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05 September 2007

News, thoughts, technology and tradition

Two stories from page 8 of today's FT**:

Eurostar sets Paris-London record (making the journey in almost 2 hrs)

Gender pay gap widens (despite regulations, pay gap is getting worse)

What is the take-home message?

Yes, technology can help reduce environmental problems (at 2 hours for a trip into downtown Paris, why would anyone want to fly to Paris ? Price ? ... ).  But the other story reminds us that the world cannot be solved by technology alone; human behaviour / culture must change too - and is a lot harder to influence.

An ex-colleague who heads up the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM) recently asked me why I left the think-tank world to join a communications consultancy.  Easy answer: because effective communications changes perceptions and, eventually, behaviour.

** This is also the reason why I do not read newspapers online.  Individual stories contain interesting information - but the juxtaposition of different stories on the same page provides insights. no thanks.  I'll take the dirty fingers anyday.

22 August 2007

I'm the best (no, I am (no, I am)...)

Being a consumer these days is beginning to remind me of being back in primary school.

On the playground, a bunch of kids who thought they knew what would make them popular with the others would compete with ever more amusing boasts: "I'm the best footballer"; "Oh yeah, well I'm the best swimmer"; "Who cares about swimming, I'm the best videogamer."

Today, there seems to be only one claim that companies are competing over: I am the 'greenest'.  Their claims are no more demonstrable, no more credible, and no more mature than the kid on the playground who claims to be the best astronaut. 

In many cases, it  doesn't even seem like companies know what they mean by 'green'. Does that mean you recycle office paper? Turn off the lights? Buy wind power? Or... donate to communities? Care about your workers? Oh. It means all of that?

Companies are jumping head first into rocky, shallow waters.  If they thought a bit further in advance, they'd realise that they are entering a game that they cannot win.  In fact, no one can win it.

Unlike claims about product or service quality, no company can realistically claim to be the 'greenest', most sustainable, most responsible, or anything else.  The metrics just do not exist.  And neither do the measurement tools. 

So what do companies do?  They try to win awards; they cosy up to NGOs; they make a big PR splash; they publish shiney happy CR Reports that give all the good news and none of the bad.

My advice: be mature and start playing the long game.  Focus on your business model.  Anticipate future scarcity, preferences and rules related to environmental, social and economic issues.  Create a business that is not only suited to today's market, but that is able to adapt to suit the conditions in 10, 20, 30 years time.

If you want to know who the best, greenest, most sustainable companies are ... guess what?  They will be the ones still around in the future, recruiting, training and retaining the best people; wasting the least resources; delivering the most value to society and - and here is the metric that matters - making the most money.

Time to stop the playground games and grow up.

Those geeky little kids who stood in the corner of the playground reading a book while all about them boasted their heads off became the adults who are today's Bill Gates.  That should be your company.

07 August 2007

Choice Editing, Climate Change, and Consumers

A recent report by Accountability and Consumers International, “What Assures Consumers on Climate Change,” addresses some issues that have been floating around regarding consumer action and climate change. Namely, that while consumers are aware of climate change and want to do something about it, they remain confused about what they can do about it.

Strikingly, the research found that while consumers want more information from businesses about the climate impacts of their products, consumers do not trust information from businesses on climate change.  There is not a shortage of messages; just a shortage of trusted ones.

Banana_2 Perhaps consumers are suffering from label fatigue, or perhaps they are confused when labels seem to contradict each other (fair-trade versus buy-local?). This tees up one of the most important ideas to come out of the report: Choice Editing.

Choice editing is similar in concept to ethical investing: it simplifies things for the consumer. A store that choice-edits makes it easy for consumers because they can trust all of the products they have to choose from. Some retailers are picking up the concept already. Co-op Supermarkets only offer the highest energy efficiency appliances, and Marks and Spencer only offers free-range eggs.  The message is simple: don’t look at the product label; look at the retail brand.

Coming to your store soon

Could this also be the future for climate-friendly consumerism? How it will all play out remains to be seen. But choice-editing might go a lot farther than just slapping another label on every product sold.

But one also has to ask: is concern about climate change really strong enough to convince the mainstream high-street shopper to turn his or her back on the cult of consumer choice?  Are we ready for stores to tell us what is right and wrong?  If this continues, it will not be long before governments get involved…

19 July 2007

Idiots, crooks and suspended sentences

For a company whose reputation for accuracy and honesty was built on faithfully reporting the news, its a bit offputting to find the BBC in the headlines as much as it is these days.  Today's edition finds BBC Director General, Mark Thompson, apologising for a pattern of deception extending across many of its high-profile phone-in competitions - including on charity programmes for Comedy Relief, Sport Relief and Children in Need.

The importance of strong values was one of the themes highlighted in the recent Tomorrow's Global Company Inquiry - a multi-stakeholder process that included BP, Infosys, Ford, Amnesty International and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.  While many people scoff at the fluffiness of values, this BBC episode underlines why intangibles are so important, and can have tangible impacts.

What is the Beeb's response?  As reported in today's FT, all staff will now be required to attend an ethics course.  Moreover ... Mark Thompson has warned that some senior staff may be suspended.


A pattern of systematic ethical lapses which results in the BBC lying to its audience, with impacts also on the reputation of several high profile charities, and the reaction: staff attend a course, and there is a risk that some staff are suspended.

Yes: staff should be helped to understand what is expected of them in the workplace.  Changing employee behaviour requires helping them understand what is right and wrong, but also showing them that ethics is an important part of their job. 

So a course on ethics might help.  But only an idiot or a crook would think that falsifying competitions is acceptable behaviour - in particular at a company whose business model is built on trust.  If heads do not roll, staff will understand that upholding the BBC's values is not really an important part of their job.  That will not be their fault, it will be Mark Thompson's fault for not sending the right signals.

If, however, staff cannot be fired for serious unethical behaviour because of the terms of their employment contract, that is an even bigger problem.

14 June 2007

Time for a more inclusive CR menu??

Last week, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) Commission on Vulnerable Employment was launched to research and find solutions to issues relating to the UK’s lowest paid workers. The commission pointed out several areas of primary concern, including:

  • Illegal and unfair deductions from pay (including for food, clothes, uniforms etc);
  • Unsafe workplaces (including health & safety, harassment and bullying);
  • Unlawful limits to personal leave (including sickness and maternity leave); and
  • Job insecurity and a lack of development opportunities (especially for young and agency workers)

The commission believes that almost 1 in 5 of all employees in the UK are victims of unfair working conditions. People working in certain sectors including agency workers, migrant workers and homeworkers are particularly at risk of being exploited.

DTI research has also found that 50% of respondents who were paid under £15,000 had experienced a problem relating to their employment rights over the previous 5 years.  The figure was even worse - at 60% - for respondents aged 16-24.

In a week where the FT has reported on the growing cost of recruitment and retention in the UK, it is important that we don’t forget that CR is about much more than CO2. It is also worth recalling that – while many companies bang on about “beyond compliance” – basic legal compliance is still a problem in many parts of our economy.

CR reports are full of information on the things that companies are doing to promote life-long learning and retention of senior and highly skilled staff, but there is a noteworthy silence when it comes to the treatment of temporary or agency workers.

This should be kept in mind when we hear business complaints about the new European Union directive giving non-permanent or part-time workers the same right to pay, sick-leave overtime etc as other staff.  Where voluntary corporate action is absent, government action will not be far behind.

Tom Rotherham

Tom Rotherham
Corporate responsibility - Radley Yeldar
London, United Kingdom


Tom is Head of Corporate responsibility at radley Yeldar. Tom has spent the past 10 years advising governments, inter-governmental organizations, companies and non-governmental organizations on public policy issues. His work has touched on a range of issues including trade policy, sustainable development and corporate responsibility – both within OECD and non-OECD countries.

Most recently, Tom has had a key role in the development of the ISO 26000 standard on Social Responsibility, the UN Principles for Responsible Investment, and the UNEP Sector Report Card initiative.

Tom is also guest-lecturer at Imperial College, London, and undertakes CR-related research with INSEAD and Copenhagen Business School.

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