In July 2008, the G8 meeting in Japan proposed to “work towards” reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050. Even this hopelessly ineffectual position on climate change was rejected by the leaders of the seven so-called “developing nations” as an unacceptable infringement of their right to equal status as carbon emitters.
Twenty-one years ago, I tried and ultimately failed to create an organisation that fused environmentalism with business communication. I had worked previously in direct response or “junk-mail” marketing, an industry widely maligned as being wasteful of paper and ink, and of the talent to combine the two, that nevertheless proposed to analyse people’s consumption habits scientifically in order to make and sell products more efficiently.
This claim highlighted one of the basic contradictions of environmentalism: more wasteful and unnecessary consumption = bad. More efficiency in our commercial processes = also bad. There is no win-win from the Green position. Recycling paper in fact uses more energy and chemicals than planting trees and shipping them around the globe to be pulped. To me, the answer was a no-brainer: planting trees increases CO2 take-up, recycling paper sets the precedent for re-cycling, re-using and re-pairing other goods. So, the more paper we waste, the more trees we have to plant and the more paper we can recycle, to the common good. Of course, we should use less in the first place! “Bin the idea, not the paper” was a sign I put up in the office.
It seemed this argument could apply to all areas of industry and commerce. Profitable corporations are socially beneficial, providing useful employment and needed goods and services. Corporations should be encouraged to grow and make profits for their shareholders to create more corporations. At the same time, financial growth could come from shrinking, rather than expanding, the usage of natural resources; from understanding the economic benefits of acting responsibly towards their employees, suppliers and customers, and from adopting the most environmentally responsible policies for manufacturing and delivering their products. That corporations chose not to behave like this was one of the puzzles I hoped to resolve.
The need to introduce conscious processes into a sphere of activity that seemed impervious to the obligation we all surely recognise to husband valuable resources, ensuring future profit, was, to me, clear. I infused my tiny organisation with the will to act ethically, to respect the rights of our clients to demand open accounting and honest dealing. I borrowed from former UN ambassador Justin Tickell, the slogan: “We cannot use tomorrow’s sunlight today.” It sounded fine, although I’m still not sure what it means: we should be using sunlight today, not oil. It’s using yesterday’s sunlight that has got us into this mess!
I devised a business plan that required us to divert a proportion of our profits into a fund that would make revolving loans to smaller NGOs and green-growth businesses, to be used for the purpose of promoting their ideas and services. Not entirely altruistically, I planned that they should spend the money with our agency. Out of the natural growth that would result from the promotional activity, they would return the additional profits that we could recycle as loans to the next users. The initial profits to build the fund would derive from the higher fees paid by our conventional clients, who would benefit from direct association with our “green” industries and charity clients in terms of environmental know-how and corporate responsibility.
The impetus for this came from the Environmental Protection Act, 1991, which demanded that companies over a certain size publish an environmental audit; something of which most had then never heard. It was my contention that the environmental audit, knowledgably presented, could evolve into a range of attractive commercial messages and community-based projects. A case in point was the introduction we effected between the Marine Conservation Society, a tiny charity punching well above its weight in terms of its annual Good Beach awards; and an unreconstructed sales machine, Astec Communications, in the business of flogging mobile phone contracts. I persuaded Astec MD David Savage to sponsor the MCS to the tune of £100,000, to pay for a Coast Watch project that would encourage the public to use mobile phones to report pollution incidents and sightings of marine wildlife along the shoreline. On meeting Savage, the director of the charity, a former naval officer already the worse for a few G&Ts, got on his high horse. “We’ll need to see your environmental audit before we can possibly accept your money, old boy.” The world is divided, I fear, between sponsors who would answer, “Oh, right, I’ll get on to it”, and those who would reply, “Well, f*** off then”. Unfortunately, our client fell into the latter camp.
That none of this worked successfully was, I flatter myself, attributable to its being about fifteen years too early. I became embroiled in frustrating correspondence with advertisers who, through ignorance or cynicism, were trying to link their products with greener brand values. Volkswagen, the carmaker, whose agency’s dimwitted idea of promoting a “more recyclable” Golf was to show a crushed car, not one ounce of which, being crushed, could be recycled; or Unilever, whose concept for promoting a new, more concentrated (hence virulent) washing powder as environmentally friendly, was to claim that the smaller box used less cardboard. It did us no good.
What most businesses were failing to understand is that the environment is not something objectifiably “out there”, we are the environment. Everything living within the biosphere is related to and dependent upon everything else for its survival, and this interdependence defines the ecosphere. Humans cannot act independently if we try. As an experiment: go out in the garden, tip a gallon of diesel into your fish pond. Watch what happens. Now go back to your office and start redrafting your business goals, strategies and processes.
The time for complex solutions is past. The banal communiqué of the G8 world leaders at the Hokkaido summit in July, 2008 and the equally dismal response from their counterparts at the developing nations summit has been perplexing and frustrating. No, I will say more: it goes beyond moral cowardice, to culpable ecocide. One only hopes that, as occasionally happens, some surprise deal will emerge from the wreck. This time, I doubt it.