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28 November 2014

You can't push a circular economy

Green ThreadYesterday I went to the North East Recycling Forum (NERF) Annual Conference, which as usual, punched way above its weight when it comes to speakers. We had Steve Lee, CEO of CIWM, David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SITA, Roland Arnison of AEA Ricardo and Mark Shayler of Ape giving a wide range of views from the waste industry through to the whole nature of consumption.

The broad theme of the morning was the circular economy and Steve and David started with the EU circular economy package which was adopted this year. What bothered me though, and I said so, is the provisions in the package revolve predominantly around the waste end of the linear economy - with the headline target of a recycle rate of 70%.

As Dwight D. Eisenhower put it:

Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.

The one factor which will make or break the circular economy is demand or pull. Without demand, you can try and push as much stuff into the recycling pipe as you want, but it'll be like trying to push string - or a shop full of unwanted and unsold toys. And, even indirectly, recycling target based on quantity, not quality, is unlikely to attract much enthusiasm from the manufacturing industry - the cart is being put before the horse.

If the EU changed their focus to setting standards for recycled material in products then it would create demand for high quality secondary materials. This demand, and only this, is essential to create the pull which would bend our linear economy into a circular one, driving up quality and pushing down cost. It's that simple.



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17 September 2014

The old sustainability vs growth chestnut gets another roasting

go green

Two interesting interventions caught my eye this week:

  • First of all we had Naomi Klein, of No Logo fame, wading into the climate change debate by declaring that the problem wasn't carbon but capitalism - and that all of us working with big business to facilitate change were as deluded as climate change deniers.
  • Secondly, a report from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate concluded that there was no fundamental conflict between economic growth and tackling climate change.

The two viewpoints couldn't be more different. In my view Ms Klein is on the wrong side of this argument for the following reasons:

  • Finger pointing is easy; facilitating real change is the real challenge;
  • Big business is not just going to disappear overnight because of the righteous indignation of the activist;
  • She admits she does not have an alternative practical solution to climate change (so why bother entering the debate?);
  • I was inspired to embrace sustainability by witnessing the ecological legacy of the Soviet regime in Russia - it doesn't matter whether carbon is emitted under socialism or capitalism, carbon is carbon.

But it still leads us to a fundamental question: is economic growth compatible with sustainability? And the answer from the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate is that it is. They set out a series of practical measures to harness capitalism to tackle climate change rather than trying to destroy it wholesale - for example removing the subsidies propping up the fossil fuel industry (which are estimated in the report as being six times that of the subsidy to the renewable sector).

I would go further. We must MAKE growth compatible with sustainability. A vibrant global economy is the only way we will continue to bring down the costs of, say, renewable energy technology. In conjunction with appropriate Government action on taxation, subsidies and investment, I do believe we can create a prosperous and sustainable society.

Naomi Klein's vision would take us back to mid-90s noisy inaction on the climate while the global juggernaut judders on regardless.

Which would you choose?


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8 September 2014

Fashion kills sustainability

tombstoneFor 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!



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30 June 2014

IKEA, fashion and sustainability


Last night I caught the first episode of the BBC documentary "The Men Who Made Us Spend" (if you live in the UK and you're quick, you can catch the who series on iPlayer). It was a fascinating (and balanced) history of the rise of consumerism from the 1924 Phoebus Cartel of lightbulb manufacturers (who agreed to limit the life of their products to 1000 hours when 2500 was the norm) through to those poor deluded souls who camp outside Apple Stores to be the first to get their mitts on the latest slightly better model iPhone.

The most painful moment in the episode was when presenter Jacques Peretti asked Stephen Howard, Global Head of Sustainability at IKEA, how he reconciled the company's claims of sustainability with their continued marketing of throwing away existing furniture from the famous "Chuck Out The Chintz" to the modern day "My Old Sofa is So Going to the Kerb". Poor Mr Howard could only stammer that he would ask the question of the marketing department.

This is a huge issue, not just one for IKEA - for at least 60 years the modern economy has relied on old products going out of fashion and being replaced long before they physically break, a kind of Faustian pact between consumer and producer with planetary limitations being the party pooper.

But while it is easy to deride such consumerism, the problem is that the modern capitalist model has brought fashionable clothes, furniture and vehicles to billions on low incomes - who wants to go back to the model where the moneyed classes can afford comfortable lifestyles while the majority scratch a living in homesteads and city slums? I love my tech as much as the next person, and it would be churlish of me to deny the process which has brought us huge leaps from my first computer, a BBC Model B, to my (not quite) cutting edge iPhone4.

Fortunately there are solutions. The circular economy has the power to keep materials being useful, just in different forms so function and fashion can keep moving forward. The digital economy means that we can consume huge amounts of information - movies, books, music, TV etc etc without consuming as much stuff. eBay has opened a huge market for secondhand goods, Freecycle one for freebies. And the technology which means at 210mph Porsche super car can have emissions less than that of a Prius show that planet friendly technology doesn't have to mean stuff made out of cardboard.

It's a big ask, but I think we can have our lifestyle and sustainability, if we really put our minds to it.


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29 November 2013

Build the (green) economy you wish to see

Here's the latest in the Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Build the Economy You Wish To See" - why we need to be outward looking and proactive, not insular and reactive.

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:GBC27 Build the Economy You Wish To See

You can get the whole podcast series here.


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20 November 2013

Chickens & Eggs: How to Build A New Green Supply Chain

chicken and eggIt's the classic supply chain problem - you want to switch to a more sustainable material/component/vehicle but the supply chain for that option is immature - featuring high costs, poor quality and/or low volumes. An example of a chicken and egg situation* if there ever was one - without demand, there is no supply, without supply, there is no demand.

So what do you do? Resign yourself to business as usual?

No, the key to accelerating the adolescence of a green supply chain is to create demand, which you can do in the following ways:

  • Forward commitment procurement: by saying you will buy a certain amount of that item several years in the future, suppliers will know the demand will be there and gear up the supply in anticipation - particularly if you are announcing you won't be buying any of their old product after that time;
  • Collaborate with others to create cumulative demand. The European Postal Services did this to accelerate the commercialisation of hydrogen vehicles by announcing a joint forward commitment;
  • Lateral thinking: find other uses of that item internally to create demand. Marks & Spencer started buying low grade recycled polyester fibre in bulk for uses such as cushion filling - this demand brought down the price of the high-grade recycled fibre they were after for clothing by getting material flowing through the loop in the first place.

A fourth technique is to invest directly in the supply chain to smooth out kinks and improve processes. While this can help speed up the process, the new supply chain will only survive if the demand is there. So at the end of the day, you must create demand.

* And, yes, I know the egg did come before the chicken in reality (think dinosaurs), in the same way as demand must always precede supply.
BASS C loresMy latest book, Building A Sustainable Supply Chain, is available from DoSustainability. Use the code BSS15 to obtain a discount before 6 December 2013. You can read an extract here and join in our free webinar on 27 November 2013 to celebrate the book's publication.


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28 October 2013

Tesla: The Apple of Greentech

Remember what smartphones were like before the iPhone? Fiddly keyboards, nests of menus and terrible web navigation. Then along came Steve Job's little shiny slab of cool and the market, and arguably society, were transformed. As every hagiography of Jobs reminds us, it was that constant drive to produce 'insanely great' products that work for the user (rather than the programmer) that delivered this mobile computing transformation.

I can't help but see a parallel with Tesla motors - insanely great products that people love, driven by an outspoken entrepreneur, Elon Musk, and just happen to be the greenest cars on the road. With the original Roadster, the company bucked the trend for dull, utilitarian electric vehicles by launching a sports car whose acceleration terrified petrol head Jeremy Clarkson (before he pretended it broke down). Now with the Model S, they've produced a saloon which has single handedly boosted US EV sales by 447% in a single year, tackling the 'fiddly keyboard' of the electric car world - range anxiety - with 310 miles in the tank battery. Musk's uncompromising vision, like Jobs, has set the bar high enough to finally make this revolution happen.

And the lesson for the rest of us? To succeed, green products and services must be insanely great. Full stop.


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25 October 2013

Green: The New Normal

grass feet small

If I told you about a country where, last quarter, more than a third of all electricity was generated from low carbon sources, which one do you think I'd be talking about?

Well I'm sat in it, and so are many of you: dear old Blighty.

Household recycling rates are nudging the 45-50% mark, depending on where you are in the country.

All this from what was 'the dirty man of Europe'? The one where renewable sources barely registered on energy statistics just a couple of years ago? The one with the throw-away culture?

As Fat Boy Slim would say, we've come a long way, baby.

What's interesting is that nobody has really noticed. Green is becoming the new normal. So much so that some organic food/drink producers now don't label their product as such in case consumers assume it's a niche product at a premium price. They just want it to be seen as a great product in a normal way.

And that's a good thing.

Some green ideologues may cry foul, saying that that this isn't deep green enough, but asking people to live in tie-dyed yurts, meditating on ley lines and knitting yoghurt, will get you nowhere.

Normal, everyday, mundane even - that's the ultimate green goal.


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23 October 2013

Interview with Ramon Arratia, Interface

RamonRamon 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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18 October 2013

The Quiet Green Revolution

Gareth Kane BigEcoShow
Yesterday I opened the BigEcoShow at the Stadium of Light in Sunderland. My address was entitled "The Quiet Green Revolution" - reflecting on the scale of the changes happening already on the green agenda, and the need to develop more quality green products and services to bring sustainability to the mainstream. You can listen to my speech here:

Audio MP3

paultaylor camira

I was followed by keynote speaker Paul Taylor of Camira fabrics which is one of those fabulous green companies that no-one has ever heard of. In my favourite case study, the company took a month's worth of jute coffee sacks from Starbucks, made them into a fabric and sold it back to the company so they could use it on seating in four new outlets (this 'product with a story' is a theme which I think will grow in coming years). It is companies like Camira who are making that quiet green revolution happen.

Photos © Gavin Forster Photography



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11 October 2013

Whose Footprint Are You Part Of?

preferred supplier cropped


On Monday, I spoke at the inaugural Preferred Supplier event at the Design Centre in Gateshead. My speech was entitled "Whose footprint are you part of?" - about responding to customer demand for improved environmental performance.

I recorded my 13min speech and you can hear it here:

Audio MP3

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9 October 2013

The 'cost of living crisis' is ecological


The UK's political conference season was dominated by a debate over the 'cost of living crisis'. Labour leader Ed Miliband blamed this on a lack of competition in energy markets and pledged to freeze prices should he take power in 2015. Right-wing Conservative MPs countered that the rise in energy prices has been due to the green taxes implemented by Miliband when he was energy and climate change Secretary and his Liberal Democrat successors.

Unfortunately neither claim stands up to much scrutiny - the evidence suggests the problem is much more fundamental than that.

First of all competition - the big 6 energy producers do not make excessive profits, at around 5-7% they are comparable to the big 4 supermarket chains which operate in a ferociously competitive market. Secondly, green taxes account for less than 10% of energy bills - and a proportion of that pays for energy efficiency programmes without which average energy bills would be even higher.

Look instead at the MGI commodity index (which includes energy, food and minerals) in the graph above. Having spent the 20th Century falling, commodity prices have soared in the 21st. Some blame this on speculation by investors, but prices have been on the up for over a decade now, a strong trend unlikely to be caused by short term financial manoeuvring in the markets.

I believe, the only explanation left for such an uptick is that supply is simply struggling to keep up with demand - our consumption is rubbing up against ecological limits. So maybe our politicians need to broaden their thinking and their policies - and the rest of us, too.


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7 October 2013

Blossom or fade away?

The economy changes.

Sometimes it evolves slowly.

Sometimes it changes fast.

But more often there is a slow evolution up to a tipping point and, then, BOOM.

This can be in a niche area, such as the almost complete replacement of virgin glycerol by biodiesel byproducts. Or it can be on a massive scale, such as the high street meltdown caused by internet shopping and the associated shift to digital entertainment - MP3s, eBooks, movies on demand etc.

But with the big buyers - the big retailers and the public sector - shifting from low impact suppliers to high impact suppliers, some companies are going to see huge opportunities and others existential threats.

So are you ready to bloom in the new green economy, or are you just going to fade away with the old?



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27 September 2013

Strategy Secrets of the Sustainability Masterminds

undercroft sustainability mastermind group

On Tuesday we had the fifth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) - the small group of senior sustainability executives from large organisations which I facilitate on a quarterly basis. We met in what was probably our best location yet, the Undercroft at the Live Theatre Newcastle. Most of the room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships. It has been used for storing flammable materials, French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars and those press-ganged into the Navy - certainly the huge thick metal doors gave the place a slight penitentiary feel.

I was press-ganging the members into discussing next generation sustainability strategies - a massive topic which we are going to continue next time. The Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, but here are some highlights:

  • Most organisations need to shift from an organisation focussed strategy to a product focussed strategy;
  • That shift means engaging with the market and addressing supply chains are essential steps;
  • A sustainability strategy must be built around the business drivers for that organisation – so a meaningful understanding of drivers is a prerequisite;
  • Stretch targets raise sights and broaden thinking – however they must remain credible;
  • Won’t achieve the endpoint without breaking the journey down into intermediate steps;
  • Is the Brundtland definition of sustainability ambitious enough? Should we not want to improve the world for future generations?
  • But in such net positive thinking, how do you make sure you don’t cheat and claim others' efforts for yourself?
  • At what point do sustainability and business strategies converge into one? They will inevitably do so;
  • Communicate the strategy using big clear statements, underpinned by clarifying statements, data and caveats;
  • What you stop doing is as important, if not more so, as what you start doing.

As always, the real benefit was how we got to these generic points - and the examples of company specific challenges and shortcuts members threw in to the discussion.

The CoSM Group is for senior sustainability managers in large organisations which meets quarterly in great locations for open and frank discussion - and NO Powerpoint. If you'd like to learn more, please drop me a line.


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9 September 2013

Does big = bad?

schumacher-small-is-beautifulLast Thursday I had a fantastic night's debate at the Green Thinkers book club run by my friend Marek Bidwell. Up for discussion was one of the seminal books of the environmental movement, Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher - a 1973 paean to organisations and institutions being of the 'right size' rather than growing too big. Growth is a major theme of the book, as Schumacher was one of the first to challenge the GNP/GDP obsession of our times.

And a great debate we had too, ably chaired by Marek fuelled by local real ales - most of which I argued weren't about 10 years ago showing that 'going large' isn't a one-way street. But does big = bad?

While I love the great green-niche entrepreneurs out there, and the diversity they bring to the market, there's one things the big boys have which they don't - buying power. If Walmart, Unilever or Tesco, so much as twitch, the ripples spread out across the world. If they invest in a new technology, its price plummets. They have the power to shape the entire economy and many of them are starting to understand the full depth of the responsibility that goes with that power.

Building those supply chains and bringing technologies forward can have interesting side effects. There was an interesting piece on Dara O'Briain's Science Club on how games consoles like the Kinect and the Wii have brought down the price of certain sensors to a level where specialist equipment for people with severe disabilities becomes viable. In the same way, if Marks & Spencer creates a supply chain for recycled polyester thread or Unilever cracks the sustainable palm oil problem, it's an opportunity for everyone big and small.

Maybe big can be beautiful after all.


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14 August 2013

Mark Carney's not the only one giving 'forward guidance'...

Mark CarneyCanadian financial rockstar Mark Carney has taken up his post as Saviour Governor of the Bank of England and revealed his secret weapon (drum roll...) forward guidance. What this means in practice is that the BoE will set out the conditions for changing interest rates so investors can understand the risks better and make their investments more confidently. Simple, but apparently very effective.

And it turns out that he is not the only one using this technique. One of the biggest impediments of greening the supply chain is the old 'chicken and egg' situation. If there's no demand for a greener product or material, there's no supply. And if there's no supply, well you get it...

The Carneyesque solution is 'forward commitment procurement' - tell the market what you will want in the future, how much and by when. Then suppliers can gear up to supply that need, knowing that the demand will be there - and that demand for the conventional solution will fall. The European Postal Services did this for hydrogen-powered vans and HM Prison Service is doing it for 'zero-waste mattresses'.

Like all the best solutions, simple but clever.

Image: World Economic Forum

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10 July 2013

Copy This! Kyocera's CSR day in Manchester

PS-Kyocera-Launch Two 3

Yesterday I was at Kyocera's CSR day in their brand new Manchester offices, featuring some great guest speakers from Green Alliance and Forum for the Future amongst others as well as Tracey Rawlings Church, the company's own CSR guru. There was plenty of red meat for the sustainability practitioner here, these are the points that resonated with me:

  • The twentieth century was one of resources getting cheaper - those days have gone;
  • The long trumpeted product-service system is coming of age. For example, Rolls Royce now provide propulsion services by the hour rather than selling jet engines;
  • There is massive scope to add services (and value) to a product to produce a product service system e.g. building a document management system around a print/copier;
  • However there is a need to educate buyers in such business models as tenders are often written with buying a particular technology as a capital item in mind;
  • One solution for this is 'outcomes based procurement' where the buyer specifies what they need (eg holes) rather than how to get it (eg drills);
  • Some technological solutions are very simple. Kyocera has pioneered triangular solar panels so an array can be installed to cover an entire face of a hip roof neatly - more efficient and more aesthetically pleasing than using rectangular panels only;
  • Likewise, the company's copiers/printers can be disassembled with just 17 screws - all the same size so you only need one screwdriver;
  • But to make the circular economy work, we need better recovery technologies - many rare earth metals are very difficult to recover;
  • There is an important role for pro-sustainability lobbying/awareness raising in other organisations to enable sustainable business models;
  • Transparency is a great ethical driver.

I had kind of given up on 'expert presentation' events, but I've been to some really excellent ones such as this recently, so I'm starting to reconsider my rather grouchy position and getting out a bit more.


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20 May 2013

Book Review - The Green Book: New Directions For Liberals in Government

green-bookI've been a member of the UK's third political party, the Liberal Democrats, for the best part of a decade - and an elected Councillor here in Newcastle for most of that time (full disclosure!). When I first joined, the party seemed so far from power that its earnest and sometimes fiery debates on policy seemed somewhat quaint, but the 2010 General Election changed everything.

With no clear majority for either the incumbent Labour Party or the opposition Conservatives, the decision to go into coalition with the latter, on the grounds they got more of the vote than anyone else, sent shockwaves through the party, the 'Westminster bubble' and the electorate. Suddenly what the Lib Dems did or said meant something - for better or worse.

The central thrust of this new tome, The Green Book, is that the party should focus on its strong reputation on environmental issues to define the next stage in its history. The editors make the case on three grounds:

  • Moral: many environmental pressures are now hitting critical levels and the time for action is now;
  • Economic: a green economy could rescue the UK economy from its current torpor;
  • Political: as the Conservatives' initial ambition for 'the greenest Government ever' has faded, the Lib Dems have continued to fly the flag, providing clear green water between the coalition parties.

What follows is a collection of 31 essays designed to set out a vision for eco-liberalism, as distinct from the eco-socialism championed by the Green Party. The authors are predominately MPs and party insiders, but many of the latter are sustainability professionals in their day jobs, and they are augmented by heavyweight guest authors. As a result, the majority of the pieces are intellectually hefty pieces of work, going way beyond the usual political blandishments. Here are some of the key themes I distilled:

  • The need for political leadership: across the UK economy, companies are sitting on mountains of cash which could be invested into greentech, if they the confidence to do so;
  • The need for a narrative: too much of the environmental debate has consisted of barrages of data and statistics, we need a narrative to take people with us on the quest for sustainability;
  • The need to sell the wider benefits of a green economy as well as the risks of inaction: energy security, rebalancing the economy, job creation etc;
  • The need to tackle the (politically more difficult) demand side of the economy as well as the supply side;
  • The need to understand and work with prevailing culture: "Persuading people to change their behaviour is, in general, only likely to succeed when it goes with the grain of their lifestyles and beliefs." (fits with my concept of Green Jujitsu);
  • The need for finance: for example, 3% of companies in the Cambridge greentech cluster have venture capital funding, compared to 36-40% in sectors such as healthcare or IT;
  • The need for policy integration: only the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) sees a green economy as more than a standalone issue, the need to see resource management as more than a waste issue etc;
  • The need to break up vested interests and cartels to open up markets and devolve solutions to the local level.

Given there are more than two dozen authors, the book provides a smorgasbord of potential solutions to these issues rather than a tightly defined manifesto. The ideas range from high level principles, most well understood in the sustainability sector such as the circular economy, to some quite specific solutions, such as how to allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow to invest without upsetting national finances. There is however a significant job left to do to weave these together into a cohesive whole and, more importantly, develop that narrative to make a compelling case to the electorate - we're still deep in policy wonk territory here.

Obviously this is a party political publication, and non-party supporters will have to put up with a degree of Lib Dem braggadocio, but there's plenty of red meat in here for environmental policy geeks no matter what their political viewpoint. As many psephologists are predicting another coalition Government after the 2015 election, and the party leadership has adopted its key thrust, The Green Book could become very influential indeed.


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3 May 2013

Can you design a green economy?

Darwin monkeyYou only have to see the repercussions of the 'Arab Spring' to see that revolutions are inherently unstable. Yet we constantly call for a 'revolution' in sustainability.

Evolution is stable, but slow. Nature itself took over a billion years to come up with a stable, sustainable environment which could support a diversity of life.

The internet 'revolution' of the mid nineties was over 20 years in the making - waiting for a number of key technologies to mature.

Far too many big green ideas seem to involve trying to 'redesign' chunks of the economy - cf the Hydrogen economy. And like the hydrogen economy they tend to fail.

On the other hand, evolution is slow, and in terms of climate and biodiversity in particular we don't have much time to waste.

So how do you accelerate evolution?

In economic terms, anything that boosts demand which produce change much more quickly than any other intervention - see how the costs of solar PV plummeted as Feed-In Tariffs produced a domestic market for a technology which was previously a specialist niche. Marks & Spencer boosted demand for recovered polyester fibre by using low grade material in bulk in cushion filling etc which brought down the price of high grade fibre for clothing.

That's not to say that business and Governments shouldn't intervene in supply chains when there is a key sticking point. But they shouldn't try to 'design' a whole green economy as one thing is sure - they'll get it wrong.


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26 April 2013

Triple Dips, GDP and Sustainability

George_osborne_hiAll eyes were on UK Chancellor George Osborne yesterday as the first quarter's GDP growth results were released. If they were negative, then we would have been in a 'triple-dip' recession - don't you love the way it rolls off the tongue - which would be terrible, and if positive then everything's absolutely fantastic. It went positive and George sighed a big sigh of relief.

The whole hoo-hah over the figures of course is nonsense. The definition of recession - two negative quarters in a row - has absolutely no economic significance in itself. Statistically the UK economy has been flatlining for 18 months, and whether or not we hit the accepted definition of recession or not in this period makes little practical difference.

All this makes me think about the growth/no growth debate in the sustainability world. If this is what zero growth feels like, then nobody seems particularly happy with it. My argument is that we've never really tried to decouple GDP and, say, carbon emissions, so we don't know whether the two are locked together as tightly as the no-growth proponents claim.

Which leads on to GDP itself. The big problem with this being the dominant measure of progress is that it treats all economic activity as equal whether that activity is highly socially/environmentally damaging or whether it adds value to society and the natural world. If we could get a better definition of GDP that focussed on 'good' economic activity, then the growth/no growth argument might become redundant.

Another aspect of the weakness of GDP was flagged up on BBC's Today programme early yesterday morning. The debate was how come employment was increasing if there was no growth. Economist Prof Jonathan Haskell of Imperial Business School explained that method of calculating GDP used in the UK was developed in the grimy post-war times of Keynes and doesn't handle 'production' from the modern knowledge economy. If we switched to the system used by the US, growth would leap by 1% - which would make George a very happy boy indeed.

But the implications of that current system is that relatively clean industries like software (and by extension the whole lightweight digital economy) don't register as growth whereas old smokestack industries and resource intensive sectors like construction do - a perverse incentive. So, go on, Georgie boy, change the system and make us all happy.


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