Ted Cleaver

Tag: Sustainability

Made a Difference

The day turned out to be quite the surprise. One of the two speakers nailed it. First of all, he says, consumers are clueless and relying on them for change towards sustainability is hopeless. He’s the President of CSR for a major retailer. The quote that stuck: Consumers are “social rebels in surveys and economic conservatives in the market.” So true. Or do you, does anyone, make a conscious decision based on criteria such as carbon footprint or social responsibility when buying FMCG’s? Hardly. I have a serious disdain for statements like “we’re too busy with Facebook, YouTube, and IPhones.” That doesn’t cover the complexity of the issue. It’s rather that the issue is exactly that, too complex. Who in the world would keep track of which raw materials go into the thousands of products they buy?

Well, said retailer offered a workshop in the morning, the first I attended. Now I know that all own-brand products have a certificate relating to product integrity. A-brands? Can’t do business without ‘em, even if some are well known for unethical behaviour. 75% of consumers state cost as the major selling point. The companies mission is, naturally, profit maximisation. A key takeaway however is that the ethical crusaders sense less resilience from their colleagues towards change now, after a decade of spearheading a sustainable vision. The workshop ends with a business case and presentations. My team is awesome. We have a supply chain student, one marketing, one IBA, one law, and me, sociology. I present our idea. The three other teams never had a chance. We win a nice book, one that I intend to discuss with Tony Montana at some point – basically any interesting topic is worthy of discussion with him.

Lunch was sweet. One thing I like about conferences, theme days, events, seminars, and the like is that you always meet interesting people. A couple of good conversations later the second workshop starts. Construction. Not really, I was brief yesterday; it’s project management of construction projects. A field I am wildly enthusiastic about. The construction industry and our building stock are the second biggest contributor in the world to CO2 emissions. Progress in this sector is major. And this company does fantastic work. They also presented us with a challenging business case. Come up with a concept and function for a designated vacant building, make a financial plan and assess risks and opportunities, keeping in mind 8 trends in the industry. Teams of five or six, 40 minutes, some data, and the possibility to call someone for extra technical specifications. Again, my team was cool. I started the pitch and ended it, with three other team members making major contributions to our presentation. The two other teams did pretty well, but lost in the end. As winners my team and I were invited to the boardroom – of this company I actually admire for quite some time – for champagne and lunch. Life is good.

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Make a Difference

Tomorrow is Make a Difference Day. It’s about making a difference, get it? With business. Two speakers with impressive titles, created by progressive companies, will start off the day. Then, 6 companies forced some of their young talent to provide workshops for us. We are students. I imagine most students present have a strong set of morals and an intrinsic drive to do good. As do I, and who knows, maybe the day will be more interesting than reproduction of politically correct idealism.

“The business of business is business,” a man whose ability to bridge theory and reality was fried by mathematical abstractions once said. Neo-liberal derivatives of Smith’s paradigmatic ideas created a maelstrom: the academic justification of uninhibited greed. Pursuing economic gain in a strictly rational fashion became a deeply rooted assumption across the board. Everything was subjected to economist’s reductionist market functions. Think about it. It took a Nobel Prize for the world to realize that cost/benefit analyses will not always result in the rational maximum. Who knows how long it will take until the realization seeps in that supply and demand functions will not produce stable equilibriums by the slight of an invisible hand.

Tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow will be about doing the right things right for the right reasons. Tomorrow will be all about ideals. It’s an interesting proposition. Is it possible that the influx of a generation who have heroes like Yunus and Obama can fundamentally change a system that runs on profit alone? Will sustainability become more than a marketing tool when most of the decision-makers in a company are of a generation that grew up with impressive and memorable documentaries on our planet? It is entirely possible. Reality is constructed socially. The individual is a minor actor, but change the moral fabric of a generation and anything is possible. History has proven that anything can happen, for better or for worse.

For worse, most recently. Capital is without a doubt the most important production factor in our economy. What, 8 (or 7?) of the biggest companies are banks. And then, the financial crisis, largely attributable to the ability of it’s main actors to uncouple their system from their environment, hits. 2008 delivered evidence beyond reasonable doubt that the most powerful industry in the world functions according to principles that champion only one of the three P’s, and that this industry is relentless and harmful.

There is this seeming dichotomy. There is capitalist structure, there is the dark side of power, there is the incredible skill of the elite to bend governmental law to their will. Then there is hope, the potential for change, and perhaps most significantly, manoeuvring space for innovation that does take People and Planet into account. My mission for tomorrow is to press the representatives of two of this countries’ biggest companies (one retailer, one construction) for answers. I want to know which actors and institutions inhibit a more green, or blue-sea, or sustainable, or take-your-pick trajectory. And I want to know which actors facilitate positive development. How much can you achieve as an employee? How much can you rely on governmental support, societal pressure, and NGOs?

To be continued.