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We can all breathe a sigh of relief – the recession is over! Oops… Actually the recession was over in June 2009 already. So let’s get this party started!

But for some reason the public party hasn’t stated yet. The recession is over but the pain remains for the Average Joe in the street. No jobs being created and a drop in the average wealth of Americans just to rub salt in the wounds. But it’s been bad for everyone, no doubt. And we all did our fair share of suffering during the recession – some more than others. More importantly, companies practiced their responsibility during the recession, right?

A few things have really bugged me during this recession – or whatever you want to call it. It comes down to a simple question of how would a responsible company act during a recession. I’m not convinced that all companies acted as responsible as they should have during these tough economic times.

Firstly, it’s been reported that corporate cash in America is at a record high. The Fed estimated $1.8 trillion in total corporate cash balances in both absolute numbers and as a percent of total corporate revenue. A nice pile of money. And of course there are rational thinking behind it. They have good reasons for keeping the cash. But having a rational reason doesn’t mean it is the right reason. I feel uncomfortable knowing that it was the public money that bailed out so many companies. And that it is public money going into the stimulus that targets businesses of all sizes to benefit. And that people expect the public to start spending to get the economy going again. People are paying for this recession through job losses and rising public debt. My question – what should a company that believes it has a responsibility towards the public do during these times? Should it keep record cash stashed away for when the economy picks up or should it use that money to also help stimulate the economy? It just feels as if all expectations are on the average Joe in the street and the government to lead the recovery while too many businesses sit and wait it out until the economy has recovered. Doesn’t make sense when they always promote the idea that they are the heart of the economy. Really? And when the blood doesn’t flow as fast as you like you decide to stop beating for a while?

I believe a responsible company would acknowledge that they are as much of the problem as all of us – and do as much as the rest of us when trying to dig ourselves out of it. They expect us to start spending to get this economy going. We expect them to start spending as well. You don’t want us to put all our money in the bank right now. You want us to buy new cars, build new houses, buy more clothes, speculate on the market – make the little we have work for the economy. Ditto… We want you to invest in new fleets, upgrade your facilities, keep your workers… Make your money work and make it work now. I’ll do it when you do it. Don’t ask the public to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself. Stop giving us reasons why you are holding the cash. You might have good reasoning but not as good as the reasons why you should make that cash work now. It’s always easier to say why you won’t do something than doing the right thing. And remember, the quicker we get out of this the better it will be for all of us.

Secondly, this thing about those jobs not being created… I am always amazed how companies consistently tell me that their employees are their greatest assets. Really? But you don’t hesitate to “downsize” when the bad times roll? If employees are really the greatest asset that a company might have – how about keeping those crown jewels during tough times? Of course I understand that companies will have to fire workers during really tough times. And we’ve had really tough times. But let’s put these tough times into a bit of perspective.

Of course it makes 100% sense to let workers go when a company is making a loss. Companies cannot exist when not making money. But here is the catch. Many companies didn’t let workers go because of the losses the companies were making but because of lower profits. Many of them weren’t making losses, they were just making lower profits than before. That’s a huge difference. Making a loss means that you might have to close your doors and one of the only ways to save the company is to let a few people go – cut costs. But what if you are still making a profit but just lower than expected? Do you cut your workforce or define a new strategy to you can keep your “greatest asset” and be ready for when the good times kick in?

Maybe you should devise a strategy where you retrain those workers, maybe cut some hours off some of their time, maybe cut the bonuses and pay increases for all workers (including senior staff), invest in strengthening relationships with key customers etc – show your innovative spirit you brag about by finding new ways to keep your workers and stay profitable during tough times. Instead of laying people off you invest in them to be better placed than your competitors when the economy turns for the better? Your workforce will be better, sharper and your relationships stronger. I know a company who did exactly this and guess what? They actually grew at a higher rate than their competitors during the tough times and moved from number 3 in their industry to number 1. I’m just damn glad I work for that company… It helps when you have visionary leadership, your “greatest assets” believe in you as much as you believe in them, and we all work extra hard to make all of us better. Simple strategy? Yes. But it takes leadership to know that.

Maybe that is what a responsible company should be doing during a “slow growth” period. Instead of taking the easy option and letting people go you invest in them and grow your market share. Show you believe in your “greatest asset” as much as what you want them to believe in you. Leadership is defined not by what you do during the good times but what you do during the bad times. Relationships, loyalty, responsibility etc are defined in the same way – by what you do during the bad times and not the good times. The good times are easy but the bad times needs leadership, vision and balls.

But it goes beyond pure leadership. I think trade unions and employees were soft during these the recession as well. Too often they allowed the business side to frame the debate. They allowed business to panic and let workers go without a thoughtful strategy. Also, some companies used the opportunity to streamline their workforce that might not have been possible during other times. Cut human resources costs during the bad times always makes more sense from a risk and reputation perspective than doing it during the good times. Actually, it still comes back to leadership – what it takes to gear a company for the long-term and build a true culture of “great assets”.

You might not be able to create new jobs but you can show your responsibility as a company by not letting workers go during “slow growth” periods. It’s bad for all of us – every business suffered. But keeping your greatest assets intact and polishing them a bit will put you ahead of your competitors when the time comes. And now? Now you will be playing catch-up.

As a third point – the investor excuse. Of course many companies cut their workforce because investors demanded it. Those darn investors… They always want their 20% return each year. Actually, the 20% per year types aren’t really the problem. It’s those 1% week guys that are the problem – they want their money to go in-and-out and have no commitment to any specific business in the long run. So companies are under short-term pressure to show constant growth in returns. And if you can’t do it with growth then you do it by cutting costs. Talk about cutting off your nose…

Investor responsibility has been at the sidelines of CSR for far too long. We just can’t seem to get a grip on them. Maybe it is because we don’t know how to “sell” responsibility to them. Or maybe it is because many of them just don’t care. That’s for another day as Enron, BP etc have made a solid case on why CSR is important for investors… Here is a note for companies – how about you focusing on those who actually do care about you? We do. Us consumers and those workers of yours. We want you to succeed. Investors? The speculators amongst them don’t care about you one dime. What they do care about is the return they get from you in the next week or month. If they see someone better looking? They move on. They act like a 16-year-old who promises you the world as long as they can get what they want – untill they find the next hot one and move on. I’m 40-ish. I’ll stick with you if you promise to stick with me…

Last point on a responsible recession – patriotism. I was in a meeting a few weeks back with some of the best minds around. All of them geared towards helping a great company break through the clutter – they do so much that they create white noise instead of a clear position when it comes to CSR. Anyway, all these values were written on the board that reflected what the company stood for. And then someone said the “A” word – America… They argued that the company should show more pride in them being an American company with American values. Of course my first reaction was … WTF? I did point out that those values written on the board were no different from the corporate values practiced in my country of birth South Africa or the UK – or Europe. Or Japan. Or… The point was that most values are shared by various different cultures and that the differences are marginal not matter how much we like to tell ourselves something different.

But it did make me think about patriotism. The reason why the idea of American values were raised in the meeting was because the people in the room were pretty patriotic – and rightly so, be proud of who you are and where you come from even when you are more or less the same when compared to others. But what does corporate patriotism mean during a recession? Patriotism isn’t something CSR takes seriously but it is something we should look into when a company claims certain values and make claims of patriotism through advertising, lobbying etc. So the question was – what would a patriotic and responsible company do during a recession? Will they fire their fellow Americans? If yes, what does that tell you about their patriotism? Are they “fair weather” patriots who will say the right thing to get attention but then not back it up by action?

If you claim patriotism in some form then your actions should reflect that. Not only should you not downsize when you aren’t making a loss but you should go out of your way to help rebuild your country with the record cash you have in hand. Isn’t that what a responsible patriot will do? Use their resources to help their fellow Americans? Or does patriotism stop at getting people to buy a product made by an American company? Of course “made in” is a completely different story – and so are taxes. But that we’ll leave for another day.

Do I think companies acted responsibly during the recession? Some did and some didn’t. Those who let workers go when they weren’t making a loss lost their right to make the “greatest asset” claim. Don’t expect the same level of loyalty and commitment because you didn’t show it. Those who kept their cash when it could be used more effectively to rebuild the economy weren’t responsible citizens because they expected their fellow citizens to pick up most of the slack. Those who did everything to keep speculators, I mean short-term investors, happy weren’t looking at their long-term responsibility to their own company. Those who beat the drum to get consumer to buy their American products but didn’t put their own money into the game weren’t very patriotic or responsible.

The recession showed, and continues to show, us those companies who truly practice responsibility to themselves and society. Some were caught out while others shared the burden with the rest of us. The recession was good for CSR because it helped us define success of CSR in the toughest of conditions. Some failed and some helped us build a more responsible and profitable corporate world. At the very least the recession showed us the true CSR colors of companies. A good spin or substance…

So tell me – Were you a responsible corporate citizen during the recession? Really?

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Don’t know if you’ve noticed the bit of oil in the Mexican Gulf. Bit of an issue for BP and the oil industry in general. I think enough is being said about the oil spill and the responsibility of companies by the experts – you really don’t need me to add another opinion to this. However, it does remind me that almost every company has an oil spill waiting to happen.

Every company has a big issue they face. Some have more than one. For the oil industry it is price, human rights, sourcing location and environmental impact. For the pharmaceutical industry it is price, intellectual property and access. For food companies – sourcing practices and obesity. Car manufacturers face safety issues. Clothing and show companies know that people are always looking at the working conditions in those far-flung places where their goods are made. Banks… Where do I start….

The point is that all companies will face these issues. It is driven by multiple factors – what is material to your company and what activists (NGO types or investors) highlight and where people want change in behaviour. What’s your biggest issue? Are you even aware of what it is?

There are other big issues that are less well-known within the broader public or even amongst activists. The skeletons in your cupboard. Most companies have these. Those issues you know you where are vulnerable but no one is looking at it at the moment. For instance, people focus on the working conditions in clothing and footwear. We are all aware of it and all responsible companies are trying to do something about it. But tell me, do you use leather? Few people know the way leather gets from cow to shoe. The tanning and dyeing are not something most people think about too much. It’s leather – how bad can it be? I’m lucky that I worked with the footwear unions and business in South Africa for a while. It gave me a bit of first-hand experience. Just go and have a look at how the huge quantities of leather needed for your shoes and clothes are tanned and then dyed. Not a pretty sight… But it’s out there in the middle of nowhere and no one of note campaigning on this. And maybe it isn’t even such a huge issue when looking at the broader impact of companies. But it’s out there – as visible as an oil spill for anyone looking.

It does not have to be the biggest impact – it just needs to be the most visible impact. You think the oil spill in the Mexican Gulf is the worst oil spill ever? Think again. It’s just the worst oil spill in the US and developed world. Oil spills happen daily – we just don’t see it every day because we can’t or don’t want to visit some of the places where our oil is secured from.

So the question for business to ask themselves is how far am I from a disaster hitting me? What is the disaster waiting to happen and will anyone notice? And what can I do now that makes sense. Companies can’t fight every potential disaster – No more than what the Average Joe can prevent every single thing that might go wrong in their day. Things happen no matter how much we try to prevent it. We plan and hope for the best. It is part of living. If we didn’t do that we will all stay at home and eat apples – too scared of being in a car crash, hit by a natural disaster or eat crap and die from obesity. Life is assessing the risks and doing what we think is best. Most of the time it pays off and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s life. But we better be prepared to face life with careful planning and open eyes.

It’s not that companies aren’t trying to do their best to prevent disasters. BP and the companies they worked with did not want this to happen. It just happened. Unplanned.

That’s the challenge – unplanned. What can we do to prevent the disaster from happening? Are you ready? Or ready enough? The reality is that we can’t live a business life without a disaster but the challenge back is that many businesses just do not prepare well enough to deal with disasters. Risk is one thing. Cost and risk combined generally brings us that little bit closer to disasters.

Let’s look at the oil disaster again. Some are arguing that the lack of a safeguard device resulted in this oil spill becoming the disaster it is today. The WSJ (and many others) reported that the Leaking Oil Well Lacked (a) Safeguard Device. I won’t go into the details of what this device does as I am no oil expert, but the argument goes that Brazil and Norway requires oil companies to have this device in place as it chokes off the oil flow in case of an emergency. The US doesn’t require this – and most countries don’t. The oil industry lobbied hard to not have this requirement. The main reason? It adds $500,000 to cost.

It’s easy to look at it now and say that this decision by the US government (under President Bush) and the oil industry was a major mistake. However, responsible companies do not wait to be regulated into best practices – they lead. Without naming the company, I worked with a US company who adopted best practices as required in Australia because they believed it was the best thing to do for the company – and the most sustainable. Responsible companies have to manage the costs that comes with taking in best practices but one great disaster substantially undermines the argument of “too much costs”. How much do you think one single big disaster will cost your company? It’s always difficult to judge the effectiveness and cost argument when nothing goes wrong when you prepared for it though.

But I want to take this one step further – are you truly global?

We talk about those large companies as global because they work across the globe. But the truth is that few companies really are global in practice. They might source from or sell to the globe but they don’t always have the required global systems in place. A responsible company will ensure that their responsibility practices and policies are global. You take what is best in the market and make that global. Not only for preventing oil spills but also when it comes to hiring practices, recognizing human rights, transparency, environmental impact etc. Responsible companies do not go to the “what is legally required” level – they go to “what is required” level. Required by investors, stakeholders, employees and society as a whole. BP should ask themselves where the valve falls. Pharmaceuticals should ask where access or intellectual property rights fall. Food companies should ask where obesity, advertising to children, nutritional information etc falls. Clothing and footwear manufacturers should ask where working conditions, human rights and dyeing falls. Every company should have a heart-to-heart and ask themselves where their major potential disaster(s) fall.

…And companies are still surprised why consumers and activists are tired of green washing? It’s because they know that you are one wrong risk assessment away from a disaster – in the open or in the closet.

What is your oil spill waiting to happen? And what are you doing about it?

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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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Today I’m going to tackle Public Responsibility instead of Corporate Responsibility – the responsiblity of governments and government agencies within the broader sustainability and development debate. My focus is stakeholder engagement and materiality as seen happening in the discussions on Foreign Aid Reform in the US.

I must applaud the US government for taking on some reform that is way late – foreign aid. I don’t know any group, including USAID, that’s happy with the US foreign aid policies and practices. So it was great to read that Foreign Aid Reform is being discussed right now. And I like those already at the table – Oxfam America (full disclosure, I worked for Oxfam GB and love them to bits no matter what issues I might have with them – they remain an incredible organization doing incredible work), Center for Global Development and InterAction to name but a few. Good start and good company – but a few groups are missing and reform won’t work if we don’t have them around the table.

First let me just say that the idea of aid reform should be seen in the broader context of economic and social development. I read somewhere that Tony Blair asked for a shift from aid to trade. Nice to see you catching up Mister Blair… Trade not aid has been a slogan of African civil society for almost 10 years now. Others have caught on as well and nice to see world leaders starting to see the light. The US and EU actually agreeing on a trade regime that will benefit trade with the developing world is another question all together. Doha anyone?

Anyway, this trade not aid slogan and Blair now catching up highlights a major group absent from direct consultation on aid reform – African civil society. I know that the NGOs present will argue that they represent those interests and that they have a few of those participants in the meetings. That is not good enough though. I worked in Africa and represented African NGOs at numerous meetings in my life and the one thing I’ve learned is that we African civil society organizations tend not to tackle the big guys around the table too much or too often as it would be seen as biting the hand that feeds us. Really, we should speak out more often in public and not do it in the safety of our “homes” only.

We need these African (and other) civil society organizations to participate in these reform discussions to ensure that reform will reflect the actually reality on the ground and not what has been told through a game of “telephone”. In the case of Africa; if we truly believe that the “solution” to Africa lies in Africa then they need to be at the table and be the majority voice on all things Africa – especially on aid reform. The western NGOs do not represent Africans (or others). They have not been elected or appointed. They have their own expertise and should be at the table but not to represent the civil society (or society in general) of those countries who will bear the brunt of any reform.

Furthermore, a big challenge of aid is the role of the middle man or, as I call them, the NGO wholesaler – the western NGO. They do great work and have strong voices but they do act as a barrier to aid in many cases. Too often aid is given to the western NGO who then give the money to their “partners” on the ground. Good old Reagan and trickle down economics – but this time on a global scale. The NGOs from developing countries should be the lead voices in reform talks to make sure that more money goes straight to programs on the ground instead of going through too many middle men and wholesalers – heck, even developing country NGOs are middle men, just much closer to the ground. The first principle of reform should be to get the aid to those who need it quicker, more efficient and a larger slice of the pie.

Lastly, if we truly believe in trade not aid then we should have more business voices at the table. Again, Western businesses should be present but it should be led by businesses from developing countries. They know what is needed to operate and be succesful in their countries and regions. Remember, it is about helping them be better equiped to trade with the West and not (just) to trade Western made goods in developing countries. For trade to replace aid we should get more developing country made goods sold in developing and developed countries. Bring those who will drive this to the table. They will tell you what stops them from trading with the West (higher tariffs on manufactured goods, non-tarrif barriers, infrastructure etc.)

This is a golden opportunity for aid to work and for trade to drive development. Let’s not forget to add the voices of those who are meant to benefit from these changes. It’s the number one principle of stakeholder engagement – ensuring that every important stakeholder is sitting at the table. We can talk about Corporate Responsibility but we should also remember that Public Responsibility should have the same materiality assessment we use for companies when it determining their CSR and sustainability work – what is material to your key stakeholders. So how can you discuss what is material to your stakeholders when you don’t have those stakeholders directly participating in those discussions? Look at your whole value chain and include all your key stakeholders from the ground up and right through your wholesalers. If not, then it just won’t be responsible or material. And it won’t be reform.

(Another issue I did not get into due to relevancy to this specific discussion and limited space: Another benefit of having the developing country stakeholders directly participating – identifying the changes they have to make to ensure your reform works. They will have to work within the new reforms and part of the reforms should be about how to ensure that the intended changes are implemented on the ground. It could require changes in how they work, new efficiencies on their side or new rules – whatever it is, their participation will ensure that they also change and reform to bring to life the changes we need in aid. Do not be surprised if even the best reform fails when your key stakeholders are not at the table.)

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Today we look at food – from cattle having emission problem to the Chinese just not running long enough. And we end off with a piece on the (not-so) best looking vegetarians contest. Hope you have fun.

1. You got Beef with Climate Change?

It seems as if everyone has some beef with climate change claims. The UN is being slaughtered from every angle by critics. Another UN study is being hammered for having cooked books. Okay, I’ll stop with the meat stories and refrain from using words like fried, raw, well-done, blood or anything else in that line of thinking. But the short of it is that the UN study claiming that the meat trade has worse emission levels than all the cars in the world is being picked apart. The so-called Paul McCartney Lentil-Noshing Plan to help fight climate change – drop the meat in favor of more veggies – isn’t all it claims to be. The study is flawed. Big surprise…

Actually, this new angle of attack does not question the impact of the meat industry. It focuses on the comparison of meat vs cars. The meat angle of the study had a complete life cycle analysis while the car study only looked at emission while driving all these cars. No life cycle analysis from when mining of the metals started to the day the cars ends up as scrap.

I’m no fan of cars claiming to be eco-friendly. Even that hybrid the treehuggers drive have a huge impact beyond just driving it around. (Full disclosure – I don’t drive a hybrid. I can’t fit two kids into a lunchbox… But I do only own one car – very un-American of me. Thank god I am African.) Anyway… I do love meat. A nice piece of steak or lamb chops on the braai (barbeque) is in my blood. More on me and meat and responsibility at another stage though…

What I do have a problem with is the critics now jumping at any chance to claim anything wrong. Look, it’s not as if either Hawkings or Einstein got it everything right. But are you going to argue with the about the bigger picture stuff? Meat has an impact. A substantial impact. Period. They erm… emit gasses from the front and the back that has a huge impact on climate change. You can argue it’s not as bad as cars but that would be like arguing whether being electrocuted is worse than being shot. I prefer to stay away from both options as the end result is pretty much the same.

And I have some more standard beef with the critics as well. How can I believe you if you base your study on something paid for by the beef industry? That’s bad PR research used for bad PR purposes. Live with your responsibility and do something about your impact – don’t argue something as pathetic as: well-at-least-I’m-not-as-bad-as-them. You are bad. Live with it. Accept it. And do something about it.

What should you do? Maybe feed the cattle something they should be eating instead of pumping them full of food they are not meant to digest or “medicine” they are not meant to have. I am also very weary of the meat I eat in the US as there tend to be a complete disconnect between the meat and the eater. Responsibility also lies with the consumer to know how they get their food and what is in there. And it is the responsibility of the meat industry to be transparent about what the feed and inject into cattle and other livestock and how the rear them and slaughter them.

You’ve lost most of your right to bitch about transparency until you practice it yourself. That is the responsible thing to do. And the route to a sustainable solution.

2. How long can the Chinese run?

No, this is not about China being the biggest economic bubble in history. It’s about their kids becoming the biggest bubbles in the world. Apparently more people in China has diabetes than anywhere else in the world. You can make the link between obesity and diabetes from day 1. More importantly, you can make the link between the change in diet from local natural food to fast food addiction and the sharp rise in obesity and diabetes. As the Chinese economy expands so does the waistlines. So what you have is another race that China is winning – more bubbles walking the streets than anywhere else in the world.

Actually, maybe walking isn’t the right word to use because they just aren’t doing enough to shed those pounds. Unfortunately for them, recent studies shows that you need at least an hour of exercise to drop those pounds. Gone are the days of walking 30 minutes and thinking that is just fine. Yes, to stay healthier but not to drop pounds if you are already obese. (Let’s just call it fat shall we?)

I can talk from a personal perspective here. I’ve dropped over 20 pounds in two month by eating properly and running my backside off. The problem for China is that people move to the cities, go live the middle class life of telly, internet and do nothing instead of going out and do something that resembles an activity where you actually break a bit of a sweat. The social and economic revolution that is taking place in China has many upsides for everyone in China. But not everything that grows are good.

I find it odd that the Chinese government is doing so little in controlling the fast food that you can get in China – this from a country ruled by regulations. But maybe fast food companies can learn from their past experiences in places such as the US. Serve people crap to eat but sell it hard as something fun and something beautiful people do and you will succeed in business. However, at some stage it will come back to bite you. Maybe the companies serving bad burger and super sodas can do the responsible thing and tell people what they are consuming. The US is forcing companies to say how much calories are in each of those burgers – hello health care reform! Maybe these companies can take this best practice and tell the Chinese just how much crap they are eating. It might not be the best thing in the short run as people get over the shock but at least it will put your company in a good spot for a sustainable future in China. Imagine that – a sustainable fast food company.

3. Eat like a vegetable and look like one?

We’ll stick to the food topic for our daily fun one – thanks again to ecorazzi. They ran a story about PETA announcing the finalist in the Sexiest Vegetarian Next Door Contest. My first thought? Cool! Let’s see who there leave crunchers are. I was pretty sure they were going to be the cool-and-slightly-mysterious-but-handsome type. Erm… No they are not. I am so glad I am eating meat. And my wife likes Matthew McConaughey selling us beef in the US. Must say he looks healthier than the vegetarians in the contest. I want to be sensitive here but more than a few of the finalists look like the replaced their meat intake with artificial “body enhancers”. I guess botox and implants are vegan approved.

See you tomorrow.

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Most people know that I am not the biggest Fairtrade fan. Heck, just read My beef with Fairtrade for more of my rantings on Fairtrade. But Brendan May (good guy also in the sustainability field – his Twitter feed is bmay) made me think a bit more about Fairtrade. He had a series of Twitter arguments to tackle Fairtrade and some of the claims they make. Brendan made a few good arguments that highlighted some of the flaws of Fairtrade compared to other certification system and the seriously flawed misunderstood claims most consumers have around Fairtrade. Especially some of the marketing claims made by Fairtrade and the assumption by Fairtrade and their supporters that they are the best out there to help farmers. Show some hard facts please Fairtrade and less unsubstantiated claims. A premium is no reflection on the “wealth” of farmers – we need a bit more on agreeing on measurements and then do a comparative study.

Okay, so Fairtrade make claims they shouldn’t and push their luck on a few things such as helping the poorest farmers (no they don’t, only those organized in cooperatives), strong environmental claims (there are others out there with much better environmental criteria) etc. But there is one area where I believe Fairtrade is fundamentally different from anyone else out there. They might have forgotten this basic principle over the years – especially since they have grown so big and started operating more like a traditional business. The foundation of Fairtrade is one that is very different from any of the other certification schemes out there and one that asks a much more fundamental question about the world trade system than any other system… And it comes down to the premium that Fairtrade pays.

Why pay this premium? Why did they start off with this idea of a premium in the first place? The figure is so artificial so why have it in there in the first place? To answer this you have to start with the world trade system and everything that is wrong with it in the agricultural commodities field.

Activists like Oxfam (a Fairtrade founder and supporter) have long argued that the global trade system is one of imbalance. The rich nations in Europe and the US have all the freedom in the world to pretty much do what they want. More importantly, they subsidize their agricultural sector to the hilt. Corn, sugar – you name it and they subsidize it. Don’t argue that subsidies are gone – that is a technicality as these countries spend billions of dollars each year on agricultural support where semantics rule. Call it research support but anything over a few billion dollars ending up in the pockets of large commercial farmers are subsidies dressed as research.

But back when the Fairtrade idea started the subsidies were even more blatant. The EU and US were happy to call it subsidies back then. So here you have a global agricultural commodity trade system where the rich countries support their farmers with subsidies because they can’t compete with farmers in emerging markets and developing countries – of course hidden as food security, national security, national interests, etc. The poorer countries? How did they fare on the subsidies front? Not so well…

Not only could they not support their farmers but the WTO rules (that they stupidly agreed to) stipulated that they couldn’t give their farmers subsidies in any case. Great trade system isn’t it? The rich can get richer thanks to the subsidies and the poor will remain poor – or get poorer.

This was where Oxfam and mates stepped in and created Fairtrade. Not to just give farmers a premium for their products but to address the fundamental injustice in the world trade system. The premium they pay and guarantee is a non-government subsidy. It helps farmers from poorer countries to compete against richer nations through a subsidy system that completely passes the WTO system by and is paid for by the people who also pay for the subsidies in their own system – richer nations. Pure genius.

The Fairtrade system has major flaws and I am not always that impressed with the work they do or the claims they make. But do not misunderstand their claims and the true benefit of this system. You need a system that undermines the global trade system if the trade system is so unjust as it is. Fairtrade is needed as long as the world trade system, in especially agricultural commodities, benefit the rich nations over the poor nations. There is no level playing field and the free market is a myth when it comes to argiculture – and Fairtrade plays a key role in trying to level the playing field a bit more. Not perfect but fundamental in trying to address something that is outside of the control of farmers in poorer markets.

No other system can claim the same. They might be better in helping farmers become more efficient or improve their environmental impact but none of the other systems actually addresses the much bigger challenge of a fundamentally flawed and imbalanced world trade regime. We need Fairtrade in a world where free trade does not exist in any other place but empty words and the worthless pages of world trade agreements.

So what about companies that argue against Fairtrade? Maybe they should look a little bit closer to their own supply chain. Do you sell food stuff? Anywhere in the US or EU? Do you by any agricultural products in any of these countries in the US or EU? I can guarantee you that your company benefit from subsidies being handed out to farmers in corn if you sell one single soda or chocolate in the US. Sip your subsidized wine Europe. Spread those subsidized jam and dairy products on those subsidized breads. Slap another subsidies steak on the bbq. The list goes on and on. Almost every single food and beverage company in the US and EU indirectly benefit from some form of subsidy through their subsidized supply chain. Why are they not arguing against subsidies of these farmers a little harder? It sounds like double standards to me that companies are against Fairtrade because of the subsidies but willing to take the subsidized products in Europe and the US and sell that to us. Another slice of double standards anyone?

I think Fairtrade was a genius idea. I just wish they would go back to their roots and remember why they were started in the first place – to take on a fundamentally flawed world trade regime. No other system can claim the same.

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You want to hug a dolphin? Or maybe plant a tree? What about buying a goat for a village in Ethiopia? Or a desk and chair for a school in Banda Aceh? No. Mm-mm, difficult one. Wait, I have just the thing for you – how about supporting the Foundation for the protection of Swedish underwear models?

And you think I am joking about that last one. It might be tongue in cheek, but this cause has over 400,000 signed up members globally. Okay, it is a Facebook cause – but one of the most supported causes. They even managed to raise some money for their nonprofit – after specifically asking for NO money. Yes, this is a nonprofit and their aim is the “promotion of international understanding”. No, I really am NOT joking.

The point I am trying to make is that we now have a cause for every taste and need. And then some. Once you find your cause – which organization within this cause do you want to support? And so on, and so on. The list just gets longer and longer.

This shouldn’t be a problem. People can now match their passions with the right organization. And there are enough charities out there to still have a slight different individual flavor that makes you so much more different from the plebs who support Oxfam (joking people…). Oh no, you support Project Africa – because it is so much more than a goal, it is a mission. A cause that goes with your evening dress and another that goes well as a car refresher hanging from the rear-view mirror.

And it makes life so much easier if you run a company. All you have to do is pick your cause and adopt the charity or nonprofit that is still available. You feel strongly about education for kids? Make your pick – we still have EduKiddiCare and KEDUCare available. (Man, how many times can someone focus on education before we run out of charities or ideas?)

But the growth in charities and causes can have a bad impact as well – apart from the bad jokes (sorry). Firstly, it waters down the important stuff and diverts attention. Instead of tackling the real big issues facing the world – Climate Change, Abuse, Poverty & Hunger, War, Disasters and Health (the Big 5 plus Climate Change) – we tackle every issue that comes to mind. Can we really justify saving the dolphin, battling bottled water, fighting immigration, protesting GM crops and anti/pro-abortion marches (the Little 5) while people are dying of hunger, disease, abuse, disasters or war? Of course all these other issues are important, but more important than people dying right now in this world we all share? I don’t know – your call.

Even more important than the long list of options and diverting attention – the diversion of funds. Two dynamics stand out. Firstly, aid only increases marginally each year – and even then it goes to certain causes that are important, but not really charity for the needy. For instance, where do you think 80% of US federal ‘aid’ go? A handful of countries that are not really on the most needy list – Israel, Pakistan and Egypt. And oh, it includes military aid… And it gets worse because the money is now spread across and even wider range of causes and organizations. Each year another nonprofits comes along that wants a piece of the pie – and reduces the share of the next one.

But the single biggest problem I have with the proliferation of charities? They divert money away from Africa and other places of need. Instead of the funding going directly to the charity in the country suffering, it goes via other charities and donor bodies first. And everyone takes their cut. The money for empowering women farmers in Zambia doesn’t go to Women for Change. Oh, they might get a small amount. But the money first goes to DFID or USAID or GTZ – or whatever government agency. And then it goes to Oxfam GB or US or Germany. And then it goes to Oxfam Southern Africa. And then it goes to Oxfam Zambia. And the leftovers go to Women for Change.

Businesses always try and streamline their value chain. We should do the same with funding. No more than 2 steps before it gets to the actual people that need it and should benefit from it. Cut out the middlemen. Hey, they make money for campaiging in any case by collecting from door to door and in the streets. It doesn’t mean the end of Oxfam or Care or Save The Children and mates. Just the beginning of the nonprofits who can really bring immediate change to the people who need it most. It will force every charity to focus on achieving real change and doing the bit they are best at. And more of the program money will go to the charities who are closest to the real issues on the ground – they are part of the people who suffer in their community. We just need to streamline the charity supply chain a bit.

Of course there is another reason for my little rant. Is it about caring about something or doing something? The caring bit is about you. But the doing bit is about those who need the help. It’s a slight but important difference. You can pick a charity or a cause the way you pick a dress or shoes – something to fit in with your needs and different tastes. But please don’t forget that this isn’t about you. It’s about those who really need you to be part of them and part of the solution. I worry that the causes are so diverse that we start forgetting who and what this is all about. It’s not a clothing outfit to fit with your personality. It’s about people. And what they need.

Mm-mm, maybe I just found the cause that fits my charity. The AA BARF charity needs your support. Really… The Angry African Beer And Rugby Fund never really got the funding or supporters it deserved in any case. And the money will go directly to the cause it supports. I promise…

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