Positive Thought Six: Having a product story you are proud of

If your products could talk – what would they say?

It’s Saturday night. You are slumped on the sofa watching TV, and the familiar theme music for your favourite chat show comes on. The host strolls down the stairs:

“Tonight, I will be talking to,” he says, but this time it is not the usual roster of A and B list celebrities.

“Flown in from India, especially for us, a brass door knob. We have an organic strawberry from Sussex, England, and we have garden bench from Vietnam”.

This intrigues you because you are the supplier of one of those products.

What would these items talk about? Well, true to the host’s style, they would talk about their life stories. Trust me: they would be just as interesting as Posh and Becks, or Elton John!

Brass Door Knob would describe childhood memories of being part of a pile of European scrap; perhaps from an old ship or old pub fittings. It would describe a sea crossing to India, where it was melted down and cast into door knobs. Castings would not be in a single factory, but in one of hundreds of small cottage units. The process was dangerous, involving hot molten metal and filthy smoke. There might even be a short video clip.

You can imagine the scene – an Indian village, huts glowing from the light of the furnaces and sparks lighting up the night as molten brass is poured from crucibles to the sand moulds. Brass door knob would tell of its journey to the polishing units: dark basements where people sat in long rows, one person per polishing wheel. For thirty minutes or so, they pushed the knob against the polishing wheel until it was scratch free and shining. Polishing created a fine powder which filled the air, caked the walls, and covered the floor to a depth of several centimetres.  The polishers were so filthy that all that could be seen was the white of their eyes. Some of the dust settled in their lungs, planting the seeds of tuberculosis. As for Door Knob’s future, it held a sea crossing to the UK, and a few days or weeks on the shelves of your local hardware retailer before several happy years on the door of a house until it was retired and replaced by a new more trendy design.  Who knows? It might be scrapped and sent back to India to start the whole journey all over again!

Organic strawberry has a far better story to tell.  It probably had a caring, chemical-free rearing, and is excited at the prospect of telling the audience about the satisfied customer enjoying a healthy, nutritious dessert. 

Garden bench could have a good or bad story. It may boast with pride its story of a high quality of forest management – so good, in fact, that it has the been certified by the Forest Stewardship Council and is now proudly being displayed in a retailer like John Lewis, Home Depot, or B&Q – retailers which proactively source FSC  products. Alternatively, the story could be the older and far sadder story of rainforest destruction, wildlife murder, and the exploitation of forest people.

Every product we buy, eat, or use in our life has a story to tell. The compelling common sense of fair trade, ‘one planet’ living, or organic living would be so obvious to retailers and consumers that it would, I’m sure, be mainstream. 

Many business people spend time (perhaps too much) on the conference circuit listening to human beings give their views on the role of business and consumers in creating a more sustainable future. Sometimes, it is mind numbingly painful to listen as people explain what needs to be done. Sometimes, I wonder if we are making the story too complicated.

All products – food, toilet seats, hammers and wallpaper –  begin in the natural environment. All those same products have had some element of production, either in small cottage units or huge factories. This means thousands of peoples’ lives are made better or more difficult by that production, and a large proportion of those products have travelled huge distances from the Far East or Eastern Europe, crossing borders and cultures. Wallpaper from Finland, pine shelves from South Africa, lights from China, lampshades from the Philippines, rugs from Turkey, coir mats from India and even flowers from Kenya. I bet you did not know your living room was really a multicultural society of objects!

So if you, as a business person, look at your offer and ask these questions…

  1. Where in nature did the raw materials come from – a forest, a field, the sea?
  2. In what country was this product made?
  3. How many people were involved in making this product and what are their lives like?
  4. What will happen to this product when I do not want it anymore?
  5. And (as asked already) how much raw material would be required to make my product available to a world of 9 billion?

…in most cases, you will not know. Imagine if the products could just tell you. If the story were of environmental destruction and human rights violations, would you shuffle with embarrassment? Conversely, what if the story demonstrated environmental enhancement and a genuine case of improving peoples’ lives? Would you be proud of that product? This argument works even better for the manufacturers and retailers who bought them to your door.

In my conference speeches I often ask: “if your products could talk, would you be proud or embarrassed about the story they told?” I then deliver an even more thought provoking challenge – do you even know what that story would be?

Knowing the story unlocks action. A lot can be done. As I said, my own career in corporate sustainability started at B&Q.  The decision to create the position I was lucky enough to fill was prompted by a question from a journalist – “Where does your tropical wood come from?”. The marketing director answered, “I don’t know.” The journalist’s response was provocative – “if you do not know, you do not care!”

The situation in 1990 was that B&Q’s products were made with wood from unknown sources and, without knowing the source, it was impossible to provide any reassurance on quality of forest management. I toured the major forest sources and compiled data. We knew enough then to take action. In 2011, B&Q announced that all of its wood based products came from a known forests, certified as  being managed to a set of 3rd party environmental and social standards from either the Forest Stewardship Council (which B&Q helped create) or from the PEFC, which was created as an alternative choice to the FSC.

This announcement took 20 years of supply chain re-engineering to achieve. But they did it. I was lucky enough to kick start the process but it was a long, hard, slog for many people across the business, and the 100s of supply chains impacted.

Knowing the product story is a start. With that knowledge, you can eliminate the obvious bad things – but how does it relate to the bigger 9 billion challenge? What now needs to done to ensure that your product offering is having either a neutral or positive contribution to making 9 billion sustainable lives possible by 2050?

Rethinking Corporate Sustainability – If Only We Ran the Planet Like a Shop! (374.8 KB)