Monday, 15 November 2010

Warm & fluffy tree huggers?

Every year I am challenged by a few students who believe that development, sustainability and responsibility are irrelevant.  They dismiss attempts to address these issues as liberal pap.

Let's look at another angle on this:  money.

When I first started as a consultant, I bumped into an employee of a multi national manufacturer of domestic products.  Conversation turned to environmental issues.  The board had dismissed public clamour for phosphate free detergents as a passing fad.  They bitterly regretted the decision when they lost a big chunk of market share in a growing and long term market.

I have done a lot of work with companies on recruitment and selection and some organisations find the focus on equality tedious.  I remind them of the pragmatic approach of the chairman of Littlewoods, who walked round some inner city stores and was annoyed to see few black customers, when the streets outside told a different tale.  He asked a golf club buddy to supply him with a few good looking black shop assistants and his senior staff worked out an employee development system to ensure that there was equality of opportunity in promotion.  Profits rose steadily.  Warm and fluffy?  No.  The Big Cheese of Littlewoods was focussed solely on the bottom line.

The former boss of Iceland, Malcolm Walker, mounted a principled campaign against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and sent out copies of a research paper to anyone who requested it.  He was forced to resign.  The government tried to force through liberalisation of GMOs in agriculture.  The major supermarkets, led by Tesco, quietly told them to wake up.  Customers rejected GMO products resoundingly and GMO contaminated products would affect sales and profits, damaging the UK farming industry.  The government retreated.  Tree huggers?  No.  Terry Leahy and his peers were scanning the environment and detecting strong trends on which to base business strategy.  'Listen to the market' is their maxim, or 'listen to your voters' as they told the politicians.

Does a principled stand ever succeed?  Yes.  Slowly the UK is waking up to the consequences of rising energy prices, peak oil and rising living standards.  The government and local authorities are slowly shifting planning regulations so that buildings meet energy efficiency standards.  Channel 4 tv's series 'Grand Designs' has introduced viewers to specialists in triple glazing and highly insulated, draught free pre-fabricated houses, such as Huf Haus.  A popular entrant to the UK market is Baufritz, which not only produces aesthetically pleasing and well insulated houses, but also ensures their buildings minimise potential carcinogens.  Why?  The wife of the founder died of cancer and he pledged to do what he could to prevent environmental agents causing or exacerbating illness in others.

Oh and the MD is a woman.

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