What went wrong at Rio?

How did it happen that Rio+20 is universally seen as a failure? The best that can be said is that it was a disappointment. And Greenpeace’s view of the agreement is vitriolic:

“Gone from the Rio agreement is a commitment to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. Gone is any clear commitment to protect our oceans from over-fishing and pollution. The money needed to pay for clean energy, and to ensure that the growing world population has access to decent food and clean water, is no-where to be seen. Again, our leaders have reminded us that whilst cash can be found to pursue wars and to rescue banks, nothing is left to help billions of people out of poverty or protect the ecosystems upon which human life ultimately depends.”

The most interesting explanation comes from Gro Harlem Brundtland, who agreed with the suggestion of the BBC that the power of corporations was a key part of the problem. But so little transparency is there over how corporations lobby that we don’t even know who lobbied whom – let alone what they said.


Now we need permission to be ethical!

The European Court of Justice ruled recently that it is lawful for the public sector to procure on ethical grounds. Given that the public sector is about 40% of the economy, that is a relief. The FairTrade Foundation has welcomed the ruling.

But they also said that organic or fairtrade labels couldn’t be used directly as the basis for decisions. The underlying social and enviornmental criteria need to be spelt out. That could cause a problem for smaller public bodies.

The underlying directives are being revised in any case. Hopefully the ruling enables simpler and more sensible directives to be drawn up, including enabling social criteria to be used in the more straightforward way that environmental criteria can currently.

But what was the European Commission doing in the first place bringing this action against a Dutch authority that was trying to buy fairtrade products?


What is the impact of ISO 26000?

I have produced a research report for IIED on how much difference ISO 26000 has and can make to sustainable development. It can be downloaded here.


Watching Over Accountability

Adam Curtis’ new series All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace is riveting. In the second episode, as he describes in an article, his key theme is that the idea of a ‘system’ which  came out of the early work on computers assumes that systems are static. And that it is therefore inevitably socially repressive. But the idea of a system has also been a central concept for ecology and so, his argument runs, the very idea of an ecosystem is inherently repressive. Moreover the accompanying idea, that individuals can act autonomously without overt (political) control and nevertheless achieve coherent results, he suggests is a dangerous illusion because  power will find a way to exercise itself with or without accountability.

Riveting but wrong.

The concept of a ‘system’ is far older than computer science. It derives from the ancient Greek meaning ‘to cause to stand together’. The underlying concept throughout the ages has been the inter-connectedness of a series of parts of a whole. What early computer science did was to provide a particular form of analysing systems that was convenient for computers but not necessarily accurate for the living world.

If, as the early cybernetic systems assumed, a system has to be static, then it is indeed a poor foundation for thinking about society, which is constantly changing. But system theorists today are well aware of ‘chaotic’ effects, dynamic equilibria and discontinuous change. That may or may not make it a useful tool to understand society, but it is the best we have to understand the rest of nature.

But the real problem is that Curtis also seems keen to undermine the idea that humanity is part of a greater whole. If we are not really connected to the world, and perfectly free to behave as we like without any consequences, then there is no incentive to respect our dependency on the rest of nature. But that is precisely the situation we are in now – with, most likely, disastrous results for all of us.

Curtis’ arguments might be all too appealing to a company that wanted to ignore the impact that it had on the wider world. Coupled with the free market idea that unregulated economic activity always automatically produces the best possible outcome, it delivers a heady ideology that fully justifies business as usual.

However Curtis is right to point to the dangers of a lack of accountability in any social system. I wonder whether he sees fit to exercise that sort of accountability himself in relation to his filmed subjects?  My guess is that a number of his contemporary examples of ‘autonomous subjects’, such as the UnCut protestors, would object strongly to his representation of them.


Puma to settle scores with nature – but will it all add up?

Puma the sportswear manufacturer has revealed details of its environmental P&L, the first step to a full sustainability accounting. This is not the first time it has been attempted, as the examples of Bulmers, Forum for the Future and Anglian Water show. But it is the first time such a large company has done it and publicly said that it matters.

There are a number of interesting features of this atempt:

  • the CEO has publicly said that valuing ecosystem services is important to the business as it will prepare the business for inevitable future regulation
  • it underlines that the nearer the supply chain gets to nature, the greater its impact. This is probably quite widely applicable across quite different sectors and true for social as well as environmental impacts.

However there are some disappointing aspects to the initiative as well. The assumption appears to be that future regulation will materialise, because otherwise ecosystem services will be destroyed. However it needs wisdom on the part of politicians if regulation is to be applauded, rather than the next act in the tragedy of the commons.

Perhaps most troubling is the expectation that sustainability somehow involves netting off gains (such as financial profit) against losses (to the environment or society). This sounds very logical, until you realise that this is exactly the thinking of orthodox economists. And it has led us to the desperate situation we are in today.


If a butterfly's wing can cause a hurricane, imagine what damage wind turbines can do…

This is a brilliant spoof site on the safety of coal and the dangers of alternative energy. It includes such gems as the  safety of investing in coal, given all the subsidies and the dangers of being instantly fried to a cinder that even the most determined family faces from solar energy.

Perhaps what is most interesting is the skill with which it has been constructed apparently by Coal is Killing Kids. It shows the power that PR and spin can have.

It’s just that usually we don’t notice what is going on…


Oil on troubled waters

Why has the oil industry produced its own sustainability reporting guidelines – apparently leaving the GRI to its own devices?

The international oil industry has produced a new version of its sustainability reporting guidelines. This comes in the middle of the GRI oil sector supplement development. While the industry guidelines acknowledge the GRI – and even discuss how it differs – this is not a helpful step.

For more, see my GreenConduct Blog here.


A World of Promises

My fairy tale of sustainability, ‘A World of Promises’ is now available as an e-book from Amazon. Suitable for adults of all ages – including children.


Oil in deep water

BP may have ruined one third of the Gulf of Mexico for 25 years. But as well as the cleanup, what of the future?

We need to know not only what BP’s policies and practices are for such dangerous operations, but also what those of all the oil companies are. Whether it is Shell, Exxon or a state-owned oil company, what controls will be put in place for the future? And will governments have a greater role?

There is deep water all over the world.


Materiality, Transparency and Social Impact courses

I shall be leading courses on materiality, transparency and reporting and social impact in May and June.

Materiality – What Matters (May 27th) – ½ day (afternoon)  Course Aim: To explore how companies can assess whether issues are material

Materiality is a key criterion for deciding what to report and a central plank of credible reporting. But how can it be assessed systematically? For example, to what extent is materiality a function of the scale of an impact? How is stakeholder materiality different from business materiality? And why do companies report so much that may not be material?

 Transparency & Reporting (May 28th) – 1 day Course Aim: To explore the significance, practical delivery and limits of transparency in modern corporate life

It is widely accepted that transparency creates trust. But transparency is much more than reporting yet it is not clear what it really means or how it can be delivered. When is it necessary and when is it dangerous?

 Social Impact – Measuring and Managing Your Social Footprint (June 4th) – 1 day Course Aim: To provide a systematic approach to understanding, identifying, measuring and managing corporate social impact.

Social impact is often said to be the poor relation to environmental and economic impact within the sustainability family. It is poorly understood and under-reported. Why is this? How far is it possible systematically to identify, measure and manage social impacts?

Further details may be found here.