WHAT ARE WE DOING?

This article looks into The Great Acceleration. This is a set of graphs created by Steffen, et al in 2015. It is very much the case that the impact of the infographic is greater than the sum of the individual charts.

What they display is exponential growth, which we know is not possible on a finite planet.

great-acceleration

I like the juxtaposition of the socio-economic trends alongside the earth system trends. This is the problem that sustainable development was created to solve. The graphs make it very clear that there are a lot of phenomena that are happening at the same time and many of these are linked.

I remember when I saw the graphs of The Great Acceleration for the first time, my immediate thoughts were of how important an ecological economics perspective is in this debate.

Particularly with regards to the earth system trends, I think that there needs to be a greater realisation that the economy and society exist within the environment. Without a viable environmental system, there will be no society or economy.

This should be used to inspire action by businesses, governments and individuals.

The charts for the socio-economic trends show all of the categories growing at a rapid rate.

For the earth system trends, the ones that stood out for me were the carbon dioxide graph, the methane graph and the tropical forest loss graph. Especially with regards to tropical deforestation, rates have been so high for so long, that we face passing on this ecosystem to the next generation in a very different state than we found it.

What is clear, is that particularly post 1950, these indicators have taken off like a rocket. Particularly when you look at the two datasets together, it is easier to see why many argue that we are living in a new geological age, one where humans are the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

If it is the case that we are living in the Anthropocene, then it makes the case for sustainable development based on the principles of ecological economics far stronger.

One positive takeaway would be that the data for atmospheric methane concentration and stratospheric ozone loss have been slowing or stabilising over the past decade. This shows that change is possible.

What you need to know

This article looked into The Great Acceleration. We looked at the graphs located within the 2015 paper by Steffen, et al.

The data clearly point to an exponential level of growth in the socio-economic indicators and a rising level in the earth system trends, which much change built into the system.

The graphs should work to sharpen the resolve of those who are interested in sustainable development.

Especially with regards to what framework should be used to evaluate progress on sustainable development, it is my belief that it makes the need for an ecological economics perspective greater.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think of The Great Acceleration?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

MAKING SUSTAINABILITY REAL

This article looks into how businesses can make sustainability real. Businesses that make sustainability a core competency of their organisation have a better chance of capturing the opportunities that sustainability presents.

light through trees

Businesses that take the approach of using sustainability and corporate responsibility as a risk reduction strategy fail to capture the full benefits. This approach is better than being a business that willingly harms society and the environment, but it is not the best approach.

The best approach is to make sustainability the job of everyone in the business. This does not mean that it should be everyone’s number one priority all of the time, but it should certainly be in the top three.

Businesses that fully integrate sustainability into their way of working leave compliance risks from sustainability far behind and can work on solutions to sustainability problems that help their customers succeed.

Let’s now look into three ways companies can make sustainability everybody’s business.

1. Persistent public commitments

Persistent public commitments to sustainability and corporate responsibility help to highlight how the company is determined to do things differently. These should ideally come from senior executives and people with real influence.

This highlights to external stakeholders that the business is committed to responsible practices and demonstrates to employees what is expected of them. It creates a pressure to find sustainable solutions for their own business and for their customers.

In this environment, the business is naturally focussed on the opportunities that sustainability offers.

2. Partnerships

Partnerships are another way businesses can make sustainability real. These could come from inbound requests or from external prospecting.

Partnerships are the last and one of the most important of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s).

UN-SDGs

As a business, this could involve a partnership with another business, a charity and even academia or the government. The important thing is the collaboration and working together to help solve social and environmental problems.

3. Culture

Another way businesses can make sustainability real is by fostering a culture that supports sustainable ideas and innovation.

Without such an organisational culture it will be difficult for any business to make anything beyond meagre progress on sustainability.

An organisational culture that would predict success on sustainability would be one that is highly collaborative, open to trying new things and based on the best ideas rising to the top, regardless of where they have emerged from.

What you need to know

This article looked into how businesses can make sustainability real. The important thing is to make sustainability seamless within the organisation and not a bolt on afterthought.

I have suggested three ways this can be achieved. It can be achieved by persistent public commitments from senior executives at the organisation. I can be achieved by launching new partnerships with other organisations to solve problems related to sustainability. It can also be achieved by fostering an organisational culture that is receptive to new ideas.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think businesses need to do to make sustainability real?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

 

SUSTAINABLE OPPORTUNITIES IN THE SERVICE SECTOR

This article looks into sustainable opportunities that can be seized upon by businesses in the service sector. These tend to be businesses with a lower environmental footprint than other sectors. But as we will see, sustainability is very important for this group of businesses.

london 1

In the UK, the service sector is especially important. This sector accounts for 79% of UK’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The decline in the numbers of people working in manufacturing and the increase in the numbers of service sector workers is part of a long-term trend. The number of service sector workers overtook the number of manufacturing workers in 1881. This surprised me as I would have thought that it would have happened later than that.

Unsurprisingly, London is dominated by service businesses, with this sector accounting for 91% of the city’s economy.

Whilst the UK’s economy is particularly dominated by the service sector, as the graph below shows, this is a trend that is seen across the G7 countries.

services sector by country (ONS)

Let’s now turn to two sustainable opportunities that service sector businesses should seize upon.

1. Sustainable procurement

Because of the nature of service sector businesses, they will typically have less sustainability variables to manage directly than businesses in other sectors.

What this means, is that your service sector business needs to be bulletproof in its supply chain sustainability. There is no excuse for service sector businesses to have poor sustainability within their supply chain.

Businesses in the service sector depend on inputs from the manufacturing and primary sectors. These need to be selected with sustainability in mind. The new paradigm of sustainability and corporate responsibility dictates that even though you did not produce these inputs, if you purchase them and use them within your business, you are responsible for their sustainability credentials.

Sustainable procurement also offers the opportunity to look for suppliers who are local and who are SME’s. Some consumers may be willing to pay a small premium for these products or display a higher level of brand loyalty.

Sustainable procurement should be seen as partly a risk reduction measure. But it is also about seizing on the opportunity to be the sustainable service provider of choice.

2.  Create green consumers

The marketing channel is an excellent avenue for sustainability. Maybe you have green consumers already, which is a good thing. But if you do not, then it is possible to create them through marketing of sustainability.

You can promote your own and your supplier’s sustainability success stories. These should be short, neatly packaged stories that people can connect with.

You can use communications to demonstrate how the actions you are taking make your consumers environmental footprint smaller.

You can also engage in cause related marketing. This is where a company’s marketing is directly aligned with a charity or cause and each purchase provides a certain amount of benefit to the worthy recipient. This can build reciprocity between the consumer and the business and is an example of a win-win-win outcome. The business wins through sales, the consumer wins as they feel they are making a difference and the charity wins through funding and a raised profile.

All of the techniques discussed help to make your services desirable and memorable. You really can create green consumers.

What you need to know  

This article looked into sustainable opportunities in the services sector.

We looked into how the services sector dominates the UK and other advanced industrial economies.

We looked into how sustainable procurement can make you the sustainable service provider of choice.

We also looked into how through marketing of sustainability, you can create green consumers.

All sectors have a responsibility to help make sustainability happen. The priorities in the services sector a slightly different, but the end state remains the same.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below or reach out to me on social media. What do you think are the key sustainable opportunities in the services sector?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

SOIL & SUSTAINABILITY

This article looks into soil from the perspective of sustainability. Soil is perhaps not the first thing that comes to mind when people think of sustainability. But, there is a chance that this vital but often overlooked and under loved matter could be influential in combating climate change.

global_soil_week

What brought my attention to soil and its role in combatting climate change, was a section that I read in Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and Hunter Lovins.

There are times when words simply jump out of the page and grab you. My reading of this section was one of those times.

“The world’s cultivated soils contain about twice as much carbon as the atmosphere, whose carbon content is rising by half a percent per year. The earth’s 5 billion acres of degraded soils are particularly low in carbon and in need of carbon absorbing vegetative cover. Increasing degraded soil’s carbon content at plausible rates could absorb about as much carbon as all human activity emits. This would also improve soil, water and air quality.”

I found the entire quotation to be striking. But the penultimate sentence stood out to me for why soil could be a game changer when it comes to climate change.

I was also unaware that 2015 was the International Year of Soils. I was made aware of this by the very useful UNFAO video which I have posted below.

Soils: Our ally against climate change

The key element to focus on is soil health as this is what predicts whether the soil will act like a sink or a source of carbon emissions.

Part of me is still completely amazed by the fact that there is more organic carbon in the soil than in ground vegetation and the atmosphere combined.

What is needed is soil with high levels of organic content as these are the soils that can sequester the most carbon.

What is not needed is excessive levels of deforestation which exposes bare soil to the air, compaction through heavy industrialised agriculture and of course developments which completely cover areas of soil with concrete and structures. These activities have a negative effect on soil’s ability to act as a sink of carbon and cause soils to become a source for greenhouse gasses.

I also thought it would be instructive to look back at Drawdown, which was a book edited by Paul Hawken that looked into the 100 most effective ways to reverse global warming. This was one of the most impressive books that I came across in 2017 and you can find a link to my review below.

Drawdown edited by Paul Hawken

With regards to soil the extract on pages 70-71 which was an extract from The Hidden Half of Nature by Montgomery and Bikle was very interesting. The following quotation stood out in particular.

“By the mid to late twentieth century, chemical-based agricultural practices were causing steady losses of soil carbon, topsoil, and humus, and creating water pollution, crops that were more susceptible to pests, greenhouse gases (nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide), and oceanic dead zones.”

They paint a bleak picture which emphasises the need for change.

The section on page 200-201 on microbial farming was also very relevant to soil and sustainability. I was amazed to find out that “in one gram of soil there can be up to 10 billion denizens, and between 50,000 and 83,000 different species of bacteria and fungi.

On the more technical side I also found the following quotation interesting.

“A healthy soil biome is rich in carbon because soil microbes feed on sugar-rich exudates from the roots of plants; in turn, the bacteria dissolve the rock and minerals and make those nutrients available to plants.”

I am constantly amazed by the processes of the natural world and how it functions.

The section in Drawdown which was most relevant to soil and sustainability was the section on regenerative agriculture. Incredibly, this came in as their 11th most powerful solution for combatting climate change. This section contained the following powerful insight.

“The world cannot be fed unless the soil is fed. Feeding the soil reduces carbon in the atmosphere. Soil erosion and water depletion cost $37 billion in the United States annually and $400 billion globally. Ninety-six percent of that comes from food production.”

What you need to know

This article looked into soil from the perspective of sustainability.

We looked into a quote from Natural Capitalism which showed that soils are a massive store of carbon. It also showed that if managed properly, the soils could become an even larger store of atmospheric carbon and a significant bulwark against climate change.

We also looked into a very instructive video by the UNFAO. This showed both how and why the soil can act as a source or a sink for carbon emissions.

Lastly, we looked at Drawdown for information on the role of soil in reversing climate change. This confirmed that soil has a vital role to play.

Overall, we have to hope that soil is not overlooked in favour of other higher tech and more glamorous solutions to climate change. We also have to hope that many of the impacts that accelerate soil’s transition from a sink to a source of carbon emissions are controlled.

What is clear, is that soil has a fundamental role to play in sustainability.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think of soil’s role in sustainability?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

THE DECEPTION OF ECONOMIC GROWTH

This article looks into economic growth. It looks into GDP, the main measure of economic progress and the assumptions that underpin this indicator.

gold

Gross domestic product or as it is most commonly referred to GDP, measures the size of a country’s economy over a period of time.

The relevant national statistics authority collects data from thousands of companies. This is used as the basis for the GDP calculations.

The most frequently used method for calculating GDP is to base it on the total amount of spending in the country.

The GDP is then calculated by taking household spending, adding investment, adding government spending and then adding net exports.

As we can see, GDP is an accurate way to measure the health of an economy, but sustainability requires that we think about society and the environment as well. As it is currently calculated, GDP is unable to provide information on these important areas.

The way GDP is calculated includes all expenditures, regardless of whether society or the environment benefit from these transactions.

GDP therefore includes many things which most people would consider to be bad for society or which do not improve the general welfare of a country. It includes money spent to clean up after environmental disasters, money spent on lawyers during divorces, money spent on unnecessary military programs and on prisons. Overall, GDP includes many things, some of which detract from the general welfare of a society.

What is remarkable is how such an indicator, barring a few exceptions such as Bhutan has become the dominant marker of progress and the data point which all countries aspire to increase.

What is clear, is that GDP is simply a gross measure of activity within an economy. It does not make any distinction between spending which is desirable and that which is undesirable. It makes no distinction between spending which places a burden on a country and spending which benefits a country.

Another huge blind spot of GDP is that it is based solely on monetary transactions. Time spent caring for an elderly or disabled relative would not count towards GDP, even though it brings many benefits to that country. Time spent volunteering or helping a neighbour would not count towards GDP even though it helps to improve that society.

GDP then is a highly deceptive measure of national progress. It includes things which are bad and fails to include things which are good. What is more, with the way it is currently calculated and celebrated, it is entirely possible for an increase in things which are bad for a country to be portrayed as a gain.

There are other measures of national progress which diverge widely from GDP’s focus on economics. But perhaps a good start would simply be a more accurate version of GDP.

A more accurate version of GDP would subtract spending on things that harm society and the environment from the GDP figure to arrive at an improved picture. This would leave a more accurate indicator of whether the country is heading in the right direction or not.

What you need to know

This article looked into economic growth. It looked into GDP, which is the main measure of economic progress and the assumptions that underpin this indicator.

We looked into how GDP is calculated by national statistics authorities. We looked into how GDP is a gross figure and so includes undesirable spending which may be harmful to society and the environment.

I know that my prognosis and the prognosis of others is that the undesirable spending should be subtracted to arrive at the net positive figure. That would be a more reliable indicator. It would be interesting to see what the counter arguments to this proposal would be.

Taking into account everything that we have looked at in this short article, what is clear to me, is that there just isn’t the level of debate or criticism necessary in order to move to a more sensible indicator of national progress.

It seems that GDP has assumed an almost mythical status as the indicator of choice for national progress. More needs to be done to call out what is wrong with this indicator and to propose workable indicators that can guide decision makers in business and in government.

Even the staunchest defenders of GDP would have to admit that the indicator does not provide information on social or environmental progress in a country. It stands to reason therefore that people are being deceived by their GDP figures. They are being told that a rising number is always good and that a falling number is always bad. As with all indicators, it is important to look at the assumptions that underpin it and how that figure was calculated.

I believe that this is an issue which is highly relevant to sustainability. When you have most of the countries in the world obsessively focussed on an indicator which deviates so far from reality. That creates a system with a slow drift towards unsustainability when we need the exact opposite to be happening.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below, or reach out to me on social media. What do you think of GDP as an indicator and do you have a better way forward?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

THE BENEFITS OF BUYING RECYCLED PRODUCTS

This article looks into the benefits of buying recycled products. Recycling is an activity that is synonymous with sustainability. Many people think it is simply about doing the right thing, but there is more to it than that. Buying recycled products allows you to play a part in building a better world socially, economically and environmentally.

Machinex-sorting-systems-plastic-recycling

Business & Marketing Benefits

There are business and marketing benefits to be gained from buying recycled inputs when compared to their virgin counterparts.

If you are a company and you make products you need to meet the market’s expectations and deliver what consumers want.

There is a fantastic study by WRAP that captured my imagination and I will use it to demonstrate this point.

The title of the study is Recycled plastic packaging – the consumer’s view and I highly recommend that you seek out the original paper as it contains some powerful insights.

In answer to the question Should packaging contain recycled plastic? The results were very impressive with 86% of consumers feeling that it would be good if packaging contained recycled plastic. As you can see from the chart below, there is clearly an appetite for products that that come in packaging that contains recycled plastic.

WRAP Study on recycling

Companies spend a great deal of time trying to create and shape their brand. This is an area where the injection of sustainability can help.

In the WRAP study 74% of respondents felt that the reputation of a retailer or manufacturer would be enhanced if its products’ packaging were made from recycled plastic. As you can see from the chart below, this is an important finding and an opportunity that businesses shouldn’t be missing out on.

WRAP brand study on recycling

Companies reputations in the marketplace matter enormously. Having people think positively about your business and your products is an important step to winning new customers and retaining old ones.

When asked, 78% of respondents said they would feel more positive about a product or manufacturer whose packs were made of recycled plastic. This finding is important and should encourage more suppliers to look at recycled packaging.

As the chart below shows, using recycled packaging is an effective way to create a feel-good factor about your company and products in the marketplace.

WRAP positive affirmations study

Overall, all three charts demonstrate why smart businesses would try to look for ways of integrating recycled materials into their operations. When you find a situation where business and environmental interests come into alignment, that is an opportunity that you need to take advantage of.

Support Innovation

By investing in recycled products or in businesses that make use of recycled products you are helping to support innovation. This also sends a signal to the marketplace that they should invest more in these areas in the future, creating a virtuous cycle of sustainable growth.

Investing in recycled products means that more competition will come into this space. This new interest and competition will hopefully lead to innovations in design to make more packaging recyclable.

Extra demand for products that are made with recycled and recyclable components and packaging has further benefits. It will help to increase interest in this sector and hopefully lead to technical innovations that lower costs for recyclers and make the whole sector an attractive space for investors.

Overall, by focussing your procurement efforts, whether as a business or as a consumer on products that make use of recycled materials and are themselves recyclable, you can help to support this industry and support innovation to help drive progress forward.

Environmental Benefits

There are significant environmental benefits to buying recycled products. Recycled products tend to be less energy intensive and often have a lower environmental impact their virgin counterparts.

Buy buying recycled products, this avoids the need for oil to be drilled, ores to be mined forests to be logged and glass to be smelted.

With regards to paper, buying recycled uses 90% less water and 50% less energy than making it from raw materials.

This is my personal favourite statistic and is why it is important to emphasise that every can counts. Recycling one aluminium drinks can saves up to 95% of the energy needed to make it from scratch.

What is more, recycling 1 tin can saves enough energy to power a television for 3 hours. Whilst recycling 1 glass bottle saves enough energy to power a computer for 25 minutes. Whereas recycling 1 plastic bottle saves enough energy to power a 60-watt light bulb for 3 hours. These statistics make clear that there are many environmental benefits that come about because of the recycling process.

Overall, it is important to be aware of the disparity in environmental performance between products that use virgin materials and products that make use of recycled materials.

What you need to know

This article looked into the benefits of buying recycled products.

For business owners and managers, there are a lot of business benefits to making products with recycled materials.

For people interested in progress and innovation, buying products made of recycled materials allows you to support an industry and to help make it more significant.

Lastly, there are many environmental benefits that come about when you buy products made of recycled materials.

It is important to be aware of and act upon these factors when you are buying things as a consumer or as a business.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you think are the benefits of buying recycled products?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby

CHINA’S EXPLOSIVE FOREIGN WASTE RESTRICTIONS

This article looks into China’s recent waste import restrictions. What is the impact of these sweeping changes and what does it tell us about recycling in Europe and North America?

China-Flag-National-Flag-of-China

For more than 30 years, China has been the world’s largest importer of waste and recyclable materials. Its enormous size and booming economy which was hungry for cheap inputs made it the ideal magnet for recycled materials from developed countries. Furthermore, reverse logistics whereby ships sailing back to China could benefit from reduced shipping costs and an army of cheap labour willing to do dirty and dangerous work solidified China’s position as the major final destination for recycled commodities.

Both sides of this arrangement benefited from comparative advantage. Advanced economies specialise in the collection of materials and have a lot of mixed packaging left over from consumption. Whilst China could specialise in the sorting and remanufacturing of materials into products which would be later consumed internally or exported overseas. This is big business; in 2016 China imported 45 million tonnes of scrap metal, waste paper and plastic with a value over $18 billion.

bales

Whilst often described as a ban, the process which was initiated in July 2017 and which came into force in January 2018 was really more of a quality control measure. It is true that 24 types of recyclable and solid wastes will be banned. This includes unsorted paper and plastics. But the new rules do not ban the import of plastic and paper outright. The Chinese government is however lowering the minimum contamination level from 1.5% to 0.5%. This is a tough but not impossible target.

Contamination is a term that will probably not be familiar to the general public, but is a common bugbear of those working in waste management and cleaning services. It is a broad term and many items can be considered contaminants. Contamination happens when non-recyclable items are mixed in with recyclables. When this happens a great deal of good quality materials can be spoiled. Some offenders are worse than others, with food, liquids and nappies being particularly problematic.

Looking at the China import restrictions, they have a point. They are paying for recyclable inputs, but they were only getting 98.5% of what they were paying for. These heavily contaminated materials, if imported to China are worthless and will have to be disposed of by incineration or landfill in their own domestic waste management facilities. These cases of rotting meat and soiled nappies as was recently the case in Brazil have happened on too many occasions, and China has had no other option but to take evasive action.

So whilst there has been a lot of finger pointing at China for the speed at which they have enacted these changes, perhaps the root cause of the problem lays a little closer to home. Local governments and businesses have to find a way to make recycling clearer and to reduce contamination levels. This would mean that intermediate sorting stations and materials recovery facilities (MRF’s) will have a cleaner feedstock with which to process and if necessary export.

The culture of recycling in developed countries has to change. Perhaps this latest restriction could be the wakeup call that was long overdue and sorely needed. For too long an out of sight out of mind mentality has pervaded. People treat resources wastefully and behave as if their actions have no consequences. This, as we can see, is not the case at all. I fully expect to see further measures enacted by local governments and waste carriers who will have to bear the brunt of these changes.

Perhaps it is also a wakeup call to process and remanufacture more of these materials in our own countries. Whilst it was no doubt convenient to export our problems to China, this window is closing and new options will have to be investigated. Labour costs are dramatically higher in developed countries, but this could be overcome with better technology and labour saving devices.

Nothing stays the same forever and things do change. No one country will be able to import waste on the same scale as China. The most likely destinations are other Asian economies like the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia. But still the onus is on developed economies to take ownership and control of this situation before serious backlogs begin to build up.

What you need to know

This article looked into China’s recent waste import restrictions. The impact is that as of January 2018 24 types of recyclable and solid wastes are now banned. Furthermore, new quality control restrictions apply to the import of paper and plastics, with the minimum contamination level reduced from from 1.5% to 0.5%. This will impact on businesses, local authorities and waste carriers who will have to meet these new standards should they wish to export materials to China.

What this tells us about recycling in Europe and North America is that China has been bailing out our recycling industries for 30 years and that era has come to an end. For a long time it made sense to export the packaging back to China, whose export industries thrived on low cost inputs. But the contamination issue has clearly become problematic and has been placing a large environmental and social burden on the country.

The future will no doubt involve some exports to a range of developing countries that will use these as inputs for their own development. But clearly more work is needed to process these materials domestically in developed economies.

Thank you for reading,

By Barnaby Nash

Please share your thoughts in the comments section below. What do you think of China’s waste import restrictions and what needs to be done to solve this issue before it becomes a problem?

Let’s stay connected

I can be reached on LinkedIn and on Twitter @FollowBarnaby