May 212012

In the wake of the election of Francois Hollande, Bruno Rebelle, former Director of Greenpeace France and Founder of Transitions, the Robertsbridge Group’s partner in France, reflects on the likelihood of a change of direction in the country’s green policies.

My first reaction, when I saw the composition of the new government, was a degree of doubt. Only two ‘greens’ among 34 ministers; no high profile proponent of sustainability; and a bunch of classic centre left social democrats. The sad truth is that neither our new President, Francois Hollande, nor his Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, are thought to be particularly sensitive to environmental issues. It’s not that they are against them – it’s just that the topic doesn’t really show up on their political radars.

However, after a second, closer look I felt more reassured. First of all (and this is a real innovation) we have full gender parity – 17 men and 17 women. Given that women are considered to be more sensitive to long-term issues and actually think about future generations, there is cause for hope here. We also have a good mix of youth and experience in our politicians. The younger ones will almost certainly push to bring the challenges of sustainable development to the fore. And even more interestingly, if little understood outside France, we have only a few top civil servants from the National Administration School (the ENA) – which to date has produced the vast majority of our governments’ officials. The ENA is exceedingly traditional, and the environment is only of marginal concern in its curriculum.

That’s all fine, you may say, pointing out that it’s men who dominate the top posts in the new government. This is partly true. But look at where the women are – Justice, Culture and Communication, State Reform, Housing and Territories, and last but not least Environment and Sustainable Development. This is good news.

Cecile Duflot, the young and dynamic head of the Green Party (Europe Ecologie Les Verts), inherits an innovative portfolio which combines integrated planning and community cohesion with housing. Those of us immersed in green issues know that the dynamics of a transition to a low carbon economy depend in large part on an ambitious plan to reduce energy consumption. We also know that housing represents the biggest opportunity for energy saving. And it is clear that if the ambitious housing refurbishment programme already scheduled by this government to improve the energy performance of 600,000 homes takes place, it will also be necessary to reshape land planning and urbanisation policy overall. This will be needed in order to limit traffic, reduce fuel consumption and contribute to low carbon communities. Putting energy efficient building together with urban re-design is a really interesting, and joined-up approach as it links short-term action and long term concerns. Giving this portfolio to the Greens is a guarantee that the subject will remain at the top of the agenda.

Nicole Bricq is our new Minister for Sustainability. She is not what you would call a high profile environmentalist. Her speciality is tax management, budget control and finance. However, it is this that possibly makes her the best person to establish a new economic model – including reshaping the tax system, as announced by Hollande – that would deliver real change in manufacturing and production, as well as consumption. I had the opportunity of working with Ms Bricq when we were putting together an environmental team at the heart of the French Socialist party. I can tell you she developed a deep understanding of the structural changes needed to promote sustainability and of the complex connections between it and finance. Energy falls inside Ms Bricq’s portfolio, which is another good sign. Her biggest challenge will be to launch a widespread public debate on the future of energy in France – another of President Hollande’s commitments. Indeed it is here that real politics will come back into play in force – in a country where the energy issue is dominated by the nuclear lobby, it will be a challenge indeed to open the debate on the widest possible front and not allow it to become simply a ‘for’ or ‘against’ nuclear issue. Bricq’s moderate stance on the issue will probably calm protagonists from both sides. So it is entirely likely that she will be able to steer the conversation in a way that is inclusive and constructive for the future of French energy policy.

So far so good! It seems we have the tools, and the right people in the right places, not to create radical change overnight, but to lay the foundations of real long term change. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Bruno Rebelle is Directeur général of Transitions

May 012012

One of the most common phrases I hear from companies is ‘we’re doing a lot, but just not getting the credit for it’. This usually comes from firms who watch the darlings of the CSR world (you all know who they are) popping up weekly with new initiatives, webinars, conference slots or awards.  There are only four or five big companies in the world who make sustainability their core message – and it’s therefore no surprise that they tend to secure above average air-time for their efforts. They’re a bit like those annoying kids who always won all the prizes on sports day.

The reality is that these teachers’ pets (OK, let’s name one, M&S) aren’t always the best at everything they do. In some areas they may well be behind the competition. But they’ll be the first to admit it. In fact, they may actually communicate proactively on that very point. They understand that they are articulating a journey, and that this means regular breaks in the journey to share progress so far and discuss the bumpy road ahead.  Communicating failure (which is often systemic not about lack of corporate willpower) can be as powerful as trumpeting progress. M&S is very good at both.

Let’s be clear too: companies that want to gain external recognition for sustainability need to spend more time out of the office than in it. There is no other magic bullet. Mike Barry is out and about all the time.  Some of the time he’s presenting the M&S story. But a lot of the time he’s listening. Watching for the next big thing, understanding the emerging agendas. And it’s not just him – other M&S people get out and about too. Combine that stakeholder sophistication with PR, advertising, marketing and a digital strategy and you’ll soon get the credit. And rightly so.

Telling the sustainability story means assigning resources to it. For all the theoretical cheapness of the digital age, to influence the influencers means getting out there, standing on platforms, engaging in discussion and debate. It requires a sustained rolling programme of communications, backed up by clever brand strategies and blocking time in the CEO’s diary to get him or her out there arguing for sustainability. Sponsoring an award here and asking your PR firm to find you a speaker slot there is a total waste of time. Don’t bother.  

It’s also important to join up the message. Many companies are doing a range of good things, but they are often disjointed efforts with no unifying theme, platform or name. Everyone’s heard of ‘Plan A’ in the responsible business world. What’s Tesco’s thing called again? Morrisons? And who is the Mike Barry at those last two? Oh yes, that’s right. There isn’t one.

There are actually other companies doing as much work behind the scenes as M&S do. On some agendas, more. But we may never know who they are, at least until they stop moaning and get out there and tell their stories. Perhaps those who don’t aren’t quite as good as they think they are.