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Don’t waste 2014 on greenwashed nonsense

Next year, many will opine endlessly and deliriously about the success of environmentalism in changing business. There will be so-called "game-changing think pieces" (yes, such a phrase really exists) about "innovative disruption" and many other suspect hallmarks of the sustainability movement I have documented often enough. There will be conferences, rankings, social media campaigns and Harvard Business Review case studies of how business is changing the world. Ninety-five percent of them will be insufferable nonsense, eagerly lapped up by the lazy, the ineffectual and the wide-eyed rabbits that have progressively colonized the green movement in recent years.

Personally, in 2014 I'm only interested in things that are demonstrably making a difference. I'll be looking for more companies and governments committing to zero-deforestation, preferably with The Forest Trust (TFT) or other comparable bodies, if there are any, that actually lead companies to turning off bulldozers and protecting biodiversity. I'll be looking for oil companies abandoning, for good, Arctic exploration (I have a possibly naïve hope that Shell will do this, under shareholder pressure). I want companies to commit to never buying fuel that comes from this pristine eco-system. We need more commitments of the kind most recently made by Wilmar, the palm oil giant. And bold leadership from CEOs who, in the absence of political will and NGO unity, must become campaigners themselves, like it or not. Some (including Virgin's Richard Branson and Unilver's Paul Polman) already are.

I'd like to see a clear environmental analysis of fracking, a robust assessment of how much of the world's only source of renewable protein (fish) might be saved by marine reserves, and progress on global climate talks (I'm not holding my breath). I hope to see smarter economic analysis, properly communicated, of the transition from our dead carbon economic cul-de-sac (fossil fuel) to the potential for a living carbon, cellulose-based global economy. Not in slogans or hyperbole, but facts, based on evidence. I hope to see Greenpeace, the only really effective global campaigning NGO, claim more scalps and an even greater share of NGO media coverage. I'm sure they will. They are brave, bold and usually right. We need more of this.

What to ignore in the new year

What I'm ignoring completely next year are companies boasting ridiculous accolades such as "GRI 4 compliance." Recently, a casino firm called Caesars achieved the endorsement of this box-ticking claptrap, despite the fact that the company's mission is to encourage addictive gambling while its catering empire includes Nobu restaurants, which serve up endangered Bluefin tuna (an IUCN red-listed species). Beyond parody, Nobu informs customers of the fact that what they are eating will soon be gone. It's written on the menu. Anyone that hails (pardon the pun) Caesars as a sustainability or "CSR" success story is, in my book, either gullible or a greenwasher. It will happen, I promise you.

I'll be turning a blind eye to all idiotic half-baked claims about "consumer behavior change," unless backed by hard evidence of that concept beloved by green academics but practiced by virtually no one. And there's no point in being a "green" business if you are unable to remain profitable or popular with your customers — Marks and Spencer (M&S), poster child for yurt-based masters students, springs to mind.

On that note, I unwittingly bought, via a friend who was heading there, some trash bags from M&S recently, that came pre-wrapped in, er, a plastic bag, instead of the usual card wrap-around. Not very "Plan A," is it? Even that "icon" has some way to go, not just in getting people to buy its clothes so they bother to "shwop" them, but also by putting its garbage bags in something that isn't, when it arrives, already guaranteed rubbish, destined only for the landfill heap. It was a "scented" bin bag roll, as it turned out, which must explain the need for the plastic wrapping. But do we need scented bin bags if we're going to "disrupt" and "innovate"? I think not. And my kitchen now smells like a dental surgery. 

If the green business case still depends on M&S, a modest retailer in size and commercial performance, all these years after Plan A, we're in some trouble. They've done way more than pretty much anyone else, yet M&S remains a bit like T'Pau or a-Ha. Everyone loves them but no-one quite remembers why. And a few years in, no one can name more than a couple of big hits.

I'm also not interested in more and more companies or producers getting "certified." It's obvious to any vaguely independent observer that certification of the world's natural resources is at best rewarding the "just about ok" while ignoring the majority of the world's resource production, which continues to exploit and denude at will, fuelled by market demand. Eco-labels and certified produce is mostly about placing a stamp of approval on the small proportion of the world's trading economy that was, for various reasons, already operating vaguely as it should. Sometimes it even rewards stuff that shouldn't be given any green or social accolade. It's not actually changing a single thing on the scale needed. Look at the world's forests, fisheries and agricultural production. Labels everywhere (around 30 between them I think), yet the fate of all three worsening by the hour.

Lastly, I will no longer engage in any discussion with sustainability "academics," who give unwitting credence by association to JK Galbraith's observation that if all the world's economists were to die tomorrow, it would make no difference whatever to the global economy. I lost too much time debating with a "climate academic" about air travel in 2013. Never again — I'd have been better off wasting my time on a monocycle trying to get to Asia than engaging in such futile discussion.

The importance of measurable action

Whether we work in business, NGOs, government or elsewhere, 2014 and beyond are about demonstrable, measurable action. We've been talking for decades, and achieved almost nothing. It's time to stop kidding ourselves and to focus on the battles we can still win, before it's too late. Now is the moment for fresh thinking, a quickie divorce from NGO/sustainability world comfort zones, and a permanent abandonment of tired old clichéd mantras based on little practical understanding of the world's real challenges. Most of all, we need to take the big issues one at a time and fix them, without shielding under the umbrella of cozy concepts, frameworks and slogans. We need to actually be out there arguing for change and progress, issue by issue. That's what I'll be doing in 2014. So I won't see you on the CSR conference circuit or even very much on this blog. I'll either be near an ocean, forest or in a boardroom. I hope to see you there, not here. 

This story originally appeared on Brendan May's MayDay blog. Microphone photo by Laborant via Shutterstock.

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