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9 April 2018

The Power of Sustainability Rankings

One of the more uplifting concepts in the last decade or so has been the emergence of pro-Sustainability activist corporations, a welcome break from the traditional 'minimal rules, narrow interest' mindset of the corporate lobbying industry. UK thinktank InfluenceMap has attempted to plot these efforts in the diagram above.

It's worth noting the layout of the quarters. Top left is the traditional anti-regulation mob (Koch et al), bottom left could be categorised as 'stick our heads in the sand', and the good guys drift towards the top right. So there's something of a U-shape in the line of increasing virtue, rather than the usual bottom left to top right diagonal.

I like publications like this, not just because they lay out the detail, but the pressure they bring on brands to improve. After all, it was a Greenpeace Sustainability ranking of electronics companies a decade ago that spurred Apple into action – and they've since gone from bottom of that list to InfluenceMap's A-list. Businesses are competitive by nature and they never like to be shown up by their rivals.


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26 September 2012

"They only do it to reduce their costs.... Not to save the planet!"

Occasionally I get invited to respond to an on-line query or comment and I always do my best to do so in a open minded and helpful way. I responded to one such request recently from UK Business Labs and the following comment appeared:

"And I have seen so many companies saying they are green but when you look at what they are doing (recycling plastic for example) they only do it to reduce their costs.... Not to save the planet!"

This is an intriguing point of view. My initial response was that this is a false OR - money or planet. There is nothing wrong with improving your environmental performance in a way that benefits your business - money AND planet - in fact it is the best way to do it.

But it betrays a deeper distrust of the motivations of businesses wishing to go green. When I interviewed Richard Gillies of Marks & Spencer about the retail giant's Plan A sustainability programme for The Green Executive, he told me that they were coy about how much in the way of savings they had made from Plan A. They weren't expected to make any return on the initial £200m when the programme was set up and were pleasantly surprised when it paid for itself and provided a surplus.

So the question is, how do you deal with this paradox? The short answer is brutal honesty: "we are doing this because it is the right thing to do AND it is good for our business - we find that one follows the other." Of course hardened cynics will remain cynical, but I learnt a long time ago not to worry about hardened cynics.


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23 April 2012

Taxi for Addison Lee!

Do the words "Gerald Ratner" not mean anything to boss of London taxi boss John Griffin? Jeweller Ratner famously described his own products as "crap", implying that consumers were fools to buy them and make him rich. Griffin recently made a sub-Clarksonesque joke about it not really mattering if motorists wiped out a few grannies on bicycles. And guess what, surprise, surprise, the cycling lobbing and a whole bunch of other people took offence. #boycottaddisonlee trended on Twitter, Addison Lee's iphone App suddenly won over 250 negative reviews, high profile individuals have publicly announced they're cancelling their accounts, and of course it's all over the media.

What gets me about Griffin's blunder is not just the ham-fisted offensiveness of what he said, but his lack of awareness of where his company is in the low carbon economy. Taxis are an important part of a flexible public transport system and Griffin is currently locked in an argument over access to cycle and bus lanes which the traditional London black cabs are allowed to use, but from which private taxis are barred. This is a legitimate argument - other cities allow private taxis and vans into "no car lanes" - but London has a tradition of favouring black cabs and their drivers' famous "knowledge". Instead of making common ground with other public and low carbon transport users, Griffin simply instructed his drivers to use the lanes illegally, making headlines and causing much embarrassment to the Prime Minister - Griffin is a major Conservative party donor. Talk about making friends and influencing people.

We live in an age of brands and it is interesting to see how brand reputations have risen and fallen over the years. Some which were regarded as evil a few years ago like Nike and Microsoft have largely recovered on the back of the former's supply chain improvements and Bill Gates's philanthropy. Google and Apple were once 'saints' but have been tainted by censorship in China and working conditions in the supply chain respectively and have since tried to claw back some credibility. Ratner's as a business never recovered from the boss's wee joke and we'll only see in time how badly the Addison Lee brand is damaged by Griffin's Neanderthal attitude. But the lesson we can take from these examples is how vital CSR is to the brand. Chief Executives are the ultimate guardian of the brand and to do their job properly they need to respect their customers, their suppliers and wider society - and keep the off-colour jokes for the pub.

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29 June 2011

VW feel the full force of Greenpeace's wit

Well, Greenpeace have done it again. Having successfully targeted Apple back in 2007 - forcing a rare about turn by Mr Jobs - they're now gunning for VW with this well crafted Star Wars spoof. VW are being targeted for having the worst emissions record amongst Europe's major motor manufacturers.

Where Greenpeace excel in these campaigns is the wit and craftsmanship that go into the content - note perfect to go viral in the social media age. VW have a real problem on their hands here - no matter what their plans for future vehicles are, the evidence speaks for itself. They now have three options - put on the tin hat and hope that it goes away, come out fighting or defuse the situation by acknowledging the problem and pledging to change their ways. Jobs tried the second one, but ended up taking the third.

I would strongly advise that anyone in this situation takes the "it's a fair cop" option first - turn a problem into a driver for improvement. Check out what Lexus managed after being criticised by the Advertising Standards Agency.

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21 March 2011

Don't believe the hype!

It was the big fuss in the Corporate Social Responsibility field last year. Your flashy iPad had the blood of Chinese workers on it. The factory where they were made was a suicide hotspot because of the terrible working conditions and you should feel guilty, Apple should feel guilty, the whole world should hang its collective head in remorse. I know people who chose not to buy Apple as a result.

At the time, I felt that Apple were hard done by as the company concerned, Foxconn, produced goods for many other household names, including Sony, Dell and Motorola. Now it appears, according to Wired magazine, the whole scandal was a non-event. Yes, sadly, 17 workers took their own lives, but out of a workforce of 1 million. That puts the Foxconn suicide rate lower than the average for all of China, and four times less than that of US college students. Working conditions at Foxconn still seem severe by Western standards, but if you work there, you're at a lower risk of killing yourself than your peers. Apple does appear to have been the victim of journos hungry for a negative story about the iPad.

Here's some things we can learn from the story:

  • The old political/journalism trope "never let the facts get in the way of a good story" still applies;
  • Bad news travels much, much quicker than good news (and nobody's interested in debunking a 'good story');
  • Never believe the scandals that rip across Twitter, blogs or the media - check the facts;
  • Tall poppies like Apple are always at risk of negative stories, fair or foul.
  • Damage limitation is just that.

The only way to balance this kind of lazy journalism/bloggareah is to strive for the highest standards, have the facts ready to defend the brand and have a steady stream of positive CSR news hitting the ether. In the meantime, I can use my Apple gear with renewed smugness.

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16 February 2011

Traceability rules...

We have seen countless examples where a company has been hung out to dry due to malpractice deep in their supply chain (Apple, BP and Nike spring to mind). This is leading inevitably to tighter and tighter traceability systems - yesterday I met with a tissue paper manufacturer who can boast that, for certain products, if you gave them the barcode, they could tell you down to the acre of forest/plantation where that wood came from.

The driver for this comes, of course, from the brand concerned rather than from the manufacturer. Brand protection is the goalkeeper to green marketing's £50million striker - the less glamourous, but equally important part of the team (I hope someone can add an appropriate soccer-free analogy for our US readers!).

For big corporations, such traceability is essential and can be demanded as a condition of their custom. But what about smaller companies with less buying power? The best answer is to use third party accreditation such as the Forestry Stewardship Council label for wood/paper products, Marine Stewardship Council labels for fish, or the FairTrade labels for food and other products (including gold!) These all have their limitations, and indeed their detractors, but they give some reassurance over and beyond crossing your fingers.

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