This month Greenwasher considers some new statistics on sustainability, has a pop at Virgin Money for dodgy marketing, and attempts to consider 10 big issues for 2010

Green industry goes great guns

In these dark days of eco-pessimism and political shilly-shallying around issues from human rights to the forthcoming non-event of Copenhagen, some good news is always welcome. It comes in the form of some semi-speculative numbers from HSBC.

The bank claims that the companies selling low carbon goods and services now generate more cash than the aerospace and “defence” industries combined.

The Financial Times claimed recently: “Listed companies in the climate change sector – including renewable-power generators, nuclear, energy management, water and waste companies – reached a global turnover of $534bn in 2008, according to HSBC. The aerospace and defence sector was worth $530bn, the international bank said.”

By 2020 revenues from the industry are expected to top $2 trillion. That ought to brighten up your day. It did Greenwasher’s. Let’s just hope the marketing that goes along with it all improves in quality.

2010’s hot issues

What are the risks and opportunities facing big business in 2010 around sustainability?

Greenwasher has been out and about talking to writers, corporate executives, bankers, NGOs and others, thinking about next year. So here’s our back of the matchbook summary of some big issues that should be on all our agendas next year. OK, so there are more than 10, but it’s a nice round number.

1. Climate change – the mess post-Copenhagen, and technology opportunities/incentives – and population growth, poverty and nutrition/health.

2. Supply chain and the Wal-Mart effect (supplier scorecards and so on).

3. Landfill and waste exports/dumping by OECD nations – often under the banner of recycling.

4. Lobbying, new European commission members and their interests and priorities around regulation – big food, booze marketing, cartels and competition challenges in particular.

5. Technology/science debates: nuclear, biochar, water footprinting and risks, including carbon capture and storage/recycling, electric vehicles, smart grids, infrastructure (ie cement/concrete, how it’s made and used, and steel), biotech expansion.

6. Ecosystems services, biodiversity, and their value post-Copenhagen.

7. Agriculture and commodities tracing in general, including biofuels – from trees to leather to cotton to sugar cane.

8. Internet privacy/corporate spying – with big scandals in Germany right now, and of course, China.

9. Digital and social media use – greater use for advertising eco-credentials – including corporate reporting/communications on difficult complex issues, using media that are not just dull reports that no one reads or regards as credible.

10. Banks, pay, regulation and how the big finance houses work with difficult clients on tricky issues in emerging economies to improve sustainability risk management.

Anything missing?

Virgin Money and investment greenwash

Greenwasher recently signed up for Virgin’s Climate Change Isa. That’s a tax-efficient investment product based on stocks and shares, sold here in the UK. The statement recently arrived, and the fund looking after the money is doing rather well, somewhat to Greenwasher’s surprise as he hadn’t checked who the companies were when he began investing.

That was a mistake. It is always important, after all, to know to whom your money is going. So Greenwasher investigated and the findings are quite interesting.

You would expect a “climate change” fund to be investing in clean-tech firms. Exciting new technology companies set to capitalise on the next green revolution. It’s a risky investment, as the website says.

Virgin’s marketing copy says: “The fund invests primarily in liquid listed European equities of issuers in all sectors to develop a portfolio of securities of companies which benefit either directly, or via sustained competitive advantage from pursuing environmentally aware capitalism. For example, companies taking positive action on the corporate responsibility front by promoting environmentally aware behaviour internally, such as encouraging recycling in their workplaces, adopting a carbon emission offsetting programme or recycling side products such as the re-injection of CO2 in oil exploration.”

Hang on a minute. “Encouraging recycling in their workplaces” ?

So an oil company could get into the Virgin Money climate change Isa fund by encouraging employees (not ordering them), to have a recycling bin in their office. Is that really green? No, not at all. And it doesn’t do a lot for the climate either, really.

Planning for sustainability? Not yet…

Only 30% of US companies have a sustainability plan. This worrying yet unsurprising stat comes from a recent study by MIT in Cambridge, near Boston. And here’s a quote that will please all the consultants out there: “Although 92% of respondents said that they were trying to address the issue of sustainability, most said that their companies were either not taking bold action on sustainability or were falling short on execution.”

Better leadership is clearly needed. It’s taking time for that younger, more aware generation of bosses to understand how important sustainability really is to the future of their company. The pace of change is quickening though. That’s more obvious every day.

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