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. 


Feb 102012

Struck by the response to my last post on one of the Marine Stewardship Council’s most prized flagships, Alaska salmon, to pull out of the scheme,  (see ) I thought it would be worth expanding a little on some of the points I raised. Some have suggested that the MSC needs more robust governance, not less. I disagree, which may surprise some people given that since my last post, the MSC has ignored protests from environmental groups and moved ahead with its proposed certification of the Canadian longline swordfish fishery. This despite accusations that it kills up to 500 endangered sea turtles a year, not to mention catching two sharks for each swordfish caught. Not great news for ecosystem diversity, some say. I must confess to being relieved I’m not having to defend this particular fishery.

We are now in the bizarre position where Alaska salmon (highly rated on all ‘fish to buy’ lists such as the Marine Conservation Society, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch et al) has chosen to abandon the MSC system, whilst a fishery that would barely pass the smell test of even moderate conservationists let alone hard greens will soon bear the MSC label.

Some would argue I am trying to have it both ways. On the one hand I say that the MSC has become too cumbersome and bureaucratic, leading to the departure of a good fishery that meets its criteria. On the other,  I find myself in sympathy with those who think that a fishery with a decent-sized bycatch of sharks and turtles at least deserves a formal objections process of the kind offered by the MSC governance system but bizarrely denied to the coalition of marine groups campaigning against the swordfish decision. A cynic would say the decision not to grant the swordfish objection was a calculated response to deter other fisheries from following Alaska salmon to the exit gate. I do not believe this, but I am genuinely surprised no objection was granted, given the issues involved. As an architect of both the governance system and its objections process, I thought it was designed precisely for this purpose. 

This tension between lighter touch governance and conservation integrity is inherent in the nature of any multistakeholder initiative. But it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be a vast bureaucracy to have integrity. Indeed, some of the largest bureaucracies in the NGO world have the least integrity. One of the MSC’s founders once said to me, ‘The problem with being middle of the road is you just sit there with all the other roadkill’. Too true. But I cannot recall a time when the organisation pleased so few people at one time, which is saying something as I pleased virtually no-one when I was in charge until I resigned. Does anyone think this is working well 8 years on?

Here’s a summary of the problem as I see it:

1. Faced with a choice between Alaska salmon (generally sustainable and well managed) without an MSC logo or Canadian swordfish (generally loathed by conservationists on several fronts) with an MSC logo, any retailer wanting to promote sustainable seafood is going to choose the former. Not that it ever will be a choice between one species or the other, but the point still holds.

2. Confronted with this absurdity, and against a general backdrop of pressure on ecolabels (not just restricted to MSC), retailers and indeed suppliers will be tempted to develop their own criteria (or rather further evolve the internal criteria they already have) and design the policies around the politics – they will create systems that allow them to reject controversial MSC fisheries that may have NGOs climbing on their roof, whilst accepting that not all their fish needs to carry the logo.

3. The NGO movement is split (deeply) on certification and eco-labelling. There are even major splits within conservation groups about programmes like FSC and MSC. When it is divided in this way, the environment movement deprives itself of real influence.

4. Some observers have concluded that certification (which tends only to certify what was already pretty good anyway) is a proven failure as a policy instrument – deforestation continues apace, fishing effort increases as stocks plummet and so on. In a world ruined by market failure, are market based instruments proving themselves fit for purpose?

5.Brands (the most important daily channel to consumers) will communicate in ways they see fit to their customers. Increasingly, independent labels may be seen as irrelevant in some marketing meetings. Especially as most certification programmes cannot supply the volumes required for mainstreaming. This allows weaker labels to emerge, which helps no-one. 

6. Alternative partnership approaches and policy instruments are throwing their weight around, filling the apparent void left by certification’s weaknesses. The notion that to meet the planetary boundaries challenge (see ) we must simply create vast swathes of forest and ocean that are left untouched is gaining ground. Ecosystem services and natural capital are exploding as new themes – no one to my knowledge is proposing FSC or MSC style certification as part of the mix. I can’t think why.

There is an important distinction to be drawn here. Certification is a vital system, but is all too often lumped into the same sentence as eco-labelling. I’ve probably done it myself in this post. With certification, one can track, set targets, raise the bar, independently audit and revoke the sustainability credentials of a product. It is a critical management tool, without which measurement is harder to manage and credibility harder to ensure. The problem comes at the labelling end. To apply a label to a product is to imply it represents some form of sustainability excellence. In the case of Canadian longline swordfish, it is hard to make this claim without laughing inwardly. A politician might pull it off, but most couldn’t. Certification should be seen as a means. Too often its advocates see it as an end.  The certification movement must tackle this issue seriously if it is to survive in the long term.

There are many other challenges faced by certification, some of which I documented in this piece in 2010, defending the MSC (see ) And lest there should be any doubt, I still want the MSC to work. I am, like many others, concerned that the organisation is effectively paralysed. By a bureaucracy and governance that now deters good fisheries. By a conservation credibility deficit that allows less good ones to slip through the net. And by a growing sense amongst those outside the standards and labeling world that it cannot, in its present form, stand the test of time. I don’t mean next year, or the year after. I mean the test of time.  I hope that emerging narrative is wrong. Those of us who helped build the marketplace for certified products are going to have to show courage, adaptability and leadership if our chosen instrument of progress is to be fit for purpose. That process begins with an admission that not everything is rosy in the garden. 


Jan 302012

Some rather troubling news for eco-labels this month with the decision by the Alaskan salmon fishing industry to withdraw from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) programme. A decade ago, Alaska salmon became the first fishery of serious scale (with due apologies to Western Australian rock lobster and Thames herring) to become MSC certified and supermarket chains dutifully snapped up this welcome sustainable alternative to its tasteless and ecologically devastating farmed cousin.  It was a great moment. Or so we thought.

The reason for the decision to leave, says the industry, is that the process of having the fishery re-certified every five years is too cumbersome and expensive. It cites a 50-year history of responsible management, and claims that there are other ways in which it can demonstrate its product’s sustainability credentials. Importantly, some seafood companies argue that the competitive advantage of certification is waning as more and more products bearing the MSC stamp hit the marketplace.

At first sight, this decision seems totally kamikaze from a commercial point of view.  Just as supermarket plans, some of which I have had a hand in designing, call for 100% certified sustainable seafood by this year or that, one of the flagship products that will them help meet those targets pulls out of the most respected certification programme around. But no industry would be stupid enough to pull out of an eco-labelling system without gauging market reaction first. Would it?

Groups like MSC spend most of their working hours being attacked. The industry complains the standards are too rigorous. Environmentalists scream they are too lax. Retailers seek clarity so they can plan for supply. Governments snooze. Certifications stall for months or even years as objections are filed, conditions are negotiated and political wrangles threaten progress at every turn.  You don’t join the MSC for an easy life, and the Alaska salmon industry (made up of some of America’s largest seafood processors) has clearly decided life in the programme is just too tricky.

In the five years during which I ran the MSC, governance rows and standoffs between conflicting parties (including those who should have been on the same side as each other) started life as irritating squabbles and ended up as one big, giant, monstrous farce. I have still never shared in public the manoeuvring and shenanigans that marked my final year at the MSC, and will not do so for fear of undermining the organisation that gave me my start in the conservation world. It would also embarrass far too many people. No-one, myself included, emerges from it unscathed. It represented the conservation movement at its most self destructive and imbecillic, fuelled by foundations spending other people’s money who should have known far better. It was an ugly period that preserved entrenched prejudices but very few fish.

There is a serious point at stake here. Although anyone at the MSC will anticipate regular tantrums from hard line conservationists and frustrated mutterings from seafood buyers and sellers in a hurry to make a profit, I certainly hadn’t banked on a (relatively) uncontroversial MSC fixture like Alaskan salmon throwing in the towel. In my day we spent hours trying to work out how to kick a fishery out of the programme so Greenpeace and others might stop thinking we were a front for the industry or a Satanic incarnation.  We failed, because there was, at the time, no compelling argument to do so. We did not spend even a second preparing for industry itself to say ‘Enough is enough – we’re leaving’. I suspect the current MSC did not either. It’s important to understand that the Alaksa salmon certification is among the least controversial and polarising of all major MSC certifications. That’s why we should be taking this development very seriously indeed. This isn’t a predictable storming out by a college candidate about to fail their exam.

The worrying thing is this sets a precedent and others may be tempted to follow. There is nothing like safety in numbers. There are even bigger fisheries in the programme with bigger complaints about the insane structures that at times make it impossible for the MSC (and other certification groups) to function effectively. And the reality is that supermarkets need high volume fisheries to supply the products they sell. Alaskan salmon is a better sustainability bet than its rivals any day. With or without a label. This is the calculation they have made. What will a retailer that delists the product replace it with? Greenpeace still refuses to support the Marine Stewardship Council, so that often welcome kick up the backside to the big chains doesn’t exist either. A good fishery is refusing to use a label granted to fisheries that everyone knows are a lot worse than Alaska salmon. It’s not a sustainable proposition, in this form. 

Some will argue that as more and more MSC products flood the marketplace it won’t matter either way, and the Alaskan salmon industry will look like ignorant and hasty rednecks for withdrawing from the programme. Time will tell. But if others follow, it will prove once and for all that the paralysis and bureaucracy inherent in the MSC’s governance (which was light touch by design until it was hijacked by those more concerned with process than outcome) is a multi million dollar death sentence, administered slowy and painfully. If not for the organisation then for the real issue at hand: sustainable seafood.  I have no doubt that the auditing the Alaska salmon industry says will replace MSC will be inferior to the system used for the last ten years. But I’d be hard pushed to tell a retailer to delist the product just because it didn’t carry the blue stamp of approval. And that is something I never thought I’d say. I’ll be watching other fisheries with great interest. Especially in Alaska.

Conservationists are right to attack bad certifications and stand up to big busines and its lobby groups. But if their gift to the oceans is the mind numbing governance that drives progressive and well managed industries away from the MSC table, it will be a poor legacy indeed. 




Jan 172012

One of the best things about a holiday is the opportunity it provides to tackle that pile of books that has been building up menacingly since the last one. What more appropriate place to read Mark Lynas’s latest book, The God Species, than in the Maldives, given the author’s part time role advising the President of that threatened country on climate change and sustainability. Given the amount of technical information crammed into the book, it’s an easy read, if slightly uncomfortable in that it pulls no punches in challenging some of the sacred cows of large parts of the green movement. I think it’s the most important thing I’ve read for some time, although I can hear the knives of some colleagues being sharpened when I say that, by and large, I find the basic assumptions of the book compelling and its recommendations for the green movement and beyond it equally so.

Lynas didn’t endear himself to many environmentalists when he participated in a Channel 4 documentary, What the Green Movement Got Wrong, just over a year ago. Indeed, it was a pretty poor programme, followed by an even poorer studio debate. I don’t intend to get detained for long by the most polarizing elements of The God Species here; the arguments for and against nuclear power and, similarly, GM technology have been well rehearsed by people more qualified than me. Suffice to say I am not dogmatically for or against either, and I don’t think the planet can afford to rule out anything given its perilous state. That peril is brilliantly articulated in The God Species, making the relatively inaccessible research and views of highly respected scientists readable for those of us unlucky enough not to have been born with scientific brains. It’s high time environmentalists thought like engineers and scientists, not policy campaigners, says Lynas. Reading the numbers, it’s hard to disagree.

Lynas is the first to acknowledge the concept of planetary boundaries is not his own, but he views himself as the transmitter of its tenets. He uses his journalistic flair to do so, to great effect. Reading his polemical prose it struck me as odd that in the discourse about business sustainability, the planetary boundary concept has yet to achieve much traction. Laid out as it is by Lynas, it seems so blindingly obvious.

For those unfamiliar with the approach, it essentially identifies nine key planetary boundaries the world cannot afford to breach. These cover climate change, nitrogen flow, land use, biodiversity, aerosols, ocean acidification, toxics, ozone depletion and freshwater.  For each, the Planetary Boundaries Group of scientists has identified the acceptable limit. For climate change, 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, an extinction rate of 10 per million species per year, and so on. The calibre of the scientists involved (led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and including NASA’s James Hansen) suggests one would either need to be supremely confident or utterly foolhardy to challenge their assumptions too much.

As each problem is laid out, Lynas exposes the idealistic wishful thinking that makes progress in limiting our collective footprint seem like a pipe dream. He freely admits to changing his mind on both GMO and nuclear, and it is soon easy to see why. Indeed, one of his strongest detractors in the Channel 4 debate was George Monbiot, who has of course since changed his mind on nuclear too. There is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind and increasingly history may judge those who refuse to more harshly than than those who have. If it is true that opposition to nuclear power is responsible for a billion extra tonnes of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere, then hardline greens certainly seem to have a lot to answer for.

My interest in the planetary boundaries approach is not in revisiting these old debates, but in what business can do to adopt this commonsense approach when thinking about its own impacts, at both single business and wider sector level. If we accept that the planet can only tolerate so much of a particular destabilizing activity (such as disruption to the nitrogen cycle, black carbon or methane release from the seabed), then it follows that businesses, not just governments, must think in these terms when considering their own activities. The tired old waste and carbon reduction measures won’t really cut the mustard given the challenges we now face. The God Species is one of the best accounts of those challenges produced in recent years.

 Lynas is brutal about the blanket orthodoxies on carbon offsetting, nuclear and GMOs that have in his view made the green movement unfit for purpose. He scorns initiatives such as Earth Hour, and sees little hope for mass consumption reductions in the form of ‘behaviour change’. Here I find myself nodding vigorously. And I share Lynas’s view that hoping that developing world nations will somehow develop their aspirations and wellbeing differently to how we did so is naïve and bordering on the idiotic. As Lynas points out, saying we need two more planets to live as we do now is rather a waste of time, as we aren’t going to find them. The question is how to use technology, policy and, of course, business behavior to make existence on this planet both profitable and sustainable. Lynas is no pessimist – he believes we can still turn the corner (only three of the nine boundaries have so far been breached).

For a business wishing to adopt this way of thinking, there could be rich pickings. Although traditional life cycle assessment is a useful tool in identifying where the big wins are in tackling the footprint of a particular product or behaviour, the planetary boundaries concept, applied globally, may offer a great deal more. It’s something I plan to explore in more detail. If we can adapt the scientific wisdom of the Planetary Boundaries Group to commercial thinking, get the environment movement to drop some of its potentially counterproductive stances, and build a framework for companies based on what we can and can’t sustain, we may yet find a diversion from the catastrophic course upon which we are currently embarked. It’s well worth a try.

Naturally, the planetary boundaries framework remains to be universally accepted. And its implications in terms of ‘techno fixes’ will divide politicians, businesses and the green movement for years to come. But it can’t be ignored. I strongly suggest you read The God Species and draw your own conclusions.