Friday 19 October 2007

Green spot

The latest natural media installation from Creative Concern took shape this week at the Northwest Regional Development Agency’s (NWDA) Annual Conference and General Meeting (Thursday, October 18) where we treated delegates to a wooded wonderland that celebrates the environmental renaissance of England’s Northwest.

A native forest of six-metre high beeches, elders and silver birches illuminated with low-energy LED lights was installed in the exhibition space of the AGM to form part of a ‘Green Spot’ exhibition. Three 42-inch plasma screens were set amongst the circle of trees to show a series of short films about the environmental land regeneration programmes and green schemes taking place across the region. The films highlight the work of the NWDA and the other Green Spot partners, all of which are working for the sustainable development of England's Northwest.

Partners in the exhibition included the Forestry Commission, Mersey Waterfront, Groundwork, Natural Economy Northwest, ENWORKS, Environment Connect and the Mersey Basin Campaign.

Helping us pull off the Green Spot were our partners at The Potting Sheds (who sourced and installed Green Spot), Mayhood Brothers of Burscough (tree suppliers) and Steve Massam and Peter Grimshaw Tree Surgeons (for wood and bark used in the installation.

Thursday 4 October 2007

Homo ethicus - beyond booze and fags

We now spend more on ethical products than we do on booze and fags, according to the Co-operative Bank’s last Ethical Consumerism report.

There are organic clothes at ASDA. Virgin’s positioning is all about climate change. Coffee is fairtrade at Starbucks, with the option of frothy soya milk. You can even buy ethical erotica - whatever that might entail - from Anita Roddick’s daughter, Sam. And here in Manchester we’ve seen Tesco invest £25 million in a new Centre for Sustainable Consumption at the University of Manchester.

The high street, not to mention online retailers or out-of-town stores, is witnessing a seismic shift amongst shoppers. We have moved into a new era for retailing. The age of the ethical consumer has arrived.

Now none of this is news to those of us who were buying fairtrade Guatemalan body putty and veganic sausages back in the late 80s and early 90s, but this is totally mainstreamed activity now. We are witnessing a permanent change in the way that people make key purchasing decisions.
In other words, this is no consumer fad. The ground rules have changed.

So back to that market data. In 2005 the sales of ethical products in the UK for the first time exceeded the amount we spent as a nation on alcohol and tobacco, which netted £28 billion while the market for ethical goods, which reached £29 billion, up 11 per cent on the previous year. As you might imagine, within the detail of the report some fascinating trends are revealed. Ethical shareholding grew by 15 per cent over the year; we spent a quarter more on ethical clothing; our spend on green energy supplies grew by 42 per cent; and our appetite for organic food grew by 30 per cent. Remarkable growth, all in one year. In total the ethical market growth of 11 per cent was almost ten times greater than the rise in household expenditure.

It also contrasts with the annual rise in retail sales charted by the British Retail Consortium, which stood at 3.9 per cent in March of this year.

From cars, to cashpoints, to cotton, there is an ever-growing army of consumers out there switching allegiance to products that differentiate themselves in the marketplace not through price or celebrity endorsement but simply because they do less harm.

‘Buy different’

So how should we describe this new era? I’d borrow from the ‘Think Different’ campaign run by Apple Computer in the 1990s and suggest that what we have on our hands now is the ‘Buy Different’ generation.

Buy different. They want to change the way they shop. They want to balance affordability, desirability and sustainability. They also want the full story behind the brand, warts and all. They want connection.

Buy different. They want different kinds of products that are designed from the ground up. Like the CIS Sustainable Leaders Trust investment fund, the first ever green trust to top the UK All Companies sector. Or the Dyson, or the Prius, or the Innocent Smoothie. The motto is to ‘differentiate’.

Buy different. They want to know that the companies they engage with are different in the suppliers they use and the way they catalyse positive global trade. Are you greening the supply chain? They will ask. Do you respect union rights? Are you implicated in corrupt regimes? Are children involved in manufacturing your products?

Buy different. The new consumers want products and companies that reflect who they are and what they believe in.

In fact it looks as if the barcode - celebrating its 60th anniversary next year by the way - needs to be redesigned from black to green, and that we need to add a new set of lines and spaces to tell consumers the true cost of the products in their basket. We need to redefine the barcode, just as consumers are redefining our global patterns of consumption.

For corporations getting their head around the ‘Buy Different’ drivers covering new types of shopping and differentiated products there is still the third and most important driver: trust. You can’t sell a green product for example and expect to get away with the  remaining 80 per cent of your portfolio having a poor impact on the environment or local communities. There is no place in the new retail era for tokenism, you will get rumbled. You can’t go ‘beyond petroleum’ and yet still make a fortune piping gas and oil across Kazahkstan. It won’t wash.

You can’t talk the talk without walking the walk.

The Co-operative Bank - one of Creative Concern’s clients - knows this. That’s why they’ve been publishing independently-verified sustainability reports now for almost a decade. Their reports examine in detail ecological and social responsibility, as well as performance in delivering value. The 2002 report for the Co-operative Bank was rated by the United Nations Environment Programme as the world’s best. They have won the European Sustainability Reporting Awards twice, in 2002 and 2004.

This is not a plastic bag.

As the round-the-corner queues for the celebrity-endorsed ‘This is not a plastic bag’ have shown, ethical consumerism is now a dominating force.

The rules have changed.

Ted Turner, the CEO of AOL Time Warner has gone on record as saying that in the new hyperlinked, globalised world  of email, blogs and websites you could see even the largest global brands taken apart in as little as seven minutes due to an ethical slip of one sort or another.
Seven minutes, the time it would take to destroy brands built across decades.

We have entered a new era for retailing, the Buy Different generation is calling the shots. We have entered the age of the homo ethicus and there’s no turning back. Homo ethicus. A Prius-driving, American Apparel-wearing, turbine-touting new breed of consumer that will rock the retail world.

The Field

Connect. Illuminate. Energise. What more could you ask for than a field full of fluorescent tubes drawing their power from overhead transmission lines? I went tonight to see Richard  Box’s installation called ‘The Field’, an arrangement of several hundred regular flourescent tubes that draw their energy from the electro-magnetic field (EMF) generated by the overhead powerlines.

Richard Box was in attendance and after we’d stumbled through a darkened field along the banks of the River Goyt to get to the installation, he proved enthusiastic about the project which had nonetheless presented a bunch of technical challenges including the fact that the energy company had reduced the power running through the overhead lines. Anyone would think that they’d done it intentionally, to downplay the rather erie impact that the installation has on you when you realise the extent and power of EMFs.

The project itself is part of Stockport/Sustrans collaboration called ‘Connect 2’ which is bidding for Lottery money to extend part of the National Cycle Network.

Monday 1 October 2007

Greening the Northwest

Today (Monday 1 October) I’m chairing a Forum taking a good old peak and a poke at the Northwest’s Forestry Framework - the strategy for woodlands and forestry across England’s Northwest. It’s been in operational ‘mode’ for around a year now and I’m dead pleased that there’s been some progress made (though a good few challenges remain).

There is co-ordinated activity across the region taking forward a host of actions set out in our ‘Agenda for Growth’. Of the 47 actions in our plan, 43 are underway and the remainder will almost all be coming onstream in the coming year.

So across our six areas of action we are genuinely helping to bring the businesses working in woodlands and forestry together more closely into a recognisable sector; we are enhancing our region’s image through greenspace development and we have plans for the  transformation of gateway sites; we are supporting ‘greener’ farming and seeing the restoration of natural areas; we are making good links with the health sector, with education and with the prison service; we are putting efforts into developing biomass as a sustainable energy source within the region; and we are staying focused, in our sixth action area, on how we can keep improving our performance as a sector not least with the launch of a new Rural Development Programme for England.

And I am particularly pleased that we are planning a few, signature projects out of the Forestry Framework ‘stable’ that hit a number of our targets across differing action areas.

These include a plan for a conference and PR campaign called ‘Form>Wood’ which will target the architecture, design and urban development sectors with the message that wood is the sustainable and contemporary material of choice. We are also launching a programme to really get to the heart of whether our urban tree cover is as healthy as we think it is or should be and will use the results of our surveying work to raise the game of our local authorities, in particular.

So there is plenty of progress in greening the region and supporting the sector, but there are many, many challenges that remain.

We must continue to expand our partnerships beyond the usual suspects. We need to develop more joint projects like the recent Land Remediation Network we’ve established with Envirolink and we seriously need to improve our linkages to the private sector.

We need to ask ourselves, honestly, if we are trying to do too much or if the Framework is adding enough value to the region’s endeavours in our area. We must ensure we are the very opposite of a talking shop: we must be a source of action, activity and transformation.

We have to reach out and ensure that a much wider audience hears of our progress and finds out what they can do to partner up with us and help deliver our programme. We must create more of a ‘buzz’ now that our projects and activities are taking form.

And we have to improve the entire sector’s performance in a few key areas.

We have to get better at influencing regional strategies and helping shape our region’s future; a new Regional Economic Strategy is being developed and we have on the horizon the prospect of an Integrated Regional Strategy which should have woodlands, forestry and greenspace as a key component; the true ‘setting’ for prosperity and growth.

We must do our part to deliver against the region’s Climate Change Action Plan, particularly in the adaptation to climate change impacts where woodlands forestry has the power seriously help to improve the resilience of both our rural and urban areas.

Finally we need to strive for ever better levels of design and delivery. If we are given the incredible opportunity of programmes like Newlands we must create spaces and places that inspire and transform communities; that rival anything, anywhere in the world; that make England’s Northwest a region that attracts talent, investment and trade.

In 2008 we will be working to freshen up our Action Plan in the face of new national and regional developments but there will be no new strategies or visions or frameworks in the next few years; we have our plan, our stakeholders have agreed it and we will be sticking at it until all of our actions are delivered and all of our promises are made good.

Alongside a few other key areas of regional endeavour, such as the knowledge economy, climate change and work to achieve greater levels of community cohesion; our sector - woodlands and forestry - has pivotal role to play in delivering a more sustainable region for the future, a greener future for England’s Northwest.