The Big Society

What can business do to contribute to the big society ideal formed by the government? That was the main question primed towards a small audience of business leaders by Business In The Community at an event in Manchester tonight.  I hadn’t really given it much thought previously, however in the surroundings of Manchester Business School and in the company of some bright minds we attempted to try and identify just some of the facilitators and barriers.

What’s obvious is that there are no easy answers or quick fixes.  There is a massive societal shift needed. Who will move first?  Is competition too fierce in the global economy now for us to adopt these holistic ideals?  There were some interesting points made, however it was clear that it won’t be easy to get quick traction.  Nevertheless, here’s a few of the points I thought relevant (in no particular order).

  • Will people be prepared to work less hours for less pay to see more people in employment? - Tough one and the government might not like the answer.  We live in an age of consumption.  Of acquiring things.  My device is better than your device.  My TV is bigger than your TV.  Will people be prepared to trade down for the bigger good?
  • There’s no financial incentive. You really want to motivate a businessperson to get involved, show them an opportunity, not a draw on their time.
  • The bulk of business people represented on panels like this are normally large and successful. You only needed to see the audience in the room tonight.  All Gen X.  Board Directors in successful businesses.  You wont hear the view of  SME’s who make up 99.8% of business.  They are the ones you need engaged too as they employ half the UK workforce and can be more inciteful as to the conditions they would need to donate their time.
  • If the Big society makes us globally uncompetitive, forget it. Harsh, however social investments rely on economic prosperity, a fine balance.
  • Do Generation Y care like Generation X do? Generation Y (digital natives) have a completely different outlook on life.  They are pursuing fame and instant fortune (bit stereotypical I know), however this may get in the way of their ambitions.  You have to incentivise at all levels to get change happening.
  • You need some new innovation in there somewhere. Salami slicing public sector expenditure and then shifting the burden to business, just isn’t on.  We all know the public sector is hugely inefficient in many areas.  Why not incentivise private sector business to drive savings and efficiency in public sector?
  • Get local government to spend more of their grant with local businesses, not on national contracts. They can then insist on some of the big society ideals as part of the supply agreement.  Seen it done already and it works.
  • The future isn’t public or private. It’s a fusion of both in the big society.  A fusion of Enterprise.  Rip down the barriers to enterprise.  Make public sector procurement easier.  Making the planning process easier for businesses to build the premises they need.  By expanding, there will be more jobs in the economy.  Carving up current jobs – in my view – just isn’t the answer.
  • Do people have the time for all this? People are pressured.  T.A.T. rules.  Time is at a premium.  Work/Life blend is poor.

I’m not negative about it, just realistic. I’d love to see a society, which is more like Japan for example.  Purposeful.  Respectful.  More societal in its outlook.  However, people will need to see quick and early wins for this one to make it’s way out of the manifesto and into everyday practice.  It’s a big job, however a worthy aim.  What do you think?

Green Monday

Tell me why, I don’t like Ma han day’s, tell me why I don’t like Ma han day’s”, Boomtown Rats 1979, I’m sure you remember the song. It fell to my mind tonight speaking at this event called “Green Monday”, and I certainly do like “Ma han day’s”, particularly tonight.

The topic I was covering was about how to position green products into specific markets, for example, the difference between consumers (B2C) and businesses (B2B).  The business I work for has been working towards environmental objectives for about twenty years, however it was 1993 before we developed the worlds greenest printer.  At the time, it was a monumentous effort, taking huge resources and passing very stringent tests.  We were confident that it would be a winner.

Opening tonights session, I spoke briefly about some of the key lessons I’d learned over the years about positioning or selling green products.  Let me share them with you: -

Lesson number 1.  Businesses won’t pay a premium to go green.  Consumers are more likely, providing they have the disposable income.  This was a harsh lesson as we thought everyone would share our philosophy of doing the right thing.  When it came to it, the money talked.  I call this “ECO-nomics”, that is, you have to make a sound business case with clear return on investment (ROI) or return on objectives (ROO).

Lesson number 2.  It shouldn’t inconvenience the user. If it means someone has to do something different it puts them out, then you’re likely to see objections raised or resistance to a proposed change.  Try removing people’s bins in your office for a week and see how eco-friendly their prepared to be when they have to get up from their desk to use a waste bin.

Lesson number 3.  It must be a “no-brainer”. Take all of the guessing out of it.  Same price, easier to use, sexier than the non-eco version etc.  The more you make people think, the harder it gets to convince them to change a habit.

Hard as this is to say, the world is suffering from ECO-fatigue.  Recessions are killers for green investments, the age of austerity might put back sustainable procurement and people are more concernnd with their personal worlds, than the world (massive generalisation I know, however it is a generalisation).  Now it’s about protecting your job at all costs and doing things that make you look good in front of your boss or feel happy in a miserable economic environment.

We’re living in a disposable consumer age. Consumption and one-upmanship trump eco-ness any day of the week.  Example.  Apple i-Pad.  According to Greenpeace, they only rate 4.9 out of 10 on green issues in their Guide to Greener Electronics.  Who cares?  They’ve made a sexy gadget that everyone wants, no one looked at the eco-label, far from it, buyers were more interested in being first, bragging rights and making their lives easier.

So, this is what the green market is up against.  You have to play in the same backyard as everyone else.  Don’t think people will pay more, they expect you to be green as a hygiene factor, but that still doesn’t mean they will buy your product, you’ll just be considered.  If it’s green and a monstrosity, forget it.

There is reason to be positive however.  There are a growing band of businesses and individuals that continue to lead the charge and show leadership in this area.  The businesses attending tonights Green Monday conference are all great examples of this and I’m pleased to air my views that it’s still a tough road.  Corporate CSR brochures and Corporate procurement are still disconnected, boardroom rhetoric and actions are still distanced, no-one said it would be easy, but the world won’t wait and we have to all be good Corporate citizens and get on with it.

Low Carbon Economy

There’s lot of challenges to making your business lower carbon, particularly in the depths of a global credit crisis and recession recovery.  You’re battling for Time, Attention and Trust, keeping your head above water and winning business.  People are distracted with the here and now, their own problems in their personal bubble.  Speaking to a roomful of businesses interested in the idea of a Greater Manchester Low Carbon economy this morning, I outlined some of the challenges with getting things going (see this link for some of the slides I used).

Civic leaders have had every report possible done.  The opportunity is clear.  The risks are clear.  The next steps for business are not.  Greater Manchester has lots of commissions and passionate people, however, I feel it is lacking “The Big Idea”.  i.e., What one thing could we mobilise a whole city region behind, in order to improve the lives of the people within it?  Whether that means cleaner air, better business, infrastructure or living environment.  The newly established Greater Manchester Chamber Carbon Reduction Groups aims to tackle that.

I gave a couple of examples today of great things that I’d seen.  One was about a City in France that has a huge balloon floating about the City Hall, connected to the power grid.  It glows red when high demands are being made on the grid, allowing everyone in the City Region to instantly visualise and take action.  That alone forced behaviour change, started people thinking about the things they could/should do.  It’s not always about telling people what to do, but motivating them to do something.

I also spoke about a clever little piece of software called Powerman from a company called Ergo Computing (details here) which actively monitors energy consumption of IT on a network.  A simple yet highly effective way to reduce carbon and costs.  Straight to the bottom line and ticking everyone’s boxes.

For business, you have to balance the economics of carbon reduction with the economics of running your business. I gave the example of having a large external salesforce, who are very motivated by cars.  We choose to offer a benchmark car with an industry leading CO2, yet still good enough to attract the right talent.  We then offer further financial incentives for them to go even lower on their CO2.  Around 25% of drivers choose this route, so it’s a way of still balancing our need for talent, with the need to be as efficient as we can be with our carbon.  If we offered a fleet of electric cars, we wouldn’t get the right people, that’s hard to swallow sometimes, but a fact of life, so you need to accomodate it and save additional carbon in other ways.

It’s not all easy though.  Going green can be an inconvenience to people because it requires changes in our behaviour, particularly when it comes to re-cycling.  When you’ve been running a sustainable business as long as we have, you have to search for the continuing wins, like squeezing a sponge.  That’s when it begins to hurt a little more as it becomes much more focussed on the individual doing different things rather than the organisation.  Levels of kickback increase when you reach this points, however, you get over the humps in time.

Behind the landscape of all of this, you also still have the disconnect between green dollars (procurement) and green ideals (CSR).  If it were a game of Top Trumps, the economic buyer always trumps the sustainability department.  It would be great to see organisations resolving this and having a more holistic view to their overall footprint, some businesses achieve this brilliantly, others not atall.  These are the simple steps that business could take to get on board.

Whatever happens, you have to do something as a business.  Public sector procurement and large companies expect you to be able to demonstrate your credentials when tendering as a supplier, we want to deal with suppliers with the same ideals.  If you don’t get on the (electric) bus it will leave without you!  Notwithstanding the fact that in Manchester that there is a £4bn economy to go at, see that made you sit up!

I could write a lot on this issue, I’m passionate about it.  However, taking my own medicine and wanting to keep my blogposts short(ish) so that they get read, I’m going to now hand back to you to go and do something amazing in your own business.  Start small.  Make it Easy.  Make a difference.

The Carbon Impact of Marketing

Bit of a rant tonight. I’ve received two mail shots in the past weeks from businesses wanting to do business with my business. Both will fail. Why? Because they sent ridiculous pieces of marketing to me which completely rub against my values of ensuring minimal waste. Item 1). was a balloon in a box. A fully blown up balloon, sent in a huge box by a marketing company that clearly thought it was original and quirky (sorry, been done before).
When opened the balloon simply floated out and I then had a very large box to re-cycle. Item 2) was a cheap calculator, in a blister pack sent by a petrol company to motivate us to use their fuel. I don’t think so. I took one look at the item and promptly donated it to my Head of CSR who was equally as flabbergasted as me at the CSR own goal the company in question had kicked (she has since found a new home for it). These are both classic situations – in my view – of organisations wanting to try and stand out (fair enough) but completely missing the point when it comes to deployment/CSR issues.
I can think of far more creative ways to make the point, to grab attention or to make an impact. In these times, where natural resources are becoming scarcer and the whole world is battling with carbon emmissions, surely someone, somewhere, in these organisations should reviewing the deployment of such activity? One of the Megatrends I talk about is REDuce. That is, Green buyers seeing RED at suppliers that don’t take environmental issues seriously. So, if you don’t want an unintended consequence and your marketing to do more harm that good, take a step back and consider the wider picture.

10 Easy Ways to reduce your Carbon Footprint

Here’s a list of 10 low-cost things that you could do immediately to reduce your carbon footprint in a business of any size: -

  1. Switch off your monitors at night (saves around £35 per year, per monitor).
  2. Put timers on your photo-copiers and printers that switches them off when you’re office is closed (a copier left on over-night used as much energy as it needs to copy 2,000 pages).
  3. Put a motion sensor switch on your lights (No activity, no lights = save costs).
  4. Print on both sides of the paper (there is around 17w of embedded carbon in a piece of A4 paper), print on both sides, save energy.
  5. Take the train.
  6. Introduce a Cycle2work Scheme. Employees will save CO2 by cycling not driving.
  7. Upgrade your office technology. Newer IT is more energy efficient and can offer quick ROI through reduced energy consumption. Look for the Energy Star mark.
  8. Re-cycle your paper. Incredibly many business still don’t do this most simple thing.
  9. Switch to renewable energy.
  10. Hold more web meetings. It’s so easy and cheap now. I use Webex. Saves on travel, you can show Powerpoint presentations and share applications in real time.

Climate Change

I sat on a panel at Business North West today in Manchester to represent the view of a local business on the issue of climate change. Joining me on panel were a number of public sector people, directly involved in the area. Here are some of the bullet point factoids that I threw out today: -

  1. The global market for low carbon = £3 trillion.
  2. UK market is around £106.5bn.
  3. 1000 tonnes of CO2 are being released into the atmosphere every second.
  4. It’s taken 250 years to undo the last 650,000 years of civilisation (in terms of carbon emmitted).
  5. Around 488bn tonnes of CO2 have been emmitted since the industrial revolution.
  6. Failure to act could cost around 5% of GDP. Acting could reduce this to 1% of GDP.
  7. Business is expected to contribute around 9% of CO2 reductions under the Governments Low Carbon Transition plan, which you can read here.
  8. Envirowise estimate that UK businesses could benefit by around £6.4bn worth of available savings if they got smarter around carbon.
  9. We have around 86 months before we reach a point of no-return in terms of carbon emmissions before the damage is irrecoverable. Check out the clock here.
  10. The government is driving for cuts of 50% of CO2 by 2020 (compared to 1990 levels).

Apples Latest Results

Recession. Credit crunch. Who cares? Not the folk at Apple HQ. Revenues are up. Profits are up 47%. Unit shipments are up. Apples domination of the communications world continues. Why? Because they make fantastically easy to use products, which look good and are fashionable. They’ve sold 7.4M i-Phones in the last quarter alone, that’s before you look at sales of the i-Pod, royalties from i-Tunes and their computing products. The great lesson to learn here is that they’ve stuck to their principles of design and functionality and consumers continue to dig deep into their pockets for their products. These principles have “recession proofed” their results and shown the way in terms of robust business strategy.
Interestingly however, Apple still haven’t broken the B2B market (aside from the creative sector). The i-Phone still isn’t considered a major competitor to the Blackberry, with the Blackberrys “push” e-mail being the winner in the corporate warriors kitbag. However, they are definitely winning the applications war, with far more development being done for the i-Phone than for any other product. For results like this to continue, they have to break the business sector. I see cloud computing as the route to do this. No doubt some seed has been planted already back at Apple HQ and they will once again rock their competitors to the core with a great re-invention of a product. They have their faults, in particular, their environmental credentials aren’t brilliant, however if you look back in twenty years time and talk about the most influential companies of the 21st century, then Apple will be in the Top 5 of that list.