May 142008

To the annual Ethical Corporation Summit in London yesterday, to take part in a panel discussion which involved having ‘ethical business dilemmas’ thrown at us by David Grayson, one of the guru academics on corporate responsibility. My fellow panellists were Daniel Franklin, Executive Editor of The Economist, Matthew Gwyther, Editor of Management Today and Ben Clarke, formerly CEO of Kraft UK.  I think we did OK, but some of the questions were tricky to say the least! Apart from the topical subject of how to handle Olympic sponsorship dilemmas, we debated a number of scenarios. The most bizarre of which involved how to handle a situation where a company discovered its supplier abroad had subcontracted work to another factory down the road. Upon auditing the factory, its owner proudly revealed a massive arms stash, designed, he said, to protect his workers from kidnap by the local mafia. Should you delist the supplier, work with them to create better security, or ignore it until the weapons were actually used? Bizarrely, this ‘hypothetical’ case turned out to be a real one (although we weren’t told which British company’s supply chain it was). It was good fun and I think I (just) managed to be provocative without making my own employment unsustainable. I hope so, anyway.

May 122008

How nice to see Gordon Ramsay turning into an environmentalist overnight. His call for local and seasonal produce (including the bizarre suggestion that chefs who do not serve seasonal produce should be fined – work out how even the most energetic red-tape bureaucrat would administer that) was hailed by sleepy journalists as a great call to action from the rent-a-quote culinary genius. Laced with an attack on Delia Smith, surely the timing of his publicity stunt (sorry, ‘call to action’) was purely coincidental given that his latest series is about to start on TV.From what I read over the weekend, it was left to The Independent (pretty much the only trustworthy newspaper these days in my opinion) to do any actual journalistic research into Ramsay’s latest rant. They ran a brilliant piece on the fact that Gordon’s luxury restaurant in Dubai boasts of little else other than the fact that all the food (and even the milk) is flown in from the UK, some 3,000 miles away. In fact, if you visit his glitzy emporium (not that I would) in the UAE, even the fish is flown in from the North Sea, that icon of rampant pillaging. Whilst the Gulf yields plenty of fresh, local, and more exotic species of seafood, Gordon brings it in from the most laughed at attempt at marine conservation anywhere in the world. Here in Britain, the way to puff your product is to show how local and seasonal it is. But for those who, for reasons best known to themselves, opt to holiday in Dubai, the way to haul the punters in is to emphasise just how far the food has travelled. Odd world, silly man.The F-word seems strangely apt as a response to this self-serving green grandstanding. 

May 072008

Whilst campaigning in the 1980s against the nuclear deterrent, my father befriended a fellow pacifist, the late English composer Robert Simpson. Although politically interested, I was far too young to appreciate their political bond, which was in fact rooted in a love of great music. But I well recall my father recounting to me, when I was no more than ten years old, something Simpson said to him about nuclear war. Simpson’s greatest fear about nuclear annihilation, at a time when the superpowers of the day held in their hands the power to eliminate planet earth seven times over, was not the extinction of species, or even mankind, but a terror that the scores of Beethoven’s precious and timeless symphonies could be destroyed forever.I must admit, to a young teenager more interested in beer and girls than the intricacies of classical orchestration or even war with the Soviets, this profound thought was somewhat wasted on me. But as I sat in the Royal Festival Hall on Friday evening listening to a staggeringly talented 28 year old Greek conductor (unusually, in her profession, a woman), Stamatia Karampini conducting the London Philharmonic playing the Overture to Wagner’s epic ode to love, Tristan & Isolde, I think I knew what Simpson meant. No less so when the truly brilliant Norwegian pianist, Sigurd Slattebrekk, played the Grieg Piano Concerto as though he had just discovered the meaning of sound itself.I have long felt that those who yearn to save our wondrous planet have so much in common with those who truly appreciate and honour great music. Yet their worlds have too seldom collided. Environmental gurus revere Dylan and other popular cultural relics (albeit great ones) of the sixties. Classical music buffs are too concerned with the greatness of Mahler or Mozart to worry themselves about natural beauties like the turquoise mot-mot or the orangutans of the Asian rainforests. How I wish the two groups could combine (Classic FM is after all the most successful commercial radio station in the UK) and pool their common interest in the survival of all beauty on this earth for our common good. My father died, last year, at 92, having divided his life between journalism, political activism, poetry and the theatre. Perhaps a sub-conscious attempt to reconcile his concern for the people of this earth with the wonders they inherit in the arts. He lived long enough to see my passion for the survival of both our natural world and the musical culture that sustains its human habitants. In our day to day corporate lives, I wonder whether we would not all benefit from a little less time on email and a bit more energy devoted to the things, man-made and natural, that surely hold the key to our long term survival. On Friday night, listening to this heavenly sound flow from the orchestra, I would have deleted even the most important work email. Because in the grand scheme of things, it could not possibly have mattered. It reminded me always to remember the things that really count, be they sights or sounds.  If you don’t believe me, listen to that Wagner overture before you browse one more web-page today. It’s truly worth saving. It’s hard to believe anyone who heard it would engage in the carefree destruction of the planet that gave it life. Humanity has become the planet’s resident expert in waste. Some things are simply too good to waste, and the music that has survived generations is one of them. It represents natural beauty of a kind that only a nuclear holocaust could extinguish. In that sense, it is stronger than the vulnerable species that stand on the brink in the face of our wanton destruction.

May 022008

Spent the week in Boston, where we launched Planet 2050 to the US market with Weber Shandwick’s Boston office. We had an excellent backdrop in the form of the annual Ceres Conference, which attracted an impressive 700 delegates from large and small companies, major NGOs and, critically, the investment community. As sponsors of the summit’s awards, we released some new research on Fortune 100 companies. For more on the launch of Planet 2050 in the US, click here. I admit to being surprised at how vast a gathering the Ceres event was, and there is no doubt in my mind that if there ever was a gulf between Europe and the United States in terms of the corporate sustainability agenda, it is fast narrowing. The highlight for me was a truly inspiring panel discussion between Jeffrey Swartz, CEO of Timberland, and Gary Hirshberg, the president of Stoneyfield Farm yoghurt, a sort of Innocent Drinks of North America (albeit older), now six times the size of Kraft’s dairy business. These two New Englanders, in their casual dress, spoke with such authenticity and vision, I wondered whether we would ever hear the CEO of a traditional multinational sound like this. And how funny to see Swartz in his jeans and Red Sox cap, as environmentalists wandered around the conference hall in their suits and ties. I can honestly say I have never enjoyed listening to a business leader as much as Jeff. Ceres has been monumentally successful in building a coalition of advocates from the investment and environmental campaigning worlds – proving once again that commercial profit and environmental stewardship really can be achieved in tandem. The most encouraging thing of all? That the major economic downturn in the US does not seem to be affecting the drive for more sustainable business one iota. I will return to that next week in an article I’m finishing off over the weekend.  Here’s to a sunny bank holiday.