Monday 22 December 2008

Brand Earth

This year sees the 175th anniversary of a milestone in corporate responsibility. In 1833 we finally made slavery illegal, or at least that was the headline. 

For 30 years or so there’d been a loophole in the law that allowed companies to continue to trade, facing a possible £100 per head fine if they got caught. Or they threw slaves into the sea at the first sign of an approaching Royal Navy vessel.

Whatever, we closed the loophole.

Corporate behaviour being what it is, too often, a further loophole remained. Any slave over the age of six wasn’t freed, they became ‘apprentices’, indentured as before. Years would pass before their shackles were loosened.

Then there was a compensation package of £20 million for slave owners, and exclusions, too: one for the East India Company and one for Ceylon.

It’s an extreme example but an informative one. No matter how heinous the corporation’s behaviour, there always appears to be some wiggle room.

Leap forward to 1970 and a burgeoning social responsibility movement got a hefty thwack around the head from the arch monetarist, Milton Friedman. His now famous essay, required reading for rapacious MBAs worldwide, appeared in the New York Times, stating that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business, to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game”.

Ethical Corporation magazine - a good read - spoke on his death in 2006 of the service that Friedman did for the world of CSR. He made progressives in business sharpen up their act, add some rigour to their thinking.

They’re probably right and in some ways I may even be with Friedman on this one (at which point my oldest friends and colleagues will no doubt faint), my only major shift would be in what defines the ‘rules of the game’. Friedman’s stricture was legal compliance; mine would be about the corporation’s wider contract with society.

This fast and imperfect trolley dash through the history of corporations is designed to reveal that a) I’m good at looking things up on Wikipedia and b) that when you read the latest news report on ‘green brands’ or ‘ethical consumers’ or ‘fashionistas who wear hemp’ you realise that this is a dialogue that has been ongoing since King Magnus IV of Sweden created the oldest limited company - Stora Kopparberg mining corp - in 1347.

There is nothing new in corporations seeking profit but that pursuit has, from day one, been set against a context of wider social good. As a society we continue to fasten a judgemental eye on the corporation. A GfK NOP poll in May revealed that consumers rank the Northwest’s very own Co-operative Group as the most ethical corporation, retaining the top spot that it held in 2007. Next up come the Body Shop and M&S, with Innocent Drinks and Divine entering the top ten for the first time. Importantly though, the survey reveals some skepticism in the marketplace: just 18% of the 3000 consumers interviewed, compared to 21% in 2007, believed that business ethics have improved in Britain.

Those two new entries into the top ten, Innocent and Divine, are telling. They are brands - and products - that are constructed from the ground up as ‘eco-brands’. They follow a market appetite for sustainable products that has clearly entered the mainstream. They are not alone: ‘I am not a plastic bag’, anyone?

So can all of this be labelled ‘greenwash’? From the corporation that uses the gobbledegook of CSR ‘benchmarking’ or ‘continued improvement matrices’ to the conspicuous consumption that makes us feel better about using more of the Earth’s resources, is this another inflection of the free market capitalism which Friedman so adored and which a massive 82% of us still view with suspicion?

Perhaps. And can any brand or corporation be beyond intense scrutiny and examination in the age of mass communications where a 1,000 blogs can be updated in the blink of an eye? Ted Turner of AOL Time Warner once said that in the Internet Age it could take only seven minutes for your corporate brand to be damaged, globally, if you cocked things up.

If you want to take a more empowered look at what is, or isn’t greenwash then I’d urge you to download the greenwash guide recently published by our good friends at Futerra. As ever it’s pleasing combination of intelligent analysis with a tip-strip you can blue tack to your computer screen.

My closing comment would be this, however:

It’s not just corporations that have a contract with society: we have one too. People drive cars, eat meat, buy cheap shit and do too little to reflect their own value sets in their daily lives. We live in a dissonant fug for too much of the time and yet still reserve the right to judge corporations. If we shift our behavioural patterns then the marketplace changes too. The brightest and the best in the business world know this, they’re not stupid.

We are powerful, but we have to exert that power. We are complicit, and that should be in our frame of reference too. It’s a hippy mantra but Ghandi was right.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.

Quote me happy

“A new political movement is beginning to emerge. Rooted in protest, its advocates are not bounded by national geography, a shared culture or history, and its members comprise a veritable ragtag of by now millions of NGOs, grassroots movements, campaigning corporations, and individuals.”
Noreena Hertz

“To be truly radical, is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing.”
Raymond Williams

“The bold evolutionary experiment of combining a large forebrain with opposable thumbs clearly has its dangers and drawbacks; the jury is still out on whether it was ultimately a good idea. But it has equipped us to avoid or solve the problems we’ve created.”
Amory Lovins

“My own belief is that a conscious thought can be planted into the unconscious if a sufficient amount of of vigour and intensity is put into it.”
Bertrand Russell

“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
Jigme Singye Wangchuck, King of Bhutan

“Cast your whole vote, not a slip of paper merely, but your whole influence.”
Henry David Thorough

“My country is the world and my religion is to do good.”
Thomas Paine

Monday 1 September 2008

Bluecoat goes green

Last year we installed an indoor forest at the Annual General Meeting of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, with eco-films showing amongst the ring of native trees we'd put in place at the Manchester Central Convention Centre. Now Creative Concern has delivered a second tree-based installation, this time outside the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool as part of the city's Capital of Culture year.

The installation is made up of 16 mature maple trees, panels with quotations and reflections from famous writiers and a light and sound installation powered by a giant 'solar' tree which is an integral part of the installation.

Sustainability and climate change, improving the ambience of the streets and even the health benefits of trees in the city will be explored as part of the work, which is in situ until September 14 and which will be there tomorrow as we run our Form>Wood conference on the importance of timber as a building resource.

The project is a partnership between the Forestry Commission, NWDA, Regional Parks Xchange, Groundwork and the Environment Agency.

Wednesday 26 March 2008


We’re just in the process of finalising the details for a conference in Liverpool called Form>Wood. Its focus is on timber as a sustainable design and construction material and the event is a partnership between the Northwest Forestry Framework (which I chair), the Northwest Development Agency, Forestry Commission, Community Forests Northwest and Capital of Culture. 

We’re aiming for a mix of architects, developers and timber industry representatives, we’ve got Ted Cullinan delivering a keynote address and we’re staging it at the newly re-opened, sublime Bluecoat on 15 May.

The principle aim of the event is a simple one. We want more people commissioning, designing and building with wood, timber and trees at the forefront of their minds.

Why? Because the buildings we live and work in, through their construction and then through the energy we use to heat or light them, account for over a quarter of our region’s carbon emissions. For the residential sector alone, this represents 17 million tonnes of carbon, a figure which the Northwest has committed to reducing by at least 7 million tonnes by 2020.

Trees, woodland and the timber industry can play a pivotal role in helping us tackle climate change head on, whether it is reducing our energy use or helping us adapt to the changes in climate which, no matter what we do, cannot be avoided.

Imagine, for a moment, asking a team of talented engineers to invent a single device that could absorb and then lock up carbon, provide a carbon neutral building material or energy source, help stabilise vulnerable soils, provide a flood management system and offer a source of shade and cooling as the planet’s temperatures begin to rise.

And then imagine asking them to make it a beautiful and inspiring object too, one that created a wildlife habitat and pollution filter, to boot.

It’s a simple and powerful proposition. Trees and timber offer a sustainable and immediate solution to a host of climate-related challenges. Using wood as a building material, from timber frames or cladding through to entire constructions made from wood, has to be a priority for architects, engineers and developers who want to take climate change seriously.

The low energy solution

How much could this save? A significant amount. Replacing a single cubic metre of concrete or red brick with the same volume of timber can save around one tonne of carbon dioxide. Concrete uses five times as much energy to produce as wood; steel uses six times as much. If you expand this out to an average two-storey dwelling, using a timber frame alone could save four tonnes of carbon dioxide, roughly equivalent to driving 14,000 miles by car. If the 26,000 additional households forecast for the Northwest by 2026 were all built in this way, we could save over 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, through timber frames alone.

The switch from materials with a high level of ‘embodied’ energy such as steel or concrete is just one way in which wood can help reduce the carbon footprint of our building stock, but wood is also a good insulator, too, whether used for frames, windows or cladding. Timber’s natural insulation properties mean that double-glazed or even triple-glazed windows for example can achieve the highest energy window ratings, beating alternatives such as PVC or aluminium.

Europe’s great carbon ‘sink’

Using wood as a construction material also increases the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by Europe’s standing forest, this is because more than 99 per cent of the timber used in the UK is softwood from European forests and as these forests are managed sustainably, we plant more new trees every time we extract timber destined for sawmills and processing plants right across the continent. In fact, European forest cover is increasing by over 9,000 square kilometres every single year.

Add to the product mix the other environmental benefits of wood: it is organic, enhances biodiversity, can be easily recycled and avoids the need for quarrying and the extraction of aggregates, and you have an unbeatable case for timber as a truly sustainable construction material.

A growing market

The market is starting to see the value in wood. Timber frame housing increased by 15 per cent in 2005, for example, while other types of construction actually saw their markets decline. Timber framed housing now represents 20 per cent of new build and the projections for 2008 are that one in every four homes built will be timber framed, but we could do much, much more. Globally around 70 per cent of homes are built, often entirely, from wood and as close to home as Scotland, the market share for timber framed housing is a much healthier 73 per cent. We have ample scope for improvement.

We can do more with timber today, too. Traditionally timber framed houses could reach two or three storeys at most but these levels are increasing to five, six or seven stories and with engineering performance increasing all the time, the industry research body TRADA expects these performance levels to increase still further. The construction times for a timber framed building are shorter, too and they offer a safer, more efficient construction site with a typical house being weather tight in less than five days.

The beauty of wood

The materials are available, the environmental credentials are strong and the research shows that wood can perform when compared to the heavier, less sustainable alternatives. The challenge now is to achieve a significant ‘step change’ in the commissioning, designing and building of homes and workplaces that are made all or in part, from wood. Wood is certainly getting some good press. Ted Cullinan, keynote speaker at the Northwest Forestry Framework’s ‘Form>Wood’ event and RIBA Gold Medal winner this year is known for his timber constructions, in particular the Downland Gridshell in West Sussex.

Architects like Sheppard Robson are developing affordable new housing forms - such as the Lighthouse - out of wood and in the Northwest region have shown how spectacular wood can be through their proposed wood cladding of a car park in Penrith. Wooden buildings in the Northwest are also winning awards, with the Feilden Bradley Clegg-designed Formby Pool collecting a RIBA award in 2007.

And I used to live in an award-winning wooden building myself until we decided to start crazily renovating crumbling piles of brick as I was one of the first buyers to sign up for Stephenson-Bell’s superb Chorlton Park flats complex. Just along from our offices in the Northern Quarter, BDP’s new HQ is close to completion and is beautifully clad in wood.

What these great, innovative designs reveal is that building from wood offers a real opportunity from public buildings and cultural venues through to the new houses we know we will have to construct as our demand increases for new homes regionally and nationally. The beauty of wood - aside from its obvious aesthetic credentials - is that it offers a more sustainable future for developments both large and small.

The form really should be wood.