To wet your appetite we have decided to insert this TED video featuring our guest.
Watch it after reading the article or sample it before to discover Ed's energy and humour.
When you are having more fun you become like a magnet for people and ideas because they will want to be involved thinking “that looks fun over there, they are having more fun than us.”
Now we would like to proceed with our topic which is the state of sustainability today and how to communicate sustainability. How did it all start for you and for Futerra?
It started between my business partner Solitaire and I when we met on a Forum for the Future program for leadership about 14 years ago now. We used to argue all the time. She comes from a theatre and drama background, I come from a scientific background. I think I was a ‘deep green’ type of ecologist and she was coming from a much more creative and cultural prospective and we were trying to understand why people were resisting sustainability. This creative dynamic has been maintained between us over the last 10 years since we started Futerra and as a result it is that tension that creates the great ideas because everything we do is challenged from multiple different angles. We are not just simple environmentalists, even though we all have environmental aspirations and values. We almost had an accidental business because we actually started Futerra as a research project in its initial phase and it was really about exploring the challenges of communicating what should be the most exciting, dynamic, engaging, sexy, cutting edge idea: sustainability. We were saying: “Why is it looked at as a sacrifice/problem/boring thing?”. Everything about it from what we knew made that seem completely wrong. So we said this is what we want to try and do, we want to try and make this the best game in town. We are not alone in that but the progress of the last 10 years is good. It is not enough, it is not big and fast enough but it is directionally correct.
What is sustainability today? How should we approach it?
To me, I always think we overcook it. Some of the simplest definitions of what sustainability is go back to things like common sense: treating the world as if you intended to stay. For me I think now it has evolved into “how do we have 9 billion people flourishing on the planet by 2050?” That’s a question for today because how we design and engineer the world today will define how successful we are at allowing 9 billion people to flourish by the mid of the century. So you have to approach it at a fundamental level, this is why it is so important for us to question what organizations do, why they exist, and what value they add to the world. If you are not asking the question, you are probably going to come up with the wrong answer. There is so much blinkered thinking going on today, which is a denial of the reality in which we find ourselves. These are the steps of grieving: Denial, resignation, acceptance and transcendence. That’s what we do with sustainability. First you have denial: “This can’t be possible, why did we run out of stock? Why is the atmosphere changing? Why did we not realize that this is happening”. Then it is resignation: “really we have to do something…” and then you transcend and begin to make the changes. I think we kind of go through that process collectively as a culture.
How do you see brands and how do you link their actions and communications?
I think that brands are really, really important. Certainly because they have this established, trusted reputation and loyalty with customers. There is an expectation, small now but growing, that you have to do things appropriately and properly and sustainably if you are a big brand. We know that’s not always the case and perhaps the actions taken are still quite restricted. But there will be an assumption more and more that if you are a big and respected brand, you must do things sustainably also. And if you are not, then you are being very short sighted. So we talk about a 5-stage process where at stage 1 you are just doing baby-steps where you might be doing some green communications but just for PR purposes so that you look good, but you are not really doing anything substantial or credible to change your business. At stage 5 you are a genuine, pioneering market leader and sustainability has become an integral core part of your overall brand, so people actually see you as a sustainability brand. Not many organizations have got through that stage 5 so far but the various degrees in-between are where it gets very interesting. What we have always said is you should not be communicating ahead of the substantive activities. The communication must follow the action. Otherwise it is “green wash” or it is not credible or it is just a re-positioning rather than a re-engineering.
Please tell us about one client/brand/project that has been particularly dear to your heart?
The project that made us most proud is our work for the International Year of Biodiversity. We won an international green award campaign for it and we developed the logo, the brand and the core messaging. This is a campaign that has been seen all over the place, it ran in 192 countries, so pretty much every single country in the world with the exception of a few countries like North Korea, Yemen and Somalia. We felt an enormous pride in seeing our work everywhere, from government seminars and conferences, on the sides of planes, on the football shirts in South Africa for the world cup. It was amazing and it was really about the embodiment of the positive messaging around biodiversity. We know that the client was extremely happy with it, and we have actually done a new version for the International Decade of Biodiversity. So now it will be seen for years.
In this regard, what was the exact purpose behind your “branding biodiversity” report and what has been the impact/feedback you got in delivering its “new nature message”?
It is very interesting because we developed the research for “branding biodiversity” from our experiences with the International Year of Biodiversity campaign. There was this realization that when people were trying to calculate the economic and utilitarian value of nature, the survivability or sustainability of natural systems and processes, that was not what was going to resonate with other people. These are really important arguments for businesses, politicians and decision-makers. But actually for the general public their inherent biophilia was activated by their love of nature.
We were not necessarily saying anything radically new. We were just reminding people of the importance of the way that you structure and frame the message. While the decision maker audience is looking at the financial/utilitarian/economic value of the ecosystem economic services, the general public is just looking at the heart strings, the emotions and love, and we’ve warned people not to confuse the two audiences because there is a big danger, if we go down that route, of muddying the waters. The feedback from NGOs and campaigners has been brilliant, saying that they actually knew what we were saying but it is so easy to forget it. So much of our work is about a very simple, elegant and acceptable way of explaining complex communication challenges in a way that people can read and grasp in a few minutes, rather than having to look at a 200-page report. Are we still living in a dual world where big business is perceived as cynical and short-term oriented or is there now some form of consensus on how to shift our way of living towards a truly sustainable model?
My answer to this is two-fold. The first part is that big business is not across the board cynical and short-term, there are some really pioneering big businesses I think, who really do get this. It is not everyone by any means, it is still a minority. They have really seen the risk in their supply chain, in their material resources and they said “hang on, this is creating some planning problems for us”. Because we know now how rapidly the world can change. The example I would take is we attend 10-year strategy meetings, which is common as businesses have to have 5 to 10 year strategic plans. So now if I told you 7 years ago that there would be a company with 750 million customers and a $50-billion market capitalization called Facebook and that it would be based on something called social media, you would have just said to me: “what is social media?!”. That’s how quickly the world is changing. That has happened in less than 7 years and facebook is ironically way younger than Futerra. So it is so hard for people to predict the way the world will go. So the second part of the question is that there is no consensus on how to shift our way of living, but there are companies that understand what needs to be done. It comes back to the evidence, when you actually sit there and look at the facts it is very difficult to deny them and say we can carry on as usual. The evidence really does not allow you to make that conclusion. I think that there are two different directions. One is represented by those businesses that are genuinely exploring transformative business models which could be sustainable in the long term. That’s something we all know; it is impossible to be unsustainable forever! (laughter) Or there are those businesses that are being protectionist and trying to shore-up a failed business model by protecting their existing vested interests because they are either too scared or lack the imagination to make the leap. I think there is a split opening up between the progressive/transformational businesses and the ones that are trying to cling onto the way we are now, in a world which is failing. These dynamics are very interesting but there is a gulf between them. We are particularly passionate about sustainable design & architecture, what are your views on "Cradle to Cradle" and other methods that aim at having a positive impact and restoring our eco-systems?
I think that Cradle to Cradle (C2C) is not a panacea but has an enormous role to play. I think there are many other options on the table. What is very interesting about C2C is actually about reducing the number of steps in a kind of closed loop & re-use process. In actual fact, C2C can be very inefficient. If the circle is very big and involves lots of stages and an enormous amount of energy then you can see how it could be problematic. There are other solutions which might involve disassembly or re-use of certain elements, recycling and disposal of others. One of the challenges that we always face is that we live in a world now with such interconnectedness and interdependencies and complexities that, actually, there isn’t one solution. A very beautiful and elegant C2C design might work very well for a particular product or sector, but we might have to look at something quite different in another sector. The thinking behind it is good because it is about challenging ourselves to ask lots of questions. If you make a single assumption, there is a risk that this single assumption will be wrong. A very quick example is the work we have done on sustainable packaging. Packaging gets stigmatized as a huge problem, in particular in the food sector. Yet there is a very strong sustainability argument in favour of more packaging. Of course it is not about useless packaging but packaging that plays a useful function. The embodied footprint of food production is very high in terms of embodied energy and water and other resources. So if the additional packaging increases the shelf life and conserves the nutritional value of the contents then that’s a really good investment. Because the packaging as a proportion of the footprint of the food that is inside is tiny. 50% of the food produced in Africa is lost before it even gets to people. A modest investment in packaging would save that food, preserve it longer and more people would get fed, with actually a small environmental footprint. In “Sell the Sizzle. The New Climate Message”, you state that climate change is no longer a scientist's problem, it's now a salesman's problem, and that we must all create and sell a new vision of a' low carbon heaven'. Where are we now: do salesmen and marketers actually manage to build and sell a visual and compelling vision of low carbon heaven?
Yes and no (laughter). I think the salesmen are getting better. You are starting to see these quite positive campaigns, particularly now that technologies like electric vehicles are starting to come to market. You are also starting to see energy companies offering longer term relationships helping customers to be more energy efficient and even potentially helping to implement micro energy generation equipment etc. So we are seeing progress but it is not yet very coherent and there is still quite a lot of ‘noise’. It is quite hard to just find a very clear creative vision of what the sizzle future will look like, which is why in the report we try to pick lots of elements as the solutions are and will be different for different people. There are many colours of green, from the pioneering “greens” who live in a Welsh valley teepee, chop their own wood and grow everything themselves, to another model of green and sustainable lifestyle and low-carbon vision that works for urban citizens who might not have any green space but equally want to contribute and play their role. So you need a variety of visions that work for different people’s expectations and aspirations. In this regard, I think the sales people are getting better because we have realized that the “dead pig” approach on communicating climate change, no matter how urgent, scary or powerful you make that message, usually just makes people think “oh, I don’t have time to think about that”. Also because they don’t have a comparable and proportional sense of power and influence to match the challenge. You can’t say to people “this is the scariest, deadliest, ugliest challenge you will ever collectively face as a species but, by the way, change your light bulbs and half fill the kettle and everything will be ok…” People just don’t believe that. There is a complete mismatch on the scale of problems and scale of solutions. The low carbon vision can help to alleviate that because it gives you a longer term direction of where we are going. There is a certain inevitability of where we have to go and whether you do it now or in twenty years’ time, all the evidence and the research
by Lord Stern
on the economics of climate change shows clearly that the earlier you start the cheaper it is to tackle this challenge. That seems to me a compelling formula.
How do you use emotions and psychology in your work at Futerra to allow your clients to have a very effective impact in their sustainability goals and in the way they communicate their actions?
We use emotions and psychology all the time. The positive vision strategy is based on the belief that people will run towards a more compelling, attractive vision of the future, whereas they would run away from images of Armageddon, doom and gloom and disaster. All of our work is trying to look at these ideas of the status of behaviours, trying to make sure that they are not low-status behaviours and to generate this social proof so that people can see the signals around them that it is acceptable, desirable, normal and to have a visibility of the solutions - salience. People need to see things happening and a great example of this is cycling in London. Cycling in London has doubled just in the last year while it was already increasing year-on-year for the last decade. That’s because the status has shifted, cyclists are not anymore all seen as lycra-clad maniacs…even if some of them are (laughter). There is now social proof as more people are doing it so many more people are now trying it out. Also the “Boris bike” scheme (Editor's note: the London's public bicycle scheme), the cycling super highways and the visible infra-structure is appealing and all these factors work together for what is actually quite a large behavioural change shift. You speak to London’s Government people about “Boris bikes” and they’ll say that from a design perspective these were never meant to play an active part of London public transport. What they do though is help make a cultural shift. Though this is not said publicly that is the real reason why it has been done.
Who has the biggest role in terms of change: companies, governments, NGOs, customers, press, marketers, local communities, conservationists…?
At the moment the answer is simple, business is making most of the running. Those pioneering businesses, whether Unilever or Marks & Spencer, those people who have understood the nature of this challenging phase, are pushing ahead. So they are creating the biggest shock waves and I think that there is a frustration now that government is dragging its feet and it is probably because of the government we have at the moment. They don’t see the potential whereas it would be incredible if government would then regulate to draw the rest of the market up towards where the pioneers are now. Because that’s just levelling the playing field and that’s what government could do once those businesses have already trailblazed ahead. The NGOs are not unimportant but at the minute business leads the agenda, government plays “catch up” and it is almost as if the NGOs are providing new ideas that other organizations can’t quite actually do, so it is quite an interesting dynamic.
As some NGOs have definitely used a fairly confrontational approach (Greenpeace is one of them), some companies and governments are sometimes reluctant to partner with them. How can NGOs build a bridge and work with companies that have been responsible for major ecological, social, financial or health damage?
There are three aspects. They rarely work publicly with business but you would be surprised at the conversations that happen privately and off the record. There is some constructive engagement that goes on as well. From a personal and “Futerran” prospective we sort of have a philosophy which says “you don’t get to ignore the companies you don’t like and hope they will go away.” You either work with them to change them or you work to get rid of them. We are not in a mutual world anymore so there are some companies which will have to go if they do not change. We change them or we kill them.
Why do customers and citizens struggle so much in making their life style more sustainable?
There are three things that are crucial for transforming your behaviour. The personal factor: your habits, your rule of thumb, the things that you have always done. The social factor: what is the signal that you are getting from the people around you. The infrastructural factor: you need to have the infrastructure in place for change to happen. If you don’t have all three, it is likely that it won’t work.
How do you promote change with your own friends who might be reluctant to giving up on what they perceive as their well-deserved luxuries, whether travelling to remote islands, not recycling or using non-renewable energy just because they can afford it?
I am not sure you can convince them. I come back to the quote: “you have to have more fun than they do and let them know while you are doing it.” For me it is a common sense thing and "being the change" (Editor's note: this is a reference to a famous quote from Gandhi) even if it might sound clichéd. Probably the travelling stuff that I’ve done has been about promoting overland travel and this is not a sacrifice, this is a good thing. It is a richer and more rewarding way to travel. Again it is about making that approach high status.
How do you select your clients? How do you handle clients if you realize their incentives are not fully genuine?
There are a few aspects to this. One is most of our clients find us, people who want to work with us. Most of our business comes from recommendations, referral or repeat business. So it is business that comes back and it is quite stable. Increasingly we look at very long term relationships with our clients because that is how you bring about that bigger change. If any client were not fully genuine then we will challenge them and if we don’t like what we get as a response then we have walked away. It is less about who you work for than what you do for them. I will use an extreme example: if British American Tobacco came to us and said “as our core product kills people we decided that we need to change and we are going to use all our expertise on agriculture and growing tobacco to move into food and medicinal crops, and completely change our business. Then we would say “of course we are going to work with British American Tobacco” because there is this potential for transformative change. Equally, as I said, Shell approached us to work on “novel hydrocarbons” and we said no we do not believe that it has a part to play in the renewable energy future so we refuse to work on it. So it is really not who you work for but what you do for them.
You definitely like to speak straightforwardly and you are not afraid of provoking? What are the benefits and the potential limits of disruption, “heretical innovation” (Andrew Winston) and revolution in communicating sustainability, whether with your own agency’s clients or with the general audience?
I usually joke about our work being “insultancy” (laughter on both sides). It is sort of being strategically rude to clients not in an offensive way but in a proper challenging way to say “look your business model is being undermined”. You can be quite blunt about that, “direct and provocative” as you say. I think that is actually quite important because that is what the small innovative businesses will do. This is where Facebook comes from - the disruptive innovators materialize in the market and transform all sectors. This is one of the reasons why Apple is such a success as a company because they are not a computer business, their business is disruptive innovation. They changed the music business with itunes and the digital revolution. They changed the telecommunication business with the iphone. They now start changing the computer market itself with the ipad that we did not even know we wanted. All this is incredible. This is disruptive innovation. People whose business model has been undermined like the mainstream music business people, when itunes and the digital/mp3 formats appeared, instead of embracing the progressive and transformative solutions they tried to defend their model and they lost billions in the process. They fought from the rear-guard whereas they should have been on the front foot embracing the change. That is a great way of thinking about where the direct challenges to your business’ sustainability will come from. If you’re core business activity is not sustainable then the chances are your business won’t be either.
Some of the sustainability “experts” have talked about the failure of the CSR movement (Wayne Wisser)) in actually changing the way we do business and restore the planet’s balance. Do you agree on this need for reinvention and increased effectiveness?
(Editor's note: CSR stands for Corporate Social Responsibility)
Yes, I think he is right. The example I will discuss is the financial crash. All of those banks and financial institutions had CSR teams and departments which were well funded and well-resourced but had no influence at all on the way that their organizations were doing business. So that way of doing CSR is pointless. It was just “ethics wash” or “green wash”. It is a bit of philanthropy that is not actually changing the core business. What is needed now is a CSR which is actually affecting the core business structure and we even say to our clients “stop calling it CSR because it is now your core business.” It is not an add-on or bolt-on, this is how you generate sustainable business. This is where the business world is going. After the major crisis that we have seen, is sustainable and ethical finance a priority now or is just back to business as usual?
I think it should be a priority but I don’t think it is. We have gone back to business as usual. The mainstream banking industry has gone back to the type of casino banking mentality. People are hugely angry about that and we feel a bit impotent. Certainly the future is out there, it is just not at scale yet. There are cooperative models, alternative banking systems. There are all sorts of ways and there is huge potential there. People are still reluctant to move away from the mainstream industry just yet but it does not mean they won’t. Has a bank like Triodos, which has been considered as “the world’s most sustainable bank”, created emulation or it is rather an isolated example?
Again there is a difference between what I hope for and what I believe is the truth. I would hope they would be emulated but the trouble is they are seen as isolated in the banking system. With the exception of the Co-Operative bank, most of the high street banks pay pretty much lip-service to a lot of these issues. They do their bits and pieces but it is so small scale as compared to the core overall impacts of their company. As a communicator/marketer, you have spent a lot of time on green washing issues, where are we now?
I think that greenwash is dying. It is still there but is not as big of a problem as it was. The degree of scrutiny and transparency now is so much better. You can’t really get away with it now. Campaigns which launch with an element of greenwash are usually banned or discredited very quickly. It’s not about making normal products ‘green’, rather we should be making green products ‘normal’. Some of the greatest marketing gurus have been fairly discreet on sustainability topics (for example our very much beloved Seth Godin), why is that?
It is a very good question and I am actually not sure what the answer is. I suspect it has to do with keeping a broad prospective. Seth is such a great example because, as you said, he does mention it but he might not speak about it as frequently or deeply as we might want. Maybe Seth and others don’t necessarily engage with the complexity of sustainability and it is not an easy thing to wrestle with. Or maybe they felt it might confuse or muddle the simple message that they are trying to communicate themselves. In this regard, we have seen a major shift in the luxury industry during the past 2 years as some of the biggest groups and brands (including LVMH and Gucci Group) have felt the need to communicate on what they do and to report on the figures, whereas the traditional luxury culture tends to focus on brand image and dream building. We know that you are not particularly impressed by the luxury industry, how do you perceive their achievements so far?
I think this is honestly interesting. I have moved on, probably because of some of the things that have happened in the last two years that you have mentioned. It is not perfect but I think a thousand pounds spent on a Gucci item has a much smaller impact than a thousand pounds spent at Primark (Editor's note: Primark is a UK fast fashion brand criticized for its sourcing practices)
. So you start looking at the impact that this can have and actually the things that are well made, well sourced, last a long time, are high quality, are a key aspect of the future. We know that’s where all industries should go and towards models of collaborative consumption and shared ownership. That solves a lot of our “stuff” and our material flow and energy challenges. So I think that, though these are baby steps there is a realization that sustainability and a deeper luxury go hand in hand. Actually, if this is about quality then it does not have to be about sacrifice. Also this increases customer loyalty and longer term relationships. You could almost become a Gucci member and you borrow the goods, almost like from a library of fantastic products. People would love that and you can still have it as exclusive and aspirational. It does not undermine the luxury model, on the contrary it reinforces it. (Editor's note: Futerra’s co-founder, Solitaire, has published an article on Gucci a few days after we scheduled this interview, which is a very happy coincidence. You find the article in the Guardian. Though the letter is addressed to Robert Polet, he actually stepped down from his CEO role on March 1, 2011) Is there one segment (cosmetics, jewellery, fashion etc.) that has been more effective in bringing change and, if so, why?
In fashion, there are a lot of smaller scale Houses that have proved that you can make change work. Brands like People Tree or Howies have done the trail blazing and proved that these models can be effective. They have reduced the impact of their supply chain while maintaining a premium brand recognition. The trick is now to tackle fast fashion, which is the disposable, ephemeral, highly disruptive end of the industry. So this is a bit schizophrenic. The PPR/Gucci Group has recently announced that they will increasingly integrate sustainability and the Cradle to Cradle principles in their strategy. Puma which is part of PPR recently launched their first Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L) statement for the company’s operations, valuing its environmental impact at EUR 94.4 million. What are your comments?
“If you want to manage you’ve got to measure it.” I think this is really interesting and again this is the first stage of getting some quantitative financial understanding. Even if this figure is probably under-estimated, at least it is calculated and it is a pioneering idea. A similar question arose this week as I was speaking to someone else: “what are the most valuable assets of a company?” and, depending on what type of company it is, without many exceptions, it is usually the people within it. Yet the people appear nowhere on your financial bottom line. The same applies to the environment. It would be so interesting to see it included in the profit & loss account because the people are a very under-valued asset and the value of the eco-system services and the impact you have are also absolutely absent from the balance sheet. So to see it there is quite radical even if the numbers are not quite right. The principle of its inclusion is exciting. Basically we need smarter ways of measuring different ‘capital’ – financial/economic, social, creative, cultural etc. (Editor's note: We recommend the latest Futerra piece of work “Reporting Change”) Nike and other U.S. companies have definitely taken a very pro-active and open leadership by collaborating with “competitors” or suppliers? Is it due to a potential lack of government support that they decided to take the lead? What can other industries learn from such a collaborative, open-source and pragmatic approach?
This is the point I was making about businesses leading the way and governments playing catch-up. I think we should see more of this kind of knowledge and information and experience sharing in an open sense. Whilst there are small elements of competitive advantage to be had linked to your bottom costs in innovating, there are not the big defining issues of competition so it could make sense to have to a certain degree of industry solidarity. What are the most significant books and movies that you recommend to educate and inform people who do not yet understand how it works and what to do?
I will go for the recent ones rather than the obvious ones. The first is a U.S. movie called “Carbon Nation
” which is all about technological innovation even if you do not believe in climate change. It is a very celebratory type of footage of technological solutions (“A climate change solutions movie that does not even care if you believe in climate change”). The second is a book by a friend of mine Paul Gilding called the “Great Disruption
”. It is a very good book and it is about how climate change will transform the global economy and we have to go through the radical innovation we discussed earlier. Our last question relates to the near future and the power shift in favour of countries like China, Brazil and India: how do they handle sustainability in view of their particular demographics and appetite for natural resources?
These are three very, very different scenarios. China has been experiencing an explosive economic growth and everything is done on a knife edge, e.g. the securing of international resource supply chains, hence China’s activities in Africa and other parts of the world to make sure that they can sustain their economic growth. China is this huge country with a very schizophrenic relationship as they burn massive amount of coal but also have one of the biggest renewables programs, it is also the largest manufacturer of solar panels and it has the biggest installed wind capacity in the world. They are doing everything and one should never under-estimate the scale and ability of China to change incredibly quickly, and it will always ride ahead. You see what has happened in the last ten years and it is hard to predict what it can achieve in the next ten years. It could be a utopia or disaster. Brazil is quite different but again has this duality. It is somehow quite sustainable and has a large hydroelectric power capacity, a large amount of sugar-cane ethanol but also has discovered some of the largest off-shore reserves of oil on the planet. It is probably about to exploit them. So it wrestles with both options while also addressing rainforest conservation. Brazil is still in that sort of resource economy. They are still exporting their wealth rather than their expertise. It is quite an old school economy. India is more interesting because they are not exporting wealth - they are like China they have a resource appetite but they also speak English, they make a lot of money in the global Information Technology business. Therefore India is a very different case their industrial muscle, like the Chinese, allows them to buy up a lot of European businesses. So who knows what is going to happen. The situation changes almost on an annual basis. For example, I went to China four times in ten years and everytime it is a different country. We will leave you the last words…
The key question for me is not so much whether we can save the world, it is rather “will we?” And it is not so much about saving the world but rather saving us… With the right will, of course you can. But it needs to be this exciting transformation, not these little baby-steps of incremental change in view of what we need to achieve with the time we have. Let’s get to work!
Thanks for reading the article from A to Z!
Picture/Video Source: TEDxTalks / TEDxHornstull (10 Nov. 2010) via Youtube
Ed Gillespie is Co-Founder of Futerra
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