Thursday, April 3, 2008

Do alcopops and ethics mix?

So who is doing the right thing here? It's hard to tell. Just days after the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his health minister Nicola announce a crackdown on binge drinking two of the largest booze companies, Lion Nathan and Fosters say they are getting out of the supercharged alcopops market. Their announcement caught some of the other larger players on the hop. Diageo said it was not exiting the high alcohol energy added market but did say that it would ensure its drinks would be no more than two standard drinks per serve. Jim Beam - the largest player in the ready to drinks spirits market - ducked out of it by saying that it believed that the high price charged for the high alcoholic ready to drink spirits (RTDs) would put off binge drinkers. It said it did not see a reason to move to a two standard drinks per serve threshold because some bottles of beer had just as high an alcoholic content, which is true. Then in a rather desperate bid of the moral high ground, Diageo said that its Smirnoff Ice Black with guarana was a cut above all those other energy drinks like Volt or Elevate. Diageo's chief mouthpiece in Australia said people bought Smirnoff Ice Black with Guarana for its "taste profile" not because its stimulating properties allows you to stay up all night drinking and partying .Who are they kidding? I think we should the get the competition watchdog on to them for false and misleading conduct. Just about everyone out there is buying that brand for the kick not the taste so it is dingenuous of Diageo to suggest otherwise. Also both Fosters and Lion were losing market share on their high energy high alcoholic RTDs so it wasn't a huge sacrifice for them to give it up. At least there was one alcopops manufacturer that was just as unapolegetic was it has always been - Independent Distillers, the makers of the brilliantly-named Funky Monkey and Pulse. We can only assume that they don't give a stuff what anyone thinks as they won't pick up the phone to answer any questions.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

In search of a sustainable barbie

My wife recently went into Barbeques Galore looking for what she says is a "sustainable barbeque". Don't laugh. Ten minutes later she leaves almost in tears after the manager berates her for accusing his company of using slave labour. Maybe it was the way in which she brought up the thorny issue of the fact that just about all of its BBQs are made in China. Who knows in what conditions they are made, the manager certainly didn't. Neither was he able to say where the wood came from, or whether any recycled materials had been used in the manufacture. In frustration she asked about the labour record of the companies that make the BBQs for Barbeques Galore, and that's when things got a little bit heated, so to speak. He turned to her and said: "What are you saying? 'That we support slave labour. Is that what you're driving at?'" She was made to feel she was in the wrong to put the questions to the company and she left upset at the experience. I am happy to report that she is over it but our quest for a sustainable barbie continues. We are not alone it seems. A friend of mine who lives on the North Coast of NSW also put the same questions to his local hardware store. He was interested in a brand-spanking new BBQ with beautiful hardwood trolley and surround. He asks the bloke if he was able to supply any accreditation for the wood used in the BBQ set. The bloke looked perplexed and said that the wood came from Asia. My friend asked again and the bloke said he would go away and ask. Two minutes later he's back. "Mate, we don't have any accreditation but don't worry it's all good. It won't fall apart." Something tells me we are going to have wait a while for a sustainable barbie.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The big spin in our laundry detergents

You know how far advanced the green consumer revolution is when a company like Unilever starts bringing out a range of green washing powder. But let's not get too taken away. It is in fact the packaging that has been reduced while the liquid within the bottle has shrunk remains largely the same. This allows Unilever to claim that it is doing the right thing because it is not claiming to be carbon neutral, green or any other such flimsy tag that marketers like to tack onto the end of the product to make themselves look good. True, the competition watchdog is not going to excited about this one but maybe it should. After all who among us reads all the fine print among the advertisements to see that it is actually about the packaging only, when Unilever's powders, which make up the bulk of its business, have been left unchanged, full of petrochemicals, optical brighteners and phosphates. If this isn't greenwash then I don't know what is? 

Friday, February 29, 2008

Saying is not the same as doing

Saying you are going to do something, anything to make the world a better place is not the same as actually doing it. I hate to point out the obvious and for all of you who believe we are doing something what you are about to read will depress. If your glass was half full then it has suddenly emptied. Galaxy Research has found nine out of ten of us feel that our environmental impact is bigger than it should be with more than a quarter of households admitting they would be embarrassed of their result. Quite who they would share that information with, and how they would quantify it, is beyond me, but there you go.

Six out of ten people said they could use less petrol, electricity, gas or water and buying products that have been made abroad and shipped Down Under, rather than say locally-made goods that could be said to have travelled a shorter distance and so racked up fewer air miles and emitted fewer greenhouse gases. More than half said that they could recycle more or buy products with less packaging.

So far so good. We have looked in the mirror, not liked what we have seen and decided that we should change for the better.

But then when we are asked to actually asked to change, and pay for it, a very different picture emerges. Three quarters of us will always consider performance over environmental credentials; in other words it doesn't matter if that product promises to save the earth, if it doesn't clean the sink like my other one, it ain't going to get a look in. Women are worse than men on this score.
But price is the decider. We just can't resist products that are screaming out to be bought because the price is low, low, low and is so JUST FOR TODAY!!!! A whopping 83% put price first when considering purchasing a product, much further ahead than other considerations such as whether the packaging is recyclable (54%), the amount of packaging itself (65%) or the environmental impacts of the product's formulation (53%). We are habitual animals, after years of shopping based on price we are going to have to re-learn the true value of things.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Heard the one about how Coke loves to hug trees?

So the message on the bottle has been labeled greenwash. Coca-Cola Amatil and its partner Landcare now finds themselves in the spotlight over whether their relationship is an appropriate one. CCA makes millions of bottles of water, most of which end up in landfill. It also drains large amounts of water from underground reserves to put in its Mount Franklin brand. Furthermore it has been at the forefront of the battle to stop a national scheme to reward people who return their plastic and glass bottles, such as the one in existence in South Australia where recycling rates put the rest of Australia in the shade. Case closed; CCA is guilty of greenwash.

Yet there is something within me that feels if every time we shoot down a company for 'trying to do the right thing' then they will rightly feel that why should they bother. CCA would like us to think that because they are putting money into a scheme that will see 250,000 trees planted to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from the manufacture and distribution of 8 million water bottles, they are truly sincere. As its frustrated spokeswoman Sally Loane told me: "What would you rather us do - nothing?"

She has a point. Is CCA's Landcare scheme really going to change the world? No. Is it a start? Perhaps?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Food miles or fair miles - who can tell

Just when you thought making the right choice was being made easy for you, along comes one of those reports that throw everything into a spin.

Carbon emissions from shipping freight has been found to be twice as bad as we thought and growing at an alarming rate. We had been led to believe that buying food that has been air freighted was an ethical no no. We weighed up the cost of supporting say Kenyan farmers who relied upon us paying top dollar for air-freighted snow peas against the damage to the environment from transport aviation. The Kenyans lost out. We said no. Then a Kiwi study found distance was not necessarily the problem. Now we are told it is just as bad to buy food shipped here. It's like those conflicting reports about cancer and wine. One week we are told it helps combat it, only to be told a week later that some scientist somewhere says it breeds it.

It is hard to know who to trust and where to go. Not that we have that much guidance from the food industry, although recently Woolies and the peak body for the grocers announced they are undertaking a study measuring the climate change impact of food, beverage and grocery products. Maybe then we can expect to be given proper guidance over what is the most ethical choice.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The league table of the good and the bad

Wouldn't you like to know if the company that you are keeping is ethical? That the business that makes the brands you buy is behaving in a fair and honest way, not just here in Australia but in other countries it operates? Most of us would say yes. Why wouldn't you?

Yet still we don't have a proper index, league table if you will, of ethical companies.

It's a shame. The Ethical Reputation Index (ERI) has just come out in the United Kingdom. Respondents are presented with a randomised list of these companies, and asked to rate their perceptions of each company’s business ethics. Business ethics are defined as the way the company treat its suppliers, staff, customers and the environment. Respondent ratings are used to derive a rating for the ERI.

The Co-operative Supermarket chain continues to be the most ethical supermarket, as does supermarket chain Waitrose. All the other supermarkets in the ERI record a decrease in rating since the last survey. That's in spite of all the talk by Tesco - the giant that takes one in every eight quid spent in the UK on the high street - about giving all of its products a carbon rating. Marks & Spencer, which a few years ago decided to shift its focus towards being more ethical, has been rewarded with a sharp increase, shooting up to number two. Boots, the BBC, Apple and Sony all registered the biggest improvement since the last survey.

Unsurprisingly finance and fuel are bringing up the rear. But what is interesting is that the company that conducts the survey, the Fraser Consultancy, reports the increasing amount of chatter about ethics among Britons.

"The increased coverage of environmental and social issues over the past year has fuelled more conversations about business ethics. Some 60% of people now claim they are likely/very likely to discuss corporate ethics," it reports.

I know that these conversations are taking place in Australia. What I would love to know is if anyone in Corporate Australia is really listening.