moving into key decision making positions – an opportunity but also a threat as they have plenty on their plate;
  • Probably the generation where engagement can have the biggest impact;
  • Co-inventing solutions secures ‘skin in the game’;
  • Find ways to communicate “What’s In It For Me” – eg build links between sustainability and their KPIs.


  • First consciously green generation – but they often respond to activism more than working through the system;
  • Can be naïve about their own impacts – eg on upgrading technology/fast fashion;
  • Graduates are definitely applying to companies with good reputations;
  • Less loyal to corporations – if they don’t like what they see, they will move on;
  • Have been educated on the basics of sustainability, need to learn how to implement it in practice;
  • Social media can spread untruths as fast or faster than truths – fosters a lack of fact-checking;
  • A good tactic is to challenge millennials – “if you think this is important, set up a team and write a proposal.”

The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is a small group of senior sustainability professionals from major organisations who meet quarterly to explore a burning question in depth. If you want to learn more click here.


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23 March 2015

My Sustainability Brain Dump

cover170x170I was interviewed by Anthony Day for his weekly Sustainable Futures Show podcast recently and we had a great old chin wag which covered a whole range of my favourite sustainability topics:

  • How I got started in sustainability;
  • How others can get started;
  • The business case for sustainability;
  • Sustainability leadership;
  • How to do employee engagement properly (Green Jujitsu);
  • Integrating sustainability properly;
  • How the 80:20 rule can help you accelerate sustainability;
  • Measuring progress.

...and a whole lot more. You can hear what I had to say by clicking here.


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20 March 2015

Green SME Interview: Alex Hurst, Phoenix Taxis

Alex Hurst PhoenixAlex Hurst is the CEO of Phoenix Taxis based in Blyth Northumberland which currently has the biggest operational fleet of electric cars in the UK. In this revealing interview he tells the story of the business and some important insights into running a green business in the real world. It includes the first case I've come across of a sustainable decision being made in response to supplier pressure, rather than customer pressure.

What’s the history of Phoenix Taxis?

Phoenix taxis was started in 1990 by my Dad. Since then we’ve operated within the licensing restrictions of what was Blyth Valley in South East Northumberland. From 1990 to 2009, the company steadily grew to 80 cars. Since then, when the restrictions were relaxed, we were able to expand to the rest of Northumberland and since 2010, when I joined the business, we’ve managed to more than double in size to over 200 vehicles.

And when did the shift to low carbon vehicles happen?

The first step was the Nissan LEAF being the first widespread consumer EV available on the market. We kept an eye on it as, before me, my Dad has always used alternative fuels – LPG instead of petrol or diesel because of the cost savings. When the LEAF came onto the market, the subsidies from the Government made it a cost effective option as a taxi. We then had to get it licensed as a taxi.

We had a lot of trouble as it is quite small – many Councils including Northumberland refused, but we got on to Nissan who persuaded them to grant a license – I’m exactly not sure how! We got funding for six charging posts to accelerate the process, but they didn’t work. That held us up for 6-12 months because we couldn’t get more cars – we were limited to the two LEAFs we had bought in 2012 until the infrastructure was sorted.

However it was about this time, with just a couple of EVs and a couple of hybrids, that we realised that there was a customer demand for sustainable transport particularly amongst large corporate clients. We now have 41 hybrids and 32 EVs – that’s the biggest operational fleet of EVs on the road – I don’t know how long that will last when people cotton on to it!

So, the business case evolved from cost saving to customer demand?

Yes, definitely.

And you’ve now got a Lexus Hybrid and a Telsa Model S – did that come from customer demand? Read the rest of this entry »

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18 March 2015

How not to communicate climate change by the Guardian

Alan_Rusbridger_by_Alessio_Jacona_-_International_Journalism_Festival_2014The Guardian is undoubtedly the UK's best newspaper for covering environmental issues, so it was no surprise when outgoing Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger made climate change his swan song. Unfortunately I can't help thinking the results of this well-meaning effort represent everything that's wrong with our attempts to communicate climate change.

My first gripe is format: lengthy essays stretching over several pages of dense print. I have only skimmed these myself – and I'm very interested in this stuff! How is anybody with a passing interest meant to dip in? How does it speak to those disengaged? Where are the graphics for goodness sake?

My second problem is the attitude. The series started with a couple of lengthy extracts from Naomi Klein's new book on climate change. Klein admits herself that she has only come to climate lately, having made her name as an anti-capitalist. And of course, her prescription is that it is capitalism to blame for climate change, and that those of us trying to fix the problem without smashing the system are deluded. In other words, it's all the 1%'s fault and the 99% are helpless. Might as well give up, then.

Problem is, Klein is wrong – state socialism has proved just as able as capitalism when it comes to destroying the planet – check out Russia or China's record. And, with carbon emissions stalling last year, it is clear that we can make a real difference without some (impossible) wholesale restructuring of society. I am one of many, including radicals like Jonathan Porritt, who believe we can actually make capitalism work for the planet – bringing competition, innovation and economies of scale to cutting carbon.

The paper did redeem itself with some punchy, provocative pieces by Mark Lynas and Jonathan Freedland arguing we need to de-politicise climate change and get on with tackling it, and not sit navel gazing, but these were in the main paper and not part of the climate specials.

The Beeb showed how climate change communication can be done with Climate Change by Numbers on BBC4. The programme hit the most complex and controversial topics – uncertainty, modelling, predictions, dealing with data gaps – head-on using some very clear, snazzy graphics and great analogies. For example, they demonstrated how attribution models work by analysing the success factors in Premiership football teams, building a model and showing how, if you take any Club's wage bill out of the model, then the correlation between model and reality fail. Likewise, if you take anthropogenic carbon emissions out of climate models, then the models and reality diverge sharply. OK, it was taking on a different debate to the Guardian, but it was arguably a more difficult one, yet they made it engaging and fascinating.

The time for preaching to the choir is over. Climate change is not just an issue for the left-leaning middle-class intelligentsia. We must reach out across the political spectrum, to all tribes in society, and inspire people to engage and to help make change happen. And that's going to require a rethink on how we try to communicate the message.


Photo by Alessio Jacona and used under the Creative Commons License.


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16 March 2015

Proof: We ARE winning the climate wars

churchillGood news never hits the headlines – unless it's a famous person's baby – but on Friday the International Energy Agency announced that in 2014, global carbon emissions had 'stalled' for the first time outside a recession.

Now first off, this is bloody good news, full stop. If you have contributed in any way, no matter how big or small, pat yourself on the back right now.

Secondly, while I realise one swallow does not make a summer, there's a constant flow of green infrastructure investment in the pipeline – we're investing over $200bn a year in renewables as prices plunge – so we should expect to see this stall start to evolve into a downturn.

Thirdly, it's one in the eye for all those miserablist doomsters who said it would never happen – and those trying to subsume climate change into a wider political ideology. Our first priority is to cut carbon, not to smash capitalism or reject consumer society – although both may reform as we move forward.

So, as I said, big pat on the back all round, then it's back into the trenches for the next battle!


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13 March 2015

Sir Ian Cheshire on Sustainable Business Leadership

sir ian cheshireI had a fantastically green night out in London on Tuesday. After an impromptu diversion into a St Patrick's, er, Month drinks reception at the Irish Embassy, my good friend Fiona Harvey, eminent Grauniad environment journo, took me to the extraordinarily posh Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall for dinner and, appropriately enough, an after-dinner talk.

The talk was 'Sustainable Business Leadership' by Sir Ian Cheshire, outgoing CEO of the Kingfisher Group (which owns B&Q). The knighthood was awarded for "services to business, sustainability, and the environment" and what Sir Ian said showed it was richly deserved – here are the quotes I scribbled down:

  • I am attracted to business with a mission and a purpose.
  • Don’t you want to work for a business which makes a difference?
  • Sustainability is the engine for our business.
  • Diversity in teams leads to a huge step forward; don’t pick people like you.
  • You have to recognise which decisions matter and what doesn’t: 4 or 5 big calls will determine 80% of your impact.
  • We live in a hyper-transparent world, you can’t pretend anymore.
  • Do you want to be moderately less evil or net positive? The latter’s much more exciting.
  • You’ve got to give people permission to try stuff.
  • It takes an incredibly long time to explain sustainability to your business – I found it took at least 5 attempts.
  • You’ve got to make your solutions relevant to the DNA of your business.
  • You’ve got to translate sustainability for people. There’s no Russian word for sustainability, but Russians love their forests and their water quality.
  • If you don’t understand the warp and weft of your business, sustainability will not work.
  • Corporates create space for Governments to act.
  • CEO questions can drive innovation.
  • Our drive for FSC kitchens cost us £30m, but the perception of quality in the marketplace went up.
  • Our biggest problem isn’t greenwash but greenhush. We don’t talk enough about what we are doing.
  • Ultimately you need sustainability solutions which scale. Without scalability, we won’t get sustainability.

My advice for anyone trying to deliver sustainability in their organisation is to plunder that list for ideas.


Disclosure: The dinner was a private one, so I have run the quotes past Sir Ian to check he was OK with them going public.

Photo taken from


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11 March 2015

Sustainability Must Scale

go green

I was at a rather posh dinner on Pall Mall last night where the speaker was Sir Ian Cheshire, outgoing CEO of Kingfisher and his topic was Sustainable Business Leadership. I'll write up some more of what he said in a future post with quotes, but the point he finished on resonated with me – the need for any sustainability project to scale.

What do we mean by 'scale'?

We mean the project must not be intrinsically hampered by its own nature – it must be able to flourish. Scale brings down prices – we don't talk about 'economies of scale for nothing'.

For example:

  • If you develop an eco-product for a green market niche, then it will always be limited by the size of that niche. To make it scale, you have to make it attractive to the mass market.
  • If you develop an anaerobic digester – if it is very sensitive to the quality of its feedstock then its use will be limited by that sensitivity. If you want to make a real difference, the technology must be applicable to a wide range of situations, including those you haven't thought of.
  • While community recycling projects are admirable, they will never deliver a circular economy on their own – the existing product design and waste industry needs to be transformed.

Scale is often a matter of mindset – we need to stop thinking small (sorry, EF Schumacher) and think big. Only then will sustainability become the new normal.



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9 March 2015

The Comfort Zone of Doom

the end is nigh

I'm reading 'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg - the Facebook COO's bright and breezy book on dealing with the disadvantages that women find in the workplace. The main criticism of Sandberg has come from the feminist side - basically accusing her of trivialising the issue and not addressing the deeper sociopolitical issues, as they see them. In other words, she is being slated for cheerfully suggesting simple, practical solutions that work (for her at least), rather than playing the angry victim.

The same debate rumbles on in the sustainability movement. Most commentators are much better at articulating the problem, rather than the solution, and there is a tendency to present any issue as intractable rather than solvable. Most recently we've seen Naomi Klein wade into the climate debate, despite the fact she admits she has no solutions, but she's perfectly happy lecturing the rest of us that we don't understand how big the problem is.

The best solutions in the world are simple, yet any simple solution to major problems is seen not as a way forward, but, again, a form of trivialising the problem.

This is ridiculous.

Doomsaying is as much a comfort zone as denial of the problem. Both encourage inaction when we need action.

As Ross Perot put it:

"The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river."

Let's ignore the doomsayers and, like Sandberg, get off our backsides and do something!


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6 March 2015

Forget Mindfulness, we need mindless Sustainability

world brainI was once solemnly informed "We won't get to Sustainability without Mindfulness."

If you don't know what Mindfulness is, it's apparently "the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment." And it's all the rage.

My response to my pious friend was "Why not?"

He struggled to answer that one. Maybe I wasn't being accepting enough.

And the more I think about it, the more I think he's 100% wrong.

We cannot function as human beings if we have to be entirely conscious of everything we do - we'd spend all our time focussing on breathing and walking and sitting so much we'd never do anything else. If we require a conscious focus on every sustainability-related decision every day, it'll never be fully integrated into our routines. You can only focus on one thing at a time.

Much better to take the sustainable option by default, by habit or because it's the path of least resistance. We need to design our world so you don't even have to think about sustainability - it just happens.

Frankly, I think we have to be more mindful of nonsensical pronouncements that aren't properly thought through.


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4 March 2015

Are we ignoring the 'social' in Sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I consider whether we tend to ignore the social when we talk about 'Sustainability' and some of the issues surrounding definitions.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.

I rely on a steady stream of killer questions to keep this series running - if you want to submit one fire away!.


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2 March 2015

Obama's Litmus Test is Keystone XL, What's Yours?

iStock_000004249001SmallBarack Obama knows that his commitment to tackling climate change will be critically tested by his decision whether or not to permit the Keystone XL pipeline which would massively increase the flow of oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. There was something of a false alarm last week as it was reported that he had vetoed the pipeline, but he had in fact vetoed a bill in Congress trying to force approval - keeping the decision for himself (source Grist).

These big decisions can take on a symbolic significance way beyond their actual environmental importance (although this is important). Personally, I would like to see the environmental movement adhere to the same faith in scientific evidence with which we berate the climate change denial movement, but it's a fact of life that symbolism matters. This is a litmus test, whether Obama likes it or not.

You may think your decisions are insignificant compared to the POTUS, but they carry the same symbolism within your organisation. It is relatively easy to start doing 'good' stuff, but the litmus test is whether you will stop doing 'bad' stuff.

Great examples include Interface killing off profitable product lines because they involve hazardous flame retardants and B&Q refusing to stock patio heaters because they were against their environmental commitments. In both cases planet was given preference to profit.

So your litmus test is what are you going to STOP doing?


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27 February 2015

Are we afraid of success in sustainability?

As regular readers will attest, my most recent soapbox has been the use of the 80:20 Rule to get sustainability programmes out of the mire of incremental improvements and 'green tape' and onto a straight, fast road to our goals (see video above).

The awkward question is why does the sustainability movement tend towards the comfort zone of incremental improvements, bureaucratic systems and mediocrity? Why favour activity over outcome? Why stultify creativity and innovation?

screamI think it is, to a large degree, down to fear.

Fear of moving out of our comfort zone.

Fear of rocking the boat.

Fear of taking a punt.

Fear of failure.

Fear, possibly, of success.

Fear is a natural emotion, but we need to programme ourselves, Anthony Robbins-style, to fear the status quo rather than being scared of actually fulfilling our goals.


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25 February 2015

Are eco-labels worth the sticky paper they're printed on?

fairtradeInteresting article in the Guardian yesterday about the drop off in FairTrade sales. Some of this decline is due to squeezed consumer wallets, but there were plenty of coffee and chocolate producers who believe that they go way beyond the guaranteed price of FairTrade and that some of the movements' ambitions are misguided:

“When you get to the bottom of it, [the Fairtrade scheme] is kind of neo-imperialistic,” [says chef Olivier Roellinger] “It’s something we impose on them.” He’s thinking particularly of the pressure for producers to form groups, usually co-operatives, in order to join. “Can you imagine what British farmers would say if their American customers came to them and said: well, I’m only going to trade with you guys if you get together and I can buy from all of you at the same time?”

We have seen this kind of complaint about many others or labels - the inclusion of homeopathy for animals in the Soil Association organic standard is another worrying example.

eulabelThe advantage of any eco-label is they present an easy way for consumers and buyers to ensure they are getting minimum standards of performance against (hopefully) objective criteria. The original EU energy label (right) transformed the market, but the EU unfortunately blotted its copybook by adding extra levels (A+, A++ etc) instead of tightening the criteria on the original A-G rankings. This removed the driver for producers to want to avoid slipping down the scale.

The questions for any eco-label to answer are:

  • Who sets the criteria?
  • Are those criteria scientifically/objectively robust?
  • Do those criteria move with the times to keep pressure on the holders?
  • Are those criteria sufficiently ambitious for the label to mean something? I have been told by a representative of a major corporation that they actively lobby to water down any standard in their sector.
  • Are there any potential side effects of the label?
  • Are the criteria flexible enough to allow breakthrough innovation?
  • What level of administration is required to meet the criteria and is this justified?

My advice for producers on eco-labels is to adopt them if you see a clear benefit for your organisation (ie if the customer wants them), but don't feel obliged to do so if they don't work for you.



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