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

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times