A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK

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Do the right thing

I hate the idea of being forced into things. It makes me squirm. If someone tells me that I have to do something, I will immediately start scanning around for arguments I can use to take an opposite position. It’s probably something to do with having three older and, I must have thought, smarter brothers.

Sometimes climate change and resource issues (like peak oil) feel like that to me. That we have no choice and that because of things that other people have done (over many hundreds of years perhaps) I am going to have to curtail my great life style. That offends my childish sense of freedom – my sense that it’s definitely not fair.

I remember watching this fun video on risk on Youtube a little while ago. I did my own little analysis over the weekend. What it told me was that barring catastrophe the major significant risks of climate change and oil depletion are to less developed countries than ours. Climate change is real, but the UK is already a very resilient, and wealthy country. We can buy our way out of many problems. Yes, it will probably hurt, but even here mainly it will hurt the poor.

And what about catastrophe? If you read the press and watch TV that is always very likely. One after another, regular as clockwork, the disaster stories come (and often go). Bird flu, MRSA, asteroid impact, child snatchers – the list goes on and on. This is hardly a surprise. News is “meant to be” negative. If you look up “news values” on the web, you’ll find lists of criteria by which stories are selected as newsworthy. Negativity – bad news – usually appears pretty high on the list.

Of course this wouldn’t trouble a normal person. But if like me you have a tendency to catastrophic thinking then you probably need to read the great Martin Seligman‘s book “Learned Optimism“. In which he gives simple techniques to manage this kind of destructive thinking.

So if we can dismiss catastrophe, or at least put it in its proper place, then from my simple analysis, I believe that in the UK (and other developed countries) we will probably continue to thrive and prosper. By probably I mean, trying to be very specific, “with some considerable certainty”. Despite the many catastrophes the world faces.

In that case seizing the business opportunity of sustainability, climate change, poverty, disease, hunger, and resource insecurity is a moral and ethical issue. It’s about doing the right thing. It’s about how we share this planet – about our connection with others. We need, for example, to create a low-carbon economy because it’s the right thing to do.

And how do we get there? I believe the first step is simply to ask questions like “what does a low-carbon economy look like for business?” What will your business look like if travel and transportation costs rise further? How dependent is your business on the price of oil? And what are the opportunities?

Anybody want to to make a start?


Stop working, stop spending and start living

I read a chapter by Tom Hodgkinson in “Do good lives have to cost the earth” last night. He wrote one of my favourite books of the last few years – “How to be idle.” His article is a variation on that theme – ending with the suggestion that in order to save the planet we should “stop working, stop spending and start living.”

I have huge sympathy with this idea and in our own small way I think this is what my wife and I have been trying to do for some years. I try to work as little as possible (although I fail lots of the time), and we have also down-shifted quite a bit.

Making this step is about attitude as much as anything else. And often my attitude is less than the best. I am still plagued by the same socially driven desires as most other people (Hodgkinson is clearly a saint). Security drives me, sometimes status drives me, and the desire for the easy, perfect, TV-like-life drives me.

But I agree with Hodgkinson, it’s worth the effort. Maybe I am getting better at it too. There really is more life with less spending and less work.

But what does that mean for businesses? Hodgkinson rails at business because he believes the whole system depends on greed. That 0 percent growth means death to business. And that “business” therefore drives us to work and spend.

I think he is talking about big business. I don’t see why small business (and he is the owner and operator of a couple of small businesses: publishing a magazine, writing books) has to be just about growth in terms of scale. It’s also about growing in strength. Perhaps it is easier to grow your small business if the economy is booming. But I don’t see why it has to be that way.

For example, a small business can get stronger by changing from a dependence on one large account to a larger number of smaller accounts. The latter business is stronger and more resilient. But its income (and profitability) may not change at all.

A small company can get stronger when one of the team learns some new sales skills. And then finds it easier and simpler to close a piece of business – using less time and less effort. If that sales person spends more time playing and doing nothing (and definitely not shopping) revenue won’t rise. The company won’t grow in conventional terms. But it is stronger and more resilient. So it has grown in that sense – like a piece of bamboo.


Why, why, why?

Why does this all matter? It’s a question that rattles around in the back of my mind a lot.

I am convinced by the urgency of doing something positive, and I can see that there is a huge opportunity waiting. But I really like the “why?” question. Was it Ricardo Semler – of Seven Day Weekend fame – who said his company’s strategy is to ask the question “Why?” repeatedly when faced by any new initiative or problem? I think he said it helps them prioritise, and ensure they only spend time on the things that give the most real benefits. That’s something I guess we would all aspire to.

And it’s such a simple technique.

So “why” do something about climate change? Why do something about poverty? Why try to seize the sustainability opportunity, when there are probably plenty of easier ways to make a living, and probably easier ways to make money, if that is your goal too.

I read a little piece by Rosie Boycott the other day in a very good book called “Do good lives have to cost the earth” by Andrew Simms and Joe Smith. I wouldn’t normally have much time for something written by a former editor of the Express newspaper. I can’t be bothered with newspapers at the best of times, let alone the Express. But she reminded me that the reason we need to do something in the UK about climate change is partly to show our leadership to the rest of the world. This in turn reminded me that we need to do the same about sustainability in general, even though the UK is a small country with relatively little impact on these global matters.

So one answer to the question “why?” is that we should do it because we can – we have the wealth and security. And we also should do it because we have a responsibillty and an opportunity to show leadership to business people all over the world.

If we in the developed world can’t make good sense and good lives out of the opportunities arising from sustainability, how can we expect others to do the same? And, with the size of the opportunities and the size of the problems, we really need these others to be part of the solution too.

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How to take advantage of an opportunity

I’ve just finished reading Felix Dennis’ very funny book “How to get rich”. It’s also very real and packed with useful insights.

I think the book is really about how to succeed at doing things (in his case it was getting rich). I think it’s very applicable to the question of how to ensure your business takes advantage of the sustainability opportunity.

I’ll put his suggestions into my own words (and add a couple of things I have gathered myself):

  1. Commit. Work out what you want to do. Choose something that is true for you. Make a no-let-out contract with yourself to do it. Make it despite any objections that come up.
  2. Recognise that everything that happens to you is down to you. Even including your upbringing and genes. If you can do this, then what happened in the past can be turned from a pain to something really useful – learning about what you did that worked and what you did that didn’t.
  3. Be totally fearless. Now that is difficult for a total coward like me. But I know it to be a great strategy. Amongst other things, it means stopping caring about what others think – and being true to yourself instead. It means handling what’s in front of you – and not thinking too much about what might or might not happen.
  4. Start (don’t wait or hesitate). That’s a tough one for me. I often procrastinate.
  5. Persevere. But if one approach doesn’t work, “do something different” (more on this later).

What a great plan. Anybody know if it works?