The Rio+20 Earth Summit is only weeks away. Not that you’d notice. Apart from specialist media it doesn’t seem to have registered with anyone. Politician aren’t talking about it, Cameron is unlikely to go, business isn’t discussing it and the media are simply ignoring it. So as communicators how are we going to break through? How are we going to get readers, consumers, citizens to engage and to realise this is, by far, the most important event of 2012. An event that should aim to shape the future of our very planet and our lives upon it.
From a UK perspective this isn’t going to be easy. As I’ve mentioned, Cameron isn’t going, immediately sending the clear signal – this isn’t important. At the same time competition for our attention is great. What with the travails of the coalition, the forth coming Olympics, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, austerity and the continued trouble in Greece, and Syria. The media agenda is crowded and busy. Added to that the marketing space is fully taken up with business communications aimed at getting brands in front of people and making sales (mostly still through offers and discounts).
It would be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t think 2011 has been challenging for sustainability. The global economy is at best fragile, hugely unstable and we teeter on the brink of another global recession. In Europe, not only is the Euro under strain, the whole European project is being called into question. And in the UK our government has embarked on a seeming all out assault on the environment, with the forests debacle, the ripping up of planning laws and most recently their attempts to undermine the central wildlife and habitat protection measures. One glimmer of hope was the climate talks in Durban. But even that is all about jam tomorrow, with promises and fine talk. But we all know the action needed will be a lot harder to deliver.
2012 looks as if it will be more of the same. The economy will continue to struggle and the big sustainability moment of the year – the Rio+20 Earth Summit – already looks like it will be a non-event. More worrying is that our current crop of politicians don’t seem to be up to the task. All spouting rhetoric essentially wanting to get back to “business as usual”, and only disagreeing on the tactics.
In February 2010 the leading Sustainable Business and CSR thinker, Fabian Pattburg, wrote a blog entitled, Facebook – A useful Sustainability and CSR platform? In it he concluded that Facebook wasn’t a great platform for sustainability.
February 2010. In the world of social media that’s a lifetime ago. Or even two. So I want to suggest that in 2012 Facebook will become the central place for communications, information sharing and discussion about sustainability. And that will be true for NGO’s, businesses, the media and journalist. In fact anyone who is interested in the issues and wants to further their impact and profile. So if you’ve not got a presence on Facebook you’d better get one; and fast.
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.
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.
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.