Terra Infirma will be on holiday from tomorrow until the New Year - I'm really looking forward to 2011, more excited than my kids are about Christmas. We're launching a set of webinars (details tbc), we'll be trialling then launching our new diagnostic process and I've got the publication of The Green Executive in May.
So all that remains for 2010 is wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year.
Very interesting article in the Observer yesterday about tax avoidance and the UK Uncut campaign who maintain that the current UK austerity package would be unnecessary if there was a crackdown on tax avoidance. Sir Philip Green, boss of the Arcadia Group which owns Topshop, is attracting particular ire as Arcadia is actually owned by his wife who is resident in Monaco. And, of course, Topshop is a tall poppy - a sit-in in a depot in Basingstoke won't attract much publicity compared to one in an Oxford Street megastore.
While Green is an obvious case of stretching the rules, it's never clear where canny accounting becomes tax avoidance. Like all businesses I employ an accountant who has two main roles - getting all the paperwork together and making sure I'm paying the correct amount of tax. 'Correct' could be interpreted as 'not a penny more than I have to within reason'. And therein, I suppose, lies the rub - the definition of 'within reason'. I wouldn't offshore my business or transferring ownership to minimise tax - easy to say when the issue doesn't arise - but for Green that's clearly OK in his mind.
Similar shades-of-grey arguments lie in a range of corporate social responsibility (CSR) issues. If we offshore functions to, say, Bangalore where salaries are lower, what does that do to the economy of our 'home' country? If we exclude Bangalore, what does that do to the career prospects of burgeoning middle classes of India? Do we want those people to give up software engineering and call centre operations and go back to subsistence farming? But by getting nations to compete against each other for big business, are we encouraging a 'race to the bottom' where the lowest labour and environmental standards win? And, where is 'home' for an transnational corporation anyway?
These are extremely difficult issues. The important thing for a company which trades on its CSR is to have a framework within which decisions relating to such issues can be made. A company with a geographic tradition (dare I suggest Cadbury? or U2?) should consider carefully where they are registered or they will lay themselves wide open to attack. A company whose business model depends on low manufacturing costs (eg high street fashion) should have a strict policy on pay and other working conditions within their supply chain.
If you don't have such a framework, you will be measured against other people's yardstick which will inevitably be tougher than your own. If you are targeted you won't get off the back foot. So set the standard and enforce it. If it works, then raise the bar. Make it work for you and be proud of it.
The environmental policy workshops that I was scheduled to deliver on Teesside on 30 November have been rescheduled for 1st Feb 2011. The event has been designed by Compete NorthEast to help businesses develop a set of policies covering quality, health & safety, equality/diversity and environment to equip them to bid for public and private sector tenders.
My workshop is split into three parts - why a business should go green, developing an environmental policy and developing a practical action plan (ie going beyond policy into action). If you want to see some of the things I took from the Newcastle sessions on 1 Dec click here.
So, Cancun produced something after all. Not an awful lot, it has to be said, but there is a definite narrowing of the agenda to a framework where more concrete actions can be worked up. The clearest sections are the $100m fund to help poorer countries cut carbon and adapt to climate change, and the forestry package (known as REDD) to help preserve forests. Everybody seems relieved that progress has been made - only Bolivia and a handful of NGOs are throwing their hands up in despair - saying the world has failed once again.
These professional negativists are never happy - ignore them. When my city of Newcastle was awarded 'UK's most sustainable city' by Forum for the Future for the second time, the local Green Party didn't even mention it in their newsletter (which they send me). When I challenged them, they said they believed it showed we were 'least bad' - OK you could argue that, but surely such progress was worth a mention by a group for whom sustainability is the raison d'être. I rather suggest that they are hiding from an inconvenient truth - that environmental purism doesn't deliver whereas environmental pragmatism does.
And I know I keep banging on about it, but slow international progress doesn't preclude fast local or organisational progress. And here too pragmatism and optimism rule the day. Ignore the doomsters, or better still, get them involved so they can understand the real messy world of imperfection in which the rest of us have to operate. Then they might get real.
It's been quite hard to get a real feel for progress at the COP16 climate change negotiations in Cancun this week, but the overall impression has been slow progress on a number of issues and a more reasoned debate over some of the bigger issues. This contrasts starkly with the high stakes game played by national leaders and environmental groups in Copenhagen this time last year - which famously ended with a whimper rather than a bang.
The softly, softly approach has a number of advantages. Minor disputes are not exaggerated by a story-hungry media and can be deftly resolved. Small wins create forward momentum and a positive atmosphere which can help unlock trickier conundrums. Progress can be made without the often destructive interference of either the NGO or libertarian/denial camps, one shrieking the clock is ticking and less than 100% success is failure, the other shrieking that the whole thing is a recipe for economic suicide/communism.
However, I'm still of the view that a world-wide single binding agreement is an impossible ideal. What works in Washington is unlikely to work in Kuala Lumpur and vice versa. There is nothing to stop individual nations cutting their own carbon and shifting to a low carbon economy. Furthermore, the big economies along with their huge corporations, have such global reach that the power to act is actually in relatively few hands. Destructive companies in the primary industries like forestry or oil extraction can only operate if they have customers willing to buy their produce.
Business has the power if they step up to the plate.
We've had two weeks of snow here in the North East of England and everyone is getting fed up with it. I assume this will bring guffaws from those of more Northern climes, but these conditions are rare for us, so no-one has snow tyres or chains and it makes no sense to have an arctic-scale snow clearance set-up as it would sit idle most years. Anyway, at least the heavy falls have stopped, so people can get out and about a bit more - and we were delighted that the good people of the Tanfield railway (the world's oldest) honoured our tickets from last weekend when the going was treacherous. So we bundled up the kids and went to see Santa and a ride on the North Pole Express (and saw how carbon emissions used to come about).
The press loves making a fuss at times like these about how much the weather is costing business. While some companies can't operate in the snow - a neighbour of mine is a roofer for example (although he'll be kept busy with wrecked guttering for most of the spring) - many can if they embrace virtual working technology - using teleconferencing and telecommuting to avoid travel disruption. Promoting such technologies for carbon reductions, no matter how effective they are, is unlikely to be such a strong driver as the resilience argument. So if you are struggling to get heard on the carbon side, the approach could be "if we invest in virtual working then we will be resilient to bad weather & rogue volcanos, save some money AND cut carbon emissions". You can arrange the order or prominence of the three benefits to match your audience.
Such bundling of benefits applies elsewhere, for example if you are selling/buying water based paint then the argument is "safer, no odour and no nasty solvents". For waste minimisation the argument can be "we'll save on raw materials, waste costs, disruption to orders AND deliver against our environmental strategy".
It's like getting the kids ready to go out in this weather, the more layers the better!
I did four workshops this week, three on Wednesday to help businesses get ready for the green procurement aspects of tenders on behalf of Compete North East and one on Thursday to a third sector/not for profit audience. A further three procurement workshops on Teesside on Tuesday were cancelled due to the weather and will be rescheduled for January/February.
I love the interaction of workshops and I always pick up some nuggets - here's a summary:
Many buyers are now allocating up to 15% of their tender assessment scores to environment & sustainability issues;
Everybody is being impacted more and more by tender/customer requirements;
Many tenders are now asking you not only to tackle your performance, but that of your supply chain;
There is a shift in the responses to tenders from "we will..." to "we have...";
Third sector organisations are increasingly finding they have to up their game to compete - a surprising proportion of the attendees on Wednesday were from the third sector - we had a community stables and an addiction treatment charity amongst many others;
Surprisingly perhaps, as they are value-driven organisations, many third sector organisations are way behind the curve;
Smaller organisations are looking for very practical tips (I copied many of the organisations a copy of 101 Carbon-busting tips);
Generally cynicism and fatalism are being replaced by pragmatism and enthusiasm.
The feedback from both was very positive. Attendees left the policy workshops with a draft policy and a practical action plan looking happier than if I'd given them all a piece of Xmas cake. I'll let you know when the other policy workshops are rescheduled.
1st of December is traditionally the day that I stop grousing about it being too early to even mention the C-word. Instead I ritually put on the Phil Spector Christmas Album, kick back, and start into the Christmas cake, mince pies and port. Actually that might have to wait to the 2nd as, weather permitting (see above), I've got a really busy day scheduled today with environmental policy workshops.
Going back to the festive season, to thank my friends, followers, subscribers, clients and everyone else, I'm working on a Xmas special Low Carbon Agenda with unique free downloads, a low carbon prize quiz and a special offer. You can subscribe to the Low Carbon Agenda using the box on the right hand side (check out the past issues if you don't know what it's all about).