Feb 232011
Travelling round clients recently, I’m struck by how quickly the sustainability agenda is at last moving beyond impact reduction and managing single issues on a case by case basis (such as palm oil) to much more holistic thinking about the fundamentals of long term business model revolution. 5 years ago, if I’d told a client they should think about becoming a zero deforestation business, or decoupling economic growth from environmental impact, they’d have said it was either impossible or unsellable internally. 

Yet that’s exactly what is now happening, as companies face food and energy security issues, risk of extreme climatic events, and other well documented environmental threats to their prosperity, such as loss of biodiversity. Whether it’s Unilever’s new Sustainable Living Plan (still the leader as far as I’m concerned), recent deals between the Forest Trust and Sinar Mas/GAR as well as Nestle on ending deforestation for agricultural commodities, there’s a great surge forward underway. It’s good to see. Some unlikely companies are starting to take all this seriously, along with the ones we always knew would be first. 

Before we get too excited, let’s remember most companies aren’t yet thinking in this way. Some aren’t even beginning to unlock their damaging supply chains, let alone thinking about the systemic changes that need to happen in their commercial model in the next decade. But the growing number of companies embracing radical thinking, ripping up the old order, and measuring shareholder value in ways that reflect more than short term profit and loss accounts, makes for exciting times. It’s also a huge opportunity for NGOs to advance their agendas – providing real life case studies on how their rhetorical demands, sometimes seen as pie in the sky wishful thinking, aren’t as daft as some would have us believe. 

In 2020, only companies that are asking the right questions and embracing the right thinking now will be fit for purpose. It’ll be interesting to see who else emerges as real leaders in the months and years ahead. The clock is, as ever, ticking. 
Feb 162011
Well, yesterday’s post about CSR academics got a few people talking (or rather, Tweeting). I don’t expect the same level of discourse about today’s musings. But I hope they may help the people who write to me for advice on how to get a job in sustainability. Times have changed since I fell into the environment movement. Indeed, until about ten years ago there was barely a career structure in place for young people hoping to work in NGOs or corporate sustainability. Most environmentalists got there by accident not design, often from other professions. Contacts helped (they always do), and given the explosion of new social and environmental initiatives, organisations and publications in the late 1990s, there seemed plenty of jobs to go round. Today, the world is very different, not helped by the state of the economy. There are degrees aplenty in sustainable development, and more candidates than there are jobs. So here are some tips for 20-somethings struggling to turn their passion for sustainability into a job:

1. Do think about a Masters or similar grounding. Not because it will necessarily teach you all you need to know (the best learning is, I’m afraid, on the job). But because your competition will probably have one, and given the choice, employers will always go for the more ‘qualified’ person. This didn’t matter when I started out. It does now.

2.Pick an emerging issue. I was lucky in that when this all began for me the crisis in the world’s fisheries was just starting to gain prominence. We arguably don’t need too many more carbon auditors. The climate change field is very crowded. Think about areas that will be front page news in years to come. Water scarcity and sustainable tourism might be areas to consider

3.If you can possibly afford to, use your spare time to volunteer on a campaign (the current forests campaign in the UK for instance) or with a global NGO like Greenpeace. I never had to do this, but I remember long summers working unpaid for the BBC as a student, which helped me greatly later on. Only the fortunate have the time and resources to do this, but do as much as you can

4.Don’t target obvious companies (who doesn’t want to work for Innocent Drinks?)– the chances are they have this in hand. Think about businesses that will need your help most in tackling sustainability the coming years. Consider sectors barely out of the starting gate on sustainability. That’s where you could make your mark

5. Write a good letter and CV. You CANNOT afford to make a single mistake – it’s amazing how many people trip up at this stage. Years ago, I hired a young man called Rob Bailes who was completing his Masters. I got countless letters from people like him – his letter was well crafted, concise, typo free and made me want to meet him. He’d also actually researched my background and the company where I worked. He worked for me for 4 years and is now working in sustainability in Costa Rica. Lucky sod.

Environmentalism has never been more fashionable, and that’s good news for the planet, but sometimes dispiriting for the growing number of graduates who want to make it their career as well as their hobby. I spoke to one guy last year who wanted advice as he’d been told ‘CSR’ was ‘something he should get into’. I bet he never does! Because as you know, this isn’t just about a career path. It’s a vocation, a passion and a way of life. If you can get paid for it as well, what could be more rewarding that that? Good luck! 
Feb 152011
Every so often, tedious ‘academic’ debates pollute the blogosphere, the latest being the tired old navel gazing about what we should call the act of running a business that doesn’t kill people or wildlife. It seems some people have just woken up after a multi-year sleep and decided ‘CSR’ doesn’t really cut it anymore. “The ‘social’ implies philanthropy and community work only”, they caution, so what about losing the ‘S’ and just having ‘CR’, or maybe ‘citizenship’ or ‘responsible business’? 
Where have you been, doctors? These arguments are ancient. But I will just fire up the time machine and go back to the late 1990s for a second. My view, for what it’s worth, is that ‘sustainability’ is the best catch all ‘academic’ term for all this. No, it isn’t just about ‘green’. If your workforce is miserable you’re not sustainable. If you can’t attract the best graduates because you are a walking Guardian front page scandal, you’re not sustainable. If you don’t eat the right foods, that’s not sustainable. And financial sustainability ties in nicely with social and environmental sustainability. So if you MUST get stuck on this topic, sustainability gets my vote. 
Now, back to the real world. None of these phrases mean much, if anything to consumers. Too many companies try to engage them with rather pompous sections of their website. These are invariably called ‘Our Values’, ‘Our Obligations to People and Planet’, ‘Profits with a Conscience’ and so on. As regular readers will know, I’m of the opinion that companies and their CEOs need to sound much more like campaigners for social and environmental progress (see my recent Ethical Corporation article on that here http://tiny.cc/wui4y). Therefore I encourage clients to step into the shoes of the consumer of their   sustainability communications. I prefer ‘Activism’ to ‘corporate citizenship’. ‘Treating People Fairly’ to ‘ethical trading’. And my favourite of all on green issues is Patagonia’s sweet and simple word for what they do: ‘Environmentalism’. It does what it says on the tin. They’re environmentalists, not ‘catalysts for sustainable development’. Enough already.
As Kauffmann said: “The economy depends about as much on economists as the weather does on weather forecasters”. The same could be said of parts of the CSR intelligentsia. And no, I don’t mean the best thinkers, like David Grayson. I mean the people who talk a lot and do almost nothing that anyone would want to write about.
That said, I’m looking forward to the CSR academic community starting a debate on all this. In 2020. 
Feb 152011
I rarely blog about party politics, largely because it often seems so trivial and irrelevant to business or the environment movement. Too often, politicians are an obstacle rather than a catalyst to sustainability. And you can count the number of parliamentarians who ‘get it’ on the fingers of one hand. Labour’s system of electing its Shadow Cabinet when in Opposition has produced two virtually unknown politicians shadowing DEFRA and DECC. Chris Huhne is clearly struggling to make good on the Coalition’s pledge to be the ‘greenest government ever’. The Green Investment Bank idea has yet to persuade environmentalists or investors. And cuts to the Carbon Trust, the abolition of the Sustainable Development Commission and the recent debacle over the forest sell-off don’t bode well. 
At some point, probably after the May local elections and Alternative Vote referendum, Cameron (and Clegg) will presumably hold a reshuffle to refresh the troops, cut out the dead wood, and reward loyalty. Cameron’s problem is that his room for manoeuvre is limited. He can’t start sacking the friends who helped him to Number 10. A significant chunk of the government must be filled by Liberal Democrats (where talent is at a premium). He also has the further complication of a small but determined group of Conservative backbenchers who are unhappy with the concessions being made to the Lib Dems, who have always loathed Lib Dems, and who feel the Tories’ ‘natural’ right wing tendency is being eroded by the deals having to be cut with Clegg and his gang. By the same token, there are many Lib Dems who don’t see what their ideological principles are gaining from being in Government, and who will almost certainly topple their Leader if the country votes against voting reform in May. If Clegg can’t deliver voting reform, they argue, there’s no point, against the backdrop of tuition fees, in propping up the Tories. The likely decimation of Lib Dem councillors in the local elections won’t make them better disposed to their party’s leaders either. It’s a mess. 
On reshuffle day, Cameron’s wiggle room is therefore tight. He’ll be looking for expendable ministers whose contribution to the ‘Big Society’ has either been small or embarrassing. More than ever, Cabinet members will be judged on how deftly they handled the politics and how successfully they built coalitions around government priorities, steered Bills through Parliament and secured hits against Ed Miliband’s thus far lamentable Opposition. 
If this analysis is right, you wouldn’t want to be Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary. The forest sell-off, an example of the Big Society that went calamitously wrong almost from day one, and resulted in the biggest U-Turn yet from the Government, has won her no friends in the country. Worse for her is that she will inevitably now be seen as a liability in both 10 and 11 Downing Street. If I had to make one prediction about the reshuffle, it’s this. Spelman will be chopped sooner than the trees she wanted to sell.
Feb 142011
A new ‘ethical app’ from the Good Shopping Guide has managed to get pretty much everything wrong, ranking brands that have done more than most on sustainability and ethical trade as bad, and allowing some rather surprising ones to slip through the net. It’s a mobile recipe card for consumer confusion and manages to be even more misleading than some brands’ green claims – so rather an own goal there. I expect a number of the companies and brands featured on this silly toy will rightly complain. 

We all know that business focussed ratings indices like Dow Jones and FTSE4Good have taken a beating in the last year (you’ll recall that nice sustainable company BP topped a lot of them for years). Let’s be honest – most of these rankings, consumer focussed or not, are barely worth the sustainable paper they’re written on (if you’re lucky). A colleague in the retail sector made his view clear on this at a recent client workshop we ran. When he chooses whether to source a product or not, he’s less interested in how many labels or rankings it has been given than the information he gets when he looks the brand managers in the eye and asks the questions that matter to him and his customers. He put it very nicely: what he likes to do is ‘look under the bonnet and kick the tyres’ himself. Only in this way is he satisfied (or not) that his company should be buying from that supplier. Kick the tyres of this Good Shopping Guide app and you’ll probably find their tread is a thin as the thinking behind it, and in need of urgent replacement. It certainly isn’t roadworthy. 
Feb 072011
The proposed sale of UK forests has been the unexpected headline-grabber as inevitable discontent with government spending cuts takes grip. If the student protests were entirely predictable, the growing and much publicised anger about the forests sell-off was not. What’s been interesting is that it reveals much about the overall dynamics of the environmental debate in Britain. Here’s how the landscape seems to be panning out:
  1. Government: A fairly classic tale here. A not very well thought out idea rushed through in the mistaken belief that the sale would save lots of money (it won’t – the sums are tiny compared with expenditure such as Trident and the cost of administering the sale and its aftermath probably outweighs the saving to government anyway). The strategy – bury this idea deep in some obscure Parliamentary Bill in the hope no-one will notice. When they do, backtrack like crazy, launch a ‘consultation’, water everything down, making the original purpose of the legislation even more pointless. Oh, and shift your ground – what started as a money making exercise is now actually just a sensible policy instrument to separate commercial and regulatory interests. It was never about money, says DEFRA. Yes, just like Iraq was meant to be about WMDs only, but everyone now accepts that was nonsense. Likely outcome – the proposals will probably die quietly in the not too distant future. 
  2. Middle class rage: Much indignation here. Almost none of it conservation driven. The middle classes don’t like anything that interferes with their pleasure – and thus their argument has focussed on rights of access – the English way of life, trotting unimpeded through the bluebells with the dog etc. A slightly tricky one, as included in the middle classes (albeit at the upper end) are some of those who stand to gain commercially from the proposals – the timber industry and landowners. 
  3. Commercial interest – normally scornful of government interference, this one has been a bit tricky for businessmen and landowners with an interest in the sale. ‘Wait and see, we should study these proposals carefully’, they caution. There is not just profit to be made here – there will be government grants available too. This lot won’t be signing any petitions against the idea. 
  4. NGOs – all over the place. Some diligently pointing out the conservation issues, reduced ability to control woodland diseases and so on. Others slow off the mark (perhaps because in the case of heritage forests they may have something to gain themselves, taking over the management of woodlands themselves). Jonathon Porritt has just blasted them all on his blog and accused them of betraying England (see http://tiny.cc/xxz47) . For clear direction on this, don’t look to the NGO sector on this one.
  5. Local campaigners. The people with the greatest stake in all this – those who already feel they own the forest and it isn’t the government’s to give away, to NGOs, private commercial interests or anyone else. They are the champions here – and I think they will win the day.
  6. Biodiversity – as is so often the case – almost none of the argument has centred on what is ultimately the most important issue: the interrelation between these precious forests and their relationship to the wider landscape, species conservation and its importance to agriculture. Biodiversity is as usual the poor cousin of this growing family of discontent. 
It’s a fairly interesting snapshot of the way so many environmental debates go in this green and pleasant land. I suspect in the end the sale will be abandoned. But few of the protagonists involved will have emerged with much credit. 
Feb 032011
I’m sometimes asked what criteria I use when deciding whether or not to work for a particular company. All environmentalists have to strike a delicate balance when deploying what might be termed the ‘smell test’. There’s absolutely no point in only working with companies for whom the green agenda is second nature – they don’t need the help as much as others, and consequently both the intellectual challenge and the sustainability impact of advising them is reduced. That’s not to say even the most forward-looking companies don’t benefit from fresh eyes and perspectives on the next trends and issues coming down the track. In fact, the most progressive companies are successful precisely because they are always thinking about the next set of improvements they can make. But the business of sustainability advice is most effective and powerful when there is real systemic and value-driven change on the table. I have no difficulty in working with companies who are miles behind where they should be, albeit with some important caveats which I list below. Of course, we all have personal moral reasons for avoiding some companies or sectors. Some people, for instance, refuse to work with tobacco companies. Others, myself included, won’t touch defence firms. For some, (not me), energy companies with investments in nuclear or food companies with GMO divisions are out of the question. Others may have religious (or anti-religious!) views that prevent them from engaging with particular clients. All of that must be down to the individual. 

There are, however, some key principles that I think any sustainability advisory firm should abide by. They are the ones that I use when weighing up these issues:
  • I will not work for any company whose starting position is to see sustainability simply as a ‘hygiene factor’ with which compliance is commercially expedient but in practice means doing as little as it can get away with. There are simply better things to do with one’s short time on this earth, and even the best advice won’t change a firm or brand such as this.
  • I will not work for any company that engages in the darker side of public relations, using a range of tactics to undermine the environmental agenda. Such tactics include commissioning bogus ‘science’ to create confusion  around or reduce the potency of environmental concerns where the overwhelming body of research clearly shows there is a problem. The climate deniers’ ‘think tanks’ are a good example of this. Such groups nearly always have their roots in public relations motives, not scientific ones. A lot of nonsense is currently being spouted by pseudo academic institutions about the ‘development benefits’ of destroying Indonesian rainforests for palm oil and paper. I won’t play that game and I don’t want to be paid for it.
  • I am not interested in being paid by companies whose public relations and advertising on sustainability issues dramatically overclaim their true performance. Businesses who proactively purport to be green when they are precisely the opposite aren’t ones that would derive any value from anything I would want to say to them.
  • Some companies carry on business as usual whilst squeezing as much marketing noise as they can around one or two ‘showcase’ initiatives, designed to create the impression they are green when in fact such ploys are generally smokescreens for doing virtually nothing. If there is the appetite to use these projects as catalysts for broader business model change, then fair enough. But if they are simply to fill empty website pages on ‘our values’ or ‘CSR’, good luck with it!
  • Lastly, it is impossible to work in companies where the client is a well intentioned small team of people who are really committed to change, but are obstructed either in policy or budgetary terms at every turn by their peers in other departments or their superiors. It just never works, and therefore time and money could be better spent doing other things.
Many consultancy firms have yet to define these issues adequately for themselves. Few go beyond bribery and corruption metrics, regulatory compliance or very basic due diligence (if they’re lucky).  I think that will change – and certainly in my own business I plan to go significantly further than that. The exciting opportunity lies in helping companies go on what is, after all, a very long and often truncated journey towards more sustainable business practices. If the journey is carefully navigated, there are huge commercial, communications and marketing opportunities as the values and performance start to radically change. Provided I can satisfy my personal prejudices on one or two sectors, and meet the 5 criteria above, I’m up for it.