This is a talk which I gave last week. I thought I’d write it up with a more lengthy commentary – to collect my thoughts – on where I have got to since the book was written. It’s still a process of trying to keep up with everything that’s happening and all the masses of contradictory information (I mean on consumer attitudes etc. the one constant being there is no doubt in my mind the planet is in dire straits – although even there the news keeps getting worse).
If you don’t know them do check out Tomorrow’s Company my host, there’s lots of interesting stuff on their website, not least their own latest thinking on global companies and the challenges and responsibilities they face. Anyway...
2008, it’s a whole new year and rather than rehash the ideas in my (2007) book yet again, what I wanted to do was take the opportunity of saying a bit about where I think we’ve got to since I wrote it.
Broadly I wanted to make four points:
- things are getting worse much faster than we expected, even a year ago
- the things we are doing to combat this are having much less effect than we had hoped
- its time for breakthrough thinking, the days of carbon neutral have after such a brief moment in the sunshine, probably passed
- there are four broad ways to do this on the demand side (ie with green marketing), and I am putting most faith increasingly in the fourth one, which in the broadest possible terms is about the efficiency of sharing stuff in networks
Here’s a picture of the book. I’m immensely proud of it still, especially how it is as an artefact – with consideration that’s gone into the paper stock, dyes, cover and even things like the size and cropping and layout - for which I have to thank my friends at More. It was the product of a moment last year when green marketing in its latest – carbon neutral, thermostats and shopping bags form - was still quite new and confusing.
My views haven’t changed that radically since last year – its more about the same views getting more radical - but that may partly reflect my being a slow learner.
As it says we are already in the grip of a global emergency. I saw a great speech from someone at the Sustainable Development Commission last year saying that it’s a real problem in political circles that they keep talking about 2050. The big changes we need to make now to stand any chance of making progress must happen in the next 6 years. He compared it to a big ocean going ship, if it doesn’t start to turn right now it will never come around in a sweeping arc towards the island we are supposed to be heading for.
I saw Al Gore speak at the end of last year (thanks to WhatIf?) and his current theme is wartime style emergency; he is quoting Churchill on “the time for action is now” and “this is a time of consequences”.
In some ways I think climate change is heavy enough without evoking another violent war with the great beast of fascism. But a thought I took away was about the nature of the economy in such times: it’s not about slowing down its about gearing up in an extraordinary shared effort, every able adult in employment. There is rationing and lots of lights being switched off. Most of all there is a shared will. Even a little bit of a sense of adventure and sociability - and doing something that actually matters.
Of all the news about the worsening environment I have read recently, nothing has upset me quite as much as the frogs. Here’s a direct quote from one of the recent reports:
“Frogs are going extinct. So are toads, salamanders, newts, and the intriguingly unusual caecilians. In fact, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) estimates that at least one-third of known amphibian species are threatened with extinction. While the major culprit has historically been habitat loss and degradation, many of the declines and extinctions previously referred to as "enigmatic" are now being attributed to the rapidly dispersing infectious disease chytridiomycosis ("chytrid"). This fungus is causing population and species extinctions at an alarming rate. Can you imagine if we were about to lose one-third of the world's mammals?”
As Al Gore is saying, this is happening ON OUR WATCH. Not the loss of a species but of an entire genera. Can you imagine what that might mean in the great house of cards of the ecosystem? Amphibians are the canary in the coalmine – they are understandably very sensitive to the loss of very specific habitats, like breeding ponds. This has now been named THE YEAR OF THE FROG in conservation circles and zoos are grabbing as many species as they can and quarantining them in the hope of a safe time to re-release them. Somehow this story just gets to me – are we heading into the last generations to spend early years messing around with fishing nets and tadpoles? It’s just unspeakably sad that such a beautifully exotic and alien part of life (arent most of our fictional aliens really space amphibians?) – and the bridge between us and the fish – could just die out in such a catastrophic mass extinction. But it’s also a very serious indication of what lies ahead, and disease pandemics may well be our bullet too.
The evidence that Al Gore is pushing at the moment in his revised version of the inconvenient truth speech is the rapidly melting ice sheets and glaciers and other indicators of nonlinear (ie mutually reinforcing and hence accelerating) climatic changes. Here’s a quote from a recent report on this, the source of the ‘three times faster’ stat:
“For the new study, Dr. Stroeve and others at the ice center reviewed nearly six decades of measurements by ships, airplanes and satellites estimating the maximum and minimum area of Arctic sea ice, which typically expands most in March and shrinks most in September. With an expert from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also in Boulder, they then compared the observed trends with the projections made for the climate panel’s review using the world’s most advanced computer models of climate.Dr. Stroeves team found that since 1953 the area of sea ice in September has declined at an average rate of 7.8 percent per decade. Computer climate simulations of the same period had an average rate of ice loss of 2.5 percent per decade.”
When ice that’s already in the sea melts it doesn’t have such a dramatic effect on sea levels. But that great sheet of white ice is also reflecting lots of the sun’s energy back out into space. There is a proposal to paint the world’s roofs white to try to compensate for the loss of that natural cooling mechanism. I’ve no idea if that’s going to solve more problems than it causes, and I am not advocating a ‘magic bullet hunt’ but if I were a big paint company (ICI?) I would be looking at this pretty seriously at the moment just in case it would actually be of some help in the scheme of things.
The new phrase for global warming which makes a lot of sense is “global weirding” coined by Hunter Lovins, the co-author of Natural Capitalism.
Think of it like wiggling a rope. You only have to increase the amplitude of what you do at one end (because of the energy it takes to get the bulk of the rope moving) by a small amount to produce wild and unpredictable movements at the other end of the rope. It’s how a whip works. Small increases (2 degrees) in average temperature have the same effect on extremes of weather. Come to think of it we could call this Global Whipping?
There’s a great report I linked to last years from HSBC which highlights the lead taken in environmental concerns by China, India and Brazil (vs UK in their study is little short of gloomy fatalism and decadent indifference). Brazil had its big wake up call a few years ago when a hurricane – what we were taught at school couldn’t happen south of the equator (remember all that stuff about the earth’s rotation and water down the plughole) – hit. Global weirding indeed. I think its also worth noting that in a future history of the world written by these nations its us who are going to look like the Marie Antoinettes.
Back and storms and floods, this from Oxfam: There has been a six-fold increase in floods since 1980. The number of floods and wind-storms has risen from 60 in 1980 to 240 last year. Meanwhile the number of geothermal events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, has stayed relatively static.
"This year we have seen floods in South Asia, across the breadth of Africa and in Mexico that have affected more than 250 million people. This is no freak year. It follows a pattern of more frequent, more erratic, more unpredictable and more extreme weather events that are affecting more people, said Jeremy Hobbs, Oxfam International Executive Director. Action is needed now to prepare for more disasters otherwise humanitarian assistance will be overwhelmed and recent advances in human development will go into reverse."
The Kyoto treaty is over 10 years old. Many companies CSR commitments date back to the late 1990s. Consumers are now alive to the problem and refusing shopping bags, changing light bulbs and 40% are using their cars less. So we must be making some progress right? Well actually no…
This is the key chart from last December’s Oxford Uni report into the real impact of the UK economy, when what we import and do (fly) outside the country is included. It says that against a claimed 15% reduction in emissions since 1990, the truth is that there has been a growth of 18% in emissions attributable to the UK economy in that period.
(If you scroll down the blog you will find the link)
Far from being a model of green growth with a healthy (last year) economy and yet cutting our emissions, it’s all just false accounting. That there is a good deal of truth to China’s complaint that siting our factories over there and then blaming them for the energy and emissions. It’s a shocking finding but somehow didn’t we suspect this was the case? Too good to be true, as the report’s title put it.
The likelihood is that what – it was claimed – was a sea change in public attitudes, in the regulatory framework, in the acknowledged responsibilities of business, was in fact just the start. We haven’t yet dramatically changed our ways of life. But we will. We haven’t yet seen businesses in every market divided into two categories; part of the problem and part of the solution – and this in turn having a dramatic effect on their fortunes. But we very likely will. History suggests that when a problem becomes acknowledged as an urgent priority then just such a polarization does happen. For instance with the issue of obesity, brands of sugar based drink, fast food and unhealthy snacks are now in serious trouble. You only have to look at Coca Cola’s share price for the last ten years; Coke’s fell by 20% while Pepsi’s grew 100%. The difference? Pepsi innovating its way out of the unhealthy corner with juices and so on. Coke on the other hand ‘not getting it’,
We are headed like it or not for a low carbon economy. In a week when Shell announced record profits it may sound strange to say this (but consider that the $100 per barrel price which makes its current prospecting discoveries viable is also already crippling the global economy). Leaving to one side the spectre of peak oil (if the oil does start running out sooner than expected, it would herald economic and societal meltdown on an unimaginable scale) in the next ten years real progress must and will be made. There will come a point soon when a continuation of business as usual combined with tinkering at the fringes cant continue. Whether it is rationing, further humanitarian catastrophes, profound recession… the pressure to reduce our collective impact will become sufficient to create an emergency economy comparable to that of wartime Europe. In an emergency economy, the needs of individuals are subsumed to a shared effort – an increased effort. By then it may or may not be too late to stop climate changing. But not trying will not be an option.
What is called for is breakthrough innovation. Human ingenuity seems to thrive under such conditions of extreme stress (consider the rate of innovation during WWII, from radar to the atom bomb) “necessity… the mother of invention”.
Part of what needs to be done could be achieved by aggressively applying present technologies. This is the “stabilisation wedges” view as presented in Science by Princeton academics in 2004 which pointed out that no one current technology could create a sufficient reduction, but it is realistic to divide the total into seven wedges of equal size through which a sufficient reduction could be achieved.15 technologies which were candidates to be a wedge are discussed in this paper. They were chosen on the basis that they had the potential to be ramped up on an industrial scale to save at least one wedge’s worth of carbon. Many of the options have issues and detractors (nuclear, biofuels and geological storage of carbon are three of them). Meanwhile our estimates of the reductions required have increased, according for instance to recent IPCC figures. And progress to date is minimal, as the Oxford/UK study shows it may even be illusory.
The paper is a manifesto for centralised government action; even the option which involves decreased car usage assumes that is achieved through improvements to public transport infrastructure. It seemed unthinkable perhaps to consider the alternative. That we simply use less carbon.
In other words, while we do need to continue to reduce the impact of car manufacturing and also address the average emissions per car – we could also address the issue of driving. Driving not only accounts for three quarters of the emissions associated with a car, but it is elastic. You can decide not to drive tomorrow.
Fair enough we still need to be warm, fed, mobile. But isn’t it possible that there is at least a wedge or two in the overheated, rampant consumerism that characterises modern life? And in a world of floods, famines, economic and social turmoil, just how aspirational will conspicuous consumption continue to be? Our western media feed us an image of a rapidly industrialising and Westernising China and India as accounting for much of the current threat. Yet their current footprint per capita is tiny compared to ours and much of their growth is in manufacturing for our markets.
The unthinkable truth is that we need to change our idea of the good life. Yes we need renewable energy, hyper cars, efficient insulated buildings, a reversal of deforestation. But we also simply need to learn one way or other to live within our means. In fact in many ways we could learn to live much better, more happily – reversing the decades of affluenza, a style of life associated with epidemics of obesity, depression, addictions, loneliness and anxiety disorders.
There will be lots of businesses that thrive in this new context. A business is just an organised way of combining capital, labour and know how. Whether shareholder capitalism in its current form can be part of the solution is very much open to question. Can we continue to support a system which makes Shell shareholders rich, because they are not charged for the external costs, either of their inputs (natural resources that arguably belong to our descendents) or the damage done by their outputs.
Against this background of monumental challenge, if you want to be on the ‘part of the solution’ side of the divide in future (and are doing everything you can to reduce your industrial impacts) then how can you work on this demand side.
ie GREEN MARKETING
I looked at about 18 strategies in my recent book - two per each box of a 3x3 grid - but this simplified view reduces these to four options in a 2x2 grid. It doesnt get you as far into the detailed mechanics of strategy, but perhaps by being simpler is a better overview of what the key choices really mean, in context? Anyway going through the bigger grid is something I've done more than enough times and there is always the book to refer to :J
I’ll come back to look at the axes at the end and to reflect on what it all actually means for changing society as a whole, and where we are at in thinking about the relative weight or importance of these quadrants. But that is probably better done having explained what I mean by each in turn, first.
The first and most obvious demand side (ie marketing) strategy is developing, launching and selectively supporting green brands. A green brand is one which offers a significant eco-advantage over the incumbents, and which hence appeals to those who are willing to make green a high priority. Notice I dont limit this definition to those willing to pay more - green luxury brands in effect - partly because of the potential swing this year which i have written about before from green spending to green saving. The 1970s oil crisis opened the door in the US to the small car. In the 1980s Soviet economic collapse was exactly tracked by falling carbon emissions from that region. Recession even if painful and damaging in some ways could also be a green time, still led by those who 'get it'. But it may not be a 'worth paying more time'. If this hits really hard M&S may actually need a PlanB. But British Gas and others working on energy efficiency (money saving) drives could do alright.
When we are considering climate change in isolation, the definition of ‘green’ narrows. There is a prevailing view in sustainability circles that you shouldn’t ignore other environmental issues such as chemicals, water use and so on, plus we also cannot afford to ignore social justice, development in the poorer nations and so on. The problems are systemic, with many interdependencies, so must be the solutions.
Whichever definition of ‘green’ you follow, there is undoubtedly a significant segment of consumers who are willing to favour products and services that offer a significant lead. How many are in this segment depends on two factors:
1. how dark green the product is
2. whether there are secondary benefits, vs it being a sacrifice
If you can offer something which makes a significant difference, in a way which is intuitive, supported (and not much contested) by expert evidence… and which also saves people money, or is healthier, or confers status… then you are probably onto a winner.
8-10% of people are up for dark green lifestyles, eg composting and micro-generation
20-40% of people are up for light green changes, eg a smaller car, fewer flights
60-80% of people are up for no-brainers, such as turning down thermostats
Of course you still need to get people over inertia, habits and so on.
In the last two years we have seen the middle ground – those willing to make green a priority (for instance those willing to pay more for green) – grow from nothing to something like 30% (according to Guardian Green Light research data). But imagine a much bigger swing in consumer attitudes lies ahead. One in which the social pressure will be to be seen to be doing everything possible (as in the war effort) from sharing lifts, to growing your own vegetables, to painting your roof white (see above - in both senses!)
The other green niche that is already a strong factor is companies and local governments with commitments being reflected in green procurement policies. Green printers, green cabs and so on are booming. And those unable to report on their impacts and policies are starting to find that they are not even qualified to tender for contracts.
The majority of successful green brands are either:
1. based on an alternative technology
2. based on a company which runs on green principles
Why would this be? Why can you just ‘green’ a conventional brand.
The reason is that green is not an image value (like ‘cool’ or ‘classic’) it is a factual evaluation. And it is an evaluation made by an increasingly sceptical audience. Nonetheless it is a judgement, and judgements are based on credible stories. It is credible that a hybrid engine has lower emissions. It is credible that products from a nice company like Ecover contain less harmful chemicals. Both claims happen to be disputed but they feel right. They are acts of belief in a human project that is readily understandable. And it’s a good yardstick, broadly we will make more progress if we put our faith in companies and products which represent being part of the solution. (Whereas there is limitless potential for self deception if companies could succeed in putting greener spins on the status quo, without such a big costly effort - it's just they dont really seem able to get away with it, with greenwashing so high in people's and regulators' minds).
Set new standards is what people often think of as sustainability marketing.
More exactly it is often a case of marketing your sustainability. The danger is following a line of making your virtue more visible. Even if it is absolutely genuine, people (according to research) don’t particularly like companies making capital out of the issue. It seems like profiteering. You have to plot a very careful course, and of course this is true of any area where ethics are concerned.
The point of setting new standards is to SET AN EXAMPLE and hence lead the rest of your industry in that direction. In GE’s case they are quite explicit about the fact that they are doing so to force the pace of regulation. If they set a pace, others will struggle to keep up, particularly where procurement by American public utilities is concerned, such being the customers for their power stations and hybrid diesel locomotives.
It is setting an example which gets you the endorsement of the NGOs and think tanks; this is what you are for them, an example to use to exort change in others. Eurostar was endorsed by Jonathon Porritt, Tony Juniper, Stuart Rose for going that extra mile to actually reduce their carbon, rather than resting on the laurels (they started out 9 times greener than flying) or over relying on offsets.
Standards are (hopefully) a moving target of best practise. Carbon neutral is no longer regarded as a gold standard for instance, largely because of increasing questions over the efficiency of offsetting (vs for instance putting the same money into making further green improvements yourself).
Once again it is all about credible stories. Paradoxically one of the more credible archetypal stories within this field is the penitent sinner. We all like a good conversion and if all the signals are right, in some ways we find green virtue more credible from Newscorp/Sky (formerly known as the barbarians at the gate) than we would from the BBC. BSkyB’s commitments and efforts are in themselves laudable and I am not suggesting that you can make a sinner look like a saint. But rather that corporate redemption is a potent cultural myth for prompting re-evaluation.
In general the degree of nuance and qualification and dialogue required to correctly communicate where a company is with this stuff and its plans makes advertising a dangerous platform. Advertising is all about finding the most flattering angle to look at something from, finding a metaphor or association with a cultural territory. It lives in a zone between promise and poetic license. Which is fine when you are trying to say a brand is ‘cool’ or ‘seductive’ or something like that. It is questionable when you are trying to communicate quality (for instance Mr Kipling or Bernard Matthews – “bootiful” - as hallmarks of traditional quality and care?) And it is a disaster waiting to happen if you are communicating something as bound up in politics, ethics, science, scepticism and anxiety… as sustainability.
In an interview in Fortune following the Beyond Petroleum debacle, the general manger of BP’s US operations said that; of course they were not currently beyond petroleum, it was more about communicating that they were (compared to Exxon and others) at least acknowledging the problem and taking steps to tackle it, albeit in the long term. The natural response would be “why didn’t you say that then?” and their honest reply would be “because it was an ad campaign”. If advertising hyperbole were like the volume of your radio then the dial is already jammed past 10. There is no place for the quiet, unassuming, well qualified, rounded and humble presentation of the truth.
When setting new standards communications work they are not addressing people as consumers (like advertising necessarily does) anyway. They are addressing citizens who will make a choice based on a holistic sense of trying to do the right thing or ‘voting with your wallet’ as researcher Mary Goodyear called it in the 1990s when the concept of ethical consumerism was first mooted – examples then, from a previous phase in green consumerism, including Body Shop and Benetton.
The modern trend in marketing and media is from one way centralised messages and activities to involving people with the brand and increasingly with each other. Amazon’s success is founded upon the 10 million reviews which we have left for each other, and on the trails left by other book buyers: “people who liked X, also liked Y”.
I call this Marketing Enthusiasm. In any number of ways its about creating a space where the company and the audience can share enthusiasm; be it a Nike city run, an Oddbins wine testing, booklets on managing pre-menstrual tension, or exam stress from a headache tablet company (I made the last one up in response to an online blogging debate where the other side claimed that people don’t want to engage with low interest brands: “I don’t want a brand experience from Tylenol”).
When you apply this approach to green marketing the natural area to address is one of co-operating with customers to reduce the total impact. Get people to drive less (as Mercedes has urged in television advertising in Germany – consider using your bicycle instead for the short journeys). Or get people to share their cars. Or indeed get people to drive slower; sticking to the speed limit would save lives and money as well as tonnes of carbon, as a bumper sticker campaign (“Stop at 70”) pointed out.
This sort of approach has produced the standout green marketing of the last couple of years. For instance Ariel’s Turn to 30 led (in recent research among its readers by magazine group IPC) to ‘turning down the thermostat on your washing machine’ being one of the main new claimed behaviours, with people pointing to the ad campaign by Ariel as the place they got this idea. Similarly O2 scored a big success (winning the 2006 Green Awards) by persuading people buying a new Nokia to keep their old charger, and to re-use the packaging to post back their old phone for recycling while they were at it.
Going forward, if considering this sort of approach one thing to bear in mind is that (as with carbon neutral) the era of ‘little things that make a big difference’ has probably passed. My son’s school has a punctuality campaign at the moment and someone worked out that being late just 5 minutes a day added up to missing 3 days of school per year. The trouble is its only 5 minutes a day (and it takes kids a while to settle anyway). I like being early because then we don’t have to rush, and can chat on the way. But I don’t buy the ‘cumulative’ argument and it’s the same with shopping bags and light bulbs.
The key things to worry about if you want to reduce your personal carbon footprint are car use, flying and home energy (ie principally heating). Especially flying. One flight to New York is worth a whole year’s car use in emissions. We do use billions of plastic bags, needlessly instead of re-usable bags and its hardly either-or. Plus bags are such a visible declaration of people around you are starting to think green. And billions of bags in landfill or indeed even on a ship back to China for recycling, is not good news.
This is the year when people perhaps need to focus on a few bigger things that make a bigger difference. Lagging the loft. Skipping the less essential flights. Buying a small car. The turn to 30 campaign is a good move, but in the scheme of things it’s a tweak, and the danger is that people do it and feel they have done their bit. If you really want to tackle laundry then hanging clothes out to dry (rather than tumble dryers) is a better move. Think of it as like dieting, people need to identify and cut out the cakes, fizzy drinks and pies, rather than things that weren’t that bad in the first place.
Doing anything is a start. But the ‘little things that make a big difference’ message has on balance proved a hindrance. It just doesn’t tally; on the one hand apocalyptic fears raised by climate change films and reports, on the other hand changing 3 light bulbs. If we all did anything it would add up, but it wouldn’t add up to an 80% reduction. And deep down people do actually realise when they are rearranging the deck chairs on the titanic too, I suspect.
Many of my own hopes for improvement are pinned on what I call networked resource systems. The big development of the last decades in business has been new network computing enabled efficiencies. Now we can apply all of that to using resources. In the process we might unpick a little of the selfish (and lonely) individualism that is driving the excessive and wasteful form of consumerism established in the 20th century. With the internet we can find out how to share, rent, repair and re-use. Systems like Freecycle have shown how the same system that gave us eBay and electronic exchanges can bring dumpster diving and couch surfing into mainstream acceptable behaviour.
localfoodshop is the new online virtual farmers market
whatdoidowiththis is a means to sell on leftover building supplies
Some of the carbon intensity of our economy is simply down to inefficient systems and markets - in the light of what can now be done for instance - as in these two cases - to connect buyers and sellers.
A key idea in green economics is product service systems. The idea is to focus on a need, not its current delivery form. And if possible meet it in future with a service, displacing some of the demand for physical products.
In a city car club, 200 occasional drivers can share a car. They can book it efficiently, via GPS and an online system. They can locate it, pick it up, use it, then return it. All for a nominal subscription and an hourly rate that compares favourably with taxis. You save money, hassle, responsibility. It’s a free and easy system and one day I believe most durables will be rented, and the materials re-used, from kitchens and their appliances, even many clothes and accesories. Why own a suitcase each? An alternative contractual arrangement is pay per use (which Electrolux have trialled) and where products are already rented out, extending the lifetime of the contract is another good idea – moving to a Prius style green phone with a four year contract would save millions of millions of perfectly functional phone handsets from landfill. Contracts are quite a hot area of innovation (they formalise responsibility). Virgin Money is offering to formalise micro-lending between friends and relatives, Howies is offering a contract on a jacket whereby you promise to hand it on when you have finished with it.
There are so many opportunities for us to create systemic shared efficiencies. Dynamic demand for instance aligns appliance use with loading of the national grid. There are voluntary tariffs in the US, and also devices you can cheaply retrofit to fridges to tell them when to power up and down to avoid wasted generation. This is a great time for inventors and social innovators who can think in this systemic way.
Let's return briefly to the two axes. I tend to value citizen strategies over consumer ones and active participation schemes over passive ‘vote with your wallet ones’ because the ultimate challenge we face is redesigning life and the more active and engaged people are, the more knock on effects any individual moves have on the culture as a whole.
But I am not saying there isnt good stuff being done in every quadrant. For the same reason of affecting broader change, though I am a big fan of charismatic brands like innocent, Howies and Green & Blacks because they paint a vision of the future which isn’t grey and bleak. Sacrifice is the wrong framework, perhaps instead we need to see the present in terms of stupidity, decadence, ugliness, waste… all on an obscene scale. Much as we are trying to save the world (or at least reduce the suffering ahead for human societies and for many of our fellow higher species) we could also see a little salvation in a world more attuned to a natural, human scale, connected and authentic way of life.
Looking forward, I think we simply need to ignore some of the current mess we are in and see that there WILL be a low carbon economy soon, we just need to fill in the details (and fast) – for individual companies this is a simple matter of ensuring you survive and can even thrive after a paradigm shift – it’s not that much different than your decision ten years ago not to get left behind by the digital revolution? Sustainability changes everything too.