The green rush

Businesses are vying to save the planet, and getting rich. But does it matter, so long as they deliv

There are two dirty secrets and one redeeming truth behind British business's sudden eagerness to kick off its brogues and slip into a pair of Birkenstocks.

The first is that the modern "green rush" is motivated by the same force that drove men to the Klondike. In the long term, it may be about saving the planet. Meanwhile, it's about turning a profit. More precisely, it's about marketing.

When Chevron changed its advertising message to focus on renewable energy, the US oil giant saw a marked pick-up in trade on the forecourts of its petrol stations: the commitment to deal with scarce energy resources delivered more customers at the pump. Likewise, both Shell and BP are investing heavily in renewables, but still draw the vast bulk of their profits from hydrocarbons.

In the retail sector, the economics of climate-change PR are even more compelling. Marks & Spencer recently announced a £200m environmental programme and a pledge to go carbon-neutral. Three days later, Tesco declared it would "carbon label" all the goods on its shelves. Sir Nicholas Stern, the author of last year's government report on the economics of climate change, had been invited up to the Tesco headquarters in Cheshunt a couple of weeks earlier to brief senior managers on global warming and the power of business to alter public behaviour and curb the rising temperature.

Sir Terry Leahy, the Tesco chief executive, says that the supermarkets are simply responding to customers. This is true, but there is a bit more to it than that. Retailers are not just answering a need, they are cultivating it. For retailing is a cut-throat business, historically driven by competition on price.

Nice little earner

Tesco's appeal to shoppers is fundamentally a value proposition. The past few years have seen competition drive down prices and the supermarkets left with wafer-thin margins. The environment offers retailers the chance to appeal to shoppers' values and earn themselves a slightly thicker margin. TNS, a research firm, reported that a quarter of UK shoppers say they are prepared to pay more for goods that come from companies that pay employees a fair wage and protect the environment. Organic food, line-caught fish, locally sourced produce, biofuel delivery vans and a clampdown on plastic bags all offer retailers the chance to get into higher-margin product ranges and services. Waitrose is the most expensive of the big supermarkets and the pioneer in organic food. Its pricing model is pitched above the national average, but it has shown the higher margin available to retailers perceived to be selling groceries and the greater good.

A green competition has broken out on the high street, not because the CSR crunchies have taken over the boardroom. In fact, it is not really about corporate social responsibility at all. It's about marketing and margins.

For many companies, going green can be cheap. Bradford & Bingley, I was told, overhauled its entire operation in six months and at a net cost of £50,000 and, as of this year, the building society can boast throughout its high-street network and in all its promotional materials that it is a carbon-neutral company. Vincent Tchenguiz is one of Britain's most successful property investors. He is known for his billions, his houses scattered across the UK and the Med, and his array of sports cars. He told me he had decided to go carbon-neutral, offsetting his jet-setting footprint at a total cost of £5,000.

Companies that have gone carbon-neutral are transforming the culture of business. They have shown courage to bring to their boards proposals that do not obviously chime with the interests of shareholders. And they create a climate of expectation that all companies should be striving to minimise emissions. But Al Gore's corporate storm troopers are the companies that have found it, both financially and logistically, easy. They are not mining companies such as Anglo American, or power generators such as Drax. They are organisations such as Man Group, the hedge fund, and Sky, the broadcaster.

Still, for all the distrust of corporate greed, the redeeming truth is that business is doing good, unbidden. On the issue of global warming, the corporation, on the verge of becoming a dirty word in the heyday of anti-globalisation, has become the most energetic agent of change for the public good.

Companies have eclipsed politicians, individuals and NGOs in committing unprecedented resources to addressing a problem that does not show up on their balance sheet. The Stern report deemed climate change the most catastrophic market failure in human history. The market did not reject the charge, but has responded to it. Cometh the hour, cometh the chief executive.

James Harding is business editor of the Times

"The flat earth committee still has the president in thrall"
US congressman Jay Inslee, House committee on energy and commerce, after hearing the president's State of the Union address

"If no action is taken, we will be faced with an economic downturn of the kind that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression"
Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, responding to the Stern report

"When the realisation of what's coming begins to dawn on people, oh boy!"
Tim Barnett, marine physicist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, on seeing a draft of the IPCC report

Read more from this climate change special report

No time to lose by Tony McDermott
The world must urgently face up to the global violence and conflict that would result from rapid climate change, warns Tony McDermott, adviser to Al Gore

Yes, we can save the world . . . if we want to by Chris Luebkeman
Chris Luebkeman asks whether we are ready to change everything

A matter of security by Josh Arnold-Forster
Why is the MoD so seriously concerned about global warming? Josh Arnold-Forster on the social collapse we are not prepared for

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Climate change

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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