Time For A Bit of Carrot?

November 1991. I’m outside a B&Q DIY store in North London distributing leaflets to customers. With dramatic pictures of destroyed rainforests, our advice was for people not to buy tropical wood from the company.
The idea was to use consumer power to convince B&Q to be more careful about where it bought its forest products. Our reasoning was that if we got them to specify more sustainable sources for the wood they sold, then a contribution could be made towards saving the tropical rainforests.
Earlier that week I had been with Friends of the Earth colleagues when we inflated a giant chainsaw-shaped balloon attached to a transit van in the car park of a Wickes store in Islington. We drove this unusual contraption around the huge retail shed, at one point putting the 20-feet-long rubber blade through the front door. The intention of this elaborate stunt was to get some TV coverage for our new ‘Destroy it Yourself’ campaign. It worked.
While there is a proud track record in wielding the stick, there are fewer examples of effectively dangling the carrot.
Awareness spread as to the perils of buying rainforest wood in DIY stores. The media called the companies to ask what their policy was. The fact that they didn’t have one only added to the pressure. Questions were asked in Parliament. The reputational damage being done was considerable, and the people running the DIY chains wanted a solution.
For three decades, environmental campaigners have successfully used tactics like these to target company after company, chivvying them along with pressure in search of action to do better for the planet. Campaigns raising the profile of environmental questions within different companies have over time been quite successful, with businesses in a wide range of sectors responding with new policies, targets, strategies and products.
Marks & Spencer launched its impressive Plan A, which sets out dozens of targets relating to a range of environmental challenges. Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan has been driven by the company’s global chief executive, and has set a new standard for consumer goods companies. Skanska is leading the construction industry with its ambition to do deep green business, again setting new standards. The facilities management company Interserve has adopted an industry-leading plan called SustainAbilities. Asia Pulp and Paper is implementing a Forest Conservation Policy to end the loss of natural forest linked to its business.
These and other plans have emerged from a number of strategic priorities. One is to protect a company’s reputation. Another is based on the realisation that nature is threatened and that this poses a strategic business risk. Others have seen new laws in the offing and decided that there are advantages to adopting new practices before they come into force. Some see value for recruiting new talent or retaining or winning customers.
So it is that the world of corporate environmentalism has been transformed. No longer fluffy PR, sustainability targets and strategies are now mainstream, real and often led from the top of very large international companies.
These days I work more on the inside with companies, and thereby see more of the dynamics in play when a strategy to achieve environmental goals is being considered. Stick is still effective, but in responding to it cost is a big issue. If the change in strategy or product design needed to deliver better environmental outcomes costs tens of millions of pounds, or more, then there will obviously be reluctance, scepticism and push back.
Investors want to know if the outlay will be recouped. Management must be convinced that the disruption is worth the sometimes complex changes needed. Everyone wants to know why they’re making a big effort when many of their competitors aren’t. When we raise our standards, they ask, will our competitors with lower ones do better, because we are taking on costs that they are not?
Even when those with good intentions are making the decisions, when the financial equation looks damaging the positive change probably won’t happen.
All of this is quite predictable. As far as campaigning is concerned, however, this basic problem is often not reflected in the strategies of those who wish to see change going further and faster. So what to do about this commercial reality? The answer lies in part in seeing that, while there is a proud track record in wielding the stick, there are fewer examples of effectively dangling the carrot.
What could this mean in practice though? For a start it could lead to publicity that highlights the leaders, as well as the laggards. It could also mean more explicit advice on where to shop. If any one of, or more powerfully a coalition of, for example, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Oxfam and Amnesty, advised me on where to buy my groceries, electricity, clothes and consumer goods, I’d probably follow them. So would millions of others.
There are huge problems for campaigning organisations in taking this kind of approach, but I fear there are even bigger ones in not doing it. Companies who have stepped up but who remain unrecognised – or, worse still, come under attack – are vulnerable to internal pressure to go backwards.And if the companies who try to lead fail then that is just more evidence to the sceptics that sustainability does not work in the real world.
This leads me to conclude that, where good things are being done, attention needs to be drawn to them. Otherwise the reward for doing the right things will remain too modest to make sufficient difference.
One effect of our 1990s rainforests campaign was to help instigate the Forests Stewardship Council (FSC). Twenty years later, this scheme for certifying and labelling forest products from sustainable sources remains the best and most credible scheme of its kind in the world.
B&Q was one of the leaders who made it happen, and today remains a great champion for nature’s cause with respect to how businesses work. Today B&Q is going far further. With the leadership of Chief Executive Ian Cheshire, the company is now not only looking to reduce the harm it causes, but also to create a net positive impact – to leave the forests better as a result of their business. But how many consumers know that, and shop there for that reason? Too few I think.

This article was first published by MyGreenPod 13th March 2014.