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!

  7 Responses to “Don’t Waste 2014 Talking Green Nonsense, M&S etc.”

  1. Good advise which I will adopt.

  2. I love this. My own contribution to a sustainable future will be, I hope, some progress towards radical reform of the system of metrics that we use to measure and report on economic performance and business success. Money profit, stock prices and GDP growth are the wrong measures and should be retired. In their place, there needs to be a coherent set of metrics that address every single impact that arises as a result of business activity. This is not negative to business, because business delivers most of what we need for a high standard of living and quality of life, but we should know the difference between what is good performance and what is poor performance relative to all the costs and impacts that are involved

    Peter Burgess – TrueValueMetrics
    Multi Dimension Impact Accounting

  3. the planetary issue for 2013 and 2014 is the nuclear reactor meltdown in Japan- what can be done about that- i gather planet earth cos of this is now a holed titanic?
    unless this is dealt with nothing else is likely to matter ?

  4. how did you read my mind? well said and hopefully on everyone’s mind this year

  5. I hate it when you hold back and leave me guessing where you stand on key issues…

    Seriously though – I am also sick and tired of the box ticking and chest beating. I am also sick and tired of signing of commitments and pledges. And I couldn’t give less of a damn about rankings and ratings. I want to follow a few very simple principles – evidence and outcomes. Facts. Yes, tell me a story to keep it interesting but I want to know the evidence that there is a positive outcome.

    And I too want to see real business leadership. But I want them to stand up in public against those companies who are not contributing to a better world. To be a leader you need to lead and that includes speaking out against other business leaders who are faking it or blatantly fighting it. Name them and shame them or don’t bother to tell me about your (business leader’s) next great idea or initiative or program.

    I might not agree with everything you say – for example, I would guess that the figure of nonsense is closer to 98%, that we are seeing consumer breakthrough but at an unacceptable pace, and that I really can’t stand another 2014 trends piece… but we share the same sentiment – less crap and snake oil and more evidence.

    Oh, and that Greenpeace needs to rethink their campaigning strategy and tactics as they are stuck in the 90s in their tactics. They might be right but their campaigning strategy and tactics needs a serious overhaul. I would like to see “proper” activists create breakthrough campaigns that uses the latest strategies and tactics and speaks to and activates audiences outside of their own group of people. Their challenge is similar to the consumer challenge for companies. Stop talking to yourself or else the change will continue to trickle in at a slow pace. These activist groups just haven’t managed to use the latest technologies and social media strategies. It goes beyond “report-letter to CEO-blog-video-Tweet-protest”. Yawn. That’s what we did 10 years ago. Adapt or go the way traditional media is going…

    As always – thanks for waking me up!

  6. And then there’s the high profile US “sustainability consultancy” whose tag line is “Run your business. Leave Sustainability to Us.”

  7. Obfuscatory jargon (including in reports commissioned by donor governments) is also permeating discourse concerning trade in products associated with deforestation.
    “Lessons learned” and “on track” are all too common, but perhaps the most mischievous is the adoption of “renewable energy” instead of “greenhouse gas free energy” – the burning of wood for electricity generation can not be considered carbon neutral given that its emissions tend to exceed those of coal and given also that GHG emissions must reduce much more rapidly than the plantations which seek to replace the wood burned can (NB temporarily) sequester GHGs.

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