Sustainability & Waste: ‘Future of Packaging’ in The Times

New writing… Pleased to say I have had another couple of pieces published in The Times newspaper today, as part of a special Raconteur report on the Future of Packaging.

The Overview article which opens the report discusses whether sustainable packaging is ready yet to make the leap from niche to mainstream:

‘Resolving the Riddle of Sustainability’.

My second piece on Page 7 argues that tackling the number one problem of packaging waste demands upcycling the way wethink about the industry and the resource it produces :

‘Thinking outside the Burger Box’.

The full 16-page Future of Packaging report is available to view/download here.

Sustainability: Say the Words!

‘Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good’ 

IMG_1073There can be a nervousness amongst brands and organisations only just emerging into the eco and ethical arena, wary of communicating sustainability credentials and policies for fear of laser-like scrutiny of their entire operation (parts of which may well yet be ‘works in progress’).
Fear not… Often this perceived risk can be managed and a balanced profile presented that adequately explains both where you are currently on the journey and where you want to be. In short: ‘Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good’.

The Mainstreaming Reality/Lesson 

When it comes to ‘mainstreaming’, it is of course likely that big-name engagement and entry into a sector will help drive cost-competitiveness, especially in retail. However, there have also been some cruel business cases of pioneering early-adopters being squeezed off the shelf by less-sustainable copycat products with bigger marketing budgets and public visibility, undercutting on price.
The reality/lesson is that sustainability as a product/service differentiator needs communicating and defending just as aggressively as any other traditional attribute in a competitive marketplace.

Sustainability: Say the words!

FOOTNOTE: Free Sustainability Perception Audit (SPA) download.


‘Sustainability: Say the Words!’ will see a series of aphoristic ‘thoughts and shorts’ appear regularly throughout 2016 – feedback welcome via Email, or Twitter: @SustMeme.

Greening the footprint of Big Data

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Low-Carbon Business’, published in The Times, 3 September, 2012.

What do New York, Oregon, Colorado and North Carolina have in common with Norway, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand? The answer is that all are home to ‘green’ data centres. The physical carbon footprint of virtual lives lived online and in the cloud is real and growing. In response, albeit belatedly, energy use and emissions reduction have now become the focus of significant commercial investment and intense public scrutiny.

The list of brands involved reads like a roll-call of major corporates, including: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, FedEx, Google, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Yahoo. Performance is mixed, to say the least: For ‘Renewables & Advocacy’ in the report ‘How Clean is Your Cloud’, Greenpeace recently scored Google an ‘A’, Apple a ‘D’ (subsequently raised to a ‘C’) and Amazon an ‘F’.

Neither technology nor design are insurmountable obstacles to deeper-green solutions, as completed facilities prove: First Verne Global, then Green Mountain, have developed zero-carbon new-build data centres, in Iceland and Norway respectively, taking advantage of cheap renewable energy, plus low ambient temperatures for ‘free’ cooling.

However, ‘Let not the perfect be the enemy of the good’ as they say – ‘better’ is still better than nothing. Just as population growth relies on retrofit of current housing stock to meet demand, so growth in the digital universe also calls for investment in existing operational facilities, services and software for better measurement and management of data to optimise performance. Upgrading old centres, as well as old ways, is vital to scaling and speeding progress.

The future for sustainable low-carbon business is plain to see: Data can only get bigger; so, energy must get smarter.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Are we ready to shop for a low-carbon future?

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Low-Carbon Business’, published in The Times, 3 September, 2012.

When political leadership on sustainability matters appears absent, uncertain, inconsistent, or insufficient, who sets the low-carbon agenda? Is it climate-conscious consumers, or planet-smart business, or both? Are we entering a new branded age of push-pull dynamic, where supply and demand drive the market, together?

Servicing brand requirements, thought-leaders in marketing and advertising sectors already see this combined low-carbon driver-mix starting to trend. BBH London is an agency that has recently committed to developing a new sustainability-related client offering, headed up by Strategic Director Kirsty Saddler, who outlines the reasons and timing for the launch:

“Rapid increase of available information and so transparency this century, in large part thanks to digital, has lead people to question the role of business much more heavily and the impact of their decisions as consumers. It has also prompted businesses to be more accountable. Simultaneously there is increasing understanding and awareness of limits to world resources.

“Now is a time when both people and business have a motivation, opportunity and need to create change. Government can create the conditions for that change through regulation, but positive lasting change will happen when people and business play a willing part too.”

In the wider global marketplace, there is already strong evidence of demand for lower-carbon goods and services, putting pressure on company performance. Recent research for the Carbon Trust has shown carbon-reduction and associated transparency concerns scored significantly higher amongst consumers in emerging economies such as China and Brazil, than the US and UK. The message to companies with (export) aspirations in these areas is clear: Low-carbon is the number one business model for future growth.

The temptation is to assume that engagement patterns are pretty much the same everywhere, for consumers and companies alike and that, effectively, all is relative. However, this is not the case.

In Australia, whilst the waters of public perception have very much been muddied by party politics, interestingly, the business community does not share the same view – as Co-Founder and Partner at Sydney-based sustainability strategists and communicators Republic of Everyone, Ben Peacock observes:

“Much of the conversation has been defined by introduction of the carbon tax. What started as a quality attempt at leadership has become a political hot potato, with the opposition blaming its introduction for raising prices on everything from beer to school lunches. This has led to confusion and suspicion from consumers. In short, carbon has become politicised.

“But it’s not all bad news. While the conversation that has become messy for politicians and consumers, it is much clearer in the business community. We’re seeing quality leadership from banking and the built environment in particular, measuring, reducing, managing and offsetting their impact as part of sustainability and CSR programmes.”

In the UK, whilst purchasing has come under pressure and suppliers under scrutiny from an increasingly aware and active consumer community, as well as from commercial buyers, the two customer groups have different demands, as Group Marketing Director at leading hard-landscaping supplier Marshalls, Chris Harrop, explains:

“Whereas our trade customers might more typically be concerned with managing risk – as associated with such high-profile supply-chain issues as child labour – the consumer really is looking for benefit: This benefit comes with knowing and feeling that through their decision-making they have done ‘good’ as a purchaser.

“Consumers have become far more discerning, exercising their right to choose the ‘best’ deal, balancing cost and benefit. They are looking at ethical, environmental, sustainability credentials much more closely than ever before. We have seen more and more using our online Carbon Calculator to estimate footprints of products and projects, with this proving a trend across the board, all geo-demographic groups. Put simply, carbon is not an elitist issue – everyone has a footprint, everyone has spending power; given the right information, everyone can make a choice.”

This ‘feelgood’ benefit, as consumer-pull-through force for reducing emissions, does not easily find correlation in cost and efficiency models on the business-push side of the counter. A successful, established market movement offers a useful analogy to help understand how the two might one day become one: Fairtrade.

With Fairtrade, reputational risk provides the company flip-side of the coin to consumer-wellbeing benefit. Historically, however, Fairtrade has worn a human face – seen as directly connected to livelihoods of people – whereas the story of carbon has been wrapped up in impersonal complexities of climate-change science and macroeconomics. The picture, though, is changing.

The more the world comes to appreciate the human cost of climate change, the more carbon becomes a people and a personal issue; the more high-carbon lifestyles and consumerism appear ‘unfair’ to others. Is it possible to conceive of low-carbon business as the Fairtrade of the future? If so, the sustainable revolution may well be brought about by putting a face, not a price, on carbon.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland

Rise of the Smart City consumer

A version of this article first appeared in a Special Report on ‘Smart Cities’, published in The Times, 7 June, 2012.

WGRC Copenhagen

Ecological overhead: Urban Grey to Green is the theme of the 2012 World Green Roof Congress, to be held in Copenhagen, in September.

Sustainability is a modern business-model essential, not merely a wish-list desirable. Why? Ask any of the 1,000 thought-leaders and executives from commerce and brands who convene in San Diego this week to debate sustainability and you will get the same real-world answer: The force driving them together is consumer demand.

“Consumer expectations of business around the world are changing, as an increasingly internet-enabled and connected global citizenry becomes more informed about environmental and social impacts,” explains KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, Founder of Sustainable Brands, hosts of SB’12, in California.

“What we see in our community, from Ford to Zipcar, Intercontinental Hotels to Airbnb, Dell to Google and beyond, is that smart 21st-century businesses are proactively seeking to leverage technology to offer more sustainable solutions to consumers turned citizen. This smart company-city-consumer dynamic is key to delivering a sustainable economy for the future.”

We are inhabitants of a space where ethics, environment and economics meet, in a new age of e-conscience and e-commerce connectedness. In effect, we are all global citizens now. So, how are cities responding?

At the World Green Roof Congress in September, Copenhagen will host a five-continent, one-planet Mayoral debate on the future of cities. For the Danish capital, described as one of the five most sustainable cities in the world (along with San Francisco, Vancouver, Oslo and Curitiba), the smart money is on green, as Lord Mayor, Frank Jensen explains:

“For quality of living and working environment, for social equity and economic prosperity, the Smart Cities of tomorrow will be green cities, in every sense. Across the globe, from Portland, USA to Paris, France and Christchurch, New Zealand, to here in Copenhagen, Denmark, Mayoral offices understand urban biodiversity and green infrastructure are essential elements of any city vision.”

As if ecology, air quality, stormwater management and urban heat-island effect were not reasons enough to be greening up on the roof, there is another simple, pressing economic and physical development factor at play here: Land.

“Land will be like gold dust in Smart Cities of the future,” explains Dan Crossley, Sustainable Food expert, Forum for the Future “As a result, food-growing space in urban areas should become much more integrated into building design. I can envisage a world where vertical farms, rooftop growing and aquaponics are all the rage in Smart Cities, with excess heat from buildings used for greenhouses and biodigestors.”

With connectedness to nature key, some urban futurists endorse the concept of an open ‘living’ architecture, rather than a closed ‘built’ environment, arguing that no matter how intelligent the (green) infrastructure, no city can be truly smart if its buildings are dumb, dead, inert. Senior Lecturer at the School of Architecture, Design and Construction, University of Greenwich, Dr Rachel Armstrong describes a conflicted city:

“Essentially, the built environment is a clash of infrastructures – a geometrically conceived, object-centred human one and a complex, restlessly creative natural one. Our relentless ideological and physical war with nature has caused us injury from pollution, resource depletion and bacterial resistance. We need to end this war that we simply won’t win.”

For architectural peace to break out, smart, metabolic materials are needed that can both reduce carbon and improve ecology. These living materials can be of bacterial, plant, animal or even mineral origin: Some are technically ‘alive’ such as, bacteria; others are not, such as smart surfaces and paints. Already on the market and existing buildings are catalytic pollution-fixing surfaces, such as titanium oxide. Coming soon are applications for bacteria within concrete to help it self-repair, or ‘heal’.

Perhaps most talked-about are bioreactors: Engineered environments that support micro-organisms such as, algae, which can use light and carbon dioxide very efficiently to make biofuels and be integrated into building façades. Implications for development are far-reaching, as Rachel Armstrong concludes:

“It is not unthinkable that in the near future, buildings may have a series of bioreactors that give them a unique kind of physiology, with the ability to produce energy, food, remove pollution or glow in the dark. Our buildings will have organs that can turn modern consumers into producers – harvesting their own energy, or food crops – and will also have a positive environmental impact.”

Picture this vision of tomorrow’s world: An active, informed and happy citizenry, plus intelligent and successful business community, living and working together in harmony, in and around low-carbon, high-ecology Smart City environments. Is it really an impossible dream that modernisation of the metropolis could see planet-smart design driving down resource consumption, pollution and public-sector costs, whilst simultaneously ratcheting up performance, productivity and quality-of-life indicators? Whilst the prospects for cities of the future delivering on such promises might be highly debatable, the climate and building science are not: The need is visible, the technology doable.

Utopia? Now, that would be smart.

To view the Special report in full online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland