Mar 122014

Greenpeace and the good people at Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight are right to hold Tesco to account for wriggling out of its sustainable tuna pledge (see Cheap, untraceable tuna has no place on supermarket shelves if we are to save this precious resource from collapse. But consumers need to do more than simply ask for brands like Oriental & Pacific to be delisted.

A few years ago, I brokered a deal between Greenpeace and a large Ecuador-based tuna firm. As part of the process of building relations, my client agreed to investigate what it would in fact cost them to provide so-called ‘FAD-free’ tuna (caught without the use of fish aggregation devices). This meant working out how much fish each boat in their fleet would catch, and calculating whether the crew, fuel and additional trip length cost could be justified. It could, but only if the market price for the tuna in question increased by a factor of at least seven, as each vessel would catch far less fish.

Western consumers never pay the true price of their food to incorporate the environmental costs of production and tuna is no exception. Were the big operators like O&P to insist on FAD-free tuna, Tesco would need to be able to sell it on at about £14 a tin, rather than the ‘great deal’ £2 offer you would find in stores today. Consumers would never pay that price, so Tesco, and its fish processors, would need to absorb the bulk of the true cost if it was serious about marine conservation. The chances of that are, of course, nil. For as long as we insist on eating cheaply produced rubbish that takes no account of the price we should actually pay to preserve renewable resources for the future, the demise of tuna stocks, and much other ‘natural capital’, is entirely inevitable.

Dec 282013

Next year many will opine endlessly and deliriously about the success of environmentalism in changing business. There will be so-called ‘game changing think pieces’ (yes, such a phrase really exists) about ‘innovative disruption’ and many other suspect hallmarks of the sustainability movement I have documented often enough. There will be conferences, rankings, social media campaigns and Harvard Business Review case studies of how business is changing the world. 95% of them will be insufferable nonsense, eagerly lapped up by the lazy, the ineffectual and the wide-eyed rabbits that have progressively colonized the green movement in recent years.

Personally, in 2014 I’m only interested in things that are demonstrably making a difference. I’ll be looking for more companies and governments committing to zero-deforestation, preferably with The Forest Trust (TFT) or other comparable bodies, if there are any, that actually lead companies to turning off bulldozers and protecting biodiversity. I’ll be looking for oil companies abandoning, for good, Arctic exploration (I have a possibly naïve hope that Shell will do this, under shareholder pressure). I want companies to commit to never buying fuel that comes from this pristine eco-system. We need more commitments of the kind most recently made by Wilmar, the palm oil giant. And bold leadership from CEOs who, in the absence of political will and NGO unity, must become campaigners themselves, like it or not. Some (Branson, Polman, King et al) already are.

I’d like to see a clear environmental analysis of fracking, a robust assessment of how much of the world’s only source of renewable protein (fish) might be saved by marine reserves, and progress on global climate talks (I’m not holding my breath). I hope to see smarter economic analysis, properly communicated, of the transition from our dead carbon economic cul-de-sac (fossil fuel) to the potential for a living carbon, cellulose-based global economy. Not in slogans or hyperbole, but facts, based on evidence. I hope to see Greenpeace, the only really effective global campaigning NGO, claim more scalps and an even greater share of NGO media coverage. I’m sure they will. They are brave, bold, and usually right. We need more of this.

What I’m ignoring completely next year are companies boasting ridiculous accolades such as ‘GRI 4 compliance’. Recently, a casino firm called Caesar’s achieved the endorsement of this box-ticking claptrap, despite the fact the company’s mission is to encourage addictive gambling whilst its catering empire includes Nobu restaurants, which serve up endangered Bluefin tuna (an IUCN red-listed species). Beyond parody, Nobu informs customers of the fact that what they are eating will soon be gone. It’s written on the menu. Anyone that hails (pardon the pun) Caesars as a sustainability or ‘CSR’ success story is, in my book, either gullible or a greenwasher. It will happen, I promise you.

I’ll be turning a blind eye to all idiotic half-baked claims about ‘consumer behaviour change’, unless backed by hard evidence of that concept beloved by green academics but practiced by virtually no-one. And there’s no point in being a ‘green’ business if you are unable to remain profitable or popular with your customers (M&S, poster child for yurt-based Masters Students, springs to mind).

On that note, I unwittingly bought, via a friend who was heading there, some bin bags from M&S recently, that came pre-wrapped in, er, a plastic bag, instead of the usual card wrap-around. Not very ‘Plan A’ is it. Even that ‘icon’ has some way to go, not just in getting people to buy its clothes so they bother to ‘shwop’ them, but also by putting its rubbish bags in something that isn’t, when it arrives, already guaranteed rubbish, destined only for the landfill heap. It was a ‘scented’ bin bag roll, as it turned out, which must explain the need for the plastic wrapping. But do we need scented bin bags if we’re going to ‘disrupt’ and ‘innovate’? I think not. And my kitchen now smells like a dental surgery.

If the green business case still depends on M&S, a modest retailer in size and commercial performance, all these years after Plan A, we’re in some trouble. They’ve done way more than pretty much anyone else, yet M&S remains a bit like T’Pau or a-Ha. Everyone loves them but no-one quite remembers why. And a few years in, no-one can name more than a couple of big hits.

I’m also not interested in more and more companies or producers getting ‘certified’. It’s obvious to any vaguely independent observer that certification of the world’s natural resources is at best rewarding the ‘ just about ok’ whilst ignoring the majority of the world’s resource production, which continues to exploit and denude at will, fuelled by market demand. Eco-labels and certified produce is mostly about placing a stamp of approval on the small proportion of the world’s trading economy that was, for various reasons, already operating vaguely as it should. Sometimes it even rewards stuff that shouldn’t be given any green or social accolade. It’s not actually changing a single thing on the scale needed. Look at the world’s forests, fisheries, and agricultural production. Labels everywhere (around 30 between them I think), yet the fate of all three worsening by the hour.

Lastly, I will no longer engage in any discussion with sustainability ‘academics’, who give unwitting credence by association to JK Galbraith’s observation that if all the world’s economists were to die tomorrow, it would make no difference whatever to the global economy. I lost too much time debating with a ‘climate academic’ about air travel in 2013. Never again – I’d have been better off wasting my time on a monocycle trying to get to Asia than engaging in such futile discussion. If you can be bothered, the debate will be published in the New Internationalist in the New Year, but frankly I’d spend your time on something far more useful!

Whether we work in business, NGOs, government or elsewhere, 2014 and beyond are about demonstrable, measurable action. We’ve been talking for decades, and achieved almost nothing. It’s time to stop kidding ourselves and to focus on the battles we can still win, before it’s too late. Now is the moment for fresh thinking, a quickie divorce from NGO/sustainability world comfort zones, and a permanent abandonment of tired old clichéd mantras based on little practical understanding of the world’s real challenges. Most of all, we need to take the big issues one at a time and fix them. Not shielding under the umbrella of cosy concepts, frameworks and slogans. Actually out there arguing for change and progress, issue by issue. That’s what I’ll be doing in 2014. So I won’t see you on the CSR conference circuit or even very much on this blog. I’ll either be near an ocean, forest, or in a boardroom. I hope to see you there, not here. Happy New Year!

Nov 122013

As an avid Twitter user (@bmay), I follow trends in sustainability with interest, and tune in to the daily green business chatter that pervades my timeline.  Much of it is hugely valuable as a source of news. But increasingly, I find myself tuning back out of much of the discussion due to the sheer volume of meaningless jargon that is proliferating the social media sphere. Insofar as I can make it out, the sustainability business community is now striving for something that could be amalgamated as this:

‘Net Positive Futuristic Collaboratively Consumptive Crowd-Sourced Natural Capitalist Disruptively Innovative Systems Game-Changing Business Radicalism’.

I do hope I haven’t misunderstood – it’s crystal clear to me.

Except of course that it isn’t, and I’ve worked in this field for over fifteen years, and plan to continue doing so until my last breath. More importantly, none of this is resonating outside the cosy sustainable business community, which is possibly rivalled only by the Vatican in terms of its inward-looking ability to speak entirely to itself. Occasionally, a new convert is picked off from a shoddy or unheard of company, and everyone congratulates themselves on how well the ‘movement’ is doing. It’s doing appallingly badly, in my view. Particularly considering its size and collective weight.  All those NGOs, think tanks, ranking systems, awards, conferences, publications, retreats, multi-stakeholder platforms (there’s a phrase for you) and social media attention. With what result? A handful of businesses on a journey to somewhere with almost no-one outside the CSR world aware of any of it. I’d like to see a metric that regards this as a success story.

There is also a growing yawn factor in the same companies being trumpeted on the same conference circuit all the time. We all know who they are, and many of them are indeed very impressive. But do we really need to hear from that retailer or FMCG company again? Granted, these leaders have a role in persuading others to follow them. But the events at which they do so are set up in the wrong way, targeting the wrong people. 300 junior CSR Managers eagerly lapping up the words of one or two actually interesting and progressive CEOs or Sustainability Directors, despite all their good intentions, aren’t going to save the world.

It’s time to simplify the sustainability movement, bin the jargon and focus on outcomes. Whenever my eyes are glazing over at the drivel spouted by some academics, practioners and NGOs on Twitter, there are occasionally flashes of light. Simple, powerful concepts. We don’t want Arctic Oil, thanks. We don’t want deforestation. We won’t tolerate corporate thugs putting campaigners in prison. We want sustainable fish to sustain the billions who depend on it for protein. We want healthy soils so we don’t run out of food. We want abundant and varied wildlife enriching our natural resources. And yes, we want brave business leaders to develop strong points of view, champion these issues, and do the right thing.

What we don’t need is any more ‘framing’ (another irritating word, up there with ‘narrative’). Systems re-design; CSR 4.0; planetary engine optimization. Do you like the last one? I made that up as a joke, but I have great faith I could get some traction for it quite easily if I could be bothered. But it would be a huge waste of my time, and everyone else’s.

Out there (by which I mean away form the sustainability business circuit) no-one’s really listening. Consumers want things done simply for them, making the best environmental choice easy to identify. ‘Consumer behaviour change’, that loathesome half-baked concept, is not going to persuade the pension funds invested in Shell to get out. It won’t stop companies destroying Africa for new palm oil development, or alter the flow of Chinese finance that is altering the world’s resource ownership. It also won’t stem the race for middle class status that is well underway in emerging giant powerhouses like Indonesia. It won’t stop temperature rises, and it won’t even elect governments that are vaguely interested in the future, except by accident, occasionally. We should bin it and banish it from our ‘narrative’ (oops).

We’d do better to focus on where the big impacts lie – in the huge business to business transactions, the trading and commodities world, the financial institutions that must bear responsibility not just for economic collapse but ecological ruin, and the giant conglomerates that are slow to change, but vastly important when they do. I don’t hear much of this on Twitter or at conferences. What I hear is new terminology, new phrases for things that are blindingly obvious. I hear about how brands have great power and can make all the difference. They certainly have power: quite often a consumer boycott campaign leads to sales of whatever is being boycotted going up. Where does that leave your behaviour change, eh?

I hear very few new ideas. Everyone is too busy trying to be clever, as opposed to getting on with the job and changing things.  I don’t hear any insights about WHY forest governance is difficult in some countries or how to create marine reserves that benefit fishermen. I learn about what forums and frameworks might be deployed. They nearly always fail. Those kinds of critical issues are of course being tackled, but seldom by the ‘practioners’ who bang on about them.  The real progress is happening far away from summits on behaviour change, where the air is hot enough to give runaway climate change a run for its money. The real progress is being made by organisations and companies who would regard a CSR conference as a poor use of resources.  And all this, I believe, is why specialist journals like this aside, there is such woeful mainstream media coverage of the responsible business agenda. It’s boring, it’s repetitive, and a lot of it is downright nonsense.

Eric Hoffer once said, ‘Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket. The ‘#sustbiz’ movement has reached the first two milestones. It should avoid the third if it wishes to remain relevant. And anyway, there’s a very good old world for all this: environmentalism. It’s barely ever used. Perhaps it got crowdsourced out.

This article first appeared in

Oct 302013

This article was first published in Business Green, in July 2013. Sadly, given Shell’s partnership with Gazprom and the unjust detention of the Arctic 30, it’s even more relevant than it was three months ago.

If Shell executives thought things had gone a bit quiet after the delay to their Arctic joyride last summer, they were soon corrected when the Greenpeace Shard protest happened. Shell isn’t entirely stupid when it comes to future energy challenges. There are probably worse companies around. Which is why its continued bungling over the Arctic, infamous not just among environmentalists, but noted by the Financial Times and other defiantly non sandal-wearing institutions, is so extraordinary.

Shell does not understand that increasing numbers of citizens around the world are unwilling to tolerate its gamble into one of the last great pristine corners of the planet. Investors are none too thrilled either – a deep sea drilling accident in the Arctic would make BP’s Deepwater Horizon liabilities look like a tea party (and not of the Palin variety, despite the same Alaskan backdrop). Shell’s arguments for Arctic drilling have been pitiful, and can be summarised (and demolished) as follows.

1. People have already drilled in the Arctic. Well, yes, but much of the drilling thus far has been in vastly different conditions to those proposed by Shell. A helpful comparison might be to compare paddling in a kids’ swimming pool with deep sea diving in a rough ocean. Shell does have experience in the North but there is a big difference between the North and the Arctic. Almost all of Shell’s “Arctic” experience has been 1,000 km further south than their planned wells in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. Sea ice conditions – which constitute one of the biggest risks to Arctic drilling projects – are very different and much less challenging in these waters. No one has successfully done what Shell is proposing to do on this scale in Alaska, and many scientists believe the harsh conditions in the region actually make it simply impossible to do it safely.

2. It’s going to happen anyway, as the Russians will go ahead regardless. It’s true that Russian oil and gas companies seem determined to push ever further north; though how technically and commercially viable many of these proposed projects will be is yet to be proven. Moreover, Russia hasn’t exactly been a beacon of excellence in its own exploration efforts. There have been a series of environmental calamities, and plenty of evidence of local populations literally having to wade through fields of spilt oil. Russia’s recklessness on environmental matters does not provide a moral or commercial argument for Shell, which should know better. Unlike Shell, Russia does not advertise its sustainability credentials either. Now Shell is exploring Arctic entry through the back door, with its new pals Gazprom and Mr Putin. Could a sustainability image get much worse other than hiring Gerard Depardieu as the face of it all?

3. It’s better that we do it because that way it will be safely done. This from a company that initially proposed an oil spill safety plan involving sending a small dachshund (yes, one) to have a sniff about in the event of a problem. It was “safety first” Shell that managed to ground one of its ageing drilling barges, the Kulluk, off the coast of Alaska (prompting questions over whether the vessel was being moved to a more tax efficient location in Washington State). Shell also managed to damage a containment dome during testing, and a fire broke out on its Noble Discoverer rig, leading to the discovery of 16 safety violations on board by the US Coast Guard. And despite repeated assurances that during the summer months, Shell would not encounter any big ice, drilling in the Chukchi Sea was abandoned almost immediately because of a major ice floe appearing, bringing the madness to a temporary halt. I don’t want these people anywhere NEAR the Arctic’s people or wildlife, thanks.

4) We need this oil. Yes, in the way that an alcoholic needs an extremely large vodka, and then another. If we pursue “new” sources of fossil fuels that will only come on stream in 10-20 years’ time and are very expensive to extract, we assume everything that is available now, and cheaply, will be burnt. So we’re betting on an unsafe world in climate terms. The only economic argument that makes Shell’s Arctic lunacy commercially viable is a world unviable in terms of climate change and its impacts. The International Energy Agency says we need to leave two-thirds of fossil fuels in the ground to have a shot at avoiding catastrophic climate change, but if Shell then hedges by saying “but not me, not now, not here”, then our generation has invested in a fatal future infrastructure in a bet against a safe climate. Many investors know this, even if Shell doesn’t. It is completely insane.

Shell has comprehensively failed to engage with stakeholders on this issue. Its emergency response plans and pre-emptive lawsuit against NGOs have all combined to make Shell the perfect poster child for activists. Again!

Of course we must accept that fossil fuels are not going to disappear overnight. We also have to understand that future energy demand will require a mix of solutions and technologies. But these undeniable facts do not mean we have to destroy the Arctic to provide that mix.

The only way forward now is probably a bold market signal by business customers that they do not want their companies fuelled by Shell’s recklessness. There are many progressive business leaders out there who might jump at the chance to differentiate. So here’s an idea: “Arctic free fuel”. Bear with me.

I have already heard a few people say “that’s impossible”. Oh yes, and so is dolphin safe tuna, deforestation free palm oil, child labour free cotton, pesticide free food, and BPA free baby gear. It’s just all too difficult because of supply chains and how these things are produced and traded. Except hang on – all those things already DO exist.

Indeed, some towns are now declaring that they will be “tar sands free” municipalities. Oxford has become the first “tar-free City” in Europe. Of course you can segregate fuel according to its source. If there’s a will, there’s a way. I well recall people saying you could never segregate palm oil; it was technically and commercially impossible. What they meant was they “would never” do it. Of course, they did in the end. At present, there’s just no will when it comes to the Arctic. Which provides a huge opportunity for business leaders to lead.

I’d like to see a progressive businessman like Sir Richard Branson develop a narrative that runs broadly as follows. “I run an airline. I do what I can to explore alternative fuels and designs to minimise our impact. I take advice from the right people. But I accept we are dependent on fossil fuels and a major contributor to climate change. I’m also an explorer and a citizen and I’ve seen some of the Earth’s most beautiful and pristine places. The Arctic is one such place. I cannot and will not add to the planet’s fragility by running my business on the fruits of Arctic oil drilling. It’s a step too far, and I believe there are some parts of the natural world we must now leave ALONE. That’s why Virgin Atlantic will operate on ‘Arctic-free fuel’ for as long as I’m in charge.”

Think of the market signal that would send. Of course, it needs cross-sector collaborative and pre-competitive approaches – no one company can do this (or anything comparably meaningful) alone. And it isn’t just fuel, it’s about the use of Arctic resources for a range of materials, such as plastics, clothing and so on. If a group of progressive CEOs, from airlines, consumer goods firms, clothing companies and packaging giants, were to send out this “Arctic-free” message, then the seemingly impossible would become a market imperative for energy companies. It’s been done in other sectors, many times over.

There is no perfect fossil fuel, and there will always be social and environmental issues around any oil extraction. But we can draw a line in the Arctic ice. We must do so without delay. The question for Shell is whether it could potentially be a beneficiary of such a trend, or the lonely laggard that failed to wake up to what its customer base was saying.

Shell portrays itself as a buzzing hub of innovation, exploring the frontiers of new energy sources in a fast changing world. In its stubborn refusal to abandon its Arctic misadventure, it confirms it is still, at its core, a fossil fuel hungry dinosaur. The question is whether Shell will finally see sense, and get out before it’s too late.

Oct 292013

For followers of the Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) journey towards No Deforestation, some really important reading today. Greenpeace, once APP’s most tireless and hostile critic, has released its first detailed assessment of how APP’s Forest Conservation Policy (FCP) is shaping up. You can read it here:

It’s a balanced assessment – offering praise on several progress areas whilst highlighting future challenges APP must continue to address. APP has published its own response to the Greenpeace review, including detail on how it is planning to address ongoing challenges. More on that here:

This is a very significant moment, and one made all the more so by the undeniable fact that, minor FCP implementation breaches aside, the moratorium on natural forest clearance introduced by APP in February is continuing to hold. Meanwhile, Greenpeace reports extensive ongoing clearance of up to 5,000 hectares per month by other, less responsible, operators. The market will decide how to reward APP for its commitment to transforming its practices, and penalise those who have yet to set any serious sustainability goals. Certainly Asia Pulp and Paper is showing that deforestation does NOT have to be the ‘business as usual’ mode in Indonesia or elsewhere. That can only be seen as good news.

The assertion by Greenpeace that APP has shown its commitments are serious is something I never thought I would hear from this most rigorous and authentic of NGOs. Praise is due to APP’s leadership, its partner TFT, and the all the people involved inside and outside APP in creating what is, I believe, gradually becoming one of the great business sustainability turnaround stories. There remain many challenges and hurdles ahead; but the direction of travel is spot on. I will continue to update this blog with news as the implementation of the Forest Conservation Policy continues.

Oct 252013

This week, I wrote a guest post for the Green Alliance blog about why I think greens aren’t just justified in flying, but should probably do it more. It’s available here: I was quite surprised by the scale of the response, not least because it was generally positive!

I also wrote a column for BusinessGreen on how the sustainable business circuit risks becoming a tiresome, jargon-filled parody of itself

I’m sure readers won’t necessarily agree with either article, but I hope it provides some weekend food for thought.

Feb 272013

Just when one former nemesis seems to have turned a corner and embraced sustainability leadership and engagement over megaphone PR (see Asia Pulp & Paper post here ), as sure as night follows day, up pops a new one in the form of EDF Energy.

EDF has in recent days managed to trump Shell (quite an achievement; more on the latter’s incompetence here ) as my ‘PR idiot’ firm of the year. If you’re reading this, you’ll probably know this is because of EDF’s ludicrous and disgraceful attempt to close down peaceful protest in this country by filing a civil claim for £5 million against a group of brave campaigners who trespassed on one of their sites last year.  This is quite unprecedented. Legal facts of the matter aside, it is reputational suicide for EDF Energy.

In a battle of hearts and minds, who will win, I wonder; the big French nuclear giant wanting to bankrupt young people or the climate change realists in their twenties who face jail, in some cases possibly losing their homes, and a lifetime of paying money to EDF?

As with all good campaigns, the backlash has started and is growing. Twitter is awash with environmentalists, journalists, business people and, crucially, EDF customers, attacking the brand and deserting its products. And it hasn’t even really got going yet. Sometimes you just know, it’s a hunch thing, that a movement will start and it will stick, until the battle is won. The battle in this case is not about energy policy, the rights and wrongs of gas, nuclear or renewables. It’s not even about whether people should trespass on company property; that’s a criminal matter for courts to determine. This fight, as ably articulated by George Monbiot in the Guardian, is about the future of protest in Britain.

I felt so angry about this that a couple of days ago I started firing off a few tweets about EDF. They’ve been helpfully compiled here  The response was fast, strong and amazing. Yesterday I spoke briefly with the brave Hannah Davey, one of the people who faces financial ruin courtesy of EDF. She wanted to thank me for my pledge of a donation, far too little, towards a new fund that will help people like Hannah if they end up being broken by EDF’s bullying tactics. As I put it yesterday, I made the money helping the clean up of business, so it might as well go back to the same cause.

It will take EDF a generation to recover from its idiocy if the firm persists with this unprecedented civil claim against the individual protestors. EDF will be the poster child for all that is wrong, not just with energy policy, but with big business. Those of us who work with very large companies day in day out, must speak out. And those in the PR firms sustaining EDF’s feeble morals should be ashamed. The agencies should resign the accounts. If they do not, then account directors and managers should refuse to work on EDF Energy until they drop this misguided strategy. 

One of the legendary tales in Private Eye magazine’s history was its owner Peter Cook gleefully waving his cheque-book at Robert Maxwell during the latter’s libel action against Ian Hislop & Co.  A simple message from a flamboyant man: ‘You won’t bring us down, you bully’.

We need the same ethos here – a fund that will help and sustain the brave young campaigners if the worst happens. EDF won’t be allowed to crush their spirit or their finances. That’s why I made my own pledge. Who else is in?

I want to stress that at Robertsbridge Group we work with big business. We believe it’s important, that we can create progress, and that companies are part of the answer to the planetary emergency. A big part, in fact. But we are very clear about where we draw the line. Against our criteria, EDF has crossed it and indeed lapped it several times over. It’s unforgiveable. No-one with even the slightest interest in the green agenda should have anything to do with EDF’s sustainability stategy or communications until the company backs down, stops behaving like a despotic regime and starts behaving like a citizen.