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The changes experienced in sustainability over the last ten years or so have been nothing but phenomenal. More and more companies have embraced the need to act more responsibly and manage their impacts. What started as ‘doing less harm’ has turned into bottom line benefits as companies have found new ways to match managing the triple bottom line with shaving costs off the business bottom line. But you don’t cut yourself into growth and growth is the bread and butter of companies. And it’s the holy grail of sustainability – growing the business top line. That’s why we need consumers to come and join the party – they already do, just look at TOMS, Patagonia, Method, Seventh Generation, Dove and many more. What is missing isn’t the consumer but a better grip on what makes them tick – a sustainable brand they can trust, buy and advocate. In my new book I cut through the myths and noise to create a sustainable brand model, a fusion of product and branding. It’s when these two dance that we create consumer breakthrough and the magic happens. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s simply create more sustainable brands – and this is the ‘how to’ guide that will help you get there.

Use the code Campher15 in the voucher section to get 15% discount!

Link to the book here – Creating a Sustainable Brand: A Guide to Growing the Sustainability Top Line

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I know… I don’t blog enough around here anymore. Okay, I don’t blog around here at all. Watch this (empty) space. I will be back soon and regular. In the meantime, I do blog over at CSRWire more regularly. See below the latest one over there where I looked into my sustainably made crystal ball and imagined the strange (un)sustainable world of tomorow.

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No, this is not another “looking at 2014” piece. I am more interested in looking a little further ahead. The world we live in has changed dramatically over the last 10 years and there are larger trends changing the world in ways we can hardly imagine.

Imagine, for example, if we somehow had better insight into how transportation will change across the world over the last 50 years. Or how manufacturing will shift away from the U.S. and other developed countries or how the brands we love dissolve into nothing more than grand design houses with limited manufacturing capabilities. Not to mention how technology has changed the world – wish there was an app for all that.

I’m more interested in the mega trends that will shape our world over the next 50 years. What will drive the fundamental change in the way we source, manufacture, interact, communicate, build relationships, sell, transport etc.? In short, here are four mega trends that I believe will change the world of sustainability in a way that makes most of what we think is important today silly and obsolete.

Well, we’re done with the silly season after all…

1. Everything Is Personal

The rise of the individual over the group has in itself become a group activity. The marketplace of people has become so crowded that people are fighting to stand out. We have moved from the Pepsi Generation to the Me Generation. From consumers to individuals. This is already challenging the way brands interact with people, as people want to be known as Jane, Dick and Sipho – the individuals. They want brands to conform to them and not the other way around.

Brands who want to survive must find a way to engage in a conversation – a dialogue – where they are informed as much as what they inform. In other words, get ready to lose control of your brand to save it. As the new Edelman brandshare™ study shows, brands who ignore this new sharing revolution do it at their own cost. By losing control and allowing your own brand to become individualized you will empower individuals to love you, connect with you and advocate on your behalf.

At the same time, you will also lose control of what your brand looks like. Conversations with consumers won’t stop at Likes. They will want to be part of the design process. In many cases, they already are – go design your own Timberland boots or Nike’s today.

This mega trend will also influence how companies implement sustainability across their value chain. As technology and transparency make the world smaller, consumers will be driven toward making everything personal – and leveraging the power to know where their purchases came from, i.e., manufactured, sourced, farmed, etc. It’s already possible – we can trace coffee, wine, water, cocoa and even diamonds to any specific location today. And this is already playing out in the marketplace with sales of fair trade coffee outstripping the sales growth of traditional coffee.

As individuals design their own products they will also have the ability to pick the ingredients and/or materials, enabling them to make ethical choices from the source right through to disposal. As a brand, your ability to control your supply chain will thereby become even more important – because your consumer will drop you if you can’t give her the right goods to make your product.

2. Two Classes

Income inequality is growing faster than ever before. The rich aren’t just getting richer – they are getting richer at a rate that is bad for the U.S. and global economy.

Simply put, income distribution in the U.S. and in the world is unsustainable. This isn’t an ethical issue but a sustainability issue. I am not making a judgment call on whether the rich should or should not own as much as they do or whether CEOs should get paid as much as what they do – I am merely looking at the impact of this fast growing income inequality. The impact hampers economic growth and, as the fall of the Roman Empire showed us, huge income inequalities are bad for countries. Today, the U.S. has a worse level of income inequality than the Roman Empire.

The long-term solution? Either get rid of it or find a way to ignore it.

The problem with the rich in Roman times was that they could not find a way to cut income inequality. They gave a little bit away but never did enough to change the underlying systemic problems and reasons for income inequality. The same is happening today in the U.S. and the world.

Universal health care gives the poor(er) a little bit of breathing space but does not challenge the nature of the economic system and the underlying challenges: an obsession with fast growth, short-term investors addicted to high profit margins irrespective of values, too-big-to-fail industries and companies rewarding high risk takers, and a reward system that encourages investors and business leaders disconnected from long term business and societal needs.

This growing income inequality isn’t just a widening of the gap between the rich and poor but, more importantly, changing the nature of the middle class. The middle class has always been the bridge of hope between the poor and rich but now they are carrying an economic burden beyond their means and fast losing pace with the rich.

The new class system, unfortunately, isn’t between rich and poor but rather those who benefit from the system and those who “hang in there.”

While clearly unsustainable, there is little that can be done within the current economic system to alleviate this trend. The result: people will become even more entrenched in their class, defining their needs and wants according to their economic status – an acceptance of life rather than striving towards a new economic class.

However, this financial divide will also create a different kind of economic and social divide. Where you live, eat and play; what you buy and watch; and who you interact with, will increasingly be decided according to where you fall in this economic divide, creating a need for economic and social systems that can cater to both societies. You already see this with where people shop, what they drive, where they eat, what they watch, buy etc. Expect this trend to increase even faster over the coming years.

Examples can already be seen in the fast growing sharing economy as growing income inequality creates a new economic model that encourages sharing resources for financial gain – aided by developments like the growth of social media and the move toward cities. Uber, Sidecar, AirBnB, etc. allow anyone to start their own business and make it personal – but I bet their target audience isn’t those who buy Ferraris or who stay at the Four Seasons.

It is, in fact, a combination of all these trends that is leading to a major shift in how people are adapting the capitalist system to address their needs – but away from the big business model. And regardless of the outcome, it is clear that the impact will change the very nature of business in years to come.

3. 3D Printing

Like the stories of rock bands, the instant sensation of 3D printing has been 30 years in the making. While, the discussions today are about immediate controversies such as printing guns, the real disruption with 3D printing will be the ability to print stuff we use every single day – it is already printing apparel and footwear and food, and even human organs!

Imagine the future in 50 years when we will be able to print everything we need from our homes or local 3D print locations. Our food, clothes, furniture, even replacement organs and everything in between. The challenge is not the technology but the delivery of the “ink” to the printers. Traditional transportation methods – trucks and trains – won’t be able to keep up with the demand, likely leading to delivery via pipes and cables, much like gas and water today.

While 3D printing has the potential to have significant impact on infrastructure development and transportation, we are decades away from fruition. Today’s infrastructure is not geared toward delivering the world of tomorrow. Expect a transformation of cities and how we live and move around, which will lead to enormous changes across supply chains globally.

With people printing their Levi’s or Timberland’s or even the Big Mac at home, raw materials will be able to skip the middleman – the manufacturer. In other words, 3D printing will complete the move from brands controlling both design and manufacturing to becoming nothing more than design houses.

4. New Generation Gap

The last mega trend is the way social media is changing how we experience information and form relationships. There is a new generation gap between those who see new technologies and social media as an additional way to communicate and interact and those who see it as the only way to communicate.

Social media does not replace personal experiences or the importance of building physical presence to start a relationship – it enhances those relationships. It is an additional way to stay connected with your “network” no matter where they are. And, of course, another way you can consume.

But the younger crowd experiences this new social world differently.

For them the new technology is a natural extension of how they make friends and interact with the world. A snapchat is as good as a handshake. The need for physical interaction is not necessary any more to build trusted relationships anymore.

This is a huge shift in how humans have developed relationships and organized themselves. The suburb of tomorrow has gone digital – a place where people go to be with their own community. And then they step outside (if they really have to) to go to work. Social media, like little else, will change the landscape of tomorrow completely. Mega cities just need to connect to us via wireless. We can order cars through a sharing app. Work is a video away.

In other words, social media confirms the move to the personal and will challenge how we organize our social, economic and political systems.

So what will the world of tomorrow look like? Will it be a world of selfish individuals printing their ideal partners at home in their connected mega city apartment? Or will it be one where the individual is celebrated as making up this new connected world where we share what we can eat and print?

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Sustainability should be much simpler than what we make it out to be. It’s not very complicated – take actions today that leaves the world in a better or no worse place for future generations. But the devil is always in the details. And this made me think a little of what are the different levels of sustainability. And how the concept of sustainability and the current trends influence business in the future. I’m sure this is way too simple so feel free to chip in and help define the levels of sustainability. These are rough thoughts that was hatched during my daily commute on public transport and therefore very rough…

Why make these distinctions? Because it helps us know how to work with and help each company. They are all very different and needs to be treated differently. Many moons ago I had a client who asked me to help them become “like Timberland”. My response was pretty straight forward – “You know you are an extractive company, right?”

More importantly, it helps us think of the future of sustainability. We know what a sustainable future should or could look like – what role does business play in this future?

1. I don’t do sustainability

There are many companies out there who just plain do not believe in sustainability. They believe in one thing and one thing only – increasing their ROI for the next few days. Even a quarter is a long-term vision for them. They will campaign against anything that asks them to take their impact into consideration – climate change, labor rights, equality in the workplace etc. They will comply to local laws because they have to and not always because they want to. That’s why they lobby and fight against so many of these laws. They will take subsidies without thinking of their own responsibility. They will cut corners where they can – and in most cases stick within the law. They will sell you snake oil and call it green. They’ll do the minimum and think that is the actions of a responsible company. They will use meaningless words and phrases that sound cute but mean nothing like “the business of business is business“. I won’t spend too much time on these companies. Arguing with them is a losing fight. They see what they want to see and nothing we can say or do will make them change their ways. I won’t invest in them and I won’t work with them. There are just too many other companies trying their best and who needs counsel, help and support. Let’s rather focus on those who see the sustainability of their company and the world as linked to their business bottom line. In any case, I don’t believe these companies will survive for long. History shows us that companies that think this way eventually just die a slow death. Eventually society will see them for who they are – in it for themselves and not really part of society.

2. I act responsibly

Of course there are a range of companies who just aren’t sustainable. The nature of their business and/or their current business model means that they can act responsibly but the company itself cannot be seen as sustainable. They must change how they source or manufacture over time to become sustainable. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be good corporate citizens. Many if them are good citizens who act with great responsibility. I see them as the CSR group rather than the sustainability group – a small but important distinction. Let me use an industry as an example. Most companies in the extractive industry just cannot be seen as practicing sustainability. They take stuff from the grounds and can’t replace it. They can’t leave that specific world in the same or better place. It’s a stretch for them to claim that. I worked with a very well respected luxury goods company and they refused to use the word sustainability. When I asked them why their response was “Because we mine diamonds and can’t put it back. And eventually we will run out of diamonds.” When will they run out of diamonds? Who knows! But the principle is right. But they do incredible work – one of my top 5 companies when it comes to CSR. Incredible work. They do everything right when it comes to sourcing their diamonds, adding value in developing countries where they source from, refuse to buy rubies from Burma, lobby against unsustainable mining practices – they tick all the boxes. But the nature of their business means they take full responsibility of their impact and are incredible corporate citizens – just not sustainable. This is in no way knocking them. Many of these companies do incredible work in difficult circumstances and delivers a product we desperately need today (and tomorrow) – we can’t live without them. I am proud to be associated with them and to work with them. So many of them are shining examples of what responsible businesses could and should be doing. Those in the group who practice sustainability can learn from these companies on what true responsibility in communities and supply chains mean and how to measure and reduce your impact in the world.

3. I am sustainable

Sustainability is slowly but surely becoming mainstream. More and more companies are embracing the discipline of sustainability to build a better business for the future. They have practices that highlight what can be done to make business work and help secure our joint future. They source in ways that do not deplete these resources. They take action on their energy use and tackle climate change in action and voice. They treat workers with respect and speak out against injustices. They will help their suppliers to become more sustainable themselves. They will take responsibility for their products and empower consumers to take responsiblity where they have a joint responsibility – such as driving recycling with consumers. These are the companies who are the leaders of today. They believe in values adding value. They know their future business success is tied to the sustainability of the world around them. The way they operate, source and manufacture, ensures they still have the ability to operate this way in future – the resources are replenished to ensure a better or same tomorrow. The world will be a poorer place without them. In so many ways.

4. I help make the world sustainable

This fourth category is the one that bugs me the most. It’s the most challenging and most complex. Maybe I should break it up into more levels of sustainable businesses, but for now I will keep the three distinctions of this group here.

The easy part is identifying those social innovators and entrepreneurs who focus on developing a business solution to a social problem. They are different from group 3 mentioned above because the nature of the products and services of group 3 is not aimed at a social problem but more about the “wants” of people. Most of the purchases of today are not because we need it but because we want it. We think we need a tablet but we don’t really need it, we just want it. A smartphone is a luxury and not a need. How many pairs of shoes do you need versus how many you want? Companies who are in group 3 still sells products in the “want” category but do so by taking responsibility for their actions and impact by making sustainability part of how they source, manufacture and take responsibility for their final product (waste etc). The social innovators focus on creating products and services society needs – new ways to get clean water to the poor, medicine people need to survive, nutritional products aimed specifically at groups in need, renewable energy solutions in challenging environments, energy-efficient cars (it’s more of a need than want if you only have one car!) – and much much more. They link the need of society to new product or service development and build a business around that. In some cases they might be a non-profit but the principle is still providing a tradeable solution to societal needs – micro-financing is a classic example.

Some of the companies in this category falls outside of this social innovation group though. They are still innovators but they actually focus on the want and not on the need. They develop new products and services that still deal with the current consumer behaviour of buying more stuff that is cool. They tap into the pop culture and fashion of the day and gives it a unique spin by giving it a social value over and above the hip new product. Think of TOMS. The product they sell isn’t unique and neither did they bring a product to life that deals with a specific societal need. They tapped into the mainstream consumer market by creating a cool new “I-want-that” product that has a huge societal benefit attached to it. The business model is very unique but the product itself is not. The concept itself is not that unique either. It is a logical evolution of cause marketing coming into maturity. From attaching a cause to a product to the cause becoming central to the product concept development itself.

The 3rd and last group in this category is the one I struggle with the most and my ideas are still only half-baked here so please feel free to rip it apart. But humor me for a moment.

All of these businesses in this group and the other categories still work within the system we know – sell more products and services to consumers. It operates within the current system. The challenges we face as a society today is challenging this system though. The question being asked is whether we can continue to expect these levels of consumption and be a sustainable world? I’m not talking about a narrow definition of sustainable consumption. Sustainable consumption debates have focused on selling more sustainable products and taking responsibility for your product post-consumer- whether it is how they are manufactured or used. The premise remains the same – sell more stuff. Sell stuff to increase ROI by creating new markets or pushing market share.

Is this system itself sustainable though? Can we really expect to build a more sustainable future by maintaining the same credit levels and expecting people to continue to buy more things? Let me give you an example… Are we any closer to sustainability if every single pair of shoes sold in the world now and in the future is made by TOMS? If we buy TOMS at the same rate of growth – does that make the world sustainable? TOMS might have a great business model but the world can’t handle buying at the same level we’ve had over the last 10-30 years – even if it is TOMS…

That is the essence of the challenge for companies – how to change the business model to remain profitable in a world that needs lower consumption levels and somehow keep investors happy. This would be the next level of business and sustainability. But this is a balancing act that is asking a lot…

The honest truth is that I have no clue how we can do this. Like I said, it’s just something that is bugging me at the moment. Somewhere the answer lies and I believe that good businesses, and society in general, will come up with an answer. We don’t have much of a choice as the runaway levels of consumption is not sustainable. And neither is the continuous pressure on the business bottom line via squeezed margins and market share. We’re close to a tipping point.

This goes way beyond the “Shared Value” concept. Shared Value argues we look at where business and society intersects and finding the joint value in that relationship to drive business and societal benefits. But what if the real value is to share less?

I don’t have the answer. But it’s worth exploring the options as doing nothing might not be an option for much longer.

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Everything seems to be turning green. And there is nothing wrong with that – companies creating new, innovative products and services that are good for them and good for the environment. But consumers haven’t completely bought into this yet. A number of green products aren’t flying off the shelves the way companies anticipated. Why is it that the green revolution has taken companies by storm, but not consumers? With the environment at the forefront of consumer concerns, it makes one wonder, why consumers aren’t dropping the bad stuff and buying the good stuff. We build it, but they just won’t come.Why? 

Some products are a big hit with consumers – the Prius and CFL light bulbs are taking off in a big way. So why aren’t they buying green shoes, food, computers, etc.? 

There are many reasons why people buy certain products and not others – price, functionality, “coolness,” brand loyalty, etc. One often overlooked factor is: how do the environmental aspects of the product help the consumer? 

Let’s first look at why the Prius and the CFL light bulb are so popular. They allow consumers to feel better about themselves when they use these products. A person starts their Prius and immediately feels “greener” than their neighbor with the gas-guzzling SUV. They feel better and more environmentally responsible with every mile they drive. It is the action of driving that makes them “green.” The same goes for a CFL light bulb. They feel better about themselves each and every time they turn on the lights. The simple action of switching on the light enables them to feel like an environmental “activist” – that they are making a difference.  

You said you wanted a green car...
You said you wanted a green car…

The environmental benefit doesn’t come from the company making the Prius or the CFL light bulb. The “goodness” comes from the consumer using the product instead of an alternative product. A Prius isn’t a car – it is an environmental tool for the consumer. The CFL light bulb doesn’t just provide light – it provides the consumer with an opportunity to make a difference through the simple action of flipping the switch. 

The success of these “green” products lies in enabling the consumer to take action. The act of making a difference through using these products makes them successful. So many green failures can be traced back to lacking this fundamental element – allowing consumers to feel “green” each time they use a product. When all the “goodness” is in the making of the product and not in the using of the product, no other action is expected from the consumer. The only action the consumer needs to take is buying the product. But the act of buying is not perceived as an act of environmental activism. This doesn’t allow the consumer to feel that they are taking environmental action. 

Buying a green product, that’s green qualities are all in the production phase, leaves the consumer with a very basic question: what about me? 

You want to sell a green product? Then let your consumer be part of the “greenness.” Give them something that they can do apart from just buying the product. Give them a way to take action. Let it be easy – like starting a Prius or flipping a light switch. Give consumers simple actions that make them feel like they are making a difference each and every time they use your product. Let them be part of the change.

But what about those products that can’t make consumers feel that they are part of the green actions – that don’t turn them into “green activists” purely through the use of the product? Here companies need to be a little more subtle in their approach…

David Connor made me think of the role between a company and its consumers. David is one of a handful of people I admire for their thinking and pushing Sustainability/CSR forward. A true leader in the field. It helps that he is a fellow Liverpool supporter as well… You must follow him on Twitter (@davidcoethica) and bookmark his blog for regular reading – David Coethica’s Blog. Great guy and great CSR/Sustainability strategist.

In a recent blog he explores the relationship between a company and the consumer. What role should the company play in promoting sustainable products to consumers? Should a company put sustainability at the front and center of their communications to consumers? Should companies educate consumers about their impact and sustainability?

Well, if you are selling a Prius or a CFL lightbulb it might help. But even then you have to be very, very careful. The Prius struggled initially to get a foothold in the UK market. Why? Because they tried to sell it as the environmental car. So a few environmentalist bought the car but not too many others. They changed tactics and sold the car as a cool car for the younger crowd with some fuel efficiency thrown in to seal the deal. Bang – they were up and running. See the difference? They didn’t try to sell a green car as the primary reason the second time around.

Once you move away from the Prius example it gets even more complicated.

David argues that companies should do more to provide consumers with more information and education. The problem is that most consumers are very specific about what they want, why they want it and when they want it. Now remember, neither David or I are the average consumer. We work in sustainability and tend to be more sensitive to these issues. The average consumer shows no or little interest. They’ll tell us they will buy a green product and they may pay a premium. The truth is more complicated than that. We just don’t see them flocking in huge numbers to buy green products. (More on this in a future blog – consumer behaviour and movement towards sustainable products are evolutionary and not revolutionary. They move slow but steady in that direction in most cases.)

But the average consumer want their coffee when they go to Starbucks, boots when they go to Timberland etc. They don’t want you to complicate their need and want by telling them about all the “other stuff” when their need and want is clear. That’s the quickest way to alienate the average consumer.

Let me show you a funnel I created to try to make the point:

When you talk to the group on the left you can be as detailed as you want. They know the stuff and they are interested in it. However, when talking to the group on the far right you need to know that the majority of people fall in this area and are not interested in the “added baggage” of sustainability. They just want their “stuff”.

Companies must be careful to balance their engagement with consumers to both the topic that is relevant and the place where it is relevant. This is at the heart of “shared value” (there, I said it!) – don’t preach and don’t oversell, rather empower subtly. Companies must remember to keep the “act” part of what they do separate from the “talking” part. Do what you have to do as a company to be sustainable and have it embedded in the business – but don’t confuse that with what you talk about when engaging consumers. They don’t care about all the detail – only “what can I do and keep it simple”. And… “Give me my stuff!”

The easiest and most effective way to empower consumers is to not actually tell them they are being more sustainable. Be so subtle that they don’t even know they are becoming more sustainable. You can tell them later and give them a nice surprise. Draw them down the funnel from “I just want my stuff” on the right to “what’s your sustainability strategy” on the left.

This way the company can focus on their sustainability as it benefits the company and society (and the environment) – the doing part – and help consumers become more sustainable without them knowing it. An example – Starbucks can tell the consumer about where they get their coffee and how they source it all they want but the average consumer just want their cup of Starbucks. So Starbucks have great sourcing practices but sell the consumer their coffee and sometimes tell them subtly that it’s a damn fine cup of coffee on more than just taste level. It confirms the purchasing decision already made instead of driving new sales. It builds customer loyalty instead of new customers. That’s how most consumers think and act.

Keeping with the Starbucks example – what consumer do care about is the place where they share an impact with Starbucks. In their case it is the cup. They don’t really care how the coffee was sourced or if the building is LEED certified or not. They care about what to do about the cup once they’ve had their coffee. So Starbucks helps them recycle and encourages them to use tumblers. They can try to educate the consumer about sustainability and how the consumer can be more sustainable but the reaction from the majority of consumers will be, “What are you on about, dude? Just give me my damn coffee!”

The lesson from this is for companies to focus on that area where they have a “shared value” with the consumer. Where they have a mutual responsibility or an impact they share. For the electronics industry this is about “what the heck do I do with my old stuff?” This is especially true in a world where electronics are becoming another commodity for consumers to replace and dispose with ease. The “shared value” (said it again!) is companies empowering the consumer to dispose of the product in an easy way at the point of purchase. Their key consumer focus should therefore be about making recycling as easy as possible.

Recycling might not be the sexiest sustainability topic but it is, in most cases, still the most relevant one from a consumer experience perspective. Boring for those on the left of the funnel but actionable and empowering for those on the right of the funnel. It’s one of few places where you share an impact and a responsibility with the consumer.

The next step is helping consumers make the right choice. There are so many gadgets out there today – how do you choose the right one? By going to a store and asking the person behind the counter what is the best choice for them. What product fit their specific need. This can’t be done online as there are just too many factors and too many different products. Trying it online will alienate the consumer quickly. Even those companies who have sustainability as part of their brand knows that you can’t do it online. The rule of online commerce is “keep the clicks to a minimum”. Comapnies such as Timberland, Starbucks, M&S etc keep the purchasing easy and uncomplicated. It’s a different ballgame when they are in your store nthough. By empowering your employees you can help the consumer become more sustainable by matching their need with the right product. How is this more sustainable? By helping them make the right choice you ensure that they won’t replace it as easilyor quickly because the product match their need. You don’t sell them a car if they really only wanted a t-shirt…

Note, in neither of these cases do we even need to mention the word sustainability or CSR. “Hey Mr Consumer, let me help you pick the right product to match your need.” It’s sustainability disguised as good customer service! Don’t “educate” your consumer. This feels like preaching to them and they smell through the bull pretty easy. Or they will get alienated by the overload of information when all they wanted was their “stuff”. Educating consumers about sustainability is overrated in my eyes. (So much is going on in educating the consumer that we’re in danger of creating white noise where no one hears anything anymore.) Focus on the relationship you have with them and focus on your mutual responsibility. Don’t use big word. Make it easy. Once they are in the habit of expecting these then you can tell them what you two just did jointly and pull them down the funnel into a new world of sustainable opportunities.

In conclusion – the most effective way to share sustainability with the average consumer is by making it easy for them and not always telling them (or preaching to them) that they are involved in any form of sustainability. It should just become part of their daily purchasing actions without them even knowing it. That’s the one side of the funnel – the consumer side. When talking to people on the other side – the influencers – then it is okay to show how these play out and how the company thinks. But influencers (me included) are not the average consumer and need a different approach.

This is not what David fear – “Am I the only person that is scared that far too many retailers are waiting for consumers to dictate the sustainability revolution?” It is being smart in how you pull them into sustainability. It’s talking their language, understanding their purchasing habit and making sustainability part of their decisions without knocking them over the head with it. It’s subtle but effective. It changes habits and expectations without them knowing it. It’s like teaching a baby to speak or walk. They can’t remember who did helped them and no one said “walk or talk” to them. We taught them these new skills without them knowing we were doing it. And they haven’t dropped these taught behaviours and actions – it becamse part of their lives. And they will teach others to do the same one day.

I don’t think David will necessarily disagree with me. But I think we need to be very careful when we talk to consumers about sustainability. The last thing you want is them to say you are greenwashing or alienate them because of the overload of information. Remember why they come to you in the first place – to get their “stuff”. Help them pick the right stuff to fit their needs and help them dispose of it responsibly. And they don’t even need to know you are doing it to be sustainable or help them be more sustainable. It changes the way they act without them even knowing it. They will become more sustainable without even knowing it. Now that is sustainability.

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This post of mine was originally posted on the goodpurpose blog.

Once again, I realized that a conclusion that I drew one year ago on Corpprate Social Reality still holds true: there are a myriad of factors influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions, and purpose can be a point of differentiation for brands.

The goodpurpose study validates my claims. The most recent study found that when choosing between two brands of equal quality and price, consumers worldwide value social purpose as the deciding factor over design, innovation and brand loyalty. We’ve re-posted the old blog below, and hope you’ll take a look for insights into consumer behavior that should inform your business’ decisions today.

 

So, consumers don’t care?

I was reading an old blog giving 4 reasons why most consumers don’t care about corporate ethics. It was an interesting read, and I will respond in more detail on the other issues at a later stage. But one issue stood out again – consumers just aren’t willing to pay the price. This typical excuse simply argues that people won’t do something as opposed to delving deeper into why people buy products.

If price is the only issue then Nike would not sell one shoe nor would Starbucks [disclosure: Edelman client] sell one cup of coffee. Okay, so quality has something to do with it, so (some) consumers will consider price and quality when buying a product.

So why do people in the US still buy American cars? A few years back, American cars were generally more expensive and of lower quality. But people bought them, because they were American-made. Okay so price, quality AND origin can all be part of consumer decision making criteria.

So why do some people buy from Home Depot instead of Lowe’s? They are equal in price, quality and origin. Well, maybe because the types and quality of services they provide cater to specific consumers. So consumer decision-making is about price, quality, origin and service.

And so on, and so on, and so on. There are always many reasons why people buy certain products and not others. We must realize that consumers are not a single robot or unit, but that everyone has their own criteria which they use to when making a decision to buy something. For some, quality ranks highest (that is why people are still paying $200+ for DVD players). For others, environmental impact or health attributes are most important.

Brand value is complex. And going beyond price and quality to include environmental or social issues in the brand positioning helps companies further differentiate their products from competitors. By going forward with corporate social responsibility messages, those issues become part of a range of brand elements.

Also, ethically-sourced products don’t necessarily have to cost more–although this is a common misconception. Some products might be more expensive, but corporate social responsibility (CSR) can also reduce costs and create opportunities. CSR is about doing business better – all around. If you are working with your suppliers to make them more efficient, you gain. If paying staff a decent wage can make them more efficient, you gain. If looking after the environment ensures you still have a product to sell tomorrow, you gain. As each consumer is different, so is each company. We need to acknowledge this and build the ‘corporate social responsibility solution’ around what makes business sense for each individual company and product or brand.

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I have been trying really hard. Really, really hard. You know. To be a treehugger. I think the whole concept of being a treehugger is really cool. You get to have the beard, the nice lean and muscled body, tanned and tough as nails. With my sunglasses and Bermuda shorts. Sandals and a knowing look in my eyes. Man. I am so cool. Me, the treehugger. But first, let me find a treehugging job…

The rebel of the forest. Defending the last natural old forests of our precious earth. These beautiful beasts whose breath gives us our precious clean air. The green jungles that hides the therapy for the soul and body. It’s there and we must protect it. And that’s what I do. I live in the forest. Patrolling every inch to make sure these wise old trees stay safe. Safe from the loggers. I am the phantom. I live in the trees at night and run like a tiger during the day. Stopping and smelling the air to see who is here. Who will feel the wrath of the rebel. But… Eww! What is that? What is that smell? It smells like something rotten – must be the dead carcasses. And those creepy crawlies! Worms and bugs all over the place. And the bloody ants crawl up my pants the whole time. And the food stink – fruits day in and day out. I need a BigMac now! And just water and water and water. If it isn’t drinking this foul stuff then it is raining and raining and raining. I now get why they call it the rainforest. It’s always bloody-well raining. Gotta get outta here. I need some fresh air, a warm bath, a beer and a braai (barbecue).

The activist of the seas. I can see myself. Standing at the bow of the boat. Scanning the horizon for those whale-hunters. Now I am the hunter. Like a pirate of old. Ready. Just ready to take them down. They don’t know my rage. My fury. I am the king of the high seas. I have seen things on these seas of mine. Corpses of people. And corpses of animals. Those dead whales we try and save. But not anymore. Not on my watch. I will… Pthu! Bloody seawater sprays everywhere. Standing on the bow wasn’t such a good idea after all. The water sprays everywhere. Salty water in my mouth. My body feels sticky all the time. And all we get to eat is bloody fish and more fish. And crap desalinated water. The boat stinks man. Like dead fish and men who haven’t had a proper wash in months. My hair is a permanent mess. And my hands. My poor hands. Cut to pieces by working the lines and ship each day. Oh, man. It doesn’t help that I get seasick from watching fish-tanks either. Gotta get of this ship. Now! I need some clean linen, a warm bath, a beer and a braai.

Okay. So I can’t be an active treehugger. That’s fine. I’ll just be a greenie. I’ll just live green then…

It’s a good start. I use public transport. Okay, I don’t use it because of any green reasons. I am just too bloody lazy to drive to work myself. I have too short a temper to sit in the traffic all day. And I am too stingy to pay for parking and tolls. But still. It is a good start. Oh, wait. I also have a refillable mug for my daily Starbucks fix. I am saving a few rainforests that way. No cup for me. No sirree, Bob! Not for me. Except when I forget my cup at home. Or when I am too lazy to clean my cup for a refil. Still. It’s the idea that counts though. Doesn’t it?

My problem is that I want cool stuff. The jobs look cool. But it isn’t really. It’s only cool if people can see you do it. And there is no camera following me. Treehugging just isn’t cool enough for me. Me fighting global warming? No problem. Just make it a bit cooler dude. Global warming just isn’t that cool.

I mean really. The iPad is cool. A red Ferrari is cool. The Kinect is cool. So many companies make cool stuff. Not green stuff. But that’s cool. As long as it is cool dude. That’s the problem with treehugging. The stuff that make us want to hug trees just aren’t cool man. And at my age I need to have cool stuff. Because I am not cool enough by just my little older almost middle-aged self.

So gadgets don’t work for me trying to be cool and a greenie. Let’s try something else. Something that says cool and green in a big way.

Let’s buy a Prius! Okay, let’s not. The Prius is just not cool. It’s a lunchbox on wheels. An ugly lunchbox. Come on. The Dodge Challenger. Now that is cool. The Toyota FJ Cruiser. Now that is cool. I can see myself behind the wheel of a brand new red Challenger. Sunglasses and all. Revving the motor while eyeing the guy at the traffic lights. Ready to smell my tires dude? Bye-bye. Oh, and the surfboard on the roof of the FJ Cruiser as I sit on the bumper looking at the waves through my cool Ray-Ban glasses. Now that’s cool. The Prius? Nah. Not so cool. I’ll look like the man I am – on the older side of the surfer group. All I can fit into the Prius is my neat little suitcase and a clean shirt for work.

The problem is that most stuff that makes treehugging easier just isn’t cool. Oh, there is a few cool stuff out there. Wind-farms. That’s cool. Neat Apple-like designs. That’s way cool. One small problem though. I can’t carry it around with me to show it off. And you need to show it off if you want to be cool. Oh, and it will take up the whole bloody backyard. Kids won’t like that I think.

Global warming is even more difficult. I can’t point to it. I can’t go, “See, there it is. There are those damn CO2’s”. Just too little these things. These stupid little molecules. Wind-farm to big and CO2 too little. That just ain’t cool. That’s so way not cool.

But those kids of mine. I sometimes wonder. Just wonder how cool it will be when they grow up. Will it be too warm when they are my age? Might be a bit too warm for them. A little bit too warm to live? And that is so way not cool…

Maybe it is time for a change. Climate change. Now that is way cool!

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Okay, so I don’t really want you to buy a blowup doll. Not even a green one. But it seems as if we think consumers will buy anything green – or rather that a green product will have an edge over competing not-so-green products. Consumers might be more interested in the environmental factors of a product than before, but it is hit and miss. Not every green product will have an edge over competitors. Consumers are still driven by a myriad number of decision making filters when they decide to buy something.

We are told price always counts as number one. Not really. Functionality is generally number one. People buy something because they can use it and expect it to have certain functions. It’s not the only filter they use, but it is a central one. You won’t buy a car if you really want a kettle. Yes, you might be able to boil some water on the engine, but I bet you that’s not why you want the FJ Cruiser. It must be able to do something for you – something you want done. It might be practical (like a kettle) or something more emotional (like a FJ Cruiser). But it will have some function.

Price is important. A $1.99 won’t buy you that meal at Uno’s, but might get you something at McDonald’s. But would you still go there if you had $50 to blow on a meal? That’s an awful lot of Big Macs. You buy what you can afford – or what your credit limit can afford.

Look, feel and ‘coolness’ are other factors that people will use as filters. These are just a few in a very long list, but consumers tend to think through these in a split second. It’s not a conscious tick-box approach. It’s just something we are conditioned to use. That’s why ads try and link into our filters – it’s cool, it’s functional, and it will make you unbelievably attractive – don’t you want hair like that?

And now mainstream consumers are getting a bit more interested in the green factor as well. It still needs to be functional, but people generally want to know that it doesn’t come with a chunk of earth lost forever. And it is easy for consumers to make that choice when the green factor comes at no or little price difference – and when the environmental impact (or guilt) comes with the product. Buying a hybrid – easy, you know the impact that your car will have and you might just as well buy it if is functional enough, cool enough, at the right price etc. Same with light bulbs and food. No harm done – and generally not enough to hurt the wallet.

But what about diamonds or houses or clothes? There is a hidden guilt in these type of products. And our other needs will override our need to be greener. We know that we are already guilty of blowing money when we buy a diamond. Telling them that it is not green or that it comes from conflict areas won’t stop them from buying it. It’s a Tiffany’s ring and she wants it – we can just hope that Tiffany’s care enough for both of us. And forking out a lifetime of savings to buy or build a house makes you feel bad enough already. It’s the biggest investment you will make in your lifetime, but you will still blow an obscene amount of money – don;t even think of what you could have done with that money (Red Sox season tickets, a trip to Disney for the kids, Tiffany’s ring, and still have enough for the FJ Cruiser). And for that amount of money you want the best quality at the best price – and you really don’t care if it is green or not. Yes, you’ll tinker around the edges – if you have the luxury to spend a few bucks more to make it green. But in most cases you just want to save some money before you go bankrupt – and move the family in before the in-laws kick you out.

And clothes? It’s got to be either the hottest new brand or cheapest alternative – depending on where you stand on fashion and being cool. Either way, you don’t care much about the green factor of your clothes – you just want to wear it. Great if it is green, but don’t expect the brand or price factor to be influenced by the green factor. And we also know that there is a high probability that someone was exploited somewhere to ensure you have these clothes to wear. So who cares whether it is green or not – people already suffered making your clothes and you just switch off the guilt button when buying the clothes in the first place.

Green factors will continue to play a role – and hopefully more each day. But people will still buy what they want to buy at the price they want to pay. And sometimes they will pay a bit more for something that is green. Or buy an alternative brand if it is greener but still functional, cool and at the right price. But sometimes green will mean nothing. Not when we have so many other things to worry about – who made it, how many people got hurt or killed making it. We just switch off when it comes to certain products. Thinking about the impact on people or the planet would be too much for the average consumer to think about. Just keep Pandora’s box closed thank you.

So, don’t expect anyone to think about the environmental impact of blowup dolls soon? No one is worried whether Candy was made with renewable energy and made of recycled plastic.

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Partnership anyone?

 

The oil spill seems to have more than just an environmental and political impact. It’s starting to impact how partnerships are formed between companies and NGOs. Some environmental NGOs are being tarnished – thanks to their relationship with BP. The Washington Post wrote an article about how the Nature Conservancy (and Conservation International and EDF) is facing a potential backlash because of their ties to BP. It has sparked a lively debate amongst Nature Conservancy members as the Nature Conservancy defended it’s position in a piece called “Why We Engage With the Energy Industry: It’s For Nature“. I’m less interested whether environmental NGOs should partner with energy companies as that is for each one to decide according to their principles and what they are trying to achieve in their own unique way. What I am interested in are the lessons we can take from the controversy – for NGOs and companies. 

Of course NGOs will have to be more discriminating when it comes to their partnerships. Or maybe a bit more transparent and proactive with their members on how they partner and who they partner with. The complaints from the Nature Conservancy members are legitimate but it is mostly because they just did not know about the Nature Conservancy and BP relationship. They based their support for the Nature Conservancy on what they thought the Nature Conservancy should do when it comes to partnering and not what the Nature Conservancy actually does. We live in an increasingly transparent world where no information is hidden anymore. That’s not to say that the Nature Conservancy (or any of the other NGOs) hid what they did. It was just not seen as a priority communication to members. Their argument will be that the information has always been there for anyone looking – or asking. 

However, the information overload in the world we live in also means that people can’t research all the facts – there are just too much information. What we’ve seen more and more is that people rely on their friends, blogs and other social media to get their information. They trust these sources – why would my friend lie? The problem is that none of these new sources of trusted information tend to have all the facts. Your friend tells you that the Nature Conservancy is cool because they have always supported them or they’ve read something that they liked etc. But the detail tend to be missing. The sources people trust do not always have all the details – just soundbites. It works most of the time as most things tend not to be such a huge issue. Until a major oil spill hits you… 

NGOs need to be more transparent on who they partner with, how they partner and why they partners. More importantly, they need to get to those places where people find their information – friends, blogs and social networks. It’s not enough to have a Facebook page or a nice blog telling people what you think and why they should support you. You should use these tools to engage not only new and potential members but also your existing members. Engage them and inform them of those areas you (and them) would see as potential risk areas – your corporate partnerships… Be open and transparent about who you are, what you do and who you work with. We ask companies to be transparent and proactive about these issues – and so should those who defend the rights of civil society and the environment. Go out and engage in a transparent and open way. The more people know the more likely you will have members who know what they are getting into and the more loyal they will be. It’s like any relationship – you want to know everything before making a commitment. Don’t be like so many who marry based on a gut feeling instead of digging deeper to see if you will really stick together in “sickness and in health.” 

People also make assumptions based on names. The Nature Conservancy. It’s about conserving nature, right? And the elevator speech tells me that. Most people don’t read further than that because the name and soundbites gave them what they think they were looking for. However, the devil is in the details – the fine print. Encourage supporters to be diligent in doing their research before the time. Give them a “Term & Conditions” document to “agree to” before they can become a member. Spell out what you do and who you do it with. The same way we want companies to tell us who they partner with. Don’t assume people will know what you do – they don’t. 

Don’t try to be everything for everyone. There are so many causes nowadays – I’ve written about this here. Competition amongst NGOs are growing as each one tries to carve out a bigger part of the “market share”. The number of NGOs are exploding because each individual is trying to match their “unique” view with a charity to match. It becomes increasingly difficult for large NGOs to attract new members. One way they try to address this is by becoming everything. You care about turtles? We’ve got just the right program for you. Oh, you like trees a bit more? Step right this way for your own huggable tree. 

You can’t be everything. Pick what you want to address and be the best at that. Less of a Jock of all trades – more a master of one. This way you know what you are and, more importantly, your members know exactly what you are and it’s easier for them to see what you do and how you do it – and who you do it with. Starbucks sells coffee not cars. Microsoft doesn’t sell houses. Timberland doesn’t drill for oil. They know who they are and what they are good at. I don’t have to guess what they do when I go and buy my coffee, software or boots. Furthermore, knowing who they are and what they offer makes it so much easier for me to dig around to see how they do what they do – the CSR and sustainability bits. And, of course, who they partner with. 

Lastly, some NGOs like Oxfam GB, WWF and Greenpeace have very strict rules that govern their behaviour and partnerships. I’ve worked for Oxfam GB and they don’t rule out partnerships with companies but have very strict guidelines. For example, they will not accept any funding from companies remotely linked to any issue or campaign they work on. It hasn’t always been a popular position but it made it easy and very clear on how you manage relationships and expectation – and engagement with supporters and companies. Oxfam GB can work with a company to help them on the ground as long as it helps them achieve their primary goals – addressing poverty – but no money can be exchanged. NGOs should be clear on this – when do or don’t you accept corporate cash or goods. I’m not saying that those being targeted because of the oil spill and their partnership with BP don’t, but it is clear from the concerns by members that the members did not know the rules. During my days at Oxfam we used to make that a key part of all communications – large public meetings with supporters or closed meetings with companies. Everyone knew the rules and had to live by those rules. Make it, know it and talk about it. 

Last point on how the oil spill could be redefining partnership… This time on the corporate side. 

Companies should also become more discriminating about their partnerships. The partner of your partner now becomes your partner. True progressive companies, or at least those who claim CSR and sustainability leadership, will have to become more careful who they pick as their NGO partner. Do you really want to partner with an organization that might be perceived as “sleeping with the enemy” because of other relationships they have? Their reputation is your reputation. It works beautifully when they can help tell your story but it can come back to haunt you if they become tainted. Pick your NGO partner carefully – using the same rules I mentioned above for NGOs. 

But progressive partnerships go further than your partnerships with NGOs. Who are you partnering with on the corporate side? It is becoming increasingly unacceptable to have a “lager” mentality where you can keep quiet about what other businesses are doing. Not every business out there is your friend just because they are a business. Think about it this way… 

Say you are dependent on milk from a very specific area for that unique cheese you have to offer. And then they find oil there. This could mean the end of your business or at least your competitive edge. Do you keep quiet or do you tackle the business that threatens your business? 

Let’s try another example… 

Let’s say that as a company you stand for the environment. Your brand is something that stands out in its advocacy for the environment. You might even be in the line of making clothes or boots for outdoor use. You champion this and you build your brand on your environmental credentials and progressive advocacy. What do you do when a mining company mines off the top of a mountain? Do you keep quiet because it is another business or do you speak out because it threatens your business or at least devalues your brand. 

The same goes for Climate Change. Why keep quiet if you truly believe that it can have a material impact on your business? Should you not defend your business interests and long-term survival? Should you not tackle those who threaten your business or who advocates against your interest? Why even closely associate yourself with businesses whose practices threatens your business? Just because they are a business? We don’t even do that as humans… 

Your partnerships and allies will be a key way to communicate what you stand for. Traditional business associations are becoming more irrelevant by the day – new broader stakeholder partnerships based on shared values are increasing. Why? Because people see who you are through the relationships that you have. Associate with businesses that are against what they believe in will make them question you. And threaten your business. The question for you – what does this mean for your business and how can you stay ahead of the pack? Redefine your partnerships with NGOs and other businesses. Find the right match and build on that. 

Partnerships are being redefined and you will either fall behind or you can be part of defining the new way of partnering. You decide.

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Exxon not paying US federal taxes and kids smashing their new iPad. That made for a sad day of reading. But thank you Intel for saving my day with some real leadership in stakeholder engagement.

Exxon Pays NO US tax

It took me a while to try and figure out a snappy headline for this one but I think this one works best – plain and simple… Exxon paid no US federal tax in 2009. I must admit that I am a bit shocked by this. Is it even possible for a very profitable US company to get away with not paying any federal tax in the US? Well, the original source is from Forbes so I take it as true. I’m not going to go into details on their anti-climate change position and funding of dubious organizations and positions. Neither will I discuss how this non-tax paying bit makes their pro-carbon tax look a bit like playing politics. And I’m not going to mention how this might be a slap in the face of the US when taking into consideration the subsidies they received. Or that they really should not complain about the tax rate in the US anymore. Or maybe they are doing that on behalf of the lobbyist they hire…

However, I am interested in how this reflects on their broader responsibility as a supposedly proud American company. Look at this line from the Forbes report:

Exxon tries to limit the tax pain with the help of 20 wholly owned subsidiaries domiciled in the Bahamas, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands that (legally) shelter the cash flow from operations in the likes of Angola, Azerbaijan and Abu Dhabi. No wonder that of $15 billion in income taxes last year, Exxon paid none of it to Uncle Sam, and has tens of billions in earnings permanently reinvested overseas.

So Exxon (or any other company for that matter) reduces their federal taxes by hunting for the best shelters hidden on nice little island. Can these companies ever be judged as responsible companies if they go out of their way to not to pay taxes in their country of origin or where their headquarters might be? It seems as if those who have the means to get away with not paying taxes tend to get away with it and those small businesses who drive so much economic activities are more inclined to own up and pay up.

It’s when I read headlines like these that I get a bit despondent and ask whether there is any line out there we can agree on or is it just a free for all? Fight, argue, lobby – it’s all fine. But let’s agree that if you are going to fight, argue and lobby then you should at least pay your taxes and not run from your responsibilities. Does your home country and your responsibility towards your fellow countrymen mean so little to you that you will do everything to run and hide the money?

It’s just a bit too much, isn’t it?

The Empty Generation?

Continuing on this sad reflection on society – let’s talk about American teenagers today…

It seems as if everyone under the age of 21 waited in line to get hold of the latest cool Apple product – the iPad. (Full disclosure, I want one…) It’s the new must-have Apple product. The iPad brings us so close to having our device big enough to use and small enough to carry around easily. A few Apple tweaks and we should be there in a few years or months. Anyway…

A bunch of teenagers just managed to capture everything that is wrong with consumption today. They bought an iPad and then smashed it to pieces. Why? “It was just something to do.”

Again I am dumbfounded. They bought something that costs more than most people in this world make in a year and then just smashed it to pieces? So that they could put it on YouTube and have a few laughs? No consideration to the impact of making the product.

We live in a society that consumes just for the sake of consuming. And we get so bored of consuming that we purchase just to destroy. Out of boredom.

Companies can create products that can help society. But kids (or grownups) with too much money will prove that even the best products can be wasted by people who are a waste to society.

Intel (Sustainability) Inside

I couldn’t end with two stories on groups who just don’t get it – so here is a feel good story to make up for it.

Intel agreed to a shareholder resolution requesting the creation of a Board Committee on Sustainability. Harrington Investment submitted the same proposal last year but it got shot down. They tried again this year and Intel agreed with the proposal. The easy part will be to applaud both Intel for establishing the Board Committee and Harrington Investment for sticking to it and get the job done. That’s the obvious bit of good news. But there is more.

What I see as the real leadership is Intel showing that listening to stakeholders is something they actually believe in. Last year they didn’t agree but they sat down and considered it again. Instead of having the typical knee-jerk reaction that most companies have to activist shareholders, Intel listened and considered. And they supported the proposal because it was the right thing to do for them and for the shareholders and stakeholders. Big thumbs up to Intel for bringing a real maturity to shareholder proposals.

Sustainability inside.

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A bit of a mix-and-match today. I guess that’s what you get after a weekend…

1. Bottled Water Wars

Most people know that I’m not a huge fan of the anti-bottled water campaign. I think the campaign is too easy and lack substance and sometimes even just plain light on facts. But sometimes the bottled water people just asks to be hit. You might recall that I wrote about the cool anti-bottled water video by Annie Leonard in a Daily Stain. Well, as expected, the bottled water industry ‘hit back.’ Let’s look at what they had to say, shall we?

First they had to tackle the recycling figures used by Annie Leonard and the team. Annie and team said that 80% of plastic bottles in the United States end up in landfills or are burned in incinerators. Sound pretty awful doesn’t it? So the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), using different statistics, hit back saying that “water bottles were the most recycled plastic containers in the United States, with a 30.9 percent recycling rate.” Now just hang on a minute here. So they are arguing that 69.1% vs 80% no recycling makes a huge difference? I am sorry, but 30.9% is just as bad a fail as 20%. Pick any one of the two but they both point to one single thing – a failure of recycling plastic bottles. Period. Don’t nitpick percentages when your own figures are so miserable.

The second bit of the IBWA statement that hit me as odd was this beauty: “‘Consumers are really quite thoughtful in selecting and enjoying a safe, healthy, convenient, calorie-free beverage that’s delicious, refreshing and a very smart drink choice.” What would you have thought they were referring to if you read this sentence without knowing the context first? Water right? How about good old tap water? That is a “safe, healthy, convenient, calorie-free beverage that’s delicious, refreshing and a very smart drink choice.” Actually, I would add “almost free” to that sentence if they did indeed refer to tap water and that would make it a very smart drink choice… Sorry IBWA, by using the words “safe” and “healthy” in the same line it seems as if you indirectly hint that either (1) other drinks in plastic containers aren’t safe or healthy (orange juice anyone?) and that (2) water not in plastic containers might not be as safe and healthy. Wrong again. Please refrain from using this line. Either say what you mean and be transparent about what you mean or don’t say anything at all. Hinting has never been the best defense.

The third argument was another open door for criticism. The IBWA said that “bottled water was a necessity – particularly in emergencies like floods, tsunamis and earthquakes.” Mmm… Let’s think about that one. Makes perfect sense. So tell me IBWA, how much of bottled water sold is actually for emergencies like floods, tsunamis and earthquakes? A tiny fraction of the actual total sold. I don’t see a flood or a tsunami or an earthquake hitting any of the people walking the streets right now with the bottled water in their hands. It’s another weak argument where you are trying to twist the argument and not address the real issue. I am sorry – get better arguments as none of the large bottled water companies would survive if they only sold bottled water for use during emergencies.

The bottled water industry’s case wasn’t helped by the UN reporting that bottled water isn’t sustainable – wasting resources and consuming 17 million barrels of oil a year. Ouch… That must have hurt.

Are you surprised that Annie’s video has been watched over 150,000 times and the IBWA one around 300 times? I’m not. Apart from the entertainment value and lack of clear arguments on the side of the IBWA – the biggest reason? Annie and team have no vested interest in this apart from helping the world be a bit more sustainable. Yes they might be wrong in some of their facts and not know the line between fact and fiction as often as we like, but the average Joe in the street knows that the IBWA is protecting their interests and industry while Annie and her team have no money in this game. Values vs Value. And when it comes to story telling – values tend to be more creative and believable.

2.   How responsible is clean tech companies?

We tend to assume that a company that has some inherent goodness in the product must be a good corporate citizen right? And I don’t mean that goodness captured in that burger joint you frequent. Think of the Prius – good for the environment so it must be good. Mmm… Maybe we need to rethink that one. Yes, the Prius is better for the environment than the alternative Hummer but it’s not exactly eco-friendly. Just a tad friendlier. I wouldn’t suck on the exhaust pipe just yet – still emitting some bad stuff, just less than others. And let’s not even talk about how the car is made.

But that’s almost too obvious. How about clean tech companies? Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition just did a study to create a Solar Scorecard. Pretty neat and interesting way to look at companies we assume would be green and clean. As with the Prius, they found that not everything is the way we expect it to be. Some of the companies rate pretty well while others rank low when it comes to their use of toxic materials and broad environmental practices. Neat, but it triggered something else for me.

What about the social impact and practices of these “green” companies? Do we assume that they are great because of the products they produce? Well, just half of them have analyzed the social and environmental impacts of their supply chains, and half also have worker codes of conduct in place with their suppliers. Not so great. Just half have checked that those products that help nature don’t nail people?

Maybe we are forgetting that nature means nothing to humans if humans don’t exist. Saving the earth only has relevance if people can enjoy what is saved. Maybe we should worry about people as much as we worry about the environment. Sure, go hug a tree but when last did you hug a human?

3. Foul smell of NatGeo

Maybe the world economy is really going down the tube when an institution like National Geographic sells it’s brand down the river. I’ve always assumed that National Geographic is all about nature – recording it, protecting it and not selling it. But not anymore. The Guardian ran an excellent piece about National Geographic putting its name next to a few air fresheners. Two broad thoughts on this.

First, and one that really hit the spot, was the names that they gave the air fresheners. One was called Alaska’s Glacier Bay (the others were Japan Tatami and Nevada Desert Flower.) Really? Now how do you capture the natural essence of Alaska’s Glacier Bay? A little bit of Ppg-3 Ethyl Ether, a dash of Parfum, a hint of Linalool, a drop or two of Alpha-Isomethyl Ionone, a handful of Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde, some Hydroxycitronellal, pinch of Geraniol, a little Coumarin, and some Citronellol, Cinnamyl, Alcohol, Limonene and Cinnamal to round it off.

Or as the Guardian puts it, “Mmmmm, I love the smell of Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde in the morning.” Yes… Maybe not so natural.

And it’s a plug-in as well? Pulling electricity from those oil wells in Alaska to power the Alaska’s Glacier Bay? Really silly idea.

But the biggest problem is the National Geographic brand. Who thought this was a good idea? If they tried to sell me a tumbler made from recycled materials or a backpack or some hiking boots then fine. But the Guardian rightly points out that this deal undermines the National Geographic brand and the values people thought it stood for. Really… It smells foul.

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