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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Wish I had a Melbourne Cup winner, but backing Sustainability Online

If we don’t have a virtual racing industry by 2050, are we backing the wrong horse? With ‘The Cup’ looming, Murray Hogarth has his money on long-shot Sustainability Online despite Carbon Uncertainty’s recent form. Read on (my latest column for BEN-global)

The race that stops a nation

It's Melbourne Cup time again. Australasia’s most famous horse race, worth millions for the winner’s connections, features in a month-long extravaganza of punting for a betting mad nation. The $6 million, two-mile (3200m) classic is a magnet for international racing industry heavyweights too, especially with the Aussie dollar sky high, causing a boom in equine air miles as well as track ones.

So how can you segue from that to a sustainability story?

Perhaps you’re thinking this story is headed down the path of the huge gamble that greenhouse gas intensive Australian industries now face over a price on carbon pollution. Should industry punters believe the government of the day and get ready to start trading carbon from mid next year? Or should they heed the shrill, ‘blood pledge’, buyer-beware warnings of the wannabe government that it will repeal the carbon price legislation at the first opportunity, with no compensation!

Carbon Uncertainty is the bolter!

Sure, the real prospects of this Carbon Uncertainty bolter are hard to pick. Fortunately, however, this big race story actually starts with the heavy TV advertising for, the young pacesetter of the internet-based gaming sector, whose bloodlines incorporate some of Australia’s greatest racing and bookmaking families.

Tom’s ads boast he was born to bet. He’ll cover racing or any sport with legal gaming opportunities, and you’ll never have to go near a racetrack, sporting ground or even a betting shop. Your money, winnings and losses, goes digital, with every bit of the transaction action happening online – although the horses, dogs or people still have to run around a track or a field.

Now of its self, Tom Waterhouse’s business is pretty unremarkable. These days we can do lots of regular things online, like buy or rent movies on smart TVs or computers without every having to visit a video shop or even physically receive a DVD by parcel. When you add up all of the physical activity that no longer is required per view, that’s a lot of dematerialising without any loss of viewer satisfaction (and no bloody late fees either).

This industry has a big footprint

Online gaming is a pretty modest saving, of course, especially when you consider how big the footprint of the racing industry is. All of those large herbivores, farms, feed, stables, racetracks, and all of the land and air transport that goes with them. After people, horses are the most frequent flyers among all of the world’s creatures, and a whole bunch of them have jetted down from Europe for the Melbourne Cup.

There’ll be no shortage of attention for the much-loved ‘race that stops the nation’ over the next few days. It even has a Hollywood movie, The Cup, running this year. So it’s no doubt a terrible time to advocate scrapping the whole horseracing industry, declaring its race has been run in a world that needs to go low-carbon fast.

While it’s easy to love the rich tradition of The Cup and the beauty of thoroughbreds at full gallop, you can imagine the carbon footprint of flying hay-burners around the world! So can that ever be sustainable? Especially if the whole thing can be replicated in computer-generated images, with randomised race results mimicking the sure bets and occasional dramatic upsets of the real thing?

And would the punters even care? Many gamblers rarely or ever go to the track, even less with the advent of online betting, and millions bet on the poker machines while knowing that computer chips control the outcomes, not pure luck, and that ultimately the house always wins.

Get on Clean Energy Future

It’s important to focus public and political attention on replacing physical products including services with virtual ones in the quest for a clean-running future that is both ecologically sustainable and economically successful. Confronting the very future of horseracing in the build-up to Melbourne Cup week (the race is run later today - author note 01/11/2011) is one way to prompt that discussion.

By the way, there’s a racehorse in America called Carbon Footprint. That had to happen, I’ll wager. As far as I know it’s not headed down under anytime soon for a Melbourne Cup, but we should all keep an eye on its form in 2012 as the Clean Energy Future Stakes is run here, along with overseas feature events like the Kyoto Protocol Handicap, the White House Plate and the Rio+20 Cup.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sustainable food has a gender edge, in a very nice way

I know it’s dangerous territory for men to presume to opine about what women like or want. So let’s just say I have a thesis to advance, backed by a few observations, and I’ll have to cop it sweet if I cause any offence.

Here goes with the thesis. If you want gender traction of the female variety for sustainability, then food is a killer app.

For UN World Food Day (October 16th), I’ve pulled together some thoughts and proof points on why this might be so. Here’s what I’ve been observing:

  • My partner, Natalie Isaacs, responds very positively when I work on developing a new home vegetable garden, and she’s pretty keen on her matching set of worm farms as well (one was an anniversary present, worms being truly romantic)
  • Natalie’s organisation, the 1 Million Women climate action campaign, gets great responses whenever it posts on its Facebook about food, and food has always been a strong performer for its website forums
  • The major humanitarian and disaster relief organisations, especially Oxfam Australia and CARE Australia in my recent experience, place much emphasis on engaging women and directing aid towards women, with food and water related assistance paramount e.g. small-scale farming, village wells, low-polluting cooking stoves
  • Women in the developed world make 70% or more of purchasing decisions that affect household environmental footprint, including food, and, using Africa as an example of the developing world, women there produce 80% of the food
  • Now that I find myself engaging sustainability professionals with a corporate employee engagement model for organic home food gardening, its women who are responding most strongly, positively and intuitively. No disrespect guys, but it’s a standout difference.

I’ll never forget a speaking panel gig I did a couple of years ago for a Living Green festival hosted by the City of Sydney, a civic sustainability leader in Australia.  I was part of a serious sustainability debate on greenwashing, with a very modest audience (including a dog), while over at the Sustainable Food tent with celebrity chef Kylie Kwong there were hundreds of people, the majority of them women, spilling out of the big marquee.

Moderately intellectual discourse is all very well, but the Living Green punters were feeling the traction of a greater attraction.

Why make this case? My thinking is that selling sustainability and especially behaviour change for sustainable living is hard enough, so why not find the paths of least resistance? Food is elemental sustainability and it engages everyone, though on my analysis women even more than men.

Food and beverage account for about a third of the carbon pollution in our daily lives. So food is a crucial pathway for mass-market sustainability, and women are a vital conduit for using the centrality of food in our lives to drive change in our households and communities.

Right now I’m helping a small business Cityfood Growers to spread the word about an innovative opportunity to combine successful home food growing with supporting Oxfam Australia’s East Africa Food Crisis Appeal, for World Food Day and Oxfam's Gather to GROW week (October 15-22, which is actually 8 days if you count them). I won’t be the least bit surprised if women find it most appealing, but guys I’d love to be proven gender deluded!

If I’ve offended anyone with these observations and analysis please be gentle. I mean well.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

As Australia moves to price carbon, 3 things you need to know

A carbon price scheme in Australia is close, at last, but shaky too. Today marks the crucial vote (74 to 72) in the House of Representatives, the lower house in the bicameral Australian Parliament, with the way already prepared for passage through the upper house Senate too.

Barring not entirely unlikely political disaster befalling the ill-fated minority Labor Government, the Clean Energy Future scheme with fixed $23 a tonne of CO2 pollution price attached will start on July 1, 2012. There'll be the fixed price for three years, then real carbon trading with the market setting the price will begin in 2015.

Unfortunately, this is all inherently shaky still. The legislation is set to become law via an alliance of minority Labor Government, progressive Independents and Greens. It is opposed absolutely by the conservative Opposition, whose leader has 'sworn in blood' (his actual language was 'a pledge in blood' ) to repeal 'this toxic carbon tax' (also his language), and public opinion polling for the Government is dire.

Many words will be written about this in the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years ahead, but here are 3 things you need to know.

1. Pricing pollution is the conservative way

A market solution in any normal world is the climate solution political conservatives in a market-based democracy would support (unless they are really skeptics). Indeed, at the Kyoto Climate Summit in 1997 that's what was supported by the then conservative Australian Government of Prime MInister John Howard, which supported the US Government's advocacy of a carbon trading approach over howls of protest from the European Union bloc and green groups. Now Europe has a carbon trading scheme, most environmentalists and political Greens support it. Go figure.

2. Uncertainty can still kill the value of carbon pricing

Business champions of carbon trading have long feared the position we've now arrived at. This is because the certainty they are seeking from a carbon price - to allow them to make with confidence large long-term capital investments that are sensitive to carbon price and policy - is being denied to them by the vicious politics in Australia (and America too). It seems inevitable that there will now be a future election 'referendum' on the carbon scheme, and possibly a further Double Dissolution poll as well to force through repeal of the law. Business will be put on the spot: does Australia keep going with the Clean Energy Future scheme, perhaps with modifications, or does it plunge back into prolonged carbon indecision?

3. A price on carbon is not a magic cure for climate change

For all the incredible effort and bitter public and political division that has gone into arriving at today's historic votes in Australia, including the destruction of the leadership of at least two Australian Prime Ministers and two Opposition Leaders in the past four years, carbon trading is only part of the solution. It's a good tool, harnessing market forces, but we need other market levers and lots of old-fashioned regulation too. You don't just set and forget a carbon scheme, somehow magically arriving at a clean energy future with a low-carbon economy in 2050. The next crucial thing to chase is a national energy efficiency scheme for Australia, which means this is no time to take the pressure off our political and business leaders.

And what now?

I reckon a new era of real action on climate change is now possible if not certain, and that everyone who has worked for this for so long should take a few moments to reflect on the years it has taken, indulge in modest self-congratulation, then brace for all of the hard work still to come. What do you think? 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Transforming big media’s performance on sustainability

NOTE: This is my latest Blog for WME's Business Environment Network (see links below) and is reproduced here with an extra 'personal footnote'. 

Opinion polls are warning that a price on carbon pollution is political poison, renewable energy is under assault, life-saving environmental flows for the Murray-Darling are evaporating and biodiversity is disappearing. So are sustainability advocates losing the communications war, asks Murray Hogarth.

Progress, or is it?

Big environmental sustainability issues for Australia and the world are getting unprecedented attention in the political and public discourse of the nation. Climate change, a price on carbon, water challenges, renewable energy, coal seam gas and coal industry expansion, a fair rate of tax on mining and other resource extraction, public transport deficiencies, species crises, and more are in the news most days.

So isn’t that progress? Aren’t the issues that sustainability advocates care about now on the agenda, getting headlines, being debated, causing political mayhem, stirring public passions? Wasn’t that the whole idea of decades of activism to raise awareness about the awful reality of humans pursuing endless economic and population growth inside a finite ecological system?

Yes, but. There’s a problem. To borrow a football analogy, it looks like sustainability advocates are often dominating possession but failing to score. It’s not enough to elevate your issues, at least not if the media itself, and the business and political realms that still dominate in its coverage, haven’t themselves changed at a more fundamental level.

Sustainability 'meta-narrative'

In my view, media coverage of sustainability has barely progressed in over a decade. If that’s right, why does this paralysis persist in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence of the sustainability crisis ‘meta-narrative’ for people on the planet? Individual journalists aren’t to blame. However good they are, they can’t effect the change required here. It has to be systemic, and the media must accept a role to lead society not merely reflect its confusion.

Look at this from a corporate perspective. The emerging, logical approach for reporting by businesses is now to integrate all of the important information about an enterprise’s policies, plans and performance – across financial, governance, social and environmental dimensions – into a single annual report, quarterly updates, and also into continuous reporting via the Internet. The point is to make, and to communicate sustainability as being integral to the business, not a satellite concern held at the margins by more exotic, segregated reporting.

Change the business pages

This structural evolution also is required from big media if sustainability is to win consistently in the communications war, as I for one believe it should and must. The business section of any newspaper is a great place to start the restructuring, with the first steps to include:
  •          Accepting overtly that the science of climate change is solid and has major economic and financial consequences that can be articulated, tracked, tested and reported on, including in terms of how they relate in value-at-stake terms to individual stocks and economies, and also sectors and markets as a whole.
  •          Innovating to produce and promote new metrics and indices that can track and compare performance on diverse relevant areas such as quality of life, happiness, ecological integrity and biodiversity protection, climate change impacts, major resource reserves and reliability, rural productivity and production trends, water resilience, employee participation, and much more.
  •         Adopting a relentless journalistic rigor in questioning and editorially challenging corporations, governments and oppositions, community organisations and all of the other players that make up our economy and our society to show what they are doing to identify, manage and reduce or eliminate any social, environmental and economic harm they are doing, and also to create positive outcomes through their processes, policies, products and people.     

The real power to influence

This is completely different territory than a media group like News Limited doing its credible 1 Degree program to achieve carbon neutrality, or Fairfax Media’s good internal sustainability focus and foundation support for Earth Hour with WWF Australia, or a greener ABC. It’s great that media organisations just like any other businesses run their operations more cleanly and efficiently, and also support good causes, but their real power to influence for good lies in what they report and how they report it.

The defining sustainability challenge for the whole sprawling mass communications sector is to help redefine how the economy and society are described, measured and reported on. That’s what real change looks like. And who knows, getting this right might make a difference to the financial sustainability challenges now confronting big media, especially our newspapers. Otherwise, a myriad of minor and social media will fill the void, as they are doing already.

*Murray Hogarth is a business environmentalist, Principal of consultancy the 3rd degree and a former Environment Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. He also is Senior Adviser to Green Capital, the corporate sustainability arm of the Total Environment Centre, where he currently is working on a November event series, Media, Marketing & the Green Message: Are we losing the sustainability communications war? The opinions expressed here are Murray’s alone

My personal footnote

Recently I’ve been working on a book covering the first 25 years of the Environmental Defenders Office of NSW, often known simply as the EDO, Australia’s pioneering public interest environmental law centre. The book is not finished yet, but the emerging manuscript has some relevant touch points for this discussion. In the words of one of the EDO’s founding figures, Emeritus Professor Ben Boer of the University of Sydney, the mission is to achieve a future where the laws of man conform to the laws of nature. Another of the EDO’s founders, retired Federal Court Justice Murray Wilcox AO, makes a great point when he says legal battles alone will never deliver real transformation towards a truly sustainable society, where environmental protection can trump economic growth as a matter of common agreement: ‘In the end that is the only guarantee. If you get to the point where no government would dream of doing something that is your best hope.’

A dozen years ago, as the then Environment Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, I began a personally painful process of ending my 20-plus years career in print and TV. Convinced that old-style environmental journalism populated mainly with nature conservation and pollution outrage stories was approaching its use-by-date, I mounted a quixotic little campaign to have my paper break new ground by elevating sustainability to the reporting mainstream, especially in the business pages.

I argued that market research showed that around 70 percent of the Herald’s readership was environmentally aware and concerned. That just as the paper had led the way in Australian journalism with the appointment of the first designated environmental writer in the 1970s, the fondly remembered Joseph Glascott, it should do so again by establishing sustainability reporting as part of its business section. Less constructively, perhaps, I insisted that as a solo environment reporter I was pitted against a whole business section with dozens of people writing the development at any cost view of the world. And I asked, where was the journalistic balance in that?

I got nowhere then, and left journalism for a whole bunch of reasons to find my way into sustainability consulting as a new career. Now, these 12 years later, the Herald has a sustainability-focused column in its weekend business section, written by Ethical Investor magazine founder Paddy Manning, and it still has an Environment Editor, Ben Cubby. Paddy and Ben are both excellent, hardworking journalists who cover many important issues, as are many of their counterparts at other media outlets. Furthermore, over recent years other business and environmental journalists writing in the Herald and its sister paper The Age in Melbourne have produced wonderful, awarding-winning reports on crucial issues ranging from climate impacts, to carbon trading chicanery, to greenwash, to toxic pollution.

It’s none of their faults that media coverage of sustainability has barely progressed in over a decade. Along with the ABC (with the possible exception of still paying too much attention to climate deniers), the Fairfax Media stable is as good as we get from the mainstream media in Australia. Yet even there the same general structures continue, and there’s no real recognition of how profound the sustainability challenge really is, nor how urgent, nor how transformative it needs to be for everything. I see now that I was hopelessly naïve back in 1999 thinking a new business sustainability reporter’s position might make a real difference, because that’s just the start.

Also see the BEN versions of this Post at:

Blog link:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Food for thought … and a homegrown opportunity for sustainability action!

The most powerful and compelling sustainability issues are simultaneously hugely global and intensely local, geopolitically important and personally engaging. Energy is one, water another, and recently an old stalwart, food, has become a born-again bolter.

This post is about a way to make organic home food gardening a sustainability leadership activity for staff and member programs, one that extends to home life, and which can stand alongside more established activities like recycling, energy and water saving, and carbon reduction and offsetting.

First, however, let’s recap the centrality of food, a sustainable living fundamental for individuals, communities and whole nations. At the popular level, we’ve all seen the rise and rise of celebrity chefs with their books, blogs and TV shows, culminating (here in Australia) with the success of Master Chef as an entertainment and marketing phenomenon.

We all know the critical importance of food and diet for our health and wellbeing, and we are increasingly aware of how the food and beverages that we consume are a major component of our environmental footprints, including big implications for carbon pollution linked to our lifestyles.

At a political level, few things raise public concern like escalating food prices and food security fears, and these have the proven potential to fuel protest movements and destablise governments and regimes. On the humanitarian side, the current famine in the Horn of Africa is a terrible reminder of many famines, of a resource-challenged world that needs to feed 7 billion people rising to 9 billion by 2050, and also a warning of what the concept of catastrophic climate change actually means.

For all of this, if you’d told me even a year ago that I’d be taking a frontline role promoting organic home food growing as a staff and community engagement program, I’d never have believed you. Given that I am now doing just that, what gives here?

The answer is multi-faceted. Like many people I’ve been assailed by news stories and social media discussions about food price rises and security fears, and their role in political instability, human misery and sustainability crises. In many ways these are not new stories, yet to me their intensity is escalating.

On a happier note, I’ve also tuned into an international trend in the developed world for people wanting to re-engage with producing their own food at home or in their communities, or buying locally-produced food, or seeking healthier and more environmentally aware growing methods like organic and biodynamic, or lower-carbon food options, and sometimes all of the above.

Then I met Peter Kearney, the founder of Cityfood Growers, which is when entrepreneurial ingenuity and the power of the Internet were added into the mix. For the past three or so years I have been working on home energy management solutions that can be connected via the Internet, allowing householders to create their own ‘energy saving networks’ independent of traditional utilities and metering technologies.

In meeting Peter, a Brisbane-based businessman who’s been growing food in the city since his childhood, it suddenly became clear that gardening knowledge and advice was something else that could be deployed online with some very clever functionality.

     Peter Kearney in his pumpkin patch (photo from CItyfood Growers website, courtesy of The Courier Mail)

The key success factor for home food gardening is working with your local climate conditions. Depending on where you are, getting information tailored to your specific locality is not always easy. What Peter Kearney has done with his fee-based subscription service is allow his members to filter all of the very detailed information on his website, covering 300-plus types of food crops, by matching it to their nearest local weather station.

When I learned about this feature, I had my own food growing meets sustainability program ‘ah-hah moment’.

Cityfood Growers already has its model working for Australia, New Zealand and the US, and is looking further afield, wherever reliable local weather station data exists and is publicly available. It doesn’t matter if you live in Darwin in the Northern Territory of Australia, or Dunedin on the South Island of New Zealand, or even Miami in Florida in the US, you get essentially the same service adapted to where your food garden is, including your climate and your seasons.

That means a company with staff spread across Australasia, or a large member-based organisation for that matter, can easily initiate and coordinate a network of home and community gardeners, tens or hundreds or even thousands of them, who are all getting consistent and comprehensive support to help them succeed.

Many enterprises are constantly looking for positive programs to engage their staff or members in socially, environmentally and ideally personally beneficial activities, which also are good for the organisation itself. I reckon it doesn’t get better or more sustainable than growing your own food and eating the outcomes. All done while building a greater appreciation of nature’s wonders, gaining empathy for those who struggle to feed themselves and their families everyday, and learning life skills to put food on the table from your own food garden always.

Cityfood Growers is already helping to build organic home food growing into the curricula for over 1000 early childhood learning centres around Australia, aiming to make the next generation gardening-savvy. Peter Kearney’s vision is people everywhere learning how to feed themselves, being successful in their own food gardens, and loving the process of doing it.

Taking similar content to the childhood centres into workplaces and major institutions is a new path for Cityfood Growers, and for me. Let me know if you have ideas on how home and community food growing can work for your business or other organisations?


See Peter Kearney's article in the CSIRO's ECOS magazine CLICK HERE

Tuesday, August 16, 2011


This is the original longer version of a column published on August 15, 2011, by WME's new Business Environment Network.

The cause of global sustainability desperately needs to make the most of 2012 as a transformative year, writes Murray Hogarth, while taking a mini trip down a regional road to a low-carbon future. READ ON

On a narrow country road, winding through green hills between Mullumbimby and the hamlet of Federal in far northern New South Wales, the narrative for this story finally gelled. Next year, 2012, is a critical time for sustainability, in my view the most important year yet in the history of the planet. I’ll explain my reasoning for this grand assertion in a moment.

First, however, as I drove through beautiful Byron Shire in my manual two-door Hyundai Getz, the smallest most fuel efficient and cost effective option I could find on the hire car menu, I drew a sliver of comfort for the future of people on the Australian continent and across planet Earth.

It’s because there, in the coastal Byron Shire, I could see a transition in society under way. Albeit a tentative, often-disputed, and still totally inadequate set of changes, but the beginnings of a transition nonetheless – and the clues were everywhere, like a crumb trail to the hidden destination of a more sustainable future.

Those clues include things like solar PV arrays on rooftops, local farmers markets, roadside signs offering organic produce, feisty hand-made signs opposing coal seam methane projects, recycled furniture shops, a green mayor, committed young entrepreneurs pursuing solutions for householders, and an array of micro businesses like cafes and stores incorporating sustainability into their sales pitches.

I was in Mullumbimby to speak at the launch of a new sustainable food business directory for the Byron Shire, which includes the famous, and famously arty and spiritual, tourism town of Byron Bay. A modest-sized positive initiative by the local council, which has a Greens politician at the helm in the shape of Mayor Jan Barham, the directory actually speaks to a much bigger agenda with global sustainability implications.

This part of Australia, just south of sprawling Brisbane and the gross ‘theme park for over-development’ that is the Gold Coast, has lost much of its traditional agricultural base, with subdivisions replacing cow paddocks, motorways slicing through cane fields, and tree-changers moving in while farmers grow old and move out.

Stirred in part by the controversial arrival of a Woolworths supermarket in Mullumbimby in recent times, local food production and security, community resilience, and diverse opportunities to resurrect the agricultural potential of the region are now genuine public policy concerns in these environs; as they should be for the whole nation, especially with a federal review under way looking at National Food Policy (submissions close September 2).

At least there’s already action on the ground in the NSW Northern Rivers district, which includes Byron Shire. Through government-funded initiatives like the Northern Rivers Food Link Project, involving seven local councils plus a public water utility, the aim is to ‘mitigate climate change impacts associated with food production and distribution, and strengthen community resilience to climate change and peak oil impacts’.

This is scarily practical, when you consider what’s really stake, such as the future of food and energy, and works well as a microcosm of a bigger Australia-wide scenario. While much of the national political debate in Australia still appears to revolve around whether climate change and natural resource constraints like declining oil reserves are real, and require serious policy responses such as a price on carbon pollution, up here in Byron Shire official programs are saying food security and fossil fuel energy supply need proper attention. 

That’s the segue back to the overwhelming importance of 2012, when the capacity of the whole of human civilisation to feed and power itself will be back at the top of the United Nations to-do list. These issues will be graphically illustrated by ongoing political disruption across the oil-rich Middle East, messing with fuel prices and market security, and the terrible toll on human lives of a global warming impacted drought in the Horn of Africa.

For the sake of this story, I am going to assume that ancient Mayan calendar inspired fears that the world will end in 2012 won’t come to pass. Nonetheless, humanity is far from off the hook.

The modern-day concept of sustainability will be 25-years-old next year, with its origins in the UN’s Brundtland Commission on Development and the Environment, which released its Our Common Future report in 1987. It will also be 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit, in 1992, and 15 years since the Kyoto Climate Conference, in 1997. Year 2012 will include Rio+20, and will mark the end of the first and perhaps only Kyoto commitment period, which runs 2008-2012, highlighting the big unresolved question of what comes next? There will be a vital presidential election in the US, the rise of China will step up in its trade and geo-political potency, ongoing financial crises will be gnawing away at the very concept of traditional ‘economic growth’, and here in Australia we will most likely see the start of the Clean Energy Future policy package including, finally, its price on carbon pollution.

When I look in the rear vision mirror at landmark yesteryears, I see 1990 for its international wave of environmental awareness, 1992 for the largest gathering of world leaders in the history of the planet in Rio, 1997 for the painful birth of the Kyoto Protocol, and perhaps crucially, 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore for the presidency of the United States of America.

A 100-year history written towards the end of the 21st century on how the world moved to a low-carbon, sustainable economy, if it does manage a happy Hollywood ending of course, may well speculate on how differently the first decade could have played out under Gore instead of Bush. We can never know, yet it’s relevant to canvass this ‘what if’ in discussing why 2012 is now so pivotal. It will be a huge, epoch-shaping outcome if America casts out Democrat President Barack Obama in 2012, after one term, especially in favour of a climate-skeptical Tea Party Republican candidate. Demolishing the EPA will be but a first salvo from such a presidency, and hopes for serious climate action will be put off for a decade or more.

Over a billion people have been born since modern-day sustainability was ‘invented’ a quarter of a century ago. New generations have grown up, some in great wealth and others in deep poverty and deprivation. Species have gone extinct, global economic stability has deteriorated dramatically after a long boom, and the negative environmental footprint of humanity collectively has exceeded the sustainable carrying capacity of our one and only planet. The fossil fuel sector, the source of so much of the world’s climate troubles, has expanded massively, not only in traditional coal, oil and gas, but in major new areas like tar sands, shale gas, and coal seam methane too.

If we have learned anything since Brundtland and Rio and Kyoto, it’s that governments and corporations will not deliver the transformation towards sustainability that our world needs. At least not at the speed and scale that is required, and certainly not through UN talk fests in isolation. Doubtless the failure to fundamentally change the path of our world away from unsustainable growth to a sustainable model will be much discussed and argued over in 2012. Yet the importance of the year will go unrealised unless whole nations and industries shift decisively from lip-service sustainability to transformational change.

So where might real change come from? On the drive between Mullumbimby and Federal, it was suddenly clear to me the road ahead has to be bottom up and led from the community and small business levels. If we want to move once and for all from coal-fired power stations to renewable energy, then a critical mass of homes, small businesses and local communities have to make the transition themselves. The same goes for moving from vulnerable, wasteful, supermarket-dominated food supply chains, to resurgence in local food production and community resilience. And it’s up to individual farmers and environmentalists, networked using modern Internet communications and alliances like Lock the Gate, to force accountability on to powerful expanding industries like coal seam methane, with its tens of billons of dollars of investment just in Australia, from thousands of wells to giant new port facilities.

Governments and big business will follow when the will of the people is clear, but they won’t lead the transformation. Byron Shire is somewhere on the Australian coast where people are starting to populate a better future. When enough of us make that shift, then transformation becomes unstoppable reality. It may be more about symbolism than anything else, but 2012 must be a year for moving sustainability to a new level – the paradigm for successful human society in the 21st century, replacing the ideological battles over capitalism and socialism that so dominated the 20th century.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

New Mindset Needed: Sustainability for Shoppers

This is my column first published by Environmental Management News on Monday, 16 May 2011

Getting better environmental performance from ‘the stuff we buy’ is defined by the wrong things - Compulsion, Suspicion and Conflict - rather than getting the best outcomes for people and planet, while leaving business plenty of space for profits too. It’s little wonder that even green-savvy shoppers and householders can get confused, writes Murray Hogarth.

I’m going to argue the case here for a national focus on what I’m calling ‘consumer environmental literacy’, or more pithily, sustainability for shoppers. It is years ago now that we started to pay serious attention to financial literacy for consumers. Just as the world of banking, insurance, superannuation, taxation and investment advice, and other ‘wealth management’ services simultaneously became more ubiquitous and more complex, so goes the fast expanding ‘green marketplace’.

In 2011, ‘environment’ is well down a similar path to financial products and services. Everyday punters are being called on to make purchasing decisions that are affected by all manner of label claims and purported certifications, that are governed by complex concepts like life cycle assessments and environmental foot-printing, and that require difficult calculations such as total cost of ownership, balancing purchase price with operating costs and sometimes disposal fees as well.

Whether it’s understanding the recycling information on a packet or container, or the energy bill implications of choosing particular appliances or vehicles, or the environmental consequences of the care instructions for clothing, what people buy and how they use it then dispose of it are critical issues for achieving a more sustainable economy.

There are also some nasty curved balls coming the way of industry and environmentalists alike. A prime example is waste collection, where decades of community engagement have created a cultural shift in Australia towards home sorting for recycling. Survey after survey shows Australians ranking their own recycling participation as top of the league table for environmental action. Now, however, global best practice is trending towards one or two bins at most – wet and dry waste if it is two – with industrial sorting at big centralised processing facilities. What are we going to tell all those happy home sorters?

That’s one of many tough challenges ahead. Firstly, however, let’s indulge ourselves in a pleasant little fiction. Let’s pretend we have the opportunity to build anew the key ‘sustainability’ interfaces between manufacturers and brand owners on one side, and consumers and their communities on the other, in regard to the stuff that people buy.

Our aim, in this delightful fantasy, is to maximise the sustainability outcomes around both packaging and the products themselves. Everyone involved, from industry through to environmental watchdogs, is broadly in agreement on the big issues, all wanting to minimise waste and maximise recycling, save energy and water, use less non renewable materials and more renewable energy, cut pollution, and do all of this in an efficient and cost-effective way. We just have to get consensus on how to do it!

Then we get dragged back to current reality. Over several decades we’ve built up a nightmare mess of regulation and voluntary measures governing the way that ‘green’, ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ and ‘sustainable’ are integrated with products, and increasingly services too. The result is an emerging ‘green marketplace’ that is messily confusing, often poorly understood by the producers and the customers alike, and dysfunctional.

That’s not surprising, because our foundations for this new edifice are all wrong. Instead of three pillars of support representing Environment, Social and Economic best outcomes, we’ve ended up with Compulsion, Suspicion and Conflict:
  • Compulsion, in that businesses, many of them reluctant at least in earlier times to act at all, have been compelled through an escalating series of regulatory, co-regulatory and arm-twisted self-regulatory measures to change their ways and clean up their act;
  • Suspicion, in that almost whatever industry has done, and however willing or otherwise they’ve been to do it, doubt will often be cast over both the motivations and actual performance of businesses. And while many allegations of greenwashing are well deserved, suspicion has been cast across everyone and everything;
  • Conflict, in that often change and action only comes about after serious head butting between brand owners and green watchdogs, such as environment and consumer advocacy groups. We’ve still got plenty of that going on, for example in regard to the green movement push for South Australian-style container deposits legislation to be spread nationally, which has been bitterly opposed for decades by most beverage makers and other industry players across manufacturing and retail.
Recently, the Total Environment Centre’s (TEC) business sustainability program Green Capital teamed up with the 1 Million Women climate action campaign to conduct consumer research. This involved an online survey as part of the Buying Better initiative, a major Green Capital project focused on breaking down barriers to a more sustainable economy, including widespread confusion over labeling and certification schemes.

The aim was to poll a target audience of environmentally engaged consumers, the all-female membership of the 1 Million Women campaign, with women making over 70% of purchasing decisions that affect household environmental footprint, and influencing up to 90% of such decisions.

There were over 370 respondents to the survey. Key findings included:
  • While over 9 out of 10 respondents said they looked out for environmental information on products, and nearly 8 out of 10 agreed they would pay more for ‘genuinely green’ products, nearly 7 out of 10 found environmental claims on labels difficult to understand;
  • Respondents tended to significantly underestimate how much of the negative environmental impact in the life cycle of key mainstream products – the survey looked at TVs, fresh fruit and vegetables, clothing, laundry detergent, washing machines and printer paper – arises while being used by them, the consumers;
  • A number of major ‘green, ‘eco’, ‘ethical’ or ‘sustainability’ labels had low recognition with the respondents, with the notable exceptions of ‘Fairtrade’ and ‘Energy Star’ enjoying high positive recognition;and
  • Respondents showed overwhelming support for supermarkets and other retailers to proactively stock and promote more sustainable products and de-stock the most unsustainable ones, but there was a pocket of concern about retailers creating their own ‘green labels’.
To me, the debate indicates that even a moderately engaged and green-savvy sample of consumers struggled to weigh life cycle issues correctly, tended overall to underestimate the importance of their own purchasing decisions and how they use products, and in particular were heavily swayed by current or recent major environmental campaigns focused on issues such as:
  • Clothing and textiles – ethical production, no ‘sweatshops’;
  • TVs – e-waste campaigns around disposal of electronics items; and
  • Fruit and vegetables – the ‘food miles’ concept.
You can see from a chart, which can be viewed by clicking here, that such issues have dominated responses in the survey, even though other parts of the life cycle may be as important or more so for overall negative environmental footprint e.g. food wastage by consumers themselves, power consumption during the life of a TV and laundering of clothing.

The message is clear. Everyone with a stake in the greening of the mainstream economy needs to grow up a bit, get over old and increasingly irrelevant divisions, and get on with making effective consumer decision-making easier, regardless of the complexities that will always exist in the background. We need to rise above Compulsion, Suspicion and Conflict and get everyone on board – along the value chain, and across the life cycle of every product area - for real solutions that address the most material issues.

By framing this as a challenge to foster consumer environmental literacy as a national priority, we can then identify roles and assign responsibilities for all of the key players, be they government policymakers, official regulators, primary producers, manufacturers and brand owners, marketers, retailers, consumers themselves, NGO watchdogs, or post-consumer enterprises.

And rather than demanding environmental perfection to satisfy the deepest of lifelong deep green consumers, a niche market now and into the future, we need to choose the right buttons to press with mass consumers e.g. saving energy and reducing waste = saving money while you help the environment.

It is time to make sustainability easy for shoppers, achievable for brand owners, and acceptable to environmental and consumer advocates. Everyone has a part to play. Done right, the pay-off will span the three pillars of Environment, Social and Economic, condemning Compulsion, Suspicion and Conflict to exit stage left, fading to greener and smarter.

Murray Hogarth is a business environmentalist, advising corporate and community clients on sustainability strategy through his consultancy The 3rd Degree. He is Senior Adviser to Green Capital, the business sustainability arm of the TEC in Sydney, and is a regular writer and commentator on sustainability issues and trends. His views in this column are his own.