Something that's actually good

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director General of the WHO, is no stranger to speaking her mind. Her take on what Ebola tells us about business models in the pharmaceutical industry is the latest refreshingly blunt call for change (via NY Times):

"A profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay," says Chan. "W.H.O. has been trying to make this issue visible for ages. Now people can see for themselves."


Another non-environmental wonder

As a company that has been almost constantly at war with regulators, taxis and local communities since inception, how can Uber continue to grow exponentially in a way that strengthens the economies it operates in? Uber CEO Travis Kalanick shares his enlightened view (via Wall Street Journal):

"In the win column we have 130 and in the loss column we have one. So yes, these are battles but we we’ve lost one battle out of many."

And the source of this head-in-the-sand mentality?

"I’m just ultra-focused on the business."



Gem of the day

Newsflash: Coke's sales are down for the first time in 15 years. Could it be the magic nexus of growing health awareness, both generally and specific to sodas, the obesity-driven war on sugar, and declining license to operate in emerging market communities?

Let's hope it's not, since the company's plan is less than strategic: boost consumer demand by increasing its marketing budget by 10%.


Gem of the day

Suppliers are a key part of the 'Essentials' of Tesco's evolving CR strategy. A critical and complicated area to improve, you'd expect a sophisticated set of goals to drive progress - especially to fulfill the statement 'Tesco treats its suppliers fairly'. Instead, this is Tesco's key target:

"We know that we need to improve our reputation for how we treat our suppliers, so we will ask our customers – in all markets in which we operate – whether they agree with this statement or not. This will be done through our regular image tracker survey which tracks customers’ views on our performance."

Things that are wrong with this picture: a) focusing on reputation, and b) targeting customers, who have little influence or expertise to bring to how Tesco's supplier relationships evolve.


Another non-environmental wonder

Rare are the times a comment on Amazon is worth reading, but this one is a gem of a response to Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer's new book 'Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't' (hint - if the title doesn't appeal, you're probably not the right audience for the book):

"The book promises to tell you about the 'real' nature of leadership opportunities...if you want to garner power, it's more important to play the game than to perform well. Which, I guess I actually agree with to a large degree, but that's only news to an academic."



Another non-environmental wonder

Great news for investors in defense giant BAE Systems - there's not one, but five reasons to believe the company will enjoy a thriving 2014 in the U.S. Front and center is what Forbes calls its positioning in 'above-average growth potential' areas, including 'digital electronics and cybersecurity'.

Surely no coincidence given the staggering scope of government surveillance programs in the U.S. and beyond, which has more publicly accountable brands from Facebook to Apple, Google and Microsoft 'up in arms' (not literally, unlike BAE), and even the outgoing chief of the NSA itself calling for limits.


Gem of the day

Chevron's theory of change: resist all progress because it won't make any difference, and the status quo will do us all some good. Example - carbon legislation in California, courtesy of EVP Downstream Michael Wirth (via Reuters):

"It's a cost, frankly, that Chevron can't absorb...No matter how big and successful we are, we can't absorb that cost. We'd have to pass that onto consumers...California, by itself, cannot change the (global) inventory of greenhouse gases," Wirth said.


Another non-environmental wonder

More proof that possessing slightly sociopathic qualities goes a long way towards surviving the corporate ladder, courtesy of Apple CEO Tim Cook (via Gawker):

"Cook once dispatched an underling straight from a meeting at Apple headquarters in Cupertino to the airport bound for China, without time even to pack a change of clothes or figure out a return date. 'Why are you still here?' was Cook's goodbye, delivered in the middle of the meeting."


Gem of the day

Just one of the many gems in this week's New Yorker piece on the long-suffering global project to build the world's first nuclear fusion machine, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITAR - and there's more than a little relevance here to what it's like trying to push sustainability through big companies:

'"This project is supposed to be about hope, but fear runs rampant within it,' the scientist said. 'Efforts are made on many levels to hide the problems, in part because people believe the situation can’t be remedied, and in part because some of the decision-makers will be dead by the time the big red button is pushed.'"


Gem of the day

For the two billion people without access to healthcare, growing interest from the world's pharmaceutical companies is potentially good news.

Stanford's Social Innovation Review, however, has a short and sweet answer to the logical resulting question of how these companies might reach the next two billion - and it's one that won't sound familiar on business terms:

"Money alone is not an easy route to access innovation and new markets. A more engaged, partnership-based approach is required."


Another non-environmental wonder

The UN as a good value investment? Businessweek puts some key numbers into helpful context, suggesting that the multilateral organisation ambassador John Bolton once quipped 'wouldn't make a bit of difference...if it lost 10 stories' off of its 38-story New York HQ, is actually an 'immense bargain'.

The UN operates on $2.6 billion in funds per year - not much compared to, say, the estimated annual cost of air-conditioning for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: $20 billion. And not much at all given what we rely on the UN for - keeping the global peace, supporting development and providing glue to bond our dysfunctional economies.

Might be a sound idea to keep those 10 stories after all.


Gem of the day

Is the US the last Western country on earth to still equate philanthropy with impact? The results of the latest 'Philanthropy Top 50' list would seem to suggest so - $7.7 billion donated in 2012.

As the new no. 1 on the list, Mark Zuckerberg could do better to join up the oft-repeated purpose of Facebook and the intention behind his personal charitable giving. In the words of Sheryl Sandberg, "'Mark is unapologetic about his idealism. He always said Facebook was started not just to be a company, but to fulfill a vision of connecting the world.'"


Gem of the day

Who says 'House of Cards' is the only place to watch ruthless political skill trump expertise, ethics and integrity?

Try economist Paul Collier's assessment of the firm B.G.S.R.'s investment in African development:

"Paul Collier, however, takes a dim view of businessmen like Steinmetz, who have secured the rights to natural resources that they may not actually have the expertise to develop. 'Their technical competence is a social-network map,' Collier said. 'Who has the power to make the decision? Who can I reach?’ They know how to get a contract—that is their skill.'"


Gem of the day

Coke has an unyielding determination to be selective about which major trends the company will acknowledge publicly and link to business implications. This year's Davos showed just how lopsided that makes for the way the company prioritises, advocates and engages on all things sustainability - climate change and youth unemployment to the fore, whilst health remains the elephant in the room (via NY Times and Coke itself):

"Increased droughts, more unpredictable variability, 100-year floods every two years...When we look at our most essential ingredients, we see those events as threats," said Jeffrey Seabright, Coke’s VP for environment.

"[CEO Muhtar] Kent called youth unemployment both 'an incredibly pressing issue and an opportunity,' noting that reducing the youth unemployment rate by 1 percent adds $75 billion to the global economy...'If we do not do something, the social mosaic in the world as we know it will crack.'"


Something that's actually good

Two gems from Vaclav Smil, polymath, scientist, critic and basically all-around expert in how stuff should actually work (via Wired):

On the food system, in a nutshell:

"We pour all this energy into growing corn and soybeans, and then we put all that into rearing animals while feeding them antibiotics. And then we throw away 40 percent of the food we produce."

And even better, on the problem with Wired technomania:

"Today, as you know, everything is 'innovation.' We have problems, and people are looking for fairy-tale solutions...You people at WIRED—you’re the guilty ones. You support these people, you write about them, you elevate them onto the cover."


Something that's actually good

A voice of reason at Davos, the annual decision-makers talkathon? Yes - and from a most unlikely place, the Pope (via the Independent):

"The growth of equality demands something more than economic growth."


Gem of the day

In case you missed it, the new year has not been a slow one for a key part of the UK's shale gas hype machine, the big 4 accountancies - they're hard at work.

Witness the head of oil & gas tax (what a job!) at Deloitte UK (via them):

"Gaining the support of local communities for shale gas is crucial...The measures from both the Government and the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG) mean further economic benefits for local communities from shale activity in their neighbourhoods."

Of course, once local communities have been steamrolled using this promise of financial gain, there's no chance the hype could hit the fan - just as it has in the US (via Jeremy Leggett but also a concern for scientists and other smart people):

"The large deficits being run by the US shale oil and gas industry are starting to be reported in the financial press...The reason for this decline is that while some wells may be profitable, overall drilling and producing shale oil and gas is simply not."

If only the big 4 were as good with numbers as they are with press releases.


Gem of the day

Not content to merely tow the industry line like his peers - "As long as we as an industry follow good engineering practices and standards, these risks are entirely manageable" (Rex Tillerson), "Our resource base keeps expanding because our technology keeps improving" (John Watson) - Bob Dudley takes it one step further (via Atlantic Partnership):

"Some of you will have been familiar with the theory of so-called 'peak oil'. Well, we believe that theory has itself now peaked."


Another non-environmental wonder

A gem of a quote that sums up the sad truth of the value of TED events to company cultures (part of Businessweek's coverage of the 'TEDification' of Corporate America):

"It makes you realize that corporations are made up of people."


Another non-environmental wonder

A spate of recent coverage highlighting systemic discrimination against women in business (Silicon Valley, pregnant women everywhere, financial services) can only be enhanced by this gem - it's hard to imagine a new male CEO taking over one of the world's largest industrial businesses being described in this way (via NY Times):

"'Mary was picked for her talent, not her gender,' Mr. Akerson [current CEO, GM] said in a conference call with reporters. But on a personal note, he said, promoting Ms. Barra to become chief executive was an emotional moment for him. 'It was almost like watching your daughter graduate from college,' he said."


Another non-environmental wonder

In the spirit of what PR firm Bell Pottinger does best - as agency of record for a long list of luminous clients including Alma al-Assad, Rebekah Brooks, the Egyptian government and BAE Systems - allow me to misquote Chairman Tim Bell (via interview in the Guardian)

"[At Bell Pottinger] We tell...lies. We work for people who want to tell their side of the story."


Gem of the day

Two cases of classic business dysfunction, illustrating the scale of the challenge surrounding data for decision-making (via the comments page of the Guardian, who knew life beyond trolls existed there?)
  • Glossy reports are great for coffee tables - not as a theory of change. "At AT&T we sat down with the company’s main futures group to discuss how they were working to ensure that AT&T kept on top of important unfolding trends and used them to its advantage...We then interviewed the AT&T Vice President who was in charge of the futures group as well as other responsibilities... He looked at us rather blankly, considered for a moment what we had said, and then said words to the effect, 'oh you mean the people who do all those long reports! I can’t actually say I have time to read them because I’m spending all my time trying to figure out how we can make a profit on all the copper wiring we have strung across the country and are now taking down.'" 
  • Designing tomorrow's solutions to fit into today's structures = backwards strategy. "[At Royal Dutch Shell] we sat in the New York offices of the company and had another fascinating discussion with a key executive in charge of futures analysis. He showed us an organizational chart that was absolutely stunning. The chart depicted the Shell group as being made up of 240 or so separate companies representing an incredible array of functions. It was obvious that while it was possible to create the superbly detailed organizational chart, it was impossible for anyone to understand and synthesize the activities of that many discreet actors and create a coherent strategy that incorporated their behaviors." 


Gem of the day

An inspirational view of "how HR helps the bottom line" from the MD of Centrica Energy:

"Our £1.6bn acquisition of Venture Production last year was a hostile takeover, but we treated it as a merger, so it was crucial to quickly engage and retain a large number of people who had previously thought of us as the enemy. The HR approach from reward to internal communications helped us to change that perception. We’ve retained all our key people and created a top 3 oil and gas business in the North Sea."



Gem of the day

More jargon from the vortex that is the "sharing economy" (via BSR):

"Companies like Airbnb, Lyft, and Kickstarter are using technology and community networks to create new business models and unlock value. Gorbis...kicked off the conference by giving a name to this sea change: 'socialstructing'. As networks become a more powerful force in our economy, socialstructing is how organizations and individuals are 'creating value by aggregating micro-contributions by large networks using social tools and technologies.'"

Translation: businesses are learning that the way people traditionally have gotten by pre-capitalist globalisation - through trusted social connections, within communities - might have something to do with how value is created.


Another non-environmental wonder

More insight into the wonder that is Walmart's role in America's downward spiral of chronic unemployment, wages too low to stay out of poverty on, and a broken social safety net (via Businessweek):

"In the U.S., Wal-Mart’s lower-income customers are struggling amid persistent unemployment and higher payroll taxes. Many seem to have fled to dollar stores in search of even lower everyday prices."

A growing segment of customers that can't afford Walmart's products, and more than half of Walmart workers making less than $25,000 a year, ultimately costing taxpayers more.

The solution - higher wages - and its knock-on benefits to the wider American economy, is so obvious that even Ashton Kutcher can do the math.


Another non-environmental wonder

Outstanding example of mitigated language downplaying a serious problem - $670 million spent on consumer financial education every year vs. $17 billion spent by the industry to market financial products (via Businessweek):

"That means the majority of information consumers receive about financial products comes from a company trying to sell them something—which can make it quite a challenge for consumers to find unbiased information," CFPB Director Richard Cordray said.


Gem of the day

Status update on the International Energy Agency (via Kurt Cobb):

"If the agency were a single person, what it has released over the last year as official pronouncements would likely have a psychiatrist reaching for the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition)."


Gem of the day

Like all executives in industries tightly tied to the government, BAE Systems US CEO Linda Hudson has an uncanny ability to sidestep awkward revolving door conversations (via the WSJ):

"The lifelong Democrat [Hudson] has said she will leave BAE early next year and has been mentioned as a possible candidate to succeed Ashton Carter as deputy U.S. defense secretary when he steps down in December. The problem is she plans to remain on the board of BAE’s U.S. business for another year, ruling out a job with the company’s key customer. 'The timing is not right,' said Hudson."

Luckily there's nothing standing in the way of her alternative plan to consult on all things defense in the meantime:

"Once she retires, Ms. Hudson said she intends to set up a leadership and strategy consulting firm, take additional U.S. corporate board seats."


Something that's actually good

Revisiting John Thackara's great rejoinder to the insurance industry on why trust is not an algorithm:

"My biggest concern with Big Data is the prospect that they will give managers and policy makers a sense of being in control when such confidence is not justified...[Big Data] capture information about transactions in the formal economy where they are most easily monitored. This focus obscures most of the world’s economic activity, which is informal."


Another non-environmental wonder

In case you didn't already have enough proof that inequality in the USA has reached epic proportions (via the SSA):

32% of working Americans made less than $15,000 in 2012. Translation: a third of Americans earned less than the official poverty line.


Something that's actually good

Memo from Bill McKibben to the rest of the world (echoed by WorldChanging founder Alex Steffen):


Gem of the day

It's hard not to focus on the irony in the Norway Sovereign Wealth Fund's forthcoming decision to divest from coal assets - a $760 billion fund bankrolled by Norway's massive oil wealth, lauded for a radical move to decarbonise its investments.

Then again, for a fund that owns an average of 2.5% of every European listed company, a move is a move. In that case here's the next logical step - divest from three of the fund's top ten holdings, which are...in oil companies.


Bonus gem

In a classic move by the company, Coke gives "offsetting" a new strategic meaning (via NY Times):

"The Coca-Cola Company plans to erect 150 kiosks in 20 countries that will offer water, electricity and Internet connections; they may also sell Coke and other products."

Explanation by CEO Muhtar Kent:

"Why are we doing all of this? Because when there’s healthy communities, we have a healthy, sustainable business."

Translation: In case there's any doubt about the intention of this new business model, Coke's motivation is majority defensive. By having women in developing countries sell Coke products alongside health advice, clean water and Internet access, the business can make up for the obesity and other negative health impacts of its sodas. Now that's innovation.

Gem of the day

Tesco has a unique range of product available at everyday low prices (#googlefail):


Gem of the day

In the wake of a massive outburst of negativity towards British Gas from government, customers, media - pretty much everyone, and deservedly so - what could be a better gem than a self-serving case study from four years ago by an agency looking after the company's brand?

"British Gas was finding customer retention increasingly difficult...Carat insight showed that 88% of British Gas’ brand perceptions were driven by customer experiences rather than communications...In 2009 British Gas set out to become the first ever sponsor of British Swimming and turn around the perception of their brand."

So here's a valuable insight into the head-in-the-sand mentality of BG and its peers in the energy sector - rather than addressing the core problem with the service provided to customers, they decide to focus on brand perception. Now there's a short-lived investment.


Gem of the day

Yet another fact that proves how devastating the state of health is in the US (and why McDonald's, Coke and others need to be doing more than giving consumers a "choice" and encouraging them to burn off the calories, a legacy of obesity and malnutrition they're about to repeat in emerging markets. This insight via Nestle research, ironically):

  • Nearly 25% of 19–24-month-old babies in the US consume no vegetables or fruit 
  • French fries are the most common vegetable consumed by infants aged 15–18 months
Case in point.


Gem of the day

Irony in a nutshell: Major company in an industry ripe for disruption (banking) releases a report announcing another industry ripe for disruption (energy).

Given the state of its shares, Citibank would do well to listen to its own crucial piece of insight about the pace of change: "This is not a 'tomorrow' story."


Gem of the day

Jigar Shah on the water-energy nexus in India - a stark choice between power and hydration (via Gigaom):

"In India, like in the United States, the power sector is the single largest user of water – more than agriculture. Presuming that India could solve its problems and build more coal, they would run out of fresh water even faster...Water is literally killing India."


Another non-environmental wonder

Another inspired quest-for-growth quote from a public company (via Forbes):

"Looking at the map of the US, there’s still lots of white space for us. We can fill many new markets."


Another non-environmental wonder

More credence for the "no-one is in the driver's seat" theory of why banks are so dysfunctional - and even better, from another actual banker (via the Guardian):

"We rely upon self-declaration, upon what is presented to us by a bank's internal management. But often they don't know what's going on, because banks today are so vast and hugely complex. I don't think I have ever been deliberately lied to – though obviously I might not know about it. The real threat is not a bank's management hiding things from us: it's the management not knowing themselves what the risks are, either because nobody realises it or because some people are keeping it from their bosses."