Conscious-Business.org.uk

A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


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Roll up, roll up

What a great time to enrol people in the business of doing something about social and environmental issues.

Gordon Gecko was wrong, greed is not good. As some of the financial fat cats get their comeuppance surely we’ll see  an acceleration towards a world where more people use their working lives to do something worthwhile.

But what might stop this happening?

Firstly, I suppose, especially in an economic downturn, people might claim poverty. But as fellow JustMeans blogger Osbert Lancaster wrote in “Responsible business in a time of turmoil?” – one good strategy is to remember we in the West are rich. Wildly rich compared to many of the people in the developing world.

Selfishness isn’t a bad strategy in my view. If you don’t look after yourself, what chance do you have of looking after others? The trick is probably to try to sort oneself out, in every way, then start to see what you can do for others.

Secondly, many people seem to argue there’s no point. The world’s going to hell in a handcart anyway, so why bother. Well is it? It seems to me that our biggest hope is the very presence of sites like JustMeans, and all the thousands (millions?) of people signing up to similar initiatives. If together we create a critical mass, then surely there’s some hope?

Thirdly, some people seem to feel they aren’t able to do anything. Maybe we haven’t got  the skills. Or maybe we don’t have any choice.

That’s something that took me some years to fully understand. That really everything we do is our own choice. We may tell ourselves that we have no choice but it’s simply not true. No one cooerces us. Or very rarely anyway.

Anything else? People like me, preaching? Personally, I hate being told what to do. And I do worry that many of our social and environmental organisations are too exclusive, run by “professionals” and “experts”. People who “know” the answers. (Hopefully that’ll trigger a response!)

I like the message that came across from Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest video – that this movement is wide and deep, broad and inclusive. Everyone, literally everyone, has something to contribute.

So dive in.


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New ways to consume

Another solution to over-consumption is simply that we stop consuming so fast! Slowing down makes a lot of sense to me, especially when it leads to a better experience as in the Slow Food movement. Yum.

And another is to create a rental business.

One example that has been around a really long time is video rental. Why does everyone have to buy a video, causing one to be manufactured, when a perfectly good business model exists for renting them? As we have seen the model does work well – it’s stood the test of time and evolved from shops into postal rental services like DvdsOnTap which became Lovefilm and so on. Maybe it will be replaced by electronic downloads, but so far I am surprised by how resilient the model seems. Maybe there’s more to these services than just selling the same physical item over and over again?

Another more recent example are the car clubs popping up everywhere (Streetcar, WhizzGo, CityCarClub to name just a few). It’s the same business model – buy one car and let many people use it.

I wonder what other goods could be provided in this way?

If you do go down this route, of course, differentiating yourself becomes more interesting. It has little to do with the product itself – differentiation comes from the way the service is offered. It’s good therefore to see more and more consultancies emerging specialising in this area – I came across the Engine Group just today.


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Close the loop

On Saturday I saw again the great little animated film The Story of Stuff – “a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns” according to the blurb.

One of the solutions proposed in the film is closed-loop manufacturing, an idea pioneered by William McDonough and Michael Braungart in the early 1990s. Essentially closed-loop manufacturing does what it says on the tin, and you can find out more about their version of it, “cradle-to-cradle” or C2C Design on their website.

Well worth a look.


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Solar power – no thanks

I’ve asked the question before. Just what are these business opportunities? And do we need an innovation strategy to define them?

Not always – sometimes you can just look. And sometimes a little idle speculation helps. I like the idle bit especially.

It’s been raining a lot in the last few days. I have been looking out of my office window at the rain. I looked and looked. And looked again. The view from my office Window

Where does all that rain go I wondered?

The answer is a whole slew of new rainwater harvesting businesses – such as www.clearwell-rainpiper.co.uk. Offering rainwater collection services for businesses and consumers alike. As their blurb says, not only does collecting rainwater save a lot of money for a bigger business that is greening itself. But it also saves energy and can prevent flooding.

What could be more appropriate. In a rainy country like ours.


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Smug

I am feeling just a tiny, tiny bit smug today. As I watch oil and energy prices soar. And I revel in my new lawnmower.

The old flymo blew up a few weeks ago. We have a small lawn. I thought “Who needs electricity?”. “Who needs petrol?”. So I sought out a push mower.

Brill, I discovered, is the Rolls Royce of push lawn mowers.

Mine is simple and elegant. It’s well engineered and very well made. It packs up small. Cuts like a dream. Will last for ever (or so they say).

It uses no fuel. And it’s good exercise. Lord knows I need it.

I sincerely hope Brill practices low energy manufacturing. I wonder where they get the steel?

It’s made in Germany. So I guess it cost something in fuel and carbon terms to get it here. That troubles me.

Now there’s an opportunity. 25 million UK households. I wonder how many have a lawn?


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Champion of small business?

Just listened to an interesting interview with David Wei, CEO of Alibaba.com on the great www.smallbizpod.co.uk.

After a slightly slow start it was interesting to hear of his conversion from a believer in the power of large corporations (while an employee of B&Q, I think it was) to his belief in the power of small business. He gave the example of B&Q’s minimum size order policy meaning it missed out on some of the opportunities created by the Alibaba global SME market-place.

He was also asked about the issue of pollution (including carbon emissions, I assume) in China and immediately identified an opportunity to use Alibaba.com to improve the efficiency of freight transportation in China.

Speaking about founder Jack Ma’s statement about having no technology, no money, and no plan, David interpreted these as three virtues: having to match technology to customer needs, keeping entrepreneurial, and staying flexible.

Alex Bellinger, the presenter, explained that Alibaba.com IPO’d last year raising around $1.5 billion and shortly afterwards was valued at around $26bn (yes billion). So, I am not really sure it counts as a small business. And it’s exceptional in many ways, but for me it highlights the possibilities and opportunities of the new global, internet-enabled economic landscape. This is also the landscape in which sustainability opportunities lie.

And it’ll be interesting to see how they use their money and newly found confidence. Alibaba_local?


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To grow or not to grow?

One of the debates that seems to be threatening to ignite right now is the one about economic growth and how it fits with sustainability.

Is it possible to have an economy that grows, and be sustainable at the same time? Some say yes, some say no, some say maybe.

The issue to me seems to be partly one of definition. Wikipedia defines GDP as “the total market value of all final goods and services produced”. The article also suggests that GDP represents a measure of “the sum of value added at every stage of production (the intermediate stages) of all final goods and services produced within a country in a given period of time”.

There’s a well-known saying in business: “Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity”.

What I take this to mean is that any fool (more or less) can increase turnover, by for example, selling more products and services. The path to sanity is to focus not on turnover but on profit – because profit is a better measure of the value that an individual or an organisation adds to other people. It’s a measure of what we give, and, crucially, how well we do it.

If we accurately meet really important needs, and we do it really efficiently, the more profit we’ll earn.

I am not an economist, and so am probably making a idiot of myself here. But from my reading, GDP seems to be measuring something analogous to a country’s turnover, not profit.

Plants and animals (and people) grow – so I can’t see anything inherently wrong with growth. Small businesses seem to understand that growth and development isn’t just about size and scale. Profit seems to me to be an excellent way of measuring what we give to other people, and measuring our progress at getting better at that.

By the way, Wikipedia also lists 14 or 15 separate criticisms of GDP. It lists five alternatives to GDP and I heard about another one the other day: Gross Peaceful Product.

Perhaps as the sustainability/economic growth debate develops, we’ll agree some more useful measures of growth?


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Solutions not problems

There are some excellent summaries of what the sustainability challenge is all about. Personally I am more interested in solutions than the problems.

But just to set the context, I guess if you have read this far, you’ll agree that actually it’s not that surprising that as the world population has grown from around 2 billion people to around 6 billion in the course of just my lifetime (I am 50 years old) that the world is creaking a little under the strain.

That’s a huge understatement of course. There’s a long list of problems we face: climate change, poverty, nuclear annihilation, terrorism, resource insecurity, and so on.

To me sustainability is the solution to all these – “to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (that’s the Bruntland Commission’s definition).

And it’s solutions I am much more interested in than discussing the problems. And specifically what small and medium-sized businesses can do.