Monday, 23 May 2011

The myth of the ethical consumer

Recent research led by Timothy Devinney, professor of strategy at the University of Technology, Sydney has found that most people will not sacrifice product function for ethics. The research team concluded that proponents of ethical consumerism want to believe that people make socially oriented choices that override a general appraisal of product features and functionality but that this is a delusion. This looks to me like common sense, but it is useful to have hard research to back up my gut feeling.

The ethical consumer is an elusive person. I pay a premium in my local shop for eco cleaning products as I want the shop to stay in business; it is a short walk from my front door and over the long-term I will save by spending less on transportation, but the product has to work well and the premium has to be small. Even though I am a passionate advocate for sustainability I will not be persuaded to buy a sub standard product just because it claims to be green.

Green and ethical factors will become increasingly important to close sale transactions ranging from major corporate contracts to the sale of individual items. Such factors will be the deal clincher but green will not override the prime metrics of value-for-money and fit-for-purpose. First-class green products will dominate the market place in the future; second-class products that are green will sink without trace.

Companies should not plan to rely on ethical consumerism to underpin the business. Customers want quality and value; sustainable business is about delivering the required quality at a competitive price using sustainable processes. The payback comes from being ahead of the next ratchet up of government regulation and gaining some protection from the next hike in the price of energy and other resource inputs. There are numerous reasons to put sustainability at the core of business strategy but being able to sell to ethical consumers is very low down on the list of priorities.

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Government Litmus Test

At today’s cabinet meeting, the UK government has an important decision to make over the carbon budget for the period 2013-2023. Which way this decision goes has significance beyond the particular issue; it will set the tone for the remaining term of the coalition government and either reinforce David Cameron’s intention expressed a year ago ‘to be the greenest government ever’ or show that the vision has been killed by realpolitik.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the independent body of experts to advise the UK Government on setting carbon budgets, has put forward its recommendations. Chris Huhne, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary want the recommendations adopted. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary is opposed; worried at the impact on competiveness for UK industry if the UK adopted more ambitious targets than the rest of Europe.

The discussion today in 10 Downing Street is between the policy required to make progress towards a low-carbon Britain and protecting the current economy. This dilemma is right at the heart of sustainability. In a complex modern economy everything connects, every action has a consequence. Looking too closely at consequences leads to stalemate and inaction. There is always a good reason why something cannot be done.

The differences between the society we live in today and a sustainable society are huge. It is not just the need to change energy systems, to replace conventional power stations with renewable sources; it is also about demand reduction leading to different ways to design our cities and different ways to live. This is not a reversion to the past but a leap forward to a new age of prosperity measured by quality of life in place of crude economic measures.

The changes are revolutionary, and to get there requires a revolution, the Sustainable Revolution. Governments need to adhere to principle and face down the doubters and representatives of special interest groups. To agree a tight carbon budget at the meeting today, in line with the proposals from the CCC, mean that the revolution has a chance to proceed. Significant watering down or back-peddling will put progress on hold and mean that the difficulty and disruption in the long-term will be greater than necessary. The sooner we embrace the revolution the less disrupting it will be; delay because of the perceived difficulties makes acceptable solutions much harder to find.

This is the Litmus test for this government’s green credentials.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Where is the ethical consumer?

A lot of hype surrounds the opportunities to supply ethical consumers, but who are they, and how big is this new customer segment? Ethical or green consumers are people who search out green, low-carbon, fair-trade and sustainable products. Such customers read the labels carefully to understand the product, and how it has been produced, and select the product with the greenest and most ethical credentials. There is a confusing array of logos to help them make their choice, spanning the range from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) to the Fair Trade mark and a variety of recycling symbols. Some of these are backed up by robust certification; others can be displayed with little independent evaluation. The assumption is that a growing number of people use such labelling to change their buying behaviour.

I take a close interest in the labelling of products because it is a fascinating and evolving area and I have a very critical eye. When I spot a product with a lot of unnecessary packaging and a prominent recycling symbol, I am not impressed. When the symbol has written beside it the words, ‘packaging not currently recyclable,’ I am even less enamoured. Do the manufacturers think that my subconscious will spot the recycling symbol without reading the words; or that I will warm to the knowledge that the company is aware that it needs to improve but so far has done little to correct its operations?

I am the green marketeer’s least favourite customer. When I spot a green-spin marketing campaign my antennae are searching for substance. Where the company has made real progress and implemented sustainable change, I am suitably impressed and likely to pay a small premium. Where I sniff the aroma of ‘greenwash’, I take delight in digging deeper if there is hypocrisy to expose.

As the cohort of people who understand the sustainability agenda grows, companies that don’t get it will inflict deep self-inflicted wounds. The slick glossy advert using pictures of beautiful nature in a superficial context will come back to haunt old-school marketing executives. Some of the advertising campaigns that have used a green theme in recent years will have ridicule heaped upon them as real sustainability moves into the mainstream.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Water - Clear Gold

Water when you have copious quantities is worthless; if you don’t have any it is more valuable than gold.

Water is available in abundance on our planet and we assume that it will always be available when and where we need it. People who live in desert regions know this not to be so. On a journey from one oasis to another you have to carry enough to make the journey, trusting and hoping that the water at the next oasis is clean and potable. Living in the wet and winding isles of Britain, water has never been much of a concern. When the reservoirs run low in a long hot summer hosepipe bans are introduced to conserve supplies, but we can be confident that the water will continue to flow when we turn on the tap.

After the hottest and driest April since records began we have been basking in delightful warm weather. The farmers are not pleased at this critical stage in the development of their crops. We hope and assume that the weather will break and the dry soil brought back to life but what if our weather patterns are changing? It is highly unlikely that Britain, an island surrounded by water would become a desert but we should be aware that in places where rainfall is less certain, there is a real danger that small changes in climate lead to drought and the formation of deserts. If is possible that the UK crops could fail we would be worried; if the crops failed two years in a row we would be very worried; in the third year of no rain we would be feeling very vulnerable indeed. These are the thought we must entertain if we are to have empathy for people living in vulnerable regions.

Our local water company, Thames Water is making preparations. Last year the Beckton desalination plant was commission to make water from the Thames estuary and process it into potable water. This is the technology more normally associated with desert regions and uses energy to desalinate the water. Climate change lead to less rainfall, leads to more desalination plants using more energy leading to more carbon dioxide emissions, leading to further pressure on the climate. Am I the only person to query whether we should break this self reinforcing cycle?

There is one way to break this particular cycle; nearby there is the Beckton sewage works. It would use much less energy to take the water coming out of the sewage works and process that back into the system as potable water. Clear gold from sewage – why not?