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Posts Tagged ‘environment’

Something has been bugging me for a while now. It’s not a new issue but something that has been slapping me on the head daily for the last few months more than it has done in the past. Maybe it is the continued economic struggles the world is going through. Maybe it is the Occupy movement. Or maybe it is just me in desperate need of a vacation on my dream island of Kauai. Whatever the reason might be… The question I ask myself is whether we working in sustainability/CSR/Shared Value (or whatever you call it) are dealing with the fundamental challenges the world face today or are we just working on some of the symptoms and applying band-aid to a sickness that needs much more than what we have to offer?

I don’t question that we are doing the right thing for the right reason. We are trying to make this world a little bit more sustainable. We are trying to make companies be more responsible as good citizens of this world. We are trying to prove that good business can be done by doing good. That capitalism with a heart is possible. That money can be made by sharing value with society. That business has a social purpose that it should embrace. Yes, we are doing good work and we are making a difference. But is it enough?

The world is consuming at levels that are unsustainable. We cannot consume the way we have in the past and expect everything to be okay. But the economic system that we live and survive on is based on more consumption. Consumption of products. Consumption of credit. Consumption of energy. More and more of each and everything.

We’ve seen where this has got us so far. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It’s been like a frog being boiled. It’s been a slow squeeze on the middle class and the working class over decades. When the system started running into problems we the people adapted and everyone started to work to pay the bills and buy those things we need – and those things we want. But income didn’t keep up. And slowly the world got into more debt to stay afloat. And then the bubble when kaboom.

The same is true of the environment. We consume so much more crap food, in the West especially, that farming had to change from providing us with food to providing us with GM foods, hormone injected meat, fields of corn for sugar and cereal and everything you can think of, and so much more crap. All because we wanted more and more of this crap food to feed our greed and insecurities. And we manufactured in ways and drove our cars without knowing that slowly but surely we are choking the world and messing with the climate.

And so it goes on. We know how we got here. We got here because we believed we needed things when we really just wanted it. And lines got blurred more and more between need and want. Between necessity and luxury. We consumed and we consumed and we consumed. It worked for a long time. It fed us and made us wealthy – or some of us. And we got addicted to it. Growth, growth, growth. The bigger the better – in what we have and how we looked. We consumed ourselves to a standstill.

But the “system” cannot live any other way. How do we get out of the economic slump? We’re told by consuming more. A key moment for me was when then President  Bush said right after 9/11 that people should go and shop and go on with their daily lives as if nothing happened. Well, something did happen. The same is going on right now. The world is suffering on a societal and environmental perspective. The world is a very different place from 3 or 4 years ago. But we’re told we need to consumer more to get us out this slump.

I always tell my kids and my clients that we can’t expect different outcomes by doing the same thing. The same is so true for us right now. We can’t go on the way we have and expect the outcome to be different. We cannot consume the way we have and expect a different outcome. We cannot do business the way we have and expect a different outcome. We as humans know this when we hit our heads against a wall – we stop doing it and go around the corner. We’re not stupid. Or are we?

So what does this have to do with sustainability? Well, we’re still telling people to consume. Yes, we are telling them “buy this product because it is so much more sustainable”. Energy? We’re not asking people to cut down on their use but rather to use renewable energy. Okay, sometimes we ask them to use less energy but not really to buy less energy using products. Do you really need so many televisions? Do you really need 2-4 cars? Do you really need a house that large? Do you really need spend so much money during Black Friday? No one is advertising asking people to please not buy so much of their products this coming festive season. Very nice of Patagonia to say they want people to buy less but we know they aren’t really saying that they need to grow a little bit less. Or not at all. They still want to grow but hoping that people will buy the slightly more expensive and sustainable product or buy the Patagonia product instead of buying from a competitor.

We in sustainability and CSR are making the world a better place. I don’t doubt that for a moment. If every company does what we in sustainability and CSR want them to do then we will be in a much, much better place. But are we dealing with the underlying weakness of the system or are we delaying the hurt to the next slump? Put it this way. Would the world be in a better economic place if every single product is made in the most responsible way possible? I don’t know - but I think we would’ve been heading to the same problem if we didn’t address the underlying addiction to consumption and growth.

That is really the 3 pillars of sustainability – product, profits and purchase.

Product – how the product is made. Make it as sustainable as possible. Make it by using renewable energy, sustainable sourcing, manufacturing without exploitation etc. Make it the best we can. And make the impact on society and the environment as light as possible.

Profits – do your business to make a profit. No business can live without it. It is at the heart of business. But don’t confuse profits with growth. We’ve become addicted to growth because of the shift in investors from long-term to micr0-term. Not even short-term anymore. That would require a day or a week or two. The majority of investors of today don’t give a damn about the company and what it makes – only about the return they can get in the next 5 minutes, or seconds. And they are holding businesses ransom. We saw this during this recession. Profitable companies laid off workers. How is that for commitment? They didn’t say “we’re struggling on the growth front but still profitable – so we’re going to knuckle down and work, work, work to get out if it but won’t let our people go as long as we are profitable.” No, they let people go because the micro-term investor demanded it. Puh-lease don’t talk to me again about your employees being your greatest asset. Your don’t sell the crown jewels with the first sign of a bit of a struggle.

Purchase – people need to buy your stuff for you to be profitable. But the reality is that we also need to get people to buy less stuff. This is at the heart of the challenge to business. How do you make stuff and sell stuff but make sure people buy less stuff. Guess what… I don’t know.

There is another “P’s” we have to address within the system as well to make the world truly sustainable. Parity…

Parity – we can’t live in a world where so few has so much and so many has so little. It is not sustainable. It. Is. Not. Sustainable. Get it? The gap between the highest earners and the lowest earners are just too wide. The gap between the 1% and the 99% is unacceptable. The gap between the pay of the executive and the lowest paid workers is not good for the company or society. No one is asking for 100% equality in pay. But the gap is just too damn wide. It is greed and nothing more. Any reason given is just snake oil. It is not just and not right. And more importantly, it is not good for business and it is not good for capitalism.

But it goes further than that. The West cannot consume the way they have and allow the rest of the world to slowly die. We live in a global world. The West is the 1% and Africa is the 99%. It is not sustainable. It is capitalism gone bad. It is the dark underbelly of greed. It must stop.

So until then we in sustainability are using band-aid to deal with a much more serious disease - unless we start seriously dealing with all 4 of these P’s – Product, Profits, Purchase and Parity. The challenge is we can’t do this on our own. We need to widen our circle because this means we need to forge new partnerships outside of business to get this right. But that discussion is for another day.

Now I need to get to Kauai to consume some sun.

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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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Everything is green nowadays. It’s the talk of the town. Newspapers are full of the latest green apocalypse heading our way. Bloggers blog green left, right and center – with fonts and pictures to match. Activists are up in arms about green washing and washing our greens. Governments want to govern what green means. The celebs and stars shine their special green glow all over us. Business jockey to out-green each other. And consumers are turning green with envy when the Joneses outdo them with the latest hybrid, organic, recycled, wind powered and turtle free cup of joe.

It’s not a bad thing. Saving our planet before it burns is not a bad idea. Even if it won’t happen in the next year or 50 – depending on who you believe. Having a tree dedicated to you somewhere in the DRC ensures you a retirement spot one day. And some of the ideas even save us some money! Switching light bulbs save us money – even if we can save more by switching it off. Getting 60 MPG is not to be sneezed – especially with the high gas prices. Although most small European cars can do that on flat tires.

But not everyone cares about the changes in our climate or the validity of the latest eco-friendly product. It’s pretty much a worry of the more privileged parts of society – the rich and middle class societies. You don’t switch to CFL lightbulbs if you don’t have electricity. You don’t really care about organic food if you have to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Or worry about renewable energy if you don’t have a roof over your head. But you might become greener even if you don’t care. Governments will continue to green the things we buy. Activist will continue to put on their green campaigning hats. Business will continue to grow and make greener products. And bloggers will continue to out-green each other to be the next Big Green Voice of Authority. All of this will continue to make everything we use and buy greener than before – even if we don’t care or want it.

But green means almost nothing outside of the big markets – mostly in the West. There are bigger issues facing people in places like Burundi, Zimbabwe, Niger and Liberia. They continue to struggle to survive each day. The cheapest bidder always wins when you live off less than $1 a day. And you don’t know if there will be a tomorrow if you live in Malawi or Botswana – HIV, TB or malaria can strike at any time. And who cares about the rainforest if you could be killed by a landmine in Angola or a warlord in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Or care about sustainable farming when you have no food in Somalia.

The number one aim is to survive. If that means eating the last Rhino or chopping down the last tree for firewood – then so be it. Planning for day 2 comes when you manage to get past the survival stage. But this doesn’t mean you are going to start farming in a sustainable way. Or buy renewable energy for your manufacturing plants. Nope, you are now just planning for day 2 – securing tomorrow and competing with your neighbor. India, for example, continues to argue that they will start thinking of their impact on the climate once they are allowed to create as much trash per capita as the US – read: ‘you stuffed up your environment to create wealth, why can’t we?’ The alternative, of course, would be to pay the developing countries to play the game. We know where that debate will end up. They can’t solve trade and aid – imagine eco-aid for sustainability at a large enough global scale…

It is only when you don’t have to worry about might happen to you tomorrow – food, security, health, housing, job etc – that you can start worrying about tomorrow itself. Green debates will remain a rich and western debate and concern – unless we start dealing with these more immediate concerns that the majority of the world population still face day after day.

It doesn’t mean it is right. It’s just the way the world rolls. We can’t talk about sustainability without looking at dealing with poverty, diseases and the quest for survival so many in Africa and elsewhere struggles with each day. We must balance all three pillars of CSR and sustainability to make it work – economic, environment AND social. So often, and too easily, we forget about that third pillar. It’s three pillars to help us focus but it is one single strategy when we implement.

And this is where business plays such a crucial role. They can create and deliver the products to deal with the diseases and hunger, they can advocate and lobby for the political changes needed, and they can invest in countries who need the economic lift and hope for a better future. Governments will play the political game, activists will be crucial in highlighting the problems and help run programs on the ground. But they can’t create wealth, they can only fight poverty. Each one plays a key role. Governments provide the supporting framework, NGOs fight poverty and deliver during these emergencies and business (large and small – multinational and the woman selling fruits in the market) grows the economy to bring a sliver of hope. And in this hope lies the future of sustainability. But we are not there yet.

In the meantime, newspapers will chop down trees to print their green stories, bloggers will use computers and networks created and supported by nonrenewable energy and conflict minerals, activist will spread the word flying all over the world – and push up their emission count, governments will continue to make war over oil, celebs and stars will drive their stretch limos and live in their big houses, business will continue to confuse eco-friendlier with eco-friendly, and consumers… well, they’ll continue to buy what they want. Green or not.

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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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We used to have a saying back in my university days – Activists are like Trotskyist, put more than one in a meeting and you immediately have a split. The fight between activists are not new. They are passionate about changing the world and each one have their own passionate idea of what is best. Values are more difficult to bundle together than value because one deals with passion and the other with the pocket. I’ve written about the number of charities before (So many causes… Too little caring?) but there is something new brewing and it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Activists are tackling other activists because of the partnerships some have with companies.

Smaller green activists groups and individuals have banded together to start a campaign to Stop Green Groups From Taking Corporate Cash and are increasingly getting all worked up about the role of  better known environmental NGOs and their relationships with companies. Their main argument is that the relationships these bigger environmental NGOs (called Big Green) have with companies compromises their position and action on environmental issues. They are especially targeting the Environmental Defense Fund because of trustees and some of the relationships they have. However, they are targeting other generally well respected activist groups such as the National Resource Defense Council and the National Wildlife Fund.

The arguments between activist groups who would generally be seen as friendly with each other in public and partners in many alliances are not new. For example, Fairtrade have struggled to keep everyone happy as they expand their influence and partnerships with larger companies. Those smaller companies who have been part of the movement since the start believe that these new partnerships undermine their own legacy of commitment, threatens their business and believe that the larger companies really don’t share their common view of a more ethical trade system. Sometimes it bubbles over into a public debate. For instance, many Fairtrade organizations refused to allow Nestlé to sell Fairtrade products in their markets when Nestlé developed their Fairtrade certified Partnership Blend. But this new development of activists targeting other activists goes to a much more fundamental struggle going for the heart of activism.

Let me give you another example that explains the struggle a bit better. Earth Day…

The NY Times had an interesting piece on how Earth Day has now become a big business. Back when Earth Day started it was all about change and no money was excepted from any company. Today we have almost every company pushing products or messages to tell us how they too are green and that you should join in the fun by buying their product. Instead of red to show your love on Valentine’s Day you can use Earth Day green to show your love for earth – even if it is just for one day a year. Anyway, I digress as this is not about Earth Day and what it means. It is about the fight for the soul of activism.

The article in the NY Times ends with a quote from Robert Stone (independent filmmaker) who said, “Every Earth Day is a reflection of where we are as a culture,” he said. “If it has become commoditized, about green consumerism instead of systemic change, then it is a reflection of our society.” So true. And that is what this fight amongst activists are really about.

It’s about the kind of change activists want. Some activists sees the partnerships with companies as an opportunity to use existing consumer behaviour to drive environmental conciousness and awareness. Use what is in the system to your advantage. Show alternative environmentally friendly products and services that are just as sexy, functional, loveable etc as the regular products that consumers will buy in any case. Use the consumer thirst for more products to get them to buy green products. Use the commoditized world to the advantage of the environment. This way we can have a positive environmental impact through consumer behaviour by tweaking what they buy. To put it bluntly – Use their own greed and want against them. It’s using the system to improve impact.

The old style activists don’t like this approach as it doesn’t ask consumers or companies to make any dramatic changes to their behaviour. It does not ask them to produce any less – only to produce it in a more environmentally friendly way. It’s not asking consumers to stop consuming so much crap – only to consume products that are more environmentally friendly. (And yes, I do believe that we are consuming too much crap in the name of fashion or whatever they are selling us in marketing and advertising.)

These activists want real change in behaviour. Real change in the system that runs the market. They want companies who produce wasteful products that harm the environment to go out of business – not just produce a greener version of that product. They want a trade system that puts the environment and society at the heart of how it operates – and not just as a footnote. They want systemic change. A world that operates on a different set of rules and in a fundamentally different way from how it operates today.

Those two views are fundamentally different. One wants the world to change and the other want to use the way the world operates to have a better impact. It’s not going to go away. The world is becoming more of a consumer society each and every day. The choices activists face on how they try to change or influence this world will increase each day. The fight for the soul of activism is here to stay.

The question is – which group can package and sell it to us best?

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So you worry about global warming? The latest is that it might actually be good for your health so you shouldn’t worry about it. It’s just a lot of hot air according to those in the know. Just be prepared and have your fan ready. According to a study done by the UK’s the Department of Health and Health Protection Agency (HPA), global warming might actually be a better than you think. Just be prepared and you should be oki-doki. Or at least those in the UK. Yeh, right.

I wonder of this will work in Africa as well?Let’s look at the tips they gave people to help them survive this global warming phenomenon in the UK and implement these in Africa.

1. Have a fan.What? Genius! I am a big fan of Bafana Bafana (stop laughing) and I know a number of other Bafana Bafana fans. I’ll just bring them with then. No problem. I have a fan with me – a Bafana Bafana fan. Now what? Oops, sorry. You meant a fan like in a gadget that blows air around? What, like a politician? Oh, this thing with the propellers. Thanks. But how does it do the blowing bit? And what is this long rope sticking out at the end? I need to stick it in where? An ‘eletricity outlet’? What the hell is that dude? No can do. We don’t have electricity coming out the walls you know. Maybe I’ll just fan myself with a few leaves or do it Kenneth Kaunda style with a white handkerchief. But no luck on the fan though. Let’s try the next tip.

2. Keep windows open as long as cooler outside. No problem with the window bit. We don’t have any windows. Maybe in the big cities, but not out on the farms. But I do have a problem with the technical bit of cooler outside though. Won’t everything get way hot if it is global warming? So outside might be boiling hot and still be cooler than inside. Bit of a problem that one. From the fire into the frying pan. Literally. The difference between outside and inside – being boiled or being fried. Your choice. I’ll go back to the fan, thanks.

3. Invest in blinds. What? You mean like in blind people? How the hell is that going to help me? Will they fan me while I tell them it is something else? I think that is so typical of you guys. Pick someone to discriminate against and exploit them. I will have no part in this. Oh, sorry! You mean a cloth type of thing in front of the windows. No problem. We’ll just hang the mosquito nets in front of the windows. Double whammy. Stay cool and stay alive. But can you send a few more our way?

4. Keep hydrated. No problem. I’ll keep drinking those Cokes and Castles. Easiest thing you have asked me so far. We like our beer. But how much is enough? Same thing my wife asks me every night. But you have given me a good excuse I can use. “Honey, I am really doing this to fight global warming. Really, I promise you. The umlungu said I should drink a bit more to keep hydrated. You know we have no running water and I don’t want you to walk the 10 miles to the river each day when you don’t even know if it has dried up or not“. Cheers, thanks for that one.

5. Eat regularly, and keep salt levels up. I thought you were serious about this. Come on now. I make less than a $1 a day. How am I going to pay for all that food with salt? You think the woman in the market will have the salt levels on the nutrition label on the back of the mielies/corn, fruit and veg? I don’t even know where the next meal is coming from. Never mind where my bloody salt is coming from. The only salt I taste is the sweat I taste while working on the farm to feed everyone in the world.

And I am not sure how long that will last either. The problem is, you see, that all this heat is starting to impact our production over here. Uganda coffee farmers are already starting to feel the affect of global warming, Droughts and sporadic rain will continue to affect our crops. And sometimes we will have good times and sometimes not. And we won’t know if it will hit the whole country or only parts of it. Ethiopia had bumper crops, but bad spells in certain areas. You might argue that this has always happened. And maybe it has and maybe it hasn’t. I can only react to what I see. And what I see tells me it won’t get any easier over the next few years and decades. Better get used to it. You got the tips on how to survive though haven’t you?

What really annoys me is that the UK Department of Health actually tries to put a positive spin on this. See they argue that less people will die from the heat during global warming than from the cold right now. They will experience a better climate as the UK heats up – from a miserable and damp little island to a sunny holiday destination. The new Bahamas. They are trying to argue that it will actually be better for them! (Ever watched Life of Brian? Sounds a bit like them singing Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.) Stuff those outside the UK. Every country for itself now. What do we have to look forward to? Beachfront property in Zambia with the sea levels rising? Shark cage diving in Zimbabwe? Chad, better start getting your navy ready to fight off the Spanish trawlers.

But in the meantime for those in the UK, close those blinds so I can’t see you eating those salty crisps and drinking that bottled water. And close the windows and turn up the fan, it’s getting hot out here.

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Man, these umlungu’s over here really like their big cars. Okay, not all of them. And I have more of a problem with those who don’t drive big cars than those who do. They are all up in arms about the impact on global climate and the emissions by these big trucks – bakkies back home in South Africa. And the car manufacturers are all gunning to become the new green and number 1 eco-friendly company.

Toyota has a lunchbox called the Prius. Gets unbelievable miles per gallon – kilometers per liter for most of us. (Still trying to understand why they don’t go metric). General Motors are planning on bringing a better looking and more efficient hybrid out in the next few years. Ford has given the world the SUV hybrid. Chevrolet has got a monster of a truck called the Silverado that’s also a hybrid. And others are trying to bring out battery operated cars and cars that drive on corn and even some driving on a bit of air and water. Sounds cool doesn’t it?

I wouldn’t start sucking on those exhaust pipes just yet. They still spew out dirt and pollute. And they still don’t get close to the mileage that the European matchboxes get. For all the funfair associated with the Prius – VW brought out a standard diesel that gets better mileage. Without much of an effort. The Americans just like big cars or small inefficient ones.

But I don’t care. I just don’t care how efficient these cars are or how much they cut emissions. But I do care about cars – especially bakkies and minibuses. Now they play a role in Africa. And we have other bigger things to worry about when it comes to these bakkies and minibuses. Death.

Let’s start with the minibuses. I have been on a few. And it has always been a ride in more than one way. Firstly, they get me where I want to be most of the time. Just stick out your hand and show the hand signal and they will come screeching to a halt. They’ll pick me up, squeeze me in, ask me for a few coins and off I go to my destination. Secondly, they are made for us. We like being in each others face and sharing and talking. Squeezing 20-30 people into a 15 seater works just fine for us. It’s Ubuntu stretched to the limit – I am because you are. Well, I am sitting boxed in and squashed because you are sitting on top of me to fit in the other 20 people. Thirdly, well not so good. The driver drives like hell. And if we are lucky he’ll have a steering wheel and not a spanner for steering. And tyres thinner than a mosquito net. And as non-smoking as a Frenchman before 2008. But that’s just the way we improvise to make sure we get from point A to point B. We make a plan and we make things work – even when it looks like falling apart. Mechanics and fixers by nature.

But the car manufacturers – now that is different story all together. They sell us these minibuses knowing that it won’t pass the safety test anywhere else in the world. That Hiace we love so much? Why do you think they don’t have it in the US or Europe? Because they don’t comply to the safety standards in those countries and regions. But these travelling coffins keep on selling back home. Maybe it’s time they have a global standard – or at least a basic standard that will make them just a little bit safer. I am more worried about how I might die now when traveling in these coffins, than how I might die in 50 years time from either global warming or smog.

But it is not only safety that is a more important issue than emissions. Safety could still be argued as in the eye of the beholder. That we in Africa shouldn’t be too worried about that when we have other more serious threats to our life – like war. Fair enough.

So what do you think your local warlord and his henchmen drive? A Hummer or a Jeep? Unlikely. No, these guys generally drive a nice (and sometimes not so nice) Hilux or Nissan Hardbody or Isuzu or Land Rover bakkie, right? These are the real issues for me.

All these manufacturers are great in telling us all about their commitment to the environment and some even tell us how well they treat everyone in the supply chain. Great codes of conduct to ensure good working conditions and fair wages. However, none of these major car manufacturers actually take any SOCIAL responsibility for what happens once the car leaves the garage floor. They’ll tell us how committed they are to safety – airbags, safety belts and some even advertise to drive safely during the holidays. Others will tell us how they guarantee you a good ride with little breakdowns for 100,000 miles. And some tells us how clean the air will be when you drive their car compared to others. Yes, that type of responsibility they love to talk about – clean air and safe driving. But not what you do in that car.

Your local warlords will be environmentally friendly and enjoy a safe ride, but don’t think that for a minute that they will encourage your warlord not to buy their bakkie. Oh no, not that. They will sell their bakkies to anyone who can afford it. Never mind that people get chased and shot from those vehicles. They carry no responsibility there. But maybe they should.

Are they not an accomplice to the crime? They provide the car, right? They don’t drive it, but without them the crime would either not be committed or at least be made very, very difficult. These vehicles are used as military vehicles. And maybe we should bring in some global standards on the responsibility of car manufacturers in the same way we have rules on armoured and military vehicles. Not everyone can sell it or buy a tank. It won’t stop the warlords getting their hands on it, but it will make it more difficult and make the manufacturer think about their social impact and not just their environmental impact. Ensure some level of responsibility and control – a starting point.

Who knows, your local warlord might even start worrying about their emissions next. And buy a hybrid on the black market. Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if you knew the guy chasing you and who is about to shoot you or rob you, are at least an eco-warrior as well?

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