Want to know what citizenship means?

Don’t ask Bob Diamond, ask consumers…

Barclays cynical appropriation of the ‘citizenship’ agenda proves that the shift towards responsible capitalism will not come from the boardroom.  But neither should we look to shareholders or politicians to bring about meaningful change.  It is a new breed of consumer and the SME’s that serve them who are drawing up the battle lines in the struggle to find a better way of doing business.

Today Barclays is holding a ‘citizenship day’ to underline the banks commitment to being a good citizen. Bob Diamond even made citizenship one of the banks ‘execution priorities’ when he took over as chief executive, but what do they actually mean by citizenship?

Unsurprisingly the ‘what does citizenship mean to us’ section of their annual report is pretty vague. But the long and short of it is that Barclays subscribes to a very traditional conception of Corporate Social Responsibility.

"Our role is to help improve the lives of our customers. We must provide mortgages, allow businesses to invest and create jobs, protect savings, pay tax, be a good neighbour in the community while also generating positive economic returns for our investors."

Bob Diamond, Chief Executive, Barclays Bank

In other words, they believe, that as a bank, fulfilling their core business activities, hiring some staff, paying some tax, providing a few grants to community organisations and running the odd volunteer day makes them a good citizen.

There is a longstanding debate about the merits of CSR.  But the zeitgeist is shifting away from CSR towards the idea of socially responsible business. Increasingly we expect companies to not just ‘give a bit back’ but to internalise the claims of society and the environment by embedding values in governance structures, supply chains, HR and operations.   Socially responsible business breaks down the distinction between business, and social and environmental aims.

 Indeed, Barclays has attempted to tap into this value shift by emphasising how its lending activities stimulate ‘growth’. But surely making loans is just what banks do?  The same goes for conducting environmental impact assessments, treating customers fairly, or most the activities Barclays are celebrating today.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Barclay’s newfound enthusiasm for citizenship is nothing more than a cynical PR push.

Clearly its not boardrooms who are going to be the driving force creating a more responsible capitalism.  But who will?

Much has been made in the media of "shareholder spring".  The though is that newly reinvigorated and emboldened shareholders will act as a restraint on corporate excess and encourage large corporations to act more responsibly.

But shareholders main interest is maximising their returns.  The current spate of shareholder revolts basically boil down to the complaint that senior staff in large corporations, and in particular in financial institutions like Barclays, have been creaming off too much of the revenues in pay and bonuses and not paying enough in dividends to shareholders. 

Although shareholder activism may succeed in ensuring a fairer deal for owners by tying executive remuneration closer to return on equity, the reality is that shareholders have no incentive to fundamentally change the way big business operates. If we want to see meaningful change in the way big PLCs, and in particular big banks, behave we cannot rely on shareholders alone.

Politicians of all stripes have also been fumbling towards a notion of ‘responsible capitalism’  in the attempt to show an electorate ground down by a stagnating economy and austerity cuts that they are not merely puppets in the grand farce of the financial markets.  Ed Milliband tried to distinguish between producers and predators whilst Cameron waxed lyrical about the ‘John Lewis economy’ but both notions remains nebulous and lack credibility.

Articulating a vision for a responsible form of capitalism is an almost impossible task for our political elite who has spent the last 20 years purging themselves of any such ideological impulses. Moreover responsible capitalism cannot be defined a-priori by policy makers. It is taking shape and growing on the ground.  The role of politicians is to respond to what’s already out there and create an environment in which best practice can flourish.

It is a new breed of consumers and the SME’s that serve them who are on the frontline of the struggle to build a more responsible form of capitalism.  For consumers, companies offer one choice in a market in which they have to balance a range of competing concerns about the world they live in. 

Consumers are not just concerned the particular product or service they purchase but the quality of the air they breathe when they walk down the street, the size of their grandchild’s future tax bill, how happy the people who serve them are to name a few.  These consumers are relating their consumption choices to wider macro level concerns and so inadvertently breaking down the distinction between being good consumers and being a good citizens.

New business models and vehicles for collaborative consumption, often facilitated by the social power of the internet, are developing to serve the needs of these consumers. They range from highly commercial bulk buying schemes like Groupon, to consumer cooperatives, through to peer-to-peer platforms and movements like move your money which harness consumer power to achieve broader social aims.

Barclays lecturing us on citizenship is more than a bad joke. If they were serious about citizenship and social benefit they should start by properly consulting with the people already making it happen.

The UK has already slipped back into recession and with the looming banking crisis in the Eurozone we have more economic woes in store. We urgently need our banks to be better citizens.  And if you don’t think Bob Diamond is the right person to make that happen then maybe its time to take matters into your own hands and move your money?

Louis Brooke works for Move Your Money UK. Find them on Facebook or Twitter.

Photograph: Getty Images

Louis Brooke is a spokesperson for Move Your Money UK, a not for profit campaign group, promoting alternatives to the big banks. He is also communications manager for London Rebuilding Society, and co-founder and chairman of educational resource company now>press>play.

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The wildfire victims of forestry neglect - and the trees that saved them

Events in Portugal show how present mismanagement of the natural world reaches far beyond climate change, while also leaving communities more vulnerable to its effects.

When guesthouse owner Liedewij Schieving first heard about the wildfire in nearby Pedrogado Grande, she wasn’t overly concerned. “We always have fires here,” she explains at her home deep in the central Portugese forest.

It was only later that night, eating outside with her 11 guests, that the fear set in: “The wind was starting to smell and the sunset looked weird and dark.” By early the next morning the vast wall of flames had breached their remote valley. “I’ve never been in a war,” Liedewij says, still shaken, “but it was how I imagine war to sound.”

Soaring to temperatures of over 800 centigrade - high enough to melt windscreens and sink tyres into tarmac - the inferno eventually burned over 30,000 hectares of forest. By the time it was quelled, 64 adults and children had lost their lives, some dying trapped in their cars as they tried to escape down an unsafe road. “The biggest tragedy of human life we have known in years,” is how the country’s Prime Minister responded to the news on 18 June.

Two months later, the Pedrogado fire has proved the precusor to another summer of extreme weather events. Across southern and central Europe recent weeks have seen high winds and low humidity whip up wildfires everywhere from Spain to Serbia. At time of writing, 2,000 people in Portugal are trapped in the town of Mação as flames and smoke block their exit. In France, fires recently forced over 20,000 people from their homes and campervans.

Climate change is an unmistakable culprit. A Carbon Brief analysis of 140 studies from around the world found that 63 per cent of extreme weather events are linked to human-caused warming - making them either more likely or more severe.

Yet as countries assess the damage, evidence of humanity’s wider mismanagement of nature is also becoming harder to ignore. In Portugal, the excessive planting of eucalytpus trees is taking some of the blame for recent events. The species is the timber of choice for the country’s powerful paper industry, covering both industry-owned plantations and hundreds of tiny private smallholdings who sell it on. But it also happens to be highly flammable: think Grenfell cladding but spread over nearly a million hectares of land.

Liedewij’s story is evidence of this. Where dense eucalyptus forest once hid her home in dappled shade, the hillside is now charred and bare. “It was terrible,” she says of the moment she opened the gates for the farm animals before fleeing the valley, “we thought we were leaving them behind to grill”. Except that, as in all good disaster films, Liedewij’s goats didn’t burn - and nor did her picturesque house. Instead, fire-retardant willow trees by a nearby stream held the flames naturally at bay. On returning the next morning, she even found the hens laying eggs.

Liedewij Schieving outside her B&B at Quinta da Fonte - the bare hills behind the house show just how close the fire came.

Seen from above, her remote farmstead is now a tiny island of green amid a sea of black. She still panics at the smell from the woodfired heating, but support has poured in from friends both in Portugal and her native Holland, and she soon plans to fully re-open Quinta da Fonte B&B. Many guesthouses in nearby villages have already got back up and running.

Others among her neighbours, however, are not so lucky. Over 10,000 separate fires have destroyed 141,000 hectares of land in Portugal this year alone, with the annual cost of wildfire losses estimated to reach around €200m. A situation that risks further perpetuating the cycle of poverty and neglect that also played their part in the tragedy.

According to Domingos Patacho from the environmental NGO Quercus, the forest has become more hazardous as many of central Portugal's thousands of smallscale landholders leave their land untended to seek better wages elsewhere. Meanwhile, those who remain are often financially dependent on the income from the eucalyptus. They could choose to plant less flammable and water-hungry species, such as native corks or oaks, Patacho explains, but these can take twice as long to mature and provide a return.

The result is rising tension between the Portugese paper industry and the central government. After the June fire, the parliament pledged to push ahead with plans to limit the monoculture plantations. But the country’s Association of the Paper industry has previously warned that any ban on new plantations could hurt exports and jobs.

The reality is that both sides of the eucalyptus spread - both industry-owned and private - need improved regulation. But in a country only recently released from EU imposed austerity measures, debates over how enforcement could be financed are particularly tense. Not least since many areas do not even have an up to date land register, Patacho expplains.

At ESAC, an agrarian research base in central Portugal, professor Antonio Ferreira believes the time is now ripe for discussion between politicians, citizens and researchers about the future of forest land-use as a whole. The country needs to encourage people “to re-introduce native species, which will diversify the landscape and economic activity in those areas,” he says.

And the impulse is far from limited to Portugal. “We need to look at all the social aspects to get the full picture as well as the scientific side of forest management,” says WWF’s Jabier Ruiz of Europe’s wider wildfire problems. One route out of the woods may be greater EU policy support for those living in marginalised, rural areas, he adds.

What is clear is that as the continent warms, the need to improve the balance between social, environmental and commercial interests becomes ever more crucial. And while politicians debate, work at Liedewij’s home is already underway. Over the next few weeks, a group of her eco-minded friends, builders and topographers will help her re-build and re-landscape her farm. From digging terraces to stop landslides, to preventing the eucalyptus from re-emerging too close to the roads, their aim is to regrow a forest that works for all: a slow-burn project perhaps, but a bright one.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.