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

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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

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

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

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