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.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Hummer v Prius

If you missed the stampede that the car manufacturers do their best to generate with their breathless 'we'll wait for no one' end of year run out deals, then fear not there are always a few bargains out there.

But say you have a little bit to spend and you fancy a new car, a real head turner. No no not a Maserati. I am talking about a car that says something about who you are. That's right the Hummer - that colossus of the four-wheel drives - that says, no screams: "I am confident about who I am. If you don't like it. Get out of the way or you are roadkill".

But, if a recent scientific report is to be believed, you no longer have to feel so defensive about buying what many believe has to be the very paragon of excess - a gas guzzling monster.
According to a lifecycle analysis study the Hummer is more environmentally friendly than the Toyota Prius, the current darling of the nascent hybrid car industry.

The organisation that conducted the research - a marketing firm - said that the amouunt of combined energy - that's the energy taken to extract the materials needed to make the car, the manufacturing and its disposal at the end of its life - needed to make a Prius was far greater than that of the Hummer.

And that the nickel needed for the batteries - the Prius bascially has two engines, one of which runs on batteries - is taken from a mine in Canada that is responsible for widescale environmental damage. The study went onto argue that because the Hummer is made from steel it is more easily able to be recycled than the Prius, which is more costly to produce and takes in many more different materials. To be fair the Prius hasn't been on the market long enough to be heading for the scrap heap quite yet. And the organisation behind this study was a marketing research firm (clearly desperate for a bit of PR) and not a scientific journal. Toyota has robustly defended its Prius and scientific bodies have backed it up. But it makes you sit up and think that making an ethical choice isn't an easy one. The most ethical choice of all would be to buy a second hand car but then we wouldn't be doing our job in helping the automobile industry here in Australia in its efforts to break the one million sales barrier last year.

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Are we all talk and no action?

It seems that as much as we like to all say that we are doing our bit when it comes to combating climate change, we are only prepared to go so far. Once the lightbulbs have been changed we are free to go on our merry way and consume to our heart's content safe in the knowledge that we are doing our best to save the planet.

If that sounds a bit harsh then have a listen to social analyst, David Chalke, who I interviewed recently for a feature on the 'new' consumer outlook. Rather worryingly he told me that concern around the environment - such as key electoral issue - has now tumbled down our list of priorities. His latest data is showing that some, though hopefully not all of us, believe that everything is going to be okay because Kevin went to Bali. "Kevin's gone to Bali to fix it so I can now go back to worrying about other things like my weight," was how he summarised the feelings of some of the respondents to his AustralianSCAN survey. Is he alone or have we decided that we are 'over' the environment?