December 2012’s NWSBQ: If products could talk

Apologies for the late posting! Here is a summary of the December talks, complete with our speakers’ presentations (shared with kind permission from both Alan and Mike). So for those of you who couldn’t make it I hope it is as informative and challenging as it was for those of us who were there!

At our December NWSBQ we welcomed Alan Knight from Business in the Community and Mike Berners-Lee from Small World Consulting and author of “How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything” to speak under the title, “If products could talk”. Here is a gist of what they said:

Alan Knight – You can find his presentation here (beware it is a large file!)

If you were at a conference and it was announced that the next speaker was to be one of your products speaking under the title, “My impact on the world”, do you know what it would say? Alan Knight argues that if you do not know the narrative of your products’ life then you are not doing enough on sustainable development.

Back when Alan Knight worked at B&Q he took that journey, to discover the narrative of one of their products. His journey took him to a factory in China. The factory had no health and safety in place with 30-40 accidents a month that could only be tracked by the use of medical supplies the factory was going through. Alan commented on the complete lack of human dignity of the people making the product. Not only is this ethical and morally bad, it is a potential PR nightmare. If people come asking questions you need to be able to answer them.

B&Q were asked these questions asked 20 years ago about their wood. So they asked their suppliers. When they didn’t know B&Q went on the journey to find the answers and learn the narrative of their wood. This is the start of the journey that led to FSC accreditation. This work, involving NGOs, B&Q’s competitors and suppliers enabled the story of a garden bench to be a good story. As a result B&Q now know where all their wood comes from…but the process took them 20 years.

One of the aims of sustainable development is to get people out of poverty and this will not be solved by aid but by trade. Alan talked about the principle of choice editing, not providing your consumer with choice but only giving them the ‘right’ choice by taking away the bad ones. You don’t have to wait to be asked to be good by your consumers, you can take the initiative and it makes good business sense to do so.

If everyone in the world lived in the same way we live in the west we would need 3 planets to meet our needs. It is time to fundamentally look at business models and bring about radical change in the way we do things.

Business in the Community are currently calling people to take up the 9 billion challenge, to help create a world where the needs of 9 billion people can be met by our one planet. This is a huge challenge, like going to the moon, but there are hundreds of people who can get involved, your part could be a small but vital contribution such as designing the moon boot to enable it to happen.

Alan left us with the question, “What’s your moon boot?” What contribution can you make towards helping the world to help 9 billion lead a life?

Mike Berners-Lee- you can find Mike’s presentation here.

Mike pointed out that most products are silent, they all have a massive story but oftentimes we don’t know what that story is.  Carbon footprints for the same product can vary hugely, a rose for example, if picked from your garden has a carbon footprint of 0g, if grown in Kenya and flown to the UK it comes in at 350g and hot housed in Holland it has a footprint of 2.1kg! Asparagus, in season and grown locally can have a carbon footprint as low as 125g, air freighted from Peru it can be as big as 3.5kg. As asparagus gets bought all year despite the short growing season of British asparagus (April to June), taking it off the shelves is a hard decision for a supermarket to make. One solution Mike suggested is to promote what is in season, making it attractive and inviting and gently pushing your consumers into making the right choices and taking away the bad choices.

Mike showed us the exponential carbon curve and pointed out that no global or home politics have made a dent on the carbon curve. A fundamental shift is needed, resource efficiency improvements haven’t managed to reduce impact; we need to do more. There is a massive need to raise our game, a 2oC rise was the limit of what was acceptable, we now know that 1oC rise is as bad as 2oC. And from where we are at the moment we need to raise our game to only hit a 4oC temperature rise.

Mike called on us to think about what is our part to play in creating the situation that will take us off the exponential carbon curve?

Businesses need to address the issue with a whole system approach and he gave us 3 good reasons why business should push for sustainability:

–       It’s the right thing to do

–       Because we know it’s the right thing to do

–       Because everyone knows it’s the right thing to do.

Mike concluded answering the title question, “If products could talk” they’d say:

–       We’ve got a history

–       We want long lives

–       We want to be looked after

–       We want to be repaired

–       We want to not be buried alive

–       We want positive lives

–       We want an afterlife!


The Q&A session that followed was lively, interesting and ended too soon but here is a summary:

Q: If we suddenly stopped stocking Peruvian asparagus, what would happen to the Peruvian farmers who live from asparagus farming?

MB-L: any jolt to the economy creates hiccups but ultimately they are relying on an unsustainable livelihood and they should be encouraged back to constructive livelihood which would be much better for those kinds of economies.

AK: Good question. It links environment to sustainable development. A jolt in the economy is hard but should lead to a conversation about global economies and encouraging local economies. Local markets, local resilience, local production etc.

Q: I drink a lot of milk, should I go for organic? Cow milk? What’s acceptable and what’s completely bad?

MB-L: Carbon isn’t separate from Sustainable Development agenda. You shouldn’t be totally extreme and hung up on figures, try to understand the broad prospective. If businesses explain their decisions to not stock asparagus out of season to customers it’s simpler for the customers to understand. You can’t look at carbon in isolation but as a part of the whole sustainable development agenda.

AK: Is carbon a proxy for sustainable development? No. Eco-shoppers face a lot of decisions between fair-trade, local and organic. Fair-trade addresses the problem of exploitation, organic the problem of too many chemicals. There is a complexity around the issues that needs to be made simple again. How we do that is the next question.

Q: What other methods, aside from consumer choice , are being used to change business behaviour? How do we drive the agenda forward?

MB-L: We need to break the pattern of ripping carbon out of the ground to meet consumers’ needs. Piecemeal action gets absorbed so what we need is a global deal on an acceptable rate of ripping carbon out of the ground. We need to create a systemic deal of leadership everywhere in all walks of society.

AK: We should build on what public policy, consumers and business do and what they are good at. E.g public policy is good at changing direction, consumers can’t understand sweatshops so need choice editing and business are good at restricting choice.

Only business can innovate, legislation can’t do it. It’s frustrating that they can’t all work together.

Q: Is the root cause of the ecology crisis how consumers view their relationship to nature? The shift in how we relate to nature is driving us away from it?

MB-L: Psychology is critical to the whole thing. Climate change is a mixture of science, politics etc. We know all the facts about climate change at head level but we’re not engaging with it, it’s too big a concept to deal with and we don’t think forward. People are not good at getting round abstract ideas.

AK: Yes! Not only our relationship with ‘Mother Nature’ but also our relationship with human nature. Countries that are breaking the denial trend are closer to nature e.g. Scandinavia. We’re doing damage to the earth but aren’t getting any happier. What does that mean? How to get people to engage with nature and something else-what is it?

Q: Is that something else going to be a disaster?

MB-L: You are the future you want. If you’re pessimistic the worst will happen, you need to think in terms of self fulfilling. We have to be optimistic. We have the technology to solve sustainable development issues, science says yes but economics say no.

Yes there will be a disaster, e.g. New York and Superstorm Sandy. It’s sad as those who have the least will suffer the most. It’s macro-politics. Mankind won’t die but some will.

Q: Were B&Q genuinely being enlightened? Ahead of consumer demand and the market?

AK: The story was how it happened. It didn’t’ fit into the 1990’s trade culture. It stemmed from a conversation with a journalist. It began as a reputation issue and they didn’t want to be caught out. B&Q was a small player and enjoyed positive PR from WWF and Friends of the Earth etc. They then realised it was important although the rest of the industry was against it. For B&Q it was a cultural thing, they enjoyed being awkward.

I hope this has been a fair representation of the talks and questions, it has been paraphrased so don’t quote anyone!

The next NWSBQ is “Making waste work” with Charlie Browne, Sustainable Development Manager at IKEA UK and Peter Jones, OBE, Chairman of Ecolateral on Thursday 14th March in Central Manchester, you can register here.

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