Boosting green entrepreneurs

Sian Berry argues the slow growth in green industries demonstrates more action is needed

It’s amazing how slowly things happen sometimes. This week I visited Pli Design, one of a growing number of green manufacturing companies in south east London, at their workshop in Dulwich. While we filmed a short report on business policy for the local news, the owner, Christopher Pett, told me how he imagined, when they started making sustainable furniture in 2003, that they would be jumping onto the back of a well-filled bandwagon. In fact what he found was that he was joining a very small group of business people who can only be described as pioneers.

The slow growth in green industries means unfortunate gaps in the supply chain, too. When looking for an alternative to formaldehyde-filled MDF, Chris found that he couldn’t source eco-friendly, waste straw fibre, compostable fibreboard from anywhere in this country. No company in the UK was able to supply him, so importing materials from China was the only option. This is a shame when we’re not exactly short of waste straw in this country and could easily make what he needs closer to home.

What we do have, however, is lots of old, unwanted games consoles, leading to what I found the most exciting of Pli’s products. The ‘Reee’ chair has been made possible by the European WEEE Directive, which means producers of electronic equipment have to collect back old products at the same time as filling the world with new gadgets.

The plastic casings from games machines are an ideal raw material for the back and seat of the Reee chair. Being a ‘pure’ material, in contrast to most plastic collected for recycling from households (which is mixed up with all kinds of other bits and pieces) its mechanical and aesthetic properties are known precisely. And, while the plastic’s flame retardant content is too low to meet regulations for new games consoles, it has excellent fireproofing by office chair standards.

The reason I’m so excited by this is that it’s a great example of real re-cycling, not the down-cycling you get with mixed collections, which means recycled products are often lower-grade and lower-tech than the original product. And, because the material is kept pure while making the chairs, it can be used again for a similar grade product in the future. This is fantastic stuff, but in one way it’s also quite depressing. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s inspiring book ‘Cradle to Cradle’ was published back in 2002, but this is the first time I’ve actually met with a business that is really putting their principles into practice.

The fact is we’re changing things far too slowly, which is why I’m hoping my campaign for the London elections this year can do more to help businesses like Pli to grow, and help more businesses working in green manufacturing to spring up right across the city.

The major problems these companies face is the availability and cost of premises, and the difficulty - as a small company - of securing contracts to supply larger businesses and public bodies. The new planning rules I propose, which will require workshops and office to be made available at affordable rents in new developments, will see opportunities increased for start-up businesses. And to help them grow, I am proposing a central hub that will compile joint bids for larger contracts from a range of smaller, local businesses.

Providing this service will solve problems for both buyers and suppliers. For the small businesses, it’s risky to rely heavily on one customer, so a clearing house that spreads the risk across a range of contracts is ideal. On the other side, buyers for public bodies and large companies may want to support smaller companies, but may be put off by the complexities of setting up multiple contracts – problems which are also eased by having a central point of contact.

These plans are integral to building a better economy for London. The problem is that we are far too reliant on a small number of large companies for employment, and far too reliant on cheap oil to import almost everything we consume. By helping companies like Pli and building up a more diverse economy, we are also building an economy that will be more resilient to whatever problems develop in our current major industries. After all, what are the Greens for, if not building a more secure future?

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.