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29 January 2018

Sustainability is no place for the fickle

I saw a blog post last week entitled something along the lines of "Forget Carbon. The Latest Crisis Is Plastics." This would have annoyed me massively at the best of times, but particularly so given that Kick Ass Idea no 1 of my 12 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2018 webinar last week was "No Fads".

The point I was making was to avoid the entreaties of those constantly pumping out the 'latest thing in Sustainability' – a couple of years ago it was all about Creating Shared Value, then we were told that mindfulness was a prerequisite of Sustainability, now people are desperately trying to work out how blockchain can deliver Sustainability. This flighty faddism over techniques is distracting enough without people saying that, because the full scale of the plastics problem has hit the public consciousness, climate change is no longer a priority.

That, my friends, is highly dangerous bullshit.

One problem becoming clearer does not make another disappear. While it's almost impossible to compare two environmental problems objectively, my subjective opinion is that climate change remains the head and shoulders above the rest purely on the scale and range of its impacts – from extreme weather through sea-level rises to ocean acidification – there is no hiding place.

But, whatever your view on their relative scales, it is not beyond the wit of the human race to tackle two major problems at the same time. In fact one solution – the circular economy – will go a long, long way to tackle both the climate and ocean plastic crises.


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9 May 2016

Have we run out of Sustainability ideas? Probably a good thing.

world brainAbout five years ago, there seemed to be a new sustainability concept coming over the horizon every 5 minutes: the circular economy, creating shared value, mindful sustainability, my own green jujitsu and the doomed-by-its-own-name endosymbiotic thrivability – everytime you clicked on a green business website, another idea leapt out at you. These neologisms were on top of already bulging toolbox of existing ideas including natural capitalism, cradle-to-cradle, bethinking the natural step, one planet living, factor 4/10/100 etc, etc.

Suddenly all of this blue-sky thinking seems to have died away, replaced by practical efforts to take Sustainability forward at scale. I'd argue this is a sign of maturity with the Sustainability baton being handed over from the thinkers to the doers.

We now know what we have to do, the challenge is doing it.


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5 March 2014

Let Sustainability Sinners Repent...

business angelThere's been a small kerfuffle in the sustainability world over the news that Staples is considering lifting its ban on Asia, Pulp & Paper (APP) following the latter's conversion to sustainable production of wood pulp after being boycotted by virtually every major brand over its clearance of virgin rainforest in SE Asia. Despite being an obscure primary producer, APP had become one of the great corporate pantomime villains of our time.

I'm not a religious man - in fact I come from a long line of staunch atheists - so it was strange that a Biblical quotation should immediately spring to mind when reading this story:

I say to you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents (Luke 15:7*)

Why? To encourage change, we need carrots to compliment the stick of boycott. Without the carrot, any company in APP's position is likely to put on a tin hat and try and find other, less obvious, paths to market for its products. The rainforest destruction continues. Nobody wins - except the holier than thou.

The greatest corporate reputation recovery must be the story of Nike. Go back 10-15 years and the sportswear company's reputation was horribly tainted with allegations of sweatshops and child labour in its supply chain. Now it is seen as a paragon of sustainability - champions of Creating Shared Value, rated one of the best companies for tackling climate change,  even recycling their trainers into children's playground surfaces amongst the values. Like Apple, it is now Nike which publicises issues in its own supply chain, not the pressure groups.

I'd much rather have 'good' Nike than 'evil' Nike, 'good' Apple than 'bad' Apple, 'good' APP than 'evil' APP - so we have to provide a redemption pathway for sustainability sinners to become reborn as sustainability saints.

* Yes, I had to look that up.


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27 February 2013

Book Review: Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey & Raj Sisodia

Conscious capitalismJohn Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a controversial figure in the corporate social responsibility world. He is a proud proponent of the social benefits of free market capitalism, he is an anti-union, low tax, small-Government libertarian, he has made doubtful noises on the predicted impacts of climate change and noisily opposed President Obama's health care proposals. Yet he runs one of the most successful green businesses in the world, caps the ratio of the best paid in his company to 19 times that of the average (compared to 350-500 times you get in similar corporations) and is an active supporter of small, local suppliers to his stores. Not easy to pigeonhole, to say the least.

So it was with much anticipation and a little trepidation that I picked up his latest tome, Conscious Capitalism which, although it is co-written with the co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism Inc, is written in Mackey's voice. The book's first words, inside the fly cover, quote the Conscious Capitalism Credo:

"We believe that business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. Free enterprise capitalism is the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress ever conceived. It is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had. But we can aspire to even more."

Mackey and Sisodia make a pretty convincing case for the benefits that the free market has brought to society, blaming its ills on crony-capitalism, state capitalism or unintended side effects. But, they acknowledge, far too many corporations are like caterpillars, munching their way through everything within reach, when they should be like butterflies - beautiful and pollenating the eco-system upon which they depend.

And that is the essence of Conscious Capitalism - every business is part of a complex eco-system of suppliers, customers, employees, investors, communities and the environment itself. And by nurturing, rather than exploiting, these other stakeholders, everybody wins. This is similar to Porter & Kramer's concept of Creating Shared Value - investment in customers, suppliers and communities increases the pie for all. However, whereas Porter & Kramer make their case in business terms, Mackey claims Conscious Capitalism aims to fulfil a higher social purpose and is driven by love and caring, not profits. Profit is a means to delivering a company's higher purpose, not the driving force.

The book is very elegantly written and structured, going through the four tenets - higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious leadership and conscious culture. However, it is much more about an attitude than practical take-away ideas or lists of top tips. And it has to be said that the frequency of the use of the word 'love' is quite startling, even to an old bleeding heart liberal like myself.

My problem with Conscious Capitalism is not the butterflies like Whole Foods Market, but the caterpillars. The Tragedy of the Commons illustrates the need for the regulation of global commons, and the most global of all, the atmosphere, is difficult to protect by relying on the good intentions of many individual business leaders. Maybe this is why Mackey downplays climate change (subtly in the book) as it doesn't fit the model.

On the other hand, as a manifesto for progressive business, Conscious Capitalism hits the nail on the head and provides plenty of (whole grain) food for thought. Certainly between chapters I found myself mulling on the higher purpose of Terra Infirma - "Bringing Sustainability to Life" - and reassessed a recent decision I made which I thought was in the best interest of the business but now realise I got wrong.

In summary, a breath of fresh air that will challenge some of your more entrenched thinking.


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