Friday, 18 December 2015

COP21 - does it really matter whether global leaders sign up?

Before, during and after COP21 I was struck by the increasing number of positive stories about low-carbon and resource-efficient innovation. It finally seems that the majority of businesses have woken up to the fact that sustainability can be a source of commercial and competitive advantage, rather than a compromise made to pacify policymakers. And, at the same time, policymakers finally seem to be coming round to the point of view consistently put forward by former Treasury advisor Lord Stern that climate change action and economic growth are not competing alternatives.

I’ve been frustrated in the past by the amount of focus placed on the risk factors associated with climate change and resource constraints instead of the opportunity that these challenges present for business. The visionary entrepreneurs had the right ideas, but not the scale needed to drive rapid transition. But the tide really seems to be turning and mainstream businesses are blazing a trail towards ambitious targets, game-changing technologies and disruptive business models. Consider this handful of examples from some of the biggest global corporations:

Coca-Cola is on track to be water neutral by the end of 2015

Ikea stopping sales of all except LED light bulbs

H&M launching recycled jeans and a €1M competition to close clothing loops

Nissan unveiling a concept for the 'fuel station of the future'

All of these were announced the same week in late August 2015, simultaneously with the publication of a report from the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) concluding that the private sector could cut more than five hundred megatons of greenhouse gas emissions in the next five years, simply by scaling up existing green initiatives, and another from Citi that calculated the global savings from energy efficiency to be worth $1.8trn to business.

As we wait to find out whether sufficient countries will sign up to the pledge that emerged from COP21 the signs are that big business is finally ready to seize the initiative from policymakers, grasping the commercial opportunity and press ahead regardless - towards a future where policy scoops up the laggards rather than propelling the front runners. Given their track record it’s hard to be optimistic that global governments will finally sign up to binding and ambitious carbon targets  they agreed to in Paris. But if big business is already off and running towards the big prizes, perhaps – just perhaps - it no longer matters.

Monday, 2 November 2015

What's YOUR plastic bag?

A conversation with a hospitality industry professional at a sustainability breakfast recently touched on the subject of the plastic bag ban and its value in the transition to a resource-efficient, low-carbon economy. We concluded that, while there a numerous activities that undoubtedly have a greater adverse effect on carbon emissions, the ban has value as a highly visible activity that takes place in the mainstream, thereby hopefully acting as a gateway to more meaningful action by consumer.
That got us thinking about our own sectors and our respective equivalents. The hotel sector was among the first to encourage its customers to help it reduce impacts – I can no longer remember a time when the ubiquitous “leave it on the floor and we’ll wash it, hang it up and we won’t” sign didn’t appear in hotel bathrooms. In office imaging it’s paper – signified, for many of us, by the “think before printing this email” footers. These have become so commonplace that their impact is often dismissed, but that doesn’t necessarily negate their subliminal power to contribute to the nudge effect of gradual behaviour change, especially when considered cumulatively.
I can now catch a bus that is conspicuously powered by renewables, ride into town past numerous houses with solar PV panels, do my shopping using re-usable bags – even choose for my supermarket shop to be delivered at a time when the vehicle is already in my area. There’s an active local Freegle group and, off the end of the main shopping street, a repair cafĂ© and bicycle kitchen. Each of these small, incremental steps towards a more sustainable future may contribute little individually but together increase the visibility of low-impact options and edge us towards the tipping point where sustainable choices become the norm.
As sustainability professionals in businesses, we’re advised to analyse our emissions and focus first on the actions that will have a direct positive impact, but perhaps we’re missing a trick. For most organisations, the greatest opportunity for positive change lies in galvanising our customers into action – and, as M&S shows, if we do so with sufficient commitment it can transform our commercial outcomes too. It every business identified its own “plastic bag” and sought to engage its customers in a symbolic, highly visible act of sustainable living – better still, if it incentivised and rewarded it – then behaviour change might just become an unstoppable force.