Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The loss of personal, unique and local

In a recent heartfelt blog post, Seth Godin bemoaned the loss of his favourite local store to the relentless expansion of the Walgreen drugstore empire. We don't have Walgreen in the UK, but you could substitute any of the big supermarket brands or clothing retailers. Seth's local store was one where the staff were engaged and committed, the transactions personal and friendly, the produce locally and lovingly sourced and the store a real part of the local community. There's nothing wrong with what the big store chains do, but on the whole there's nothing enriching about it, either. It's all about economies of scale and maximum profit per square metre, geared up to meet the needs of their shareholders rather than their customers. Their ubiquity and proliferation narrow our experience as a shopper and consumer and remove much of the humanity from the transaction.

There's a place for this in our economy, but do we really want to sleepwalk into allowing it to become the only commercially sustainable buisness model for retail? If we don't support the local independent retailers, they won't survive -  and we'll mourn their loss without acknowledging that we were the architects of it. Put simply, every shop needs shoppers and it's up to us to find time in our busy lives to visit the local butcher and discuss our dinner party menu or sample the exotic, hand-churned cheeses at the specialist delicatessen. Not every day, but often enough to give them a fighting chance against the relentless march of the mega-retailers.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Ethics in the news

I caught 5 minutes of Radio 1 Newsbeat this lunchtime. Leaving aside for a minute how Radio 1 dumbs down the news, I was struck by the fact that both items I heard centred on ethics. The first item reported the case of a professional footballer who has been put on the sex offenders register after grooming two under-age girls on the internet. Astonishingly, Hearts is backing Craig Thomson and has refused to sack him, although drinks sponsor macb has already withdrawn its support for the club as a result of his conviction. I wonder what a footballer has to do these days to get fired?

The next story concerned allegations that insurance companies are selling to personal injury lawers the contact details of customers who have made claims, so that they can be offered "no win, no fee" legal services. Since the escalation of such claims has been cited as the main reason for a 30% hike in insurance costs in the last 12 months, this is a double deceit. The reporter claimed that the insurance companies were not breaking any laws by passing on the data to a third party, so I'm off to check the small print of my insurance policy to see where they hid the clause that says I waive my rights under the Data Protection Act when I enter into a contract with them.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

The thin green bottom line

A timely reminder from Lord Stern, via that businesses ignore the threat of increasing carbon legislation and increasing energy prices at their peril. It has long been my contention that one's personal view on the existence of climate change and the extent to which it is - or isn't - created by humans is irrelevant. The indisputable facts are that:

  1. governments are legislating to reduce carbon emissions which makes increasing taxation on emissions as inevitable as, well, death and taxes
  2. fossil fuels are no longer being made and will therefore run out, so we need to find alternative energy sources if we wish to retain all the trappings of society to which we have become accustomed
  3. scarcity of said fossil fuels will drive price escalation on an epic scale
  4. industrialisation and urbanisation of developing countries escalates these issues by increasing demand for energy and consumer goods
  5. world population is growing at a rate which will increase competition for food and water to unsustainable levels
Any company that is not planning for these eventualities will not be fit for purpose in the commercial environment of the future. Resource-efficient operation is not an act of altruism, it's a commercial imperative.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Last competitor completes the London Marathon after 50 days

Former stunt-rider Eddie Kidd has completed the London Marathon almost two months after the event formally finished. Mr Kidd, who suffered brain damage in an accident in 1996 has walked for up to a mile every day since 17th April using a specially-designed walking frame, finally completing the course at 6.30pm today, 6th June. In the process, he has raised more than £72,000 for the charity Children with Cancer UK.

What an inspiration. If you'd like to acknowledge Eddie's achievement with a donation, you can do so here.

Rich countries to subsidise drugs for developing world

The BBC has reported that several major drugs companies have announced big cuts to the amounts they will charge for their vaccines in the developing world. For example, GlaxoSmithKline will cut the price of its vaccine for rotavirus (which kills more than half a million children per year) by 67% to $2.50 a dose in poor countries. Since GSK remains a commercial company, and nothing is ever free, this means the vaccine will be subsidised by higher prices being charged in richer countries.

I'm comfortable with this concept. As a parent, the idea that my child could die from an easily preventable bout of diahorrea is unthinkable. And I live in a country where nobody is prevented from receiving healthcare by lack of means. But since GSK has admitted that at the reduced price it will still make a profit on each dose, there has been an outcry over its "excessive profits".

The main cost in the pharmaceutical industry is not the manufacture of the drugs themselves, but the research and development that goes into developing them. And this needs to be recovered during the life of the product in order for the business to remain commercially sustainable. It seems perfectly legitimate to me that this R&D investment should be recovered from the countries which can afford to pay it, enabling those with limited means to acquite the drug for the cost of manufacture alone.