For a newspaper from the Guardian stable that prides itself on its approach to sustainability, I winced when I read this in a Observer article on fashion yesterday:
The ability to recycle favourite dresses is being curtailed by sites such as Facebook and Instagram.
When the journalist said 'recycling', she didn't mean passing it on to a mate, selling it second hand or using the fabric for something else. No, she meant "wearing the same dress twice" - claiming women are afraid to do so as their friends will see this cardinal sin on social media. To a man who still wears dozens of garments over a decade old, this is an alien concept.
But it illustrates a much bigger point. Our modern design and manufacturing supply chains are capable of delivering us very high quality, low price products exceptionally quickly. But it is not quality or design that consigns those products to the bin - it's fashion. And by fashion I don't just mean clothes - Douglas Coupland nailed the phenomenon in his 1991 novel 'Generation X' when he referred to 'semi-disposable Swedish furniture'. Even a ship will be scrapped when the value of its steel is thought to be higher than keeping the ship in use, rather than when it 'wears out'.
Our problem is that the 'make do and mend' concept is unlikely to storm mainstream consumer culture. There are other models which can help:
The service economy: despite the slip on 'recycling', the Observer article did reference services where you can rent high fashion items for one night only, so each dress will be worn dozens of times. You can do this with everything from a luxury yacht to industrial solvents.
The circular economy: designing products to be recycled continuously means short product lives doesn't have to be dependent on extracting more raw materials and creating more waste.
The sharing economy: purchasing a product and then sharing it with others. When my parents moved into their house 40 years ago, they found it came with half a hedge trimmer!
The retro economy: many well designed products have as much value when they are old as when they are brand-spanking new.
In the meantime, I will be recycling - in the true sense of the word - my favourite pair of cords as I have worn them threadbare. Don't think I'll be gracing the fashion pages of the newspapers anytime soon!
I get a little frustrated with the obsession with the little stuff. People fretting over the best time of day to charge their mobile phone, or, like Dilbert, whether polystyrene or paper cups are better, or calling for a ban on plastic bags. Some of this navel gazing gives counter-intuitive results like when people buy a smoothie rather than bottled water when the latter has a lower carbon footprint, but social stigma forces their hand.
This is all displacement activity and won't make a damn difference to the state of the planet.
If you are serious about cutting your personal impact, then insulate your loft, cycle/walk to work and holiday at home. If you are serious about the impacts of your organisation, then identify the big impacts and tackle them. P&G famously did this with Ariel Excel Gel where their biggest impact by far was heating water in washing machines, so they developed a low temperature washing product.
We only have a certain amount of time, energy and goodwill to act. Wasting that limited resource on activity for activity's sake is a crying shame.
One of my quirks is my fondness for the distinctly non-green, carbon-laden guilty pleasure that is Top Gear. Last night I caught up with Sunday's edition where, after poking fun at the self-righteousness of the cycling community (of which I am one), they flew Richard Hammond to Dubai to race the new Porsche 918 super car which can exceed 210mph and will do 0-62 in 2.6 seconds.
So what's the planet-frying carbon hangover of this beast?
Yep, I typed that right. I didn't miss a '2' off the front end. This chunk of testosterone on wheels is a plug-in hybrid with lower emissions than that icon of green motoring the Toyota Prius (not at 200mph, obvs).
Somehow I think a sustainable future is about to get a lot more exciting...
Ramon Arratia is a Sustainability Director at carpet and floor covering giant InterfaceFLOR, reknowned as true sustainability front-runners. Ramon is a regular speaker on sustainability issues and author of the book Full Product Transparency. In this exclusive no-holds-barred interview, Arratia lays down the law on industrial sustainability in no uncertain terms.
How did you personally get involved in the sustainability agenda?
I wasn’t passionate about sustainability at first. I was a quality manager at Ericsson, when I was offered a job as sustainability manager and I took it. I soon realised that we had to deal with the biggest impacts first, rather than just say ‘oh, we have to do something’ and putting efforts into pet issues or issues that are not strategic. I’m not a hippie or a tree hugger who wants to ‘oh, save the world’, I’m more of a cynical person who wants to focus on the things that will make the biggest difference.
I moved from Ericsson to Vodafone in the UK and from there to InterfaceFLOR five years ago.
What are the main challenges you face?
We’ve come a long way in terms of managing our factories, but our factories only represent 10% of the whole impact of carpet. Most of the impact of carpet is in the raw material. So our main challenge is finding alternative raw materials or recycled raw materials that are cheaper than our current raw materials. That’s a huge challenge.
We have achieved this in a couple of instances, but in others we still have to pay a premium price. Our recycled fishing net yarn is such a premium product – we accept it because we think reputation or margin-wise we recover that cost.
It depends on the customer – the average carpet fitter isn’t going to pay a premium, but if you sell it to, say, PwC in London where their biggest cost by far is employees, they’re willing to pay a premium for having nice offices with a nice story behind its fittings to keep those employees happy.
I really liked these bamboo socks when I saw them in TK Maxx, but they barely lasted a couple of weeks before they wore through. Maybe I should have been alerted by the overt green marketing that I was probably buying a substandard product 'for the cause'. But I'm forced to add them to my depressingly long list of crap 'green' products.
A waste of resources, a waste of money and a reinforcement of the prevailing belief that green = poor quality. It doesn't have to, of course - as the late, great Ray Anderson of Interface said:
"There is no need to compromise either aesthetics or functionality for the sake of sustainability."
Or as I've said many times:
"You've got to compete on performance, price AND planet."
I was fascinated to read that when BMW wanted to develop its new electric car range, they set up an arms length division to prevent "sabotage". Uwe Dreher, head of marketing for the car, told the Guardian,:
"What would have happened is when technical development has been concentrated for 40 to 50 years on the internal combustion engine, it gives everyone security. It's a human condition to be afraid when people face new things and have no experience out of their comfort zone.
So we had to create a new platform. We got the power from the board and they told us to come to them if we were having problems, if people in the business wanted to kill it. It has been sitting aside as a separate structure in the company to protect it."
We have a huge amount of sunk cost in existing technologies – not just the capital sunk cost in physical plant, but also the personal sunk cost – many people in the organization have developed expertise in the technologies that define the company. If we move into innovative approaches, their expertise may no longer be useful and may become obsolete which can make people anxious.
So fear is clearly a real problem if two huge but different manufacturers have identified it as a major risk. While BMW's approach will work in product development in the short term, it is a bolt-on solution that won't serve to align the whole company to sustainability - unless they start sacking the "traditional minded" employees en masse - hardly ethical and a great loss of talent. In practice I've seen quite a few such arms-length divisions either get closed down or sold off in the name of focus, usually after a change in leadership.
The Green Jujitsu approach would be to tap into the engineering mindset at the company and train up the existing engineers in EV technology and insert them into the emerging EV teams. A mixture of peer pressure and technical curiosity is likely to bring most people along. Above this, clear leadership is required to set the overall direction of travel with the ultimate threat of "this way or the highway".
But fundamentally, sustainability must be centre stage in the business, not lurking in the wings. That's where you get stage fright.
"Hurrah!", shouted the green world, as the neonicotinoid pesticides blamed by everybody (except their producers and their political allies) for the worrying decline in bee numbers.
Bans work. Some major environmental problems have been pretty much fixed by banning the substances involved:
The Montreal Protocol banned the use of CFC refrigerants, leading to a stabilisation and slight closure in the hole in the ozone level.
The ban in leaded petrol has been credited for great improvements in local air quality - and even for the steady reduction in violent crime which has occurred since the ban.
Restrictions on DDT use have been attributed to the rebound in Bald Eagle numbers in the US (although eggs shells remain thin). A ban in lead shot fishing weights led to a massive increase in swan numbers in the UK.
What is inevitable, however, is that those threatened by a ban (and those who are against any environmental protection as a 'cost' to business) will resist, producing their own research to prove that, in the memorable title of a book on the subject, "toxic waste is good for you." This happened in response to the call to phase out DDT in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and it is happening in the neonicotinoid ban now.
This economic barrier is bunk as bans lead to innovation which is good for the economy. We still have fridges despite the CFC ban. Non-toxic 'sharkskin' anti-fouling paint was developed in response to a ban on toxic TBTs. So we shouldn't listen to the voices of 'no change'.
You don't have to wait until international authorities act, of course. Many organisations run black and grey lists of undesirable chemicals and other materials. Black listed substances must never be used, and whoever proposes a grey list chemical must make the case why it should be used over alternatives. This pre-empts legislation and makes sure the company is ahead of the curve. Some companies have added green lists of preferred chemicals too.
InterfaceFLOR deleted quite a number of carpet tile lines because of the flame retardants required by the other raw materials. The company sees ruling out toxic materials as a drive to innovate and maintain competitive advantage, so they're quite gung-ho about it.
So, over to you. What would you ban, if you could?
Years and years ago I was doing some consultancy work for the producer of a really good green product - one which managed to substitute benign natural materials for a highly aggressive and dangerous chemical. Our project was largely technical, but my main contact, the Business Development Manager, was constantly complaining about his difficulty in selling the product beyond 'The Green Niche'.
The product was sold in bog standard white plastic bottles adorned with a black and white label which looked as if it had just come out of a cheap inkjet printer, because it just had. Across the label were the words "ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY" in crude bold lettering with the actual function of the product in a smaller font underneath.
I ruminated on this for a while and put together a presentation for him (for free = mistake) based on some academic work about the development of green markets and the barriers to the mainstream. The conclusion was that mainstream customers saw 'green' as the third or fourth 'button' when making buying decisions, usually after performance and price. I recommended they promote the health & safety benefits of the product above the 'environmentally friendly' tagline as their target customers take their employees' safety very seriously - and get them printed properly.
The BDM nodded his way through my talk and said "I couldn't agree more. That's what we've been doing for years."
In my naiveté, I didn't yell "No it isn't! That's your problem! Your product might be great, but it looks like complete crap!"
It would have cost peanuts to get the labels redesigned and professionally printed, but the BDM preferred to keep blaming the buyers at his prospective customers for 'not getting it'. Nothing changed and the product failed to break into the mainstream.
The lesson here is the same one I preach about using Green Jujitsu to engage with employees - you MUST take the blinkers off and put yourself in the other guy's shoes. You may be massively proud of your green product or service, but outside the green niche, 'green' is seen as one of a number of attributes rather than the prime one.
If you want to break into the mainstream, you've got to compete on performance, price AND planet. If you find yourself blaming the people you expect to buy the product, you're on a hiding to nothing.
Last Friday I popped into a high street stationers to pick up some printer paper. They only had two packs of recycled paper and both had split crumpling some of the paper inside. None of the non-recycled paper had suffered the same, being in waxier wrapping. I asked an assistant whether they had any other packs and she said no, but that the packing on these was completely inadequate. She offered me a discount, which I took.
But this really annoys me. Green must not mean being offered inferior goods or services - especially from a big brand such as Xerox. There is no point whatsoever in lightweighting packaging if it doesn't protect the contents properly. A complete waste of time, effort and resources.
My dad often tells a story about a senior manager he used to work with who had three trays on his desk "In", "Out" and "Too Difficult". I am always reminded of this when I see sustainability staff dance around issues that they know they should really be addressing, but seem too difficult. There's always an excuse for ignoring these elephants in the room - outside our control, something for the next iteration of the strategy, we're too small to influence that etc, etc. At least my dad's colleague was being honest (if tongue in cheek).
The guys who get do sustainability properly - say InterfaceFLOR, P&G or Marks & Spencer - do it properly. They deliberately identify what the big issues are and attack them head on - no excuses. Washing powder's biggest impact is the heating of water in washing machines, so P&G formulated a product, Ariel Excel Gel, which washes in virtually cold water. InterfaceFLOR have started to build a circular economy around carpets as this is the only way they can make their supply chain sustainable, and M&S have built a supply chain for recovered polyester fibre because there wasn't one before.
If there's an elephant in the room, these guys reach for their elephant guns.
Yesterday I was delivering workshops at the Get It Sussed event in Gateshead. While for some the highlight was hanging around in the foyer with a rather sullen looking Little Mix showing no X Factor whatsoever during a fire alarm (their dark lord, Simon Cowell, was said to have been spotted as well), I was rather more starstruck by the keynote speech from Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods and Green & Black.
Sams tells a great story - from his parents growing up in the dust bowl in the 30s (flour companies started producing prettily decorated sacks as a form of marketing as it was standard practice for desperately poor farmers to upcycle them into clothes for their children) through the hippy entrepreneur days at Whole Earth to his more recent work on Green & Blacks and biochar. I took the following points away:
We are (or should be) all pioneers in this game. This takes resilience, guile and, above all, unrelenting optimism;
The product is paramount - Whole Earth peanut butter is very popular because it has a great taste, Green & Blacks because it is very rich chocolate AND they are both very sustainable;
Branding should be bold - they chose the name Green & Blacks because it was strong, easy to remember and had the hint of environment (green) and dark chocolate (black). Names with "eco" or the like in them were considered but quickly ditched;
Storytelling is a very powerful form of communication - and Sams is a master;
If you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough - he told us how at one point he had bailiffs evaluating how much his bakery was worth, but he managed to pay his tax bill just in time.
It was great stuff and very inspiring - I've heard him tell most of this story before but it was still worth sitting through again.
I love getting away from it all. Leaving all the pressures of modern living behind and getting out on the hills, travelling under my own steam, sleeping under the stars and carrying everything I need - ergonomically designed rucksack, super-lightweight tent, Polartac fleece and hat, Goretex jacket and trousers, vibram-soled boots, laminated maps, LED headlamp torch, iPhone with GPS etc.
Hardly back to nature is it, with all those hi-tech fabrics and gizmos? Of course I could choose to go wearing 'traditional' outdoor clothing (tweed, animal skins?), take nothing with a battery, and try and hunt and gather my own food, but frankly I'd rather be comfortable.
When people ask why environmental concerns are not taken more seriously by the general public, at least part of the answer is that many environmental 'solutions' presented to them are in the form of pious hairshirt austerity, or are presented as such. And the vast majority of people simply don't want to give up the comforts of modern life - can you blame them? Have you ever seen an advert that says "buy our shoes, they're less comfortable, uglier and more expensive than our competitors!"? For good reason...
Unfortunately many of the spokespeople for the 'green movement' doesn't understand this - they simply rant about how people "don't get it". The spiritual benefits of austerity may appeal to a minority, but asking people to give up on the joys of modern living is never going to get traction with the masses.
That's not to say certain 'austerity' measures can't be sold in a positive way:
Insulate your house: lower bills, fewer draughts, more comfort!
Cycle to work: get your exercise en route, save on parking, gym membership and time!
Low energy lightbulbs: lower bills, longer lasting than incandescent!
Second hand books/music/clothes: indulge in the pleasure of hunting for an obscure gem!
But what really works is products and services which are eco-friendly AND highly desirable. Buying MP3 music, ebooks and using movies on demand are all much greener than their physical equivalents - and much more convenient. When I interviewed Peter White, Global Sustainability Director of Procter & Gamble, for The Green Executive, he told me that P&G weren't interested in the green niche, they wanted to sell green to the mainstream consumer - so they had to compete on performance, price AND planet - no compromises. Wise words.
I have always been sceptical of the argument that multi-function devices like smart phones are eco-friendly by avoiding the need for a stack of equivalent individual devices (in this case MP3 players, digital cameras, wrist watches etc). I have an iPhone which did stop me purchasing a voice recorder for the interviews for The Green Executive (there was an app for that), but I already had an iPod, a digital compact camera, a watch etc, etc so the phone hasn't offset the purchases of those devices (although I am less likely to upgrade them in future).
But, for the younger generations at least, this now seems to be changing. They are increasingly living their lives around a single device. To take one example of the commercial impact of this, sales of point and click cameras were down a staggering 30% last year - a fall attributed to the use of camera phones, and no wonder - you take the picture, edit it and upload it to Facebook with just a few taps on that slick touchscreen. Even my dad has started reading the morning news on his phone, and smart phones are said to be the guitar tuner of choice amongst the younger bands.
It is probably just old fogeys like me who have spent long enough in the analogue age to have accumulated so much electronic baggage. The younger generations do not need to have as much physical stuff as we did - whether cameras, magazines or stacks of CDs - and that can only be a good thing. It is also a trend which business needs to take cognisance of - or they could end up in the same dire straits as Kodak.
There's disappointing news from the world of low emission vehicles (LEVs) - while sales of all cars were up 10% last year in the US, alternatively fuelled vehicles (incl hybrids) only rose 2.3%. In the UK, however, road fuel sales were down. This broadly suggests that people are simply driving less rather than investing a premium in a vehicle which would cost less to run overall. But it may also be fear of the new - will that electric car run out of charge half way down the M1?
The relationship between green products of any type and consumers has always been complicated - for example organic food dominates baby food sales but not 'adult food' - we're happy to eat cheap crap ourselves but won't feed it to our kids. There are many reasons for consumers being lukewarm on green products:
Costs - perceived or otherwise
Perceived low quality
Lack of understanding/fear that a new system will be complicated
I've argued for a long time that it is retail which is acting as a gatekeeper for fast moving consumer goods. Their huge buying power can both drive innovation, ensure quality and keep costs reasonable. The consumer can then trust the retailer to get it right on their behalf.
But what for other sectors? The golden rule is to put yourself in your customers' shoes. If you are aiming for a green niche then you can compromise on performance or price for a very green product. However if you want to go mainstream, you must compete on performance, price and planet.
Of course the ultimate goal is a green product that people deeply desire. MP3s and e-Books aren't marketed as green, but they are - and they sell in their millions. It may be that the auto industry needs to go through another couple of iterations before they hit that level of customer pull for LEVs - after all one technology has dominated the industry for 120 years and that it take some shifting.
When James Dyson invented the bagless vacuum cleaner, the idea didn't come out of thin air. Famously he saw a vortex system for capturing dust at a sawmill and realised it could revolutionise the vacuum cleaner market. From wood cutting to domestic cleaning - the same basic principle could be applied to both.
Most innovation is like this - very few ideas are 'new', but are 'borrowed' from other applications. Sustainability is no exception - ideas cross sectoral boundaries and there is the whole fascinating field of biomimicry which borrows from nature (why use poisonous ship anti-fouling if you can copy how shark skin does it?).
This is one reason why I don't specialise in a particular market - my clients cover transport, chemicals, defence, broadcasting, construction, engineering, health, waste, nature conservation and local government to name a few - because much of the value I bring to those clients is cross-pollinating ideas.
So, if you're looking for inspiration, don't just look inside your company, or what your competitors are doing, but be curious and look further afield. You never know where the next idea might come from.
A week or so ago my other half proudly presented me with a new kettle. "Look!" she said "It's an eco-friendly one!" And sure enough it was slathered in claims it would save 66% energy.
"Mmm", I thought, putting on my electrical engineer's hat (which is admittedly a bit dusty), "A heating element is 100% efficient, the heat capacity of water is constant, the heating time is so quick you won't get significant losses through the sides, so what could possibly be 66% more efficient?"
The answer is, with a flat element and a gauge that lets you see if you have a single cup of water inside, you can save energy by only boiling the amount if water you need. When I explained this to her, she felt she had been conned. We ended up having a long conversation about greenwash.
Here's the evidence as I see it:
For the prosecution:
An intelligent, but busy person (she has a PhD and two small kids) assumed that the kettle itself was 66% more efficient, because she's not enough of a green geek to pore over the details;
The savings are almost entirely dependent on the user (and the user frequently making single cups of tea/coffee);
The kettle hasn't changed much - probably the most significant thing was the sticker on it about energy - now gone;
As flat element kettles are getting more common, anyone could measure out a cup of water. Even with a traditional element kettle, you can use less water with a bit of care.
For the defence:
The labels clearly said that the savings would be down to you being able to use less water;
The nature of a kettle is such that the amount of water is the key factor in energy consumption;
Philips are bringing the water factor to the attention of the user;
The 66% figure came from a DEFRA study, so has third party validation.
So, you, the jury, what verdict would you give? Guilty, or not guilty?
What's the worst mistake you can make when greening your business? The fastest way to bring it to a grinding halt? Kill it for good?
Answer: make your customers take the pain.
Only a small minority of customers will compromise on the quality or price of your product or service in return for green credentials. Most will expect to to deliver on performance, price AND planet. If you can't do all three, they'll find someone who can.
So, if you can't do all three, go back to the drawing board. A dead green business helps no-one.
For years those of us in the green consumer niche have been conscientiously buying eco-products from Ecover, Bodyshop, Natural Collection etc etc - and feeling very self-righteous for doing so. Only problem is, we only represent 5-15% of consumers - the rest are either oblivious to green products or are actively suspicious of them, believing that they'll be expensive and won't work.
To achieve sustainability, we need every company to be a green company and every product to be a green product. There are two routes to this goal. The first is to try to persuade the 85-95% majority of consumers to 'see the light' and start buying green(er) products. Just one problem - go and stand in the middle of your high street or local megamarket, even in these economically straightened times, and watch how much and what people buy - how on earth are you going to change all their minds?
The second approach is to green mainstream products without asking the consumer's permission. Take Procter & Gamble, owners of the Ariel (UK) and Tide (US) brands. They launched a green range of household products in the 1990s but they didn't sell so they withdrew the products. Now P&G are re-engineering mainstream products to deliver on performance, price AND planet. Look at Ariel Excel Gel (aka Tide Coldwater) above - the packaging barely mentions the environment but check out that 15°C on the front - that makes it arguably much greener than the Ecover equivalent. Oh, and it was rated best clothes washing product ever by Which? magazine.
Or take Marks & Spencer who are producing mainstream products made of recycled PET like my umbrella (right). Again, I could have bought this without realising it was an 'eco-product' - it's just an M&S brolly and it does the job as well as any other.
This mainstreaming strategy is clearly the best way to get most people buying greener products. From the consumer's point of view it has a great additional benefit - it forces the producers of such products to deliver on price and performance too as they can't rely on the niche paying a premium price or tolerating mediocre performance. This banishes complacency, drives innovation and brings sustainable products to everyone - whether they want a 'green' product or not.
So, I would argue, the eco-product is dead, long live the eco-product!