In the past few days I have been involved in two starkly different but strangely related events. The Unilever and Guardian Sustainable Business’ Sustainable Living Debate: Mainstream or pipedream? And Sony and Forum for the Future’s Futurescapes workshop. I found both events to be inspiring and yet limiting at the same time. To bring optimism and despair.
The Unilever event looked at the question of how in relation to changing consumer behaviour. Can and will consumers change their behaviour? How can businesses and brands enable and encourage them to do so? Of course the one overriding imperative here is that we as society and business as the creators and wealth and profit are finally beginning to wake up to the reality of a severely resourced constrained world. Though like any addict; we’ve taken the first step of finally admitting we have a habit but are yet to kick that habit. And if we understand that imperative I’m not sure we have yet grasped the second imperative. That we are now talking about the need for radical and sustained action in years and not decades.
It’s been a good couple of weeks for communicators who happen to be fans of The Archers on BBC Radio 4. Hasn’t the on-going story line of Pat and Tony Archers’ business falling off the cliff and almost taking Tom’s – their son – sausage business with it been fascinating?
For those of you who are not quite up to speed on this here is a short résumé. Thanks to Clarrie Grundy returning to work in the dairy too soon after an illness, some of Pat and Tony’s customers picked up an e-coli infection from eating Bridge Farm yoghurt. Two children ended up seriously ill in hospital. It was big news. Sales dropped, customers deserted them and supermarket contracts were cancelled. The Bridge Farm brand became toxic, and infected their veg business and Tom’s sausages.
I was recently the guest of a local Fairtrade group. The subject under discussion was ethical consumption. It was brought about because of the understanding by the group that a simple answer, such as buy Fairtrade, is no longer a good enough response (other independent certification systems are available – he says in a BBC kind of way). What does “buy Fairtrade” actually mean for today’s consumer? And with more and more big brands using the Fairtrade label is all Fairtrade the same?
Today sees another report confirming a rise in global mean surface temperatures. It is yet another report completely unable to disprove the impact that humans are having on that temperature rise (natural fluctuations accepted). Yet our government dithers. Worse, the recent speech by George Osborne, addressing the Tory faithful, and the subsequent about face by his junior energy ministers, shows that not only are elements of this Coalition Government beginning to see the need to take action as being too expense, many are now openly hostile to any action on climate change and the requisite planned transition to a low carbon economy that must follow. Ideology trumping evidence once more.
When do you reach the limits of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)? There are a number of leading companies in the UK who are building a strong reputation and leadership credentials in the CSR and business sustainability debate. Many of them are doing some great things and delivering real impact. This leadership comes from across different sectors of the UK economy and includes some of the UK’s most familiar companies; M&S and Unilever to name but two.
Another company who has been showing leadership is BSkyB. Today (Wednesday) they have announced a 32 per cent rise in operating profits for the three months to 30th September. A recession busting performance. But it’s not their financial performance that concerns me. It’s their governance.
I thought I’d return to the subject of working from home. A recent survey from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) may have surprised many when it revealed that the vast majority of us commuted for less than half an hour a day. But it also hid some other interesting facts. Firstly that most of our commuting is by car, about 70 per cent. And that those that commuted further tended to be paid more. I would imagine that a lot of this was because of people commuting in and out of London and people on bigger salaries have more choice as to where they live. As someone who doesn’t have to commute every day I tend to look on the prospect of having to fight to get on a train (and for me the privilege of paying of £40 to be crammed uncomfortably into a carriage to stand with my nose in someone’s armpit for the 30 minute trip into London) or sit for hours in a traffic jam, to be utterly horrific.
Last week was Green Office Week. Did you notice? A part from a couple of mentions on twitter me neither. I think we can safely say that as a campaign to get us all thinking about our working lives in the office and the impact we are having on the environment it didn’t really break through. Considering so many of us spend so much time in the office; lights on, air conditioning at full pelt while the heating remains turned up, computers, printers and photocopies left on all night – you know the story, it is a shame this week didn’t get more attention. Then again in the week when the big environmental news in the UK was “will he or won’t he” about David Cameron and the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change’s 4th budget it was always going to have to shout loud for attention.
I’ve been in a number of meetings in recent weeks where I’ve heard a number of professionals in the Corporate Social Responsibility and sustainability industries (I choose my words carefully) talk about how sustainability is moving from it being a CSR issue within companies to being mainstreamed in the way people do business. And I think to myself; is this really true?
I’m lucky enough to sitting in my hotel in Nicaragua writing this blog. The hotel basks in the warming sun and 300C heat in Granada on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Central America’s biggest lake. And the city of overlooked by the stunning Mombacho volcano. But I’m not here for a holiday but for work (I know it’s tough but someone’s got to do it). Part of that work is to look at a coffee farm which has been certified by the Rainforest Alliance and to see for myself the sustainability benefits this brings. But what has been really striking to me is how a farmer farming coffee here in Nicaragua has problems keeping the farm operating as a viable economic unit. Problems that would find resonance with many farmers in the UK. And how sustainability is part of securing the future, but only if the farmer is also able to get more value out of, and become more powerful in, the supply chain.
First of all a confession. I’ve broken one of my own golden rules. When I started this blog in 2010 I boldly set out what I thought were the principles of good blogging for business. One was to keep your blog up to date by making regular entries. I had in mind at least once a week, if not more. So what happened in February? I failed to take my own advice and in a very busy month this blog slipped off the agenda. An easy mistake, but one we should be seeking to avoid. Well life is going to remain busy for a while so let’s see how I get on.
I’m returning to the issues of the ICT sector and its place in the sustainability debate with this blog. Increasingly we are all falling in love with our laptops, phones, tablets and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. While much of the bright uplands of a sustainable future are based upon a vision of a hi-tech world replacing things such as the need to constantly travel. And while the dream of a paperless office may still be a distant one that networked, cloud computing world in which business in conducted in an efficient, “speed of light” way, involving less resources, is still dangled tantalisingly in front of us.