xrematon

March 19, 2017

Weapons of Math Destruction

Filed under: Business,Coaching,Consumer Trends,Marketing,Sustainability,Uncategorized — by xrematon @ 8:50 pm
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There is much chatter about corporate social responsibility but little deep thinking about more complex moral concepts. This is what struck me as I read a polemical book about the troubling implications of living in a world ‘controlled’ by algorithms – Weapons of Mass Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil.

The author’s Big Message is to highlight how the clever models that sit behind how decisions to evaluate teachers, job candidates, prospective customers for insurance, consumers etc, are not as objectively fair as we might think, often capturing the biases of their creators, as well as more importantly creating negative feedback loops reinforcing social divides. Poor people living in bad neighbourhoods pay more for insurance as they are higher risk; thanks to accurate targeting, they can be more easily identified to be sold payday (or equivalent high cost/poor value) loans.

Whilst this is indeed troubling, my overall response to the book was to feel glad that I don’t live in the US and that, in the UK (I think!), there are more checks and balances in place to stop the level of exploitation seen across the Atlantic occurring.

However, after reading the book, I did start to notice other examples of concerns being raised about the moral implications of business approaches.

First example: an article widely circulated among the senior management at a major international marketing powerhouse. This article raises far more worrying concepts – how search engines are effectively being ‘gamed’ by organisations who wish to propagate ideas that would normally be dismissed out of hand in a liberal democracy. The journalist tried seeing what happens when you start typing in “are muslims…”, and seeing what comes up in Google Instant (though I must confess, I didn’t get anything as bad), she observes, “I feel like I’ve fallen down a wormhole, entered some parallel universe where black is white, and good is bad.”

Second example: an interesting piece in a recent edition of 1843. A writer for the magazine went to California to ‘meet the scientists who make apps addictive’. In a way, this article provides a much-needed human face to the O’Neill book. It seems that the clever people behind all the clever new apps and algorithms are not actually evil. They are described as ‘hipsters from San Francisco – all nice people’.

However, some of them have realised that what they are unleashing on the world may not be so straightforwardly ‘good’ after all. The founding father of ‘behaviour design’, B.J. Fogg, is quoted as saying, “I look at some of my former students and I wonder if they’re really trying to make the world better, or just make money. What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.” Let’s see what some of these students have been up to:

  • One of Fogg’s alumni, Nir Eyal, went on to write a successful book, aimed at tech entrepreneurs, called “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products”.
  • Another, Tristan Harris, resigned after working for Google for a year in order to pursue research into the ethics of the digital economy. “I wanted to know what responsibility comes with the ability to influence the psychology of a billion people? What’s the Hippocratic oath?” Whilst Harris was convinced to stay on temporarily as design ethicist and product philosopher, he soon realised that, although his colleagues were listening politely, they would never take his message seriously without pressure from the outside. He left Google for good to become a writer and advocate, on a mission to wake the world up to how digital technology is diminishing the human capacity for making free choices.

My final example is a film, but it succeeded in make me think the most as it captured my imagination and brought to life the moral dilemmas at play most powerfully. Eye In The Sky explores what happens when a drone is to be used to launch a bomb into a crowded street in Kenya in order to kill a wanted terrorist. Clever algorithms make use of Big Data to calculate what is the likelihood that a small girl selling bread on this street might be killed too by this bomb. For the minsters approving the mission, it is only acceptable for the bomb to be launched if the likelihood is below 50%. Initially calculations suggest the risk is over 50% (that’s what the model says), but in the film we can see how human actors can override and manipulate models. It is clear that ultimately humans need to be ready to make difficult decisions – and live with the consequences.

IMG_20170218_104748

May 25, 2016

The Big Shop

Time for me to be ‘untrendy’. When we hear about how grocery shopping habits are changing, it’s all about ‘a little and often’ and how we are falling out of love with the big weekly shop.

Well, I would like to tell you about a recent visit I made to a new supermarket that is not all about convenience trips, but somewhere very big (80, 000 sq foot). It’s the Sainsbury’s store at Westwood Cross in Thanet, which opened in November 2014. As I have explored in other posts, Thanet is more worthy of exploration and evaluation than you might at first think on encountering a part of the country which is flat till it reaches the muddy grey sea and populated by people who are older and/or less affluent than their other Kentish peers.

Sainsbury land

I have been meaning to check out this Sainsbury’s for some time now as its arrival was heralded with much fanfare (it would create jobs, require changing the local road system, be the epitome of the latest and best in sustainable design etc). I found this nice leaflet online which helps to give a sense of how the store was a big deal. Note in particular the community initiatives – which I assume were meant to help make the new supermarket be part of the local scene, rather than to create a scene. But I must confess I am little underwhelmed by the employment of just one local construction management trainee and the donation of soil to a local campsite to help construct a new golf course!

Going inside the store itself was sadly also rather underwhelming. Walking through the threshold with a sense of great anticipation, past the plug-ins for electric vehicles (setting false expectations for something quite different), it was still a Sainsbury’s.

Sainsbury car park

This meant nice enough clothes and household goods, and nice food, but failing to give the impression of an emporium teeming with a rich abundance of exciting items. The aisles were very wide – not doubt good for avoiding trolley crashes – but it compounded the sense of emptiness you get from looking at shelves which could be fuller.

Sainsbury inside

However, it was not a fruitless journey as I did manage to find an item I had never come across before and wasn’t even looking for: giant couscous. Have you ever tried it? NB not worth the trip to Westcross!

September 17, 2015

Sustainability that backfires

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Sustainability — by xrematon @ 8:46 pm
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My journey as an aspiring sustainability sycophant continues. I have touched upon the challenges this throws up on several occasions already.

It’s time for an update. Here are four misadventures I have experienced over the past year or so. Please excuse the length of this post – I need to go into the detail to explain the full implications.

I am trying valiantly (despite the loud lack of enthusiasm on the part of my husband) to reduce our meat consumption. However, with two children, I also don’t want to scrimp too far on protein valuable for growing bodies. This led me to introduce nuts as a snack. Nuts are great – they tick lots of boxes: very convenient (can be stored at room temperature, low volume-high energy density, easy to divide up into small portions and avoid waste) and very nutritious (lots of good fat and, my favourite, lots of protein). Everyone seemed happy with this arrangement for several weeks till my son suddenly developed unprecedented patches of eczema on the backs of his arms and legs. We visited the doctor whose verdict was that the nuts were probably to blame and thus consumption should be reduced. We have reached an unhappy compromise with oatcakes, yogurt and cheese as replacements.

In a household with children who are keen on dive-catching balls and very messy eaters means that clothes are dirtied daily with many stains. However, again, I have valiantly tried to bring in some energy efficiency principles into the household laundry habits. One attempt saw the use of a cold wash with a shorter cycle which had the benefit of both using the least amount of water and electricity out of the cycles on offer. However, as you might have expected, the stains didn’t come out and I was faced either with the option of washing the clothes again at a higher temperature or simply replacing the items as the stains were now indelibly fixed into the fabric. My compromise tactic has been to use a slightly higher temperature (40 degrees) and wait till there is enough washing to ensure the machine drum is completely full. However, again, the situation is less than ideal. Over time with these relatively warm washes, the washing machine may suffer, in particular if it is not sufficiently ventilated between washes. Biofilm, a kind of black scum, can accumulate in the machine and this risks damaging clothes and reducing the performance of the machine. The way to address this issue is simple: by putting the washing machine on a very high temperature (and therefore high energy consuming) cycle every six weeks. However, this may appear counter-productive given that the initial goal was to lower wash temperatures to reduce energy consumption.

Similar issues arise with my attempts to reduce energy consumption from dishwasher use. I opted for a rapid cycle, again to lower water and electricity use, but it has meant there has been a built of really unpleasant peach-grey slime inside the machine. The solution, as with the washing machine, is to try to blast it away with a regular hot cycle and the addition of some no-doubt noxious chemicals.

My final example is the one that has caused the most trauma. In the master bedroom, there is an unheated en-suite bathroom with no much ventilation beyond a small extractor fan (there are no external windows or anything useful like that). In summer, as there is no heating on, we can ensure additional ventilation by leaving the bathroom door open and the bedroom windows open to let the moisture escape. However, it’s more problematic in winter. We don’t want to lose heat by opening windows but where will the moisture from the bathroom go? I have tried using a dehumidifier but this meant increased electricity consumption and didn’t seem to do much (a mouldy patch appeared in a corner of the ceiling from the condensation). So we decided to simply keep the bathroom door shut and hope the extractor fan could suffice. However, it appears that the condensation was simply building up in the bathroom. The exposed shower unit corroded and had to be replaced at not insignificant expense, whilst drops of water would drip down the toilet cistern. This caused the washers attaching the cistern to the seat to rust and then leak. This leak became major, making a large wet patch on the ceiling of the living room below. And in order to work out where this leak was coming from, large holes were cut in the ceiling, which need to be filled and plastered over.

The hole

Is it worth it? To be honest, I’m not sure.

 

June 2, 2015

Japan: the good, the bad and the rather odd

So what came to mind when you read the word ‘Japan’? Perhaps nuclear accidents? Or sushi? Economic has-been?

Japan is worthy of more considered reflection. I have recently had the opportunity myself to go beyond uninformed preconceptions to a more positive perspective. I would like to put Japan forward as an overlooked paradigm – as an example of how things could be. I have done this before with another initially less then prepossessing area: Thanet.

I will begin by acknowledging the peculiarities and deficiencies of Japan (please note this is not meant to be an exhaustive survey). It is facing significant population decline – which in itself is interesting given that most of the discourse around population tends to focus on how there are going to be more of us on the planet. Some forecasts put the extent of this decline at really quite dramatic levels: a population which is two thirds of its current size in 2060.

This leads into another facet of the country. Many other nations, when faced with the fact that there won’t be enough young people to work and support the old (there are limits to what robots can do), would boost the population with immigrants. However, this is not an idea which goes down well in Japan, where it is a point of pride that it remains a very homogenous people. This isn’t just a myth the country tells about itself – the figures back it up: under 2% of the population are foreign, compared to over 14% in the US.

Another approach to stemming the population decline would be to encourage women to have more children, but this rubs up against other distinctive features of Japanese society. The idea of solo living – not even settling down, let alone delivering sprogs – is gaining popularity and social acceptance. In a distinctly conservative and buttoned down country, it’s one way for the younger generations to rebel and make it clear they want to do things their way. Another form of rebellion is dressing up. Have you heard of cosplay? It’s short for ‘costume play’ and what young Japanese do at the weekends.

Cosplay

Time to think again about Japan. Let’s start with a quote from an article comparing the experiences of a traveller arriving in the US versus Japan.

“Arriving in the US can feel like rolling back a decade or more, returning to a time when information was scarce, infrastructure creaky, and basic services like ground transportation chaotic and unreliable. Landing in Tokyo, though, is a breeze. All the travelators and escalators glide silently; the wall-mounted clocks, digital and analogue, tell the right time. When I reach the baggage carousel, my suitcase is already circling. Trains and buses depart punctually. I don’t have to pre-book because they’re scheduled merely minutes apart. I don’t have to think of anything beyond the last book I was reading upon touchdown, fishing out my passport at immigration, and what I might order for dinner that evening once I reach my apartment. Everything seems to be taken care of, and nothing is broken.”

Now I will bring in words from James Hollow, another ex-WPP Fellow, who has been based in Tokyo for well over a decade, which challenge the idea that Japan is a ‘train-wreck’ economy as so often (and lazily) portrayed in Western media.

  • GDP has been stable at more or less the same level it reached in the early 90s after the post war “economic miracle” and it is still the world’s third largest economy.
  • Life expectancy has risen to lead the world (in contrast to the opposite trend in life expectancy in the US and elsewhere) largely through improvements in healthcare provision.
  • Japan regularly tops academic quality-of-life studies that factor in prosperity, access to high quality services including but not only healthcare, diet etc.
  • Japan has retained the relatively small wealth gap so important to a healthy, cohesive and robust society.

Let’s go back to the idea of Japan as a paradigm. One of the more interesting ideas in the aftermath of the global financial crisis (that wasn’t simply about bashing bankers), was the idea that we should move away from an obsession with continuous economic growth and instead aim for prosperity without growth and living within our limits. Well, with its GDP averaging barely more than a couple percentage growth per annum during the past decade or so, as well its relatively small wealth gap (another vexed feature often associated with fast growing societies), I think Japan actually make a pretty good poster child for this idea. Let’s just leave out the manga-inspired outfits!

(The image comes from Flickr / Emil Olsen and is used with thanks.)

 

November 15, 2014

Now you see it and then perhaps you won’t

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Sustainability — by xrematon @ 8:47 pm
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Three things
What connects the three everyday items in the above image?

It’s very easy – there’s no trick answer. They are all single-serve packages – offering us convenience and ease of use. Pop a tea bag into the mug and you’re done; drop the tablet into the compartment in the dishwasher and that’s clean cutlery taken care of; and slip the capsule in the appropriate place in the machine and your special brew is on the way.

Now time for another question: which out of these three is the odd one out?

Well, perhaps you were thinking of something different, but what I would like to point out is the fact that two of these can be disposed of entirely, whilst one of them can be recycled but only with the investment of significant effort (it could involve making a trek to Selfridges). Got it?

The below quote gives it away:

Picture this. It’s the year 3013. Baffled cyborg archaeologists unearth mounds of colourful plastic and aluminium pods with strange, Italianate names. What do these archaeologists conclude about life in the early 21st century? That we were a sophisticated society who sipped espressos under the direction of our great leader, George Clooney, or that we created mountains of waste so we could drink average coffee from overpriced machines?

Now that dear old teabag would have composted away, whilst the coating on the dishwasher table would have melted during use and the contents got washed away during the cycle. The pod remains.

March 13, 2014

The World Until Yesterday

Filed under: Demographics,Sustainability — by xrematon @ 9:31 pm
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TWUY

That’s the title of the book I recently finished reading. You may recognise it – it’s the latest offering from Jared Diamond. His basic premise is that traditional societies, still living today as our ancestors did many thousands of years ago, have much to teach us in how to deal with essential human problems, such as how to deal with conflict resolution and look after children and the elderly.

As expected, it was a very insightful and stimulating read. However, there are three areas where it seemed to me as though the author was missing a trick.

The first is the concern about the treatment of the elderly in our modern societies. I would not wish to deny that this is indeed a very valid issue, but it needs to be tempered with a recognition that the situation for younger generations now is also something we need to worry about as a society. I am thinking about the high levels of youth unemployment found across many European countries, which has led some to talk of a lost generation . It’s a very different kind problem and I doubt whether there is template for a solution to be found amongst the Tsembaga Maring society of New Society or their equivalents.

The second point is that Diamond could have made more of another important way in which traditional societies appear to be healthier than modern ones – namely, in the area of mental health. This isn’t mentioned beyond a discussion of the benefits of multilingualism in possibly helping to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. Perhaps it could be argued that there is an unspoken assumption that those living in traditional societies are emotionally secure and self-reliant. However, given that mental illness is getting more recognition today , I would be interested to get Diamond’s thoughts on why depression and anxiety don’t figure in the tribal societies he surveys.

Finally, I want to bring up food. Diamond does have a chapter on ‘Salt, Sugar, Fat and Sloth’, but this talks about the ill effects of modern diets. What would be interesting to pick up on is how traditional diets have something good to offer as well as the absence of negatives. Who hasn’t heard of the Paleo diet or the 5:2 eating routine? Regardless of whether all the hype around these new diet fads is actually valid, it would be good to add these ideas to the list of pluses for traditional societies. And as well as the eating style, what foods are actually consumed is noteworthy. There is growing interest in learning from indigenous diets : they can contain nutritionally important foods (quinoa, anyone?), as well show us how to eat well with greater sensitivity to the long term sustainability of the local ecosystem. This is very different to modern industrial farming.

Putting the above points aside, I have one final comment to make: the book is fascinating, it has made me question many aspects of modern life, but, even so, in no way would I be ready to step into a time machine to swap what I have now for something more traditional. Anyway, I should be going forwards – I do try to claim expertise in futures after all!

November 12, 2013

Compare and contrast the Slow Food and Transition movements

Filed under: Business,Consumer Trends,Sustainability — by xrematon @ 1:55 pm
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Parmesan

Over the past year. I have been doing a lot of research and thinking about sustainability in food behaviours. This is an area that has long fascinated me. What was particularly interesting about my exploration into the space this time round was looking beyond the small-scale, tactical changes that people might make to instead thinking about bigger shifts in behaviours and lifestyles. This led me to spend some time reviewing two movements: Slow Food and the Transition Network. What I would like to share here are a couple of thoughts in how these movements have similarities and differences.

The Transition Network is based on the principle that we need to move beyond our reliance on oil. It aims ‘to inspire, encourage, connect, support and train communities as they self-organise around the transition model, creating initiatives that rebuild resilience and reduce CO2 emissions.’ It is a self-consciously apolitical organisation, which some have argued forces it to remain always a low level player in changing the state of play. It is insufficiently radical and too polite, as observed by Ted Trainer of Feasta.

‘…the “leaders” of the movement are very anxious to avoid imposing their views. They seem to see their role as facilitating the movement, spreading information, enabling people to communicate and share, publicising and encouraging the spread of the movement. The style and tone of the documents is admirably polite and quite unlikely to offend anyone’s sensibilities or ideology.’

In another piece, Alex Steffen of the World Changing website, describes a similar frustration: those who are part of the Transition Network content themselves with almost parochial occupations.

‘The Transition movement seems saturated with what Michael Lerner called “surplus powerlessness” disguised as practicality. All over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse… and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap.’

The Slow Food Movement, on the other hand, appears to have increasingly loft ambitions. It was initially founded ‘to counter the rise of fast food and fast life, the disappearance of local food traditions and people’s dwindling interest in the food.’ However, now, through their Terra Madre project, the movement is concerning itself with ‘the injustices of a global food system that depletes the planet’s resources and compromises the future for the generations to come.’

As they go on to state in a policy document, the Slow Food concept can become a truly comprehensive ideal. ‘In the course of time, what first appeared simply as a clever insight—the central role of food as a point of departure for a new form of politics,  for a new economy and for new social relations—has become a shared certainty.’

Some UK members have become frustrated with the stretch of taking Slow Food projects to benefit those in poorer countries – a challenge for the organisation’s funding model. This has inspired interesting commentary, which suggests, that unlike the inoffensive Transition Network, the Slow Food Movement is more likely to be charged with arrogance and excessive idealism.

‘…there are ‘convivia’, ‘presidia’, ‘arks’ and ‘terra madre’ – an apparent lexical cross between Stalinism and religion, though in fact, I think it reflects the Italian anarcho-syndicalist origins of the movement.’

However, there are ways in which these two movements are comparable. They are both subject to the criticism of being too niche – limited in their ability to become mainstream.

For the Transition Network, this is possibly due to this focus on resilience, which often also leads to a preference for the local and low tech, which has restricted the model to those who can afford to change their lifestyles in this way. One expression of this sentiment can be found on the blog of Simon Cooke, a Conservative Councillor in Yorkshire (the Transition Network’s heartland beats in south west England).

 ‘this resilience is all about excluding the regional, national and international – thus the lower prices and distribution resilience of the large supermarket is denied in favour of local growing initiatives, jolly little town currencies and campaigns to defend independent shops. All of which, of course, make it more difficult and more expensive for the less well off.’

As for the Slow Food Movement, it is only fair to first note that it is actually a household name in the place of its birth. In Italy, it has published guides to food and wine and enabled ‘good food’ to be enshrined in regional health department guides and Ministry of Health programmes. However, in the UK, some have argued  that Slow Food has had its day now that ‘eating local’, supporting small suppliers, buying quality, fresh ingredients from markets and buying fair trade foods have become more popular.

Another reason why Slow Food’s appeal might be limited in the UK is more subtle. Slow Food requires followers to invest significant amounts of time and effort in food purchasing and preparation (because you don’t go to the supermarket but support specialist suppliers, prepare things in the traditional manner etc). This might work in a country where female participation in the workforce is low, which is another issue in itself, but where a larger proportion of women work – as is the case in the UK – it is unrealistic and impractical.

However, I would like to finish on a less critical note. Another similarity between the two movements is their positive push. The Transition Network does not focus on doom-mongering but encourages communities to take action together; the Slow Food Movement emphasises the pleasure of food above the idea of doing good through making the right food choices.

Time to go off and make that sandwich from local cheese – admittedly bought from Waitrose!

June 12, 2013

Buying blind

Filed under: Consumer Trends,Marketing,Sustainability — by xrematon @ 9:05 am
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I am close to coming to the end of my Enormous Kitchen Project (sadly, the kitchen is not enormous – I use this adjective to capture the fact that getting the kitchen to be as desired has impacted every room on the lower floor as well redoing a patio). As a result, I had a brush with the building trade, and it made realise how useful big established brands are for when you wish to scrutinise purchase decisions. I happen to be rather sensitised to the concept of corporate responsibility as I have spent the past couple of months reading annual reports across a variety of different sectors – it means I know that a good company should be able to trace its supply chain and support initiatives such as EITI, RSPO, FSC , and others as appropriate.

The chaos of construction

Imagine my consternation, therefore, when I found myself having to buy stuff which didn’t have a brand and offered little product information to reassure my guilt at creating so much waste (several skips loads), and using up such precious natural resources. The paving slabs used to create the patio are natural sandstone from India, but as they were bought from a builders’ merchant, there was no nice glossy packaging – just pallets wrapped in tough plastic. How can be I sure that villages and forests weren’t ripped down to get that stone? And likewise for the granite – from Kashmir – which doesn’t sound promising for a start. The only time I saw some ‘credentials’ was on the plywood used to lay a new floor – this was reassuringly marked with ‘FSC’ initials.

What I did try to do was ask questions of the people I was buying from to raise consciousness of these issues – perhaps they might realise that their customers want to know about these things. However, if I did get answers, I can’t say that I was always reassured by them. One builder told me the contents of the skip would be sorted to see what could be recycled. When I mentioned this to another builder, they left me feeling less than convinced. This was the trouble – I had to take people at their word with little means to check up on them.

Still, I am at the decorating stage and at least I have been able to choose the paint – B&Q own label will do the job. It ticks the ‘eco’ box and ‘good value’ box – at the end of an Enormous Kitchen project, luxury is a thing of the past.

Fingers crossed this kitchen here’s for good!

April 10, 2013

Product transparency – showing up in the wrong places

Showing you have made an effort to disclose where you source or manufacture is in vogue in the moment. Over the past couple of months, I have collected a number of examples from across a diverse range of sectors.

By typing in a code stamped on the tin of their product, John West claim you are able to ‘trace your can right back to the stretch of water your fish was caught in and even to name the boat that caught it too.’ Nice idea, but sadly it didn’t work for my tin of tuna chunks, though by reading the text on the top, I was able to find out that the contents were from the Western Pacific and a product of Thailand. That’s not quite in the same league as getting the name of a boat. Expectations set too high.

Marks and Spencer let you know if their products were made in an eco-factory. This creates a rather incongruous addition to the standard information you get when checking out a possible purchase. Take a pair of chinos for example: ‘A stylish smart casual look, these straight leg chinos are made from soft cotton and designed for a comfortable and relaxed fit. They are made in an eco-factory, designed to use less energy and create less waste.’ I am not sure what the customer is supposed to make of this fact – feel less guilty as they hop into their SUV wearing these chinos?

Telling you where things come from has even spread to pet food. On a pack of bag of hay with dandelion and marigolds (for our rabbits), I saw ‘Field name: Fire Field’ printed on the side. Now, I would like to think that my rabbits are munching on herbage from Fire Field, but given that was printed on all the other packs, I am not so sure it makes sense unless it was an enormous field. I’ll keep checking.

Rabbit food field

My final, and perhaps most radical example, is from the world of fashion. Honest By is a Belgium fashion label which gives you extensive information about their clothing range: material details (what exactly the fabric, buttons etc are made from and the suppliers), manufacturing details (the name and address of the factories used), price calculation (how much the fabric, zip etc cost, as well as the mark-up for development, transport, branding etc), and the carbon footprint. I looked at a cotton jersey bomber cardigan and found that the material cost was just over €40 out of a total cost of approx. €800. Very revealing indeed.

Now all this is well and good but recent stories in the media show how far we have to go in getting information on sourcing where it really counts. The horse meat scandal demonstrates that we still have huge blind spots in terms of getting to grips with knowing about what we are purchasing and consuming. The above examples become silly distractions in the light of such fundamental gaps in knowledge.

September 21, 2012

Big means bad or big impact?

This post is a follow-up to my previous piece comparing innocent drinks and method. As part of my research on corporate behaviour, I found – to put it crudely – that it is no longer clear that small companies such as innocent can be thought of as ‘the goodies’ and big companies as ‘the badies’.

As highlighted in the earlier post, innocent set out to do things differently, and this included their approach to giving back. A couple of years after the business got going, innocent decided to give 46% of all profits to charity and nearly bankrupted the business. After that, they decided to set up a proper, organised charity – the innocent foundation. So far so good.

Things are a little more messy in terms of their record on sustainability. To be fair, a lot of this is due to the nature of the product – their smoothies are fresh which means they need to be kept chilled, adding to their carbon footprint, and are more perishable (and thus risk creating more waste) than their less tasty pasteurised peers. In addition, innocent prioritises the quality of the drink and the new tastes they offer, which has important implications for their sourcing policy as they themselves recognise:

Purchasing flexibility is important, we need to make sure we can buy the variety and quality and quantity of fruit that we need, and this is not always possible if we align ourselves to just one certification programme.

If we turn now to a very different company, Coca Cola, and look at what is happening there, it is clear that being big can mean useful scale. This is not to claim that Coca Cola is a beacon of virtue – it has had issues with how it treats workers in Colombia and how it uses water in India – but it is worth looking at the other ways in which how it operates can impact.

A good example is the rather ambitious five by twenty project, whose goal is to ‘empower the economic enablement of 5 million women entrepreneurs across our value chain by 2020.’ It’s about investing in women to get their business going – they are a critical part of Coca Cola’s micro-distribution strategy. They are getting training, support with important capital equipment such as solar panels, and mentoring.

In contrast to innocent, which is currently obliged to work with different suppliers, Coca Cola can also invest in supporting the farmers whose fruit they will use in their juices. This is what is happening in several places – for example in Haiti with Project Hope, and Uganda and Kenya with Project Nurture – projects which will involve many thousands of farmers. Again, it’s important to be clear these projects are not acts of charity – they make business sense for Coca Cola, as well as for the farmers involved. The aim is to improve the productivity of these farms through training, education and better access to financial support.

My final point is obvious – that Coca Cola and innocent are not at loggerheads – but all part of the same family. In April 2010, Coca Cola bought a share in innocent which has now increased to 58%, and without this investment, the company would have probably gone under. As Richard Reed, one the founders explains:

We say at the moment that we aren’t a business, we are a fruit distribution charity. It costs us more to run than we get from doing it. We lost money in 2008; we lost money in 2009; we lost money in 2010 and we are going to lose money again in 2011. Fact.’

Let’s see what happens next….

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