Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Blog 8 - There is no Them

Sustainable; able to exist over a period of time without causing damage.

Sustainable. The word is over our door, it’s in our DNA as a business, it’s a fundamental part of what we believe as people. It applies to the way we as humans treat our planet. The way we suck resources from the earth as if there is never a price to be paid. The way we consume as a hobby, buying to pass the time. The way we struggle to think beyond ourselves and our brief time as custodians of the miracle that is a habitable, fragile, planet. It’s there in our plastic use, our food waste, our thoughtless use of water. It’s there when ice caps melt, seas warm, corals bleach, coasts disappear.

But it is more than that. Sustainability is also about how we treat each other. How we function as a society. Sustainability is about the way we live our lives, every interaction big or small. A sustainable planet cannot exist without fairness, equality, justice, respect. Social sustainability is as much a challenge for twenty-first century societies as the environmental type is.

All of which drags us from our sheltering pod hiatus and out into a world where genuine, wide ranging sustainability seems further away than ever. It brings us to George Floyd.

We’ve thought long and hard before writing this Pod but ultimately, for a business or an individual, there comes a point where to stay silent is to be complicit. We as a business exist because we want to change the world we all live in. It seems a dereliction of duty to sit silent at a moment like this.

Let’s start with the basics. The person writing this blog is a white male. That means they won life’s lottery. To be born white and male in a western democracy is to be granted a life time of privilege compared to others. And that is, of itself, plain wrong. Your life chances, your opportunities, your freedom, your health, should not be dictated or shaped by the lottery of parentage. Far too often, they are. Those of us fortunate enough to have won this particular roulette should be both aware, and vocal in acknowledging, our privilege.

For those of us who believe in the idea of a sustainable future we should be offended by that fact. No, we should be enraged. There cannot be a sustainable planet until racism, alongside all other forms of discrimination, are eliminated. There is no point building a world free of fossil fuel use and single use plastics if huge swathes of the population remain disadvantaged by the colour of their skin. Changes to the way we treat our planet must go hand in hand with changes to the way we treat each other. I Can't Breathe is the same as We Can't Breathe

The starting point for all change is to recognise, honestly where we are. Can I, a white male, understand the challenge of being born black in a society riddled with systemic racism? Of course not. But I can empathise, I can educate myself and I can be an ally in their fight. I can understand that fighting for equality is not the same as all communities facing equal challenges. In the same way one person cannot change the planet, but each of us can educate ourselves, change the actions within our control and seek to influence those around us. If we can be passionate about saving the planet, we damn well should be passionate about saving the lives of our fellow humans.

Racism, like all other forms of discrimination, seeks to divide us. Racists seek to define a Them and Us. There is no them. There is only us. All of us, crowded onto this tiny blue and green miracle of a planet together. We are born the same way, when cut we bleed the same way, when hurt we cry the same way. In the end, we fall to the ground and die the same way. Racism is the very opposite of a sustainable society. The longer it exists the more it damages all of us. Physically and morally.

Events of the last few months have shone a harsh spotlight on the world we have created. Coronavirus has ravaged those most vulnerable in our societies whilst expecting the lowest paid to shoulder the highest burden. Racism has reared its head, flames of anger fanned by those who seek only to appeal to our basest instincts. We have found ourselves isolated, confused, scared in ways most of us have never experienced. All the while our planet continues to suffer the ill effects of man-kinds desire to reap the benefits of globalised capitalism whilst never quite getting round to paying the tab.

This does not have to be our future.

All of these challenges, disease, racism, planetary degradation, are interlinked and the way we respond to them is a choice. Our choice. Our societies are a mirror on ourselves. We have the power of protest , the power of voting and the power of our money.  We can build a world where no damage is done to those who are vulnerable in the face of the most powerful, be they human or animal. To cherry pick between the issues facing us and only seek to resolve the one that touches closest upon our individual lives is a mistake and in the current circumstances, indefensible. We must understand that we can fight for the rights of others without needing to view ourselves as a victim of the same forces.

There is only us and our one planet. Equality for all, planet and person, starts within each of us and the voice we chose to use. This blog is our voice and we will not be silent or complicit. We refuse to be divided, scared into submission or silent. We refuse to accept eight minutes of a boot to the throat.

There is no Them. There is only Us.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Blog 7 - The most important, boring sounding, thing of the year!

Not everything that matters sounds sexy. Not everything important involves tiny, adorable, fluffy baby penguins struggling to survive a changing climate in a thoroughly telegenic manner. No, much of what really matters is boring and detailed. And on that note, let me introduce to you the fabulously dry sounding COP26 summit to be held in Glasgow this November.

Now, dear reader, it may be that you are well educated, passionately dedicated to climate change and, by coincidence, a huge fan of international agreements and their mandated five year review processes. If so, then this blog is not for you. You know all this already. For the rest of us, it's time to get focused on where the biggest climate stories of the year may well emanate from.

COP26 is the follow up to the Paris Climate agreement of 2015. It is a gathering of all the signatories of the Paris deal to see how much progress they have made in that time period. Before we get into the nitty gritty of Glasgow, it's worth reminding ourselves of what Paris achieved.

The Paris Climate agreement was the moment when countries around the world agreed that we needed to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That by itself was a significant step forward. What was then unique was that action was not centrally mandated. Instead 197 countries put forward what they felt they could do over the next five years (2015-19). These actions were knows as Nationally Defined Contributions (NDC's). Glasgow is the review of those plans. It as also the time for countries to step up and show where they can do more as technology, investment and political activism make climate friendly policies more possible.

The COP process has plenty of critics. At last years meeting in Madrid (COP25), many of the big decisions were pushed back and will now be on the table again in Glasgow, doubling its importance. Negotiators failed to come to agreement on issues like carbon markets and financial aid for smaller nations. Meanwhile, outside of the endless round of negotiations and discussions, global emissions are at an all time high. 
On top of that the person meant to lead the discussions in Glasgow on behalf of the UK government was sacked a few weeks ago. Claire Perry O'Neill was a former clean energy minister and had been appointed President of COP26. It was suggested by that as she was not a member of the current government she may have lacked influence and power to get hard decisions taken but her removal is more widely seen as politically motivated by a Prime Minister with a decidedly thin skin when it comes to those who criticise him.

None of this helps.

COP26 marks a crucial point in our planets journey to finding the collective answers needed to the climate crisis were are living through. The problems facing our world are only going to be solved by far reaching multi-national action and the COP process is the only framework for that. We are also running out of time for countries to stop looking for accounting loopholes and quick fixes when it comes to the actions they commit to taking. Ignoring the impact of aviation, for example, is not feasible and undermines the credibility of what is agreed. As we've said on this blog before, time is running out and serious structural change is needed to how we, in the western world in particular, live our lives. Whilst we can all take individual actions, we need top down legislation and action to drive change in those sectors where the current status quo is both comfortable and profitable.

Had I mentioned all the big oil companies will be at COP26, lobbying the participating nations furiously?

The other elephant not in the room is large, orange and incredibly ignorant. The only nation to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord was the USA. Partly this is due to the rampant climate change denialism that surges around the right wing of American politics, partly it is due to the anti-science leanings of a spectacularly uneducated President. Sadly, a lot of it also down to the fact that anything Trump finds out Obama signed up to, he immediately seeks to overturn in a display of petulant insecurity. The absence of the U.S further harms the credibility of any agreements struck.

But, it is important to focus on the positives. 196 nations have remained committed to the ideas of the Paris Accord, even if none are on target currently to meet their commitments. Glasgow provides an important opportunity to apply pressure to countries in a bid to show them they need to step up and deliver not just what they promised was a starting point, but go beyond that and show a truly credible path to net zero by 2050. The agreements made at Paris would lead to a projected temperature increase of over 3 degrees across the globe by the end of the century. The commitment agreed was to reach net zero by 2050 in order to limit warming to no more than 2 degrees and preferably below 1.5. So, there was always an acknowledgement that more action was needed and that NDC's had to become more ambitious as time passed. Glasgow is the moment when we see if that review process and peer pressure can lead to that happening.

For all of us who passionately believe in a sustainable future for generations to come it's important we engage with this boring stuff. Carbon markets and taxation are nobodies idea of a good time but they are a crucial component of providing a way for large companies to pay for the pollution they cause. It's also important that the pressure is maintained on the UK government to do the necessary, detailed groundwork that could make COP26 a success rather than a photo opportunity. Across the worl
d citizens have a window of time in the first half the year to lobby their elected representatives to make meaningful increases to their NDC's.

This isn't sexy. It's isn't fluffy baby penguins but it is vitally important. We've got eight months to get educated, informed and influencing. The clock, as ever, is ticking.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Blog 6 - Veganuary (or Bananas vs Avocados)

Christmas has passed, the new year has been ushered in and so that can only mean one thing, it's time for Veganuary!

Veganuary began in 2014 and participation in the month long attempt to wean people off animal products has doubled in number each year. In late 2018 the Economist magazine predicted that 2019 would be the 'year of the vegan', Twelve months later they pronounced that piece of crystal ball work as one of their more accurate. Veganism has hit the mainstream and its rise shows no sign of stopping as traditional moral positions on animal welfare and rights are buttressed by rising awareness of the environmental impact associated with eating meat and dairy products

A survey in 2016 by the Vegan Society found that the number of vegans in the UK had grown from 150,000 to over half a million in the course of a decade and that number will have grown significantly since then. By some measures it is the fastest growing lifestyle movement in the UK. A different survey by Compare the Market in 2018 extrapolated that there were 3 million vegans in the United Kingdom but this figure is questionable being based on a small sample and a loosely worded question. What isn't in doubt is the huge growth in vegan living recently.

Veganuary has faced some criticism for focusing on the food aspect of the vegan lifestyle at the exclusion of much else. There are also some campaigners who feel that focusing heavily on the environmental impact of meat and dairy consumption underplays the moral and ethical case for veganism. Some this critique may be true but, because we're a blog linked to a shop that predominantly sells food, that's what we will be focusing on. It's probably also important to note here that realistically the idea of 'going vegan' a few days a week or a month at time is a misnomer at best. Being vegan is a lifestyle that encompasses everything a person chooses to consume and isn't realistically something that you can dip in and out of. Are you sure that on your vegan Mondays your shoes contain no leather? Do you have a different handbag for January? It is more accurate and realistic to refer to adopting an animal free diet for specific periods of time. That's not to say that doesn't still have a real impact, it does. Not eating meat two or three days a week is measurably better than not making the effort. It just doesn't equate to going vegan for a few days.

Anyway, now we've got that out the way...

So, what is the carbon footprint of all that meat we eat? It's not easy to get a precise figure but the best research suggests that human consumption of animals is responsible for 58% of all greenhouse gas emissions whilst only providing us with 18% of our calories. The same study, published in the journal Science in 2018, found that meat and dairy production uses 83% of farmland and that widespread adoption of vegan diets could reduce the pressure on land use which is driving deforestation in parts of the world including the Amazon rainforest. In fact, most studies find that adopting a plant based diet can lead to a 50% reduction in the carbon footprint associated with an individual’s food intake.

It's easy to understand why cutting meat out of our diets makes a huge impact. Growing crops and eating them directly is far more efficient that feeding that same crop to an animal and letting it convert it into tissue that can be eaten later whilst emitting methane along the way. It's this inefficiency that means cheese can sometimes have an even higher carbon footprint that pork. Speaking of cheese, let’s use that to understand what sort of numbers we're talking about. Mike Berners-Lee wrote a fascinating book called "How Bad are Banana's, in which he tries to work out the greenhouse gas emissions associated with² equivalent emissions. (CO²e is the most commonly used way of measuring emissions, It take all type of gas emission and other inputs and equates them to equivalent amount of carbon dioxide). That 12kg figure for our big block of cheese is the same as a four mile car journey. A leg of lamb might work out at as much as 38kg CO²e for a 2kg joint. For the same emissions you could have a bowl of porridge every day for four months. As a comparison, your average banana, despite being shipped across the world, comes out at 80 grams of CO²e per fruit. Even the humble egg has four times more impact than that.
all sort of food and every day products. In the book Mike finds that 1kg of hard cheese could be responsible for up to 12kg of CO
It's hard to find a less impactful way of consuming calories than the humble banana.

But, it's not totally clear cut. Plenty of vegan friendly options come with a surprisingly high carbon footprint. Rice is one good example. Grown inefficiently, using an excess of nitrogen based fertiliser, rice can have a higher emissions footprint than burning a litre of diesel. An avocado air-freighted across the globe is not a sustainable option compared to locally sourced meat that has been reared on land unsuitable for crop farming. Blindly ditching cows milk and switching to a poorly sourced soya product will only generate half the benefits a sustainably managed product would give. (But it should be noted that if we cut our consumption of cows milk and meat then we’d dramatically reduce our need for the soya which often feeds them and in turn help to reduce the deforestation associated with soya production). Equally a lot of almonds are grown in California and contribute to water shortages in the area. Is that really a better option long term? Our detailed choices really do make a difference.
However, even allowing for those nuances, the case for at least reducing our meat and dairy consumption is very strong from an environmental perspective. But what about our health? Can we really get all we need for a healthy diet without eating animal products?

In time for this year’s Veganuary, the New Scientist ran an experiment where they asked 19 volunteers to eat a vegan diet for a fortnight. Now, obviously that is a ridiculously small sample size over a short period of time, but even then some hints about how changing diet can affect us started to show. The first was that all the volunteers ate more fibre and much, much less saturated fat. As a result of the reduced fat intake, there was a corresponding, 80%, drop in cholesterol intake as well. So far, so healthy. However, the volunteers also saw smaller but significant drops in consumption across a range of vitamins and minerals including vitamin A, vitamin C and calcium.
Other studies have shown a need to make sure enough vitamin B12 is consumed on a vegan diet. This plays a key role in you nervous and immune systems. For non vegans eggs and dairy products are reliable sources of B12 but non animal substitutes aren't always easy to find. What is clear is that making sure you eat a healthy balanced diet takes some work but, really, that's true for all of us, carnivores or not. Most of us need to eat less starchy, fatty foods, many people don't get enough iron and huge swathes of the population come no where near having their five fruit and veg a day. Being vegan doesn't change any of that, but actually taking the time to consider what you put on your plate in the first place may make you more likely to actively seek out the balance you need. As ever, awareness and education are key.

Adopting a vegan lifestyle can seem like a big challenge. It certainly is a commitment that touches on every aspect of how you live your life and it’s ok for that not to be something everyone chooses to do. Life would be very boring if we were all the same. Equally, those who take such a clear ethical and moral position are to be applauded for their consistency of thinking and actions, without using that to minimise the efforts of others. It might well be that in Veganuary you don’t adopt a fully vegan lifestyle. There might be shoes you really like, foods you don’t want to go without, choices you aren’t comfortable making. But, from an environmental perspective it is clear that any change you can make does make a difference. Being aware of the impact the food we eat has on the planet we live on is key to helping build a better, sustainable, future. So, experiment with meat free Mondays, try the vegan option when you go to a restaurant, see if you can handle well sourced soya milk on your B12 enriched cereal. Baby steps matter and they do add up.

Just make sure you have a banana instead of an avocado.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Blog 5 - Happy New Year... Maybe

Welcome to the new decade. The glorious, roaring, twenties have arrived. Lets hope 2029 sees us in a slightly better place than its 100 year past predecessor though.
Mind you, 1929 might have seen the world tipped into the largest peace time financial crisis it had seen but at least the oceans weren't full of plastic, large swathes of the planet weren't scorched by bush fires and no one was calling the North West passage a regular shipping route. That's the thing about progress, it's a funny old beast.

But what about the decade before us, what do we stand on the cusp of? It's easy to feel very pessimistic when we see the news every day. We're currently being bombarded with images of Australian's fleeing their homes as fires rage with an intensity and breadth that is unknown. Aussie firefighters admit there is nothing they can do in the coming days. The fires are too big, too widespread, they will do what they will do, and humans can scurry around like frantic ants in the face of the destruction as much as they like without making any dent in them. It won't be the last time in the next decade that we are powerless to deal with the consequences of the climate emergency we are living through. Wind, rain, heat will batter us, sometimes into submission.

Closer to home supermarkets pledge to reduce their plastic use. This is fantastic, long overdue, important news. Yet despite the eye catching press releases and proclamations, the big retailers sold more plastic in 2019 than ever before. Sales of bottled water continue to rise. Someone, somewhere, isn't getting the message.

Partly that is due to the confluence of forces stacked up against meaningful change and it is these that will make us feel most hopeless in the coming years. Many of us understand the need for change on a personal level (we wouldn't be in business if you didn't), yet change is also required on a systemic level and here we run into problems. In 2020 no government in the world will be run by a Green Party. The closest may be the Greens becoming a powerful force in a new coalition in Germany if they have a slightly earlier than planned election. Greens are minor partners, shrill opponents or an easily ignored fringe in too many places. This allows governments to listen to those able to shout louder, in particular, big business.

It is a sad fact that all the largest oil producers in the world forecast continued growth over the next decade. Just take a moment and get your head around that, Oil producers, despite all we see going on around us, still believe they'll find a way to sell more oil in 2029 than they did in 2019. Sometimes it can truly feel like we're screwed.

A lot of that growth is planned to come from increased production of plastic. As we burn less petrol in our cars, the oil majors are working to compensate by feeding the ravenous plastic monster that is western consumerism even more. Sustainable it is not. Oh and we haven't even mentioned their opposition to carbon taxes in places like Canada. There is plenty to be pessimistic about if we look for it.

And yet, there are reasons for optimism and it's important we cling on to these. Awareness is rising, particularly among the young, they have seen the future we want to bequeath them and they don't like the look of it one bit. A child born this year will retire in around 2090 (if retirement as a concept even really exists by then). What world are they going to face by then? Will then be happy to work for 50 odd years to find their retirement is blighted by the problems we saw coming but never found a way to deal with?

As that increased awareness took root climate protests rocked major cities around the world in 2019 as the power of the pavement took a definitive step in finding a way to challenge the clout of big money. More and more of us will take the the streets to protest in 2020 and beyond. If we act together we have to believe that our voices can become a tsunami that washes away those who would rather safeguard their next quarter's profits at the expense of the next generations future.

That rising, urgent shout from the streets may claim its first large scalp in 2020. The EU has long been negotiating a trade deal with the bloc of South American countries known as Mercosur, a group which feature Brazil amongst its members. As international outrage at the increasing rate of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest under new President Bolsonaro grows, the EU is considering ditching the agreement instead of ratifying it as a means of showing its unwillingness to be complicit in such environmental destruction. Public pressure has moved the position of President Macron of France in particular on this issue, alongside leaders from Ireland and Austria.

In 2019 the UK burned less fossil fuels for it's electricity than it had for decades. We went weeks without burning any coal at all as renewables become an ever bigger part of our energy mix. This is a real step forward and does show what's possible even as solar panel subsidies for individual households bit the dust. By the end of the decade we could have weaned ourselves off coal totally.

Single use plastic bags continued to disappear from high street shops last year across the western world as more and more countries bought in outright bans or charges to acts as a deterrent. Scotland saw the UK's first meaningful trials of deposit return schemes for plastic bottles. The way forward it out there, we just need to find the right mechanisms coupled with the correct incentives to drive changes in behaviour. The next few years will continue to see shoppers change their habits. It's important to remember that the big supermarkets only sell cucumbers wrapped in plastic because we buy them. A fortnight long, nationwide boycott of wrapped cucumbers would see them removed from our shelves never to be seen again. We have power, and in the next decade we will learn how to use it meaningfully as our knowledge and anger grow.

And therein lies the biggest reason for optimism about the next decade despite all the evidence to the contrary. If we look back at 1929 we have one huge advantage on those who didn't see the great financial crash coming, we have so much information at our fingertips. Ignore those who cry 'fake news' all the time, they merely seek to render all facts as challenge-able opinions. A huge percentage of the knowledge we need to make meaningful changes is out there already. We have agency, we can arm ourselves with facts and information and make the 2020's the decade that real change happened because we learned what it could be. If one Swedish schoolgirl can shout loudly enough to make the world hear her, what's stopping the rest of us?

Here's to 2020, the year we optimistically find our voices and shout for change.