If products could talk

If products could talk - T-shirtPeople around the world want a plasma TV lifestyle and the paradox is that it is the demand for these lifestyles that is putting the planet under so much at risk.  Part of living sustainable lifestyles is making sure that we source, produce, use and dispose of products (in their widest sense) in a sustainable way.  So that’s why I ask companies ‘what would you say if your products could talk?’  Would they be proud or embarrassed?  How many heroes are there in your product story and how many villains?  “If products could talk” includes two case studies – brass door knobs and oil sands.

Imagine a familiar environment for many business people, the corporate conference. You are a delegate and the chair announces: “And the next speaker is …,” and much to your surprise the chair introduces one of your products. This time the talk has a specific theme, “And the product will talk about its impact on people and the environment.” How would you being feeling now?  Excited and proud because you know the story is going to be good, or embarrassed or overwhelmed with gut wrenching worry because you are concerned about how truthful the product will be. Maybe you will be curious, but nonetheless anxious because even you don’t know the story.

I have successfully used this metaphor at the start of many of my presentations. The essence is simple, if you don’t know, you don’t care. This logic was taught to me on my very first day at B&Q. Bill Whiting, my boss, experienced this dilemma first hand. It was 1990 and a journalist asked him, “where does your tropical wood came from?” His honest answer was, “I don’t know,” and the journalist’s reply was,  “if you don’t know, you don’t care”. The point is as relevant today as it was then.

Product stories have been bread and butter for environmental and business journalists for years. The formula is simple, compelling and most importantly, not wholly unreasonable. Making a negative link between an environmental or human problem in some remote corner of the world with a product we use in our lives and highlighting the retailer or brand that sold the product, is welcome fodder for the media. Some journalists might choose to blame them, but that is often overkill.  Just asking the retailer whether they know of the situation and were doing something about it, is enough. If they weren’t aware they look exposed and if they did know, but still had not taken action, at best they look insincere and at worse, complicit.

Primark, Marks and Spencer, Wal-Mart and IKEA are just a few brands whose pyjamas, rugs or other products have been linked with child labour in Bangladesh, Turkey or elsewhere.

B&Q, Home Depot, or Harrods have been linked with tropical deforestation whilst the diamonds in the ring on your finger might, some will claim, run with the blood of the conflicts funded by their mining.

Many stories have a common pattern. Villains start the story with the upper hand, all looks bad and then over time the heroes win through. Some heroes were always heroes and sometimes it is the villain that becomes the hero, but the story has a happy ending.

This product story approach drove the thinking at B&Q. Bill Whiting was an ex-journalist, so he intuitively saw the logic of the product story approach. With my scientific training (rather than marketing) I was in search of the story but with a deeper focus on cause and effect, wider implications and even the solution. One B&Q story is told, not through the lens of the product but how it unfolded for me, as I, with the support of Bill Whiting, started to unpick it for B&Q. Then I close on one more story about the oil sands of Alberta.

Knobs and knockers

We use brass handles all the time, but do we ever notice them? Aligarth is a town north of Delhi and if there is a brass door handle capital of the world, it is there. In the early 1990s my work took me to the sooty basements and cellars of Aligarth where B&Q’s door handles were born. I was lucky enough to witness, listen to and smell the story of our humble door handle.

Aligarth is a four-hour drive from Delhi. It was a relief to finally arrive as the traffic in India ranged from complete gridlock to a terror run.  There was no lane discipline and no rules. The image of a woman, lying in a pond of her blood, crushed almost beyond recognition by the overturned lorry, haunts me still.

Vinta, IndiaThe streets of Aligarth were packed with cyclists, mules, cattle, scooters and carts. The streets are narrow and along both sides of the street are tiny shops, each specialising in a few basic items such as plastic ware, pot and pans, batteries, hardware, spices and herbs and in one shop, coffins. Every other shop seemed to offer bicycle repairs.

Our car turned from an even narrower side street into a side alley and stopped. A large Indian man came out to greet us.  He was the owner and was followed by his three young sons. Whilst shaking my hand the elder son placed garlands over my head. I felt like royalty.

His factory was squeezed down the street. There were four floors and a large dark basement. After the usual small talk we were invited to tour the factory starting with the courtyard.

The floor was hard, sun baked red mud. In one corner was a pile of brass scrap from old ship parts, bar fittings, pipes and other brass junk. Three Indians squatted on the floors sorting all this junk into distinct piles. Next to this pile was a pile of black coke.

Alongside one wall were six holes containing metal pots which glowed red. One Indian took some of the scrap, and with iron tongs lifted the lid from one of the pots. Yellow smoke billowed from the pot and he carefully dropped the scrap into it and replaced the lid.

Two workers went to another pot and with some metal bars, removed the lids and lifted the pot from the hole in the ground.  Flames from the burning coke shot up as if to try and drag the pot back into the hole. The flames failed. It was carried over to a stack of circular metal frames. These were filled to the top with black sand and in the highest one was a small hole. The pot was then handed over to one man who carefully poured the molten brass into the hole and yellow smoke bellowed as droplets of brass spat everywhere.

I was told that the brass was over 1,000 degrees centigrade. All the Indian workers had one thing in common. Because of the climate and heat of this manufacturing process, other than tatty shorts, they were all naked. Some wore gloves but none wore any shoes. This was despite the splashes of molten brass.

After a few minutes the frames were flipped over and the sand fell out together with red-hot brass door handles. With metal bars, the workers separated the sand from the handles which were left to cool.

On the upper floors were rows of grinding machines. Indians sat at these machines holding the handles against spinning stone grinding wheels. Sparks and splinters of brass and stone shot from the machine. There were no guards on the machine and the workers had loose clothing hanging close to the spinning parts.

In the basement workers sat on the mud floor alongside rows of polishing machines.  One to each machine, they pushed the brass handles against the polishing wheel. The polishing produced fine black soot but without dust extraction, the floor, walls and ceiling were caked with this soot – it was everywhere. The only human feature you could recognise was the white of the workers’ eyes and teeth. Some had rags to stop the dust going into their mouths. I snapped away photographing all this detail. My emotions were mixed as I was horrified but also I experienced a strange sense of excitement. Perhaps it was the same mixed emotions journalists must experience when covering a major disaster – horror at the event but excitement at being the one to have found a story that needed telling.

The factory was in a terrible mess. Wiring hanged from the ceiling, lights were suspended on these wires and in some cases wires were joined with tape while the fire exits were blocked or did not exist. Stock was piled indiscriminately along the corridors, on the stairs and overhanging on shelves. This factory was lethal.

I challenged the owner. “This is the way India is, all the brass factories are the same,” he replied.

He was right, as we found out when we visited another factory. Here the working conditions were even more cramped and the polishing unit was even worse. Whilst photographing this room, we were thrown into complete darkness because the power had failed and apparently it happened all the time. “I would not like to be holding a crucible of molten brass when that happened,” I thought.

I wanted to see the grinding area which was down a narrow spiral staircase with a low ceiling. I had to bend over to enter the tight stairway. In this polishing unit, however, were youngsters and while it was hard to tell their age they looked too young.

The agent was unclear how he was going to make the changes but he recognised that things had to change. As he drove me to the airport the next day he handed me an A4 brown envelope. He had found out only that morning that a report commissioned by the Indian Government on the health problems with India Health Workers had been published.

“One manufacturer said to the author, “see how dextrous this young child is (who was working at a furnace). He has to be because if a drop of molten brass falls on his foot there will be a hole in it.”

“Local people and governments officials said that all moulders develop tuberculosis.”

“The most hazardous process was considered to be that of moulding in a box furnace workshop. One young man pointing to six children said “none of these children will survive beyond the age of 30 because they will all die of TB.”

“60% of polishers get ill and approximately 20-30% of them soon die.”

It was in the early 1990s that finding out about the story behind brass door handles led to B&Q working with suppliers to dramatically improve working conditions through introducing new health and safety standards.  And while they may have seemed wanting in terms of western sensibilities, they represented a major step change compared to what I witnessed.

The oil sands of Alberta

Alan Knight at Calgary, Alberta, CanadaI found out through my work with Virgin that it is impossible for an airline to boycott fuel made from oil sands.  This is because sources are mixed and different airports have different suppliers. This means that the ambition of a leading environmental group to boycott Canadian oil sands by the major airlines could not be realised. However, having now visited the sites and spent considerable time with those involved, I can see that there is a long list of issues with the oil sands but I do not believe supporting a boycott is fair.

The allegations against oil sands is harsh: high carbon footprint, huge mines, lakes of toxic waste, declining caribou, dead ducks and what sounded like a hole the size of Florida opening up in nature’s wilderness. Not fair, maybe, but it was disturbing to see the huge efforts of my client Virgin to reduce its carbon footprint being potentially offset by the increased impact of oil’s extraction and upgrading in Canada. Oil sands is not just a local issue, but one that affects the carbon ambitions of companies around the world.

Hats off to Calgary Economy Development and John Hankins, its VP Investment and Trade Development. Keen to engage Virgin and other companies in its ambitions for Calgary to become a global energy centre, it contacted my office. I relayed my small but negative exposure to the oil sands debate and a few months later I found myself in the freezing cold of the Suncor mine and the ConocoPhillips’ insitu operation at Surmont.

I came under my own steam. As an advisor to Virgin, it was prudent for me to get a sense of the reality behind the stories, and as someone who is driven by the complexity of achieving sustainable development in our growing global economy, nothing beats conversations with the real experts. These are my own thoughts, not Virgin’s.

The allegations against the oil sands industry might be biased, but they are the natural consequence of a lack of ambition.

Calgary, Alberta, CanadaI was informed of Calgary’s determination to be a global energy centre. As the multinationals arrived, the finance houses came and others followed and so an international status feels inevitable. Indeed, Alberta cannot have the second largest oil supply in the world and not be a global energy centre.

The world needs oil, but it needs a low carbon footprint just as much. This global resource arrives with worldwide problems and therefore responsibility.  That responsibility needs to be embraced, not just for Alberta or Canada, but also for the global population. During my time in Calgary and at the oil sands sites, I saw one missed opportunity after another.

My first field visit was a steam assisted gravity drainage operation, situated in pristine forest. I am bemused: where are the big mines, the dirty tailings and all the environmental devastation? I am shown a schematic of the vertical pipes fanning out to the horizontal. Steam is injected into one pipe and the oil oozes into an underlying well. This operation reminds me of conventional oil extraction, the only difference being the need for steam. I am told that 80% of oil sands will be harvested this way.

I think that branding both the SAGD (steam assisted gravity drainage) styles and the mines jointly as oil sands was a stunning communication misjudgment that has diluted the different messages of both.

Water is a massive issue. There is a lot of steam needed for this operation. But steam under pressure has so many other uses. Why not use the hot water to generate electricity? Co-generation came across as an interesting, but slightly inconvenient afterthought. I saw it as a central strategic opportunity to create new sources of energy and to lead the way on low carbon global economy.

Virgin and other airlines are taking biofuel opportunities seriously. Algae is a logical bet, but what would industrial scale algae need? It needs CO2, large amounts of space and warm water. What will impair progress on bio-fuel?  The scale of infrastructure required to move it into the markets. What I saw in Surmont were the key elements for industrial scale algae production. Algae might even sequester some of the carbon.

Mines are big, mines are dirty and in juxtaposition to the upgrading facilities, they are a sobering reminder of the sheer scale of the operations required to fuel the global economy. This is a frontier mine in a frontier town. That’s fine, but it is hard to relate that culture with the low carbon future the world economy needs and wants.

As a British citizen growing up during the North Sea boom, I am staggered to learn that Alberta is as much as 50 North Seas. But what makes me uncomfortable is the scale of the investment needed which could be higher than $300 billion, with $50 billion already committed despite the downturn. The oil sands, in the eyes of the critics, could be seen as absorbing the capital needed to make ultra low carbon energy a mainstream commodity.  With that amount of investment comes a massive responsibility. It is a disservice to the world and the oil sands industry that the same capital invested in this necessary resource is not leveraged to develop and embrace the low carbon technology of the future.

My first visit to Alberta was in early 2009 and having sat through several slide shows from different oil sands groups, I felt that: “It’s all about you”. The recurring theme was defensiveness, followed by reassurance that the allegations of environmental devastation were exaggerated. I was reminded several times that the bulk of the carbon footprint was not the processing of the oil, but at the combustion stage.  The implication was that carbon emissions are not an oil producer’s problem, but my problem as an airline passenger or that of the airline carrier. Is that fair?  If the oil did not combust, we would not buy it.  The oil sands’ customers can and are making that combustion more efficient, but as the carbon footprint of oil production rises, they have to work harder to maintain the status quo.

I saw the Alberta oil sands community as a loyal family. But as a family it is becoming uncomfortable. Having become so preoccupied in defending the industry, it had been distracted from ambition and creativity. No-one dared speak up because no one wants to start a big family bust up, but it is an internal battle which needs to be fought. It is a global energy centre with global problems and a global ambition. The potential narrative is perfect: using the technology and resources necessary to supply the world with its current need for fossil fuel, oil sands producers are accelerating the technology innovation in low carbon and renewable energy of the future.

In the future, carbon intensive choices will be made less competitive. It will be a slow transition, but even Alberta oil will not last forever. In missing today’s opportunity it is increasing tomorrow’s risk. Its resources are both high in carbon footprint and finite.

The industry can think bigger and act bolder. It needs to use the technology and investments available today to be a global player within low carbon technology. If it doesn’t, someone else will. And it will be where it started, a provincial town producing dirty oil. It has the most to win and the most to lose.

That however is all beginning to change. Since 2009 I have returned five times and I have seen at first hand how Calgary City and the some of the oil companies have taken a real lead. John Hankins led an initiative where nine of the 15 larger oil cities in the world signed a pledge to reduce their own carbon emissions and I have witnessed the creation of the Oil Sands Leadership Initiative. Here five oil companies have started to work to together to find technical solutions to the challenges and to open more creative and constructive dialogue with the rest of the world.