“it’s the loss of abundance itself I mourn … people over the age of fifty can remember springtime lapwings crying and swooping over every field, corn buntings alert on each hedge and telegraph wire, swallow aerobatics in every farmyard and clouds of finches on the autumn stubbles; they remember nettle beds swarming with small tortoiseshell and peacock caterpillars, the sparking pointillist palette of the hay meadows, ditches crawling and croaking with frogs and toads and even in the suburbs, song-bird speckled lawns and congregations of house martins in their dashing navy-blue elegance … but most vividly of all, some of them remember the moth snowstorm” (p 100)
All campaigners for Nature should read The Moth Snowstorm. The title refers to an experience which few young people have ever known, if they live in a country subject to industrial farm chemicals. It’s both a warning and a benchmark: it should help re-set our ambition to safeguard Nature where it remains, and shows the abundance and quality of Nature that we should recover, where it has been lost.
It used to be that people had to stop their cars at night to clean the windscreen of squashed ‘bugs’. Likewise moths used to gather around lights at night or beat their wings on the windows of lit rooms. Now that is rarely seen by most children in a country like the UK. It still happens in the movies.
‘The Moth Snowstorm’ refers to the way that at night on a dark road, you sometimes saw so many moths caught in car headlights that it resembled driving into a snowstorm. No longer.
As Michael McCarthy recounts, this ‘Great Thinning’ of nature took place gradually, and hardly anyone noticed how bad it was, or at least nobody counted it.
I was a Countryside Campaigner in the early 1980s, and we were fighting the outright ripping-up of old meadows and ancient woods by farmers backed by government subsidies. Then as a Pesticides Campaigner, I could see that the countryside was bathed in poisons that had to be damaging but there were no surveys to draw on. Next our most pressing concerns became tropical deforestation, ozone depletion, acid rain and climate change: such happy days. As a result I have several of what my partner calls ‘the Suicide Bookshelves’.
McCarthy has not written one of those doom laden prophecies but as he says, it was not until around the turn of the century, when scientists at Rothamstead Research Station in Hertfordshire published data from a long running survey, that it became obvious that something horrible was happening. That survey showed 80 species of moths had declined 70 percent or more between 1968 and 2002, and 20 of these had declined by over 90 percent.
Since then we have become aware that this is all part of the same massive decline in insects that includes bees, butterflies and many other creatures. The main cause is undoubtedly pesticides (including herbicides which kill ‘weeds’ that insects, and thus birds, depend upon). Could factors like car pollution play a part ? Possibly, though there is no data I know of but we know for sure that insecticides kill insects (and though most people don’t realize it, so do many herbicides, fungicides and other -cides).
In 2004, in perhaps it’s best ever public engagement project, the RSPB ran a ‘splatometer’ survey. 40,000 people British drove around with a cardboard grid on their car number plate on a routine journey in June, and recorded the number of insects killed and distance traveled. The result was an average one dead insect every 8km. A similar project in the Netherlands found one insect every 5km. That’s a long way to fly for a mouthful if you are an insect eating bird trying to feed the family.
‘Rare’ Becoming the New ‘Common’
Thus many birds, flowers and insects still described in book as ‘common’ are now ‘scarce’ or ‘rare’. Indeed, ‘Rare’ is becoming the new ‘Common’, and if allowed to continue, Nature as our parents knew it, is finished. Like Nightingales: declined over 90% since the late 1960s, and even Song Thrushes, declined 51% from 1980 – 2009.
McCarthy’s book should be a wake-up call for anyone who cares about Nature, and a warning for those in European countries like the Baltic States where an inadvertent side-effect of decades under Communism meant the onslaught of agrochemicals was delayed, and more nature survives, or for brave little Slovenia which is something of a European role model in restricting farm chemicals. Even more, should it ring alarm bells in the less developed world, the current big market for the agro-chemical companies selling substances like Neonicotinoids.
Michael McCarthy is a working class boy from Birkenhead, the town across the River Mersey from Liverpool. There he discovered wildlife and wildness, and this book is part autobiography, peppered with references to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and contemporary events like the ‘Earthrise’ photo taken from Apollo 8, that marked the emergence of environmentalism, and indirectly led to M J McCarthy, a leading environmental journalist at The Times and The Independent.
The sub-title is ‘Nature and Joy’ and McCarthy describes how at the age of fifteen, at a very troubled time of his life, he encountered Joy through discovering nature. It is he says, ‘a wholly appropriate name for the sudden passionate happiness which the natural world can occasionally trigger in us, which may well be the most serious business of all’.
‘Each time I stopped at the gate, “I said to myself I know what is in there …”
It was a blue.
It was a blue that shocked you.
It was a blue that made you giddy.
It was a blue that flowed like smoke over the woodland floor …’ (p159)
If I have a criticism of this book it is that he has rolled three into one, and thus not had time to develop any of them to their full potential.
The McCarthy autobiography would be all the more interesting if there was more ‘inside track’ from his decades around the news system and politics.
The idea – and that is an inadequate term – of ‘Joy’ as a launch experience or launch-pad for campaigning for Nature, he has a good go at but is a big idea in itself that could be explored much further.
Finally, ‘The Great Thinning’ would not be so depressing or so ‘over-50’ for those under 50, if there was more on what can be done, and is being done.
Got a big idea that should change the world ? That’s ok if you can make a better mouse trap but if it’s an idea not a marketable thing, and if it requires collaboration and cooperation, then it’s more difficult to promote. Here’s one suggestion, inspired by ideas that need to get the backing of political leaders or other ‘powerful’ people:
It needs to be taken up by
Probably in that order.
The Authoritative – need to endorse your plan/initiative first. It needs to be interesting enough in terms of who does the endorsing, to be newsworthy and a talking point (a must-know) to the next group.
The Connected – media owners and key media professionals, power-network, fashion-network, social-network, NGO-network, business-network, knowledge-network people. These must cover all the communities of interest who can see there is a reason for them to benefit but can also include social/ knowledge networks who just find it interesting. The purpose of this is to get it actively talked about, partly in order to make it possible to attract the next group.
The Charismatic – these are people others want to meet, see, hear, listen to. This is a much smaller group. One of them must be prepared to take an interest in and at least partly understand briefings from the expert group. One of them at least should be rich. Most importantly, a few of them must be able to become the face of the initiative. They are used to generate popular media etc, can help launch any mass social networking of support, and attract the next group.
The Rich – the rich mainly talk to each other so there needs to be some bridge for introductions from the previous group but the incentive is that they get to meet the charismatic. The price is that they are expected to contribute some cash for perhaps a soft and cuddly or particularly exciting part of the project. Not just because the money is needed but to help imbue the initiative with the trappings of influence and aspiration, so as to send the signal to the next group that this is supported by all types of important people.
The Powerful – politicians in power and others with power, eg CEOs and Chairmen of some large corporations. Despite what they may say, they do listen more to the rich. They also like to meet the entertaining and charismatic. This is the point where you try and close your case on a demand for them to support. It needs to be or lead to a ‘moment’ where all your forces of influence can be brought together.
(first published in Campaign Strategy Newsletter 80, May 2012)
The honest truth is that I don’t really have a ‘theory of change’, indeed I try to avoid the term. This is for the same reason that I try to avoid ‘message’: a debate about which is the right ‘message’, or which is the right ‘theory of change’, tends to make you go in circles. So my theory about theories of change, is that organisations or groups, or more depressingly, individuals, who spend time looking for the right theory of change, are probably wasting their time.
This of course excludes academics who teach or study theories of change. For them it is a necessity. After all, history would be awfully dull without the possibility of attribution error. Likewise, the companies who make a business of selling ‘Theories of Change’ as methods. You can find them via Google, although other search engines are available.
For “message” I suggest looking at components of communication that can be assessed more precisely and objectively – eg CAMPCAT. This is because when it comes to the sort of communication assumed by the term ‘message’ in change-seeking discussions, the important factors concern effectiveness, and the important factors are those which you can plan, control or at least influence, and most of those are not ‘the message’ itself.
There are endless ‘theories of change’ and the more general ones are the sorts of things Aristotle and Plato may have argued about. Does change come when elites lead, or when the masses move ?
Unless the purpose or other context is more specific – for instance these on peace-making – the grander theories of change are not really applicable to campaigns. The useful literature about change, including ‘theories of change’ used in a pramgatically wide way, is vast. For example this sample by my friends at Fairsay.
But if I did have a theory of change for campaigns it might be a bit like this: these things will help.
Experiment, test, learn, improve
Apply the learnings of others about what works
Do both of the above
Create a body of practice that works for your group or for you
Build a campaign around a Critical Path and ground-truth test it
Define your communications strategy (audiences, actions) from the Critical Path
Find your critical path by issue mapping to locate a single significant change
Create a relationship of trust so people can support the campaign ‘on trust’
A campaigner or campaign organisation which learns from experiment and empirical testing, seeing what works and what does not, and trying to objectively measure or detect that, experiment and change it and observe the outcome, is more likely to succeed over time than one that does not. Break down your campaigns into testable bits: monitor, evaluate, analyse, improve and try again, like Dave Brailsfords incremental gains in cycling. But remember the “10,000 hour rule” – it takse time to get really good at campaigns, no matter how good the planning or theory, as it’s also about skills and team building.
A campaigner or campaign organisation which applies the learnings of others about what works more often than it does not (eg heuristics, motivational values, framing), is more likely to succeed over time than one that does not.
This might sound like a statement of the obvious but campaign groups are often to be found repeating the same mistakes over and over. They try and try again, which is a requirement for #1 but for many reasons, which may include being very intuitive, ethically driven and otherwise mission focused and prone to the commitment effect, and indeed the influence of ‘theories of change’ which hold that they are part of an insurgent uprising against overwhelming forces, they learn nothing from failure. Rather it is taken as a validation that they are on the true right course.
Others do #2 and can become besotted with one methodology to the point that like the proverbial man with just a hammer, ‘every problem looks like a nail’. So my next point would be:
A campaigner or organisation which does 1# and 2# will tend to be more successful than if s/he or it does only one of those things, or neither.
Rather than a theory of change, an organisation needs to establish a body of practice that works, and to identify its best tactic, and then build its strategies around that. (A Strategy of Tactical Positioning, as suggested by Sun Tzu, who was quite good at this sort of thing, and discussed along with the rest of these points in my book How to Win Campaigns: Communications for Change). This is because many of the learnings gleaned from general theory may not apply to the culture and social situation of the organisation (or individual). Moreover, the assets and resources needed to get really good at one thing, may preclude being really good at others: there are many zero sum games. This limitation really helps clear and effective decision-making.
Campaigns built around a Critical Path of changes where one thing needs to happen, in order to make the next happen, leading to a single detectable final objective of change, are more likely to work than those without such a path. Making such a path requires testing assumptions by research: ground-truthing it and testing assumptions. This reduces the wickedness of problems.
Define audiences and changes from the Critical Path steps, (eg in terms of power, influence and control and necessary actions, ie behaviours) which makes it possible to apply general learnings and methodologies in an effective way. For example: applying framing-research or motivational-values techniques. Here you can make testable theories, for example showing X to audience A will make them more likely to do Y, eg in qualitative research. This creates your instrumental Communication Strategy.
Finding a Critical Path requires understanding where a single change can have significant results, ie to change the issue at a point of intervention. This requires understanding the issue, not just as it is seen in other contexts (eg by the media, or in politics or academics or by other specific audiences) but in terms of actors and power and control and processes which inhibit or cause change now, and identifying possible interventions which themselves may change those (meaning that the actors involved may not even be aware of each other at present). This requires situation or issue mapping, which identifies what is known, and what needs to be researched, in order to find possible new interventions. As a rule, the more maps of the same issue are made by groups of people with different expertise, the more new possibilities will emerge. Campaign planners need to be intelligencers: to acquire and utilise intelligence about the relevant situation.
Campaigns are not generally required where money or power can deliver the desired change but only where public opinion and actions are needed to focus support and influence. Such influence is a weak force unless focused and unstable. Therefore it is generally in deficit, making it costly to focus, and so limiting opportunities to apply it. A narrow focus is therefore required which prevents campaigns from being truly educational: they cannot work by explaining ‘the issue’ as it is usually ‘wicked’. Moreover the campaign plan cannot usually be the public story but has to be taken on trust. This in turn requires a relationship of trust built between the campaign brand and its followers, and the public supporters, and within the campaign community.
Finally, campaigns are a form of public politics, mostly operating outside formal politics. The boundary between the two is complex and contested – see for example the UK debates about the ‘Gagging Law’ which restricts NGO campaigning in the months before an election. At root, that controversy is about representation in political life – do people have a right to organise and represent themselves to exert influence over how their society works, or is this something that only the formal political class have the right to do ? In that case, the freedoms of NGOs have become entangled in the same issue that faced attempts to organise labour in the Nineteenth Century. This question of contested legitimacy is one that will face the “voluntary sector” in many countries.
Sometimes campaigns lead and initiate politcal change, especially where politics becomes a fight for ‘the middleground’, focused on fewer and fewer ‘issues’. By excluding other public concerns, such politics positively encourages the emergence of campaigns that address those ‘issues’.
The trend to politicians believing, or pretending to believe, that the public interest can always be best served by leaving as much as possible to the private sector, ie ‘the market’, is motivated by a desire to be ‘business friendly’, attract investment and promote economic growth.
This has two major effects on the context for campaigns. On the one hand it opens the way for campaign groups to exert more influence than before, by focusing consumer opinion and action on sensitive commercial interests (eg Greenpeace’s consumer campaigns on tuna and palm oil): campaigns and business change then lead, create norms and standards, and politics follow up behind, sometimes eventually making the standards statutory. On the other, it further marginalises formal politics, and will tend to increase public trust in NGOs, and some businesses, while politicians appear less and less relevant.
Politicians show some signs of realising that they must reverse this process. Remarkably, China may be where the primacy of economic growth is most bluntly curtailed in the public interest, incentivised by the need to control air pollution. Problems like climate change though, everywhere require collaboration and cooperation that in turn need governance, and that cannot be delivered by a free market alone.
The media exerts a simplifying effect on this political-social-campaign interaction because it also focuses attention, especially its own. News media seeks out the biggest actor or loudest voice – a single actor bias – to tell a story. It has room for only one global threat at a time, and rationalises the downplaying of others in the same way that an individual is susceptible to single-action bias. Devices such as filters that identify what is ‘trending’ on twitter, and public opinion polls that identify a ‘no.1 concern’, exert a similar effect.
These interactions are too complex to be captured in any single ‘theory of change’ but for practical purposes, campaign groups can develop a model of achieving change that works best for them, taking into account their culture, community, brand, ambitions and the situations they face. I don’t guarantee that following my steps will lead to success but it might help tip the odds in your favour.
Lots of UK campaigners, who tend not to be Conservatives, will no doubt be feeling deflated and dispirited at the way the UK General Election turned out.
So if you are running a campaigning NGO, what should you do ?
There will be no shortage of knee-jerk post-mortems, with or without forensic analysis. Here are my equally un-researched thoughts.
Don’t try to plan based on how the political system plays out. There will be endless analysis of the effect of how the Scottish referendum was played by the main parties, the media dominance of UKIP over the last years, where the LibDem vote went, and what might have happened if someone else than Ed Miliband had been fronting the Labour Party. That’s for the political classes to do but hardly any of it – probably none of it – will tell you anything useful about what to do as campaigners.
Unless there is somehow a sudden reform of the UK electoral system so it converts to Proportional Representation (possible but unlikely), expect a surge in support for campaign groups. That happened when Mrs Thatcher seemed to keep winning elections despite widespread public dislike of her and her governments. The consequent gloom and feelings of powerlessness drove some of the more activist-inclined and more universalist-minded souls towards unconventional politics (mainly but not only Pioneers): ie informal public politics, or ‘unpolitics’ such as NGO campaigns. It will probably happen again, possibly even in Scotland, if the SNP Great Awakening fails to deliver a Great Feeling that everything is different.
Start now, thinking about what you want to normalise, so that it becomes a mainstream concern, not something seen as a ‘campaign issue’. Only by achieving that, will such concerns be picked up and included in manifestos, and just as importantly, understood by politicians at an intuitive level rather than just by a few odballs and researchers. All political minds – ie the ‘minds’ of parties – are rather small and very (small-c) conservative, not least because the fewer ‘key issues’ there are, the more workable the agenda.
It is far too late to start trying to get any change in party positions or get things into manifestos, once an Election starts to occupy the minds of individual politicians. If you now face a five year wait for another General Election, its years 1 and 2 where you need to plant seeds, grow them to fruition and make them an unavoidable part of the social landscape. Success comes when the parties all adopt your concern and then seek to differentiate themselves on how they will deliver on it. Failure is usually associated with backing by only one party or the political margins, and just getting ‘nods’ and ‘mentions’ for media and social media purposes (ie politicians seeing it as mainly a PR exercise).
This means that even quite large demonstrations that lots of people care about X, usually have no effect in the run up to a British General Election, if the parties have not already embedded it in their own DNA.
This (above) will hardly ever be achieved by one campaign. It means a swarm of campaigns, probably not obviously linked, or not linked at all.
To perhaps state the obvious, this also means your target is not politicians but society. This is about creating the conditions with which to later ‘make the weather’. It requires starting a long way out.
There is no evidence that ‘climate change disbelief’ or scepticism is a significant problem in public opinion (as opposed to politics and media). In 15 of 15 countries surveyed, climate ‘believers’ outweigh ‘sceptics’.
In no case in 15 countries does ‘strong scepticism’ (strongly agreeing with the statement “Climate Change – I don’t believe in it”) reach more than 20%. In the US it is under 12% despite a majority of Republican politicians (but not Republican voters) being ‘sceptic’.
In all countries surveyed, more people believe in climate change than do not believe in it.
Polls run in the US and UK do not represent the rest of the world: the public in the great majority of countries are much less climate sceptic than those in a country like Britain. Strong ‘believers’ outweigh ‘strong sceptics’ in Argentina more than 10:1, in the Philippines more than 8:1, and even in the UK 4:1, in the US about 3:1 and in Turkey, the most ‘sceptic’ of the 15, by more than 2:1.
A majority in all countries (eight tested) agree they have noticed the climate changing. Significantly more agree with this than agree that they ‘believe in’ climate change. This apparent paradox is due to both questions being assessed intuitively not analytically but in different ways.
There is majority support for increasing renewable energy as the main source of electricity in all eight countries where questions were asked (in most cases over 70%).
Values segmented responses show that unconsciously-held motivational values are determining differences in public opinion on ‘climate change’ within countries, and the willingness to engage in the steps required to tackle it.
The Now People Prospectors and the Transcender Pioneers are consistently the ‘climate leader’ Values Modes. The Golden Dreamer Prospectors and Brave New World Settlers lead the sceptics.
This is true across countries with very different cultures, political and social systems and at different stages of development.
Opinion polls that do not take values into account are blind to these insights and communications campaigns drawn up on the basis of ‘normal’ opinion polls can easily be wrongly framed or targeted at as a result.
The underlying values biases or skews are consistent across countries despite the big differences in the overall level of climate belief or scepticism (and although not much explored here, when it comes to taking action such as supporting renewables, unless the ask/offer is reformulated to match Settler or Golden Dreamer Prospector values).
Other unconscious (Kahneman System 1) factors such as framing and heuristics, intersect with values to drive behaviour and opinion, even leading to people saying they have noticed the climate changing is happening, while also saying that climate change does not exist.
Climate advocates and communicators need to utilise values insights to improve their communications and avoid perpetuating redundant frames such as societies divided over climate change. This only plays into the hands of their opponents in the fossil fuel lobby. They also need to influence climate scientists not to inadvertently create the same effect.
Today England is bathed in a soup of health-damaging smog but there is very little public reaction. Some of the press is more interested in the possibility that Saharan red dust might fall on Britain: “‘Blood rain’ to fall on Britain” says the Daily Telegraph.
At one time, when air pollution exceeded WHO or EU limits for air pollution, the government funded (Met Office) weather forecasts used to feature visible warnings like red triangle icons. Not any more.
The dust would be visible and is an either/or phenomenon. The health thresholds get crossed but no alarm goes off.
The government still issues ‘warnings’ but they are blandly worded and coupled to reassurance that it will go away soon.
A Defra spokeswoman said: “This is expected to clear on Saturday and pollution levels will return to low throughout the morning.”
You also have to dig for the information and when I just looked the UK-Air site was offline.
When levels reach the government’s ‘High’ category it advises:
Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, should reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors, and particularly if they experience symptoms. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often. Older people should also reduce physical exertion
There is no do or don’t call to action here. It has qualifiers like ‘may’, ‘if’ and ‘reduce’. There’s no threshold action such as ‘stay indoors until’. Nothing to interrupt customary behaviours, which as anyone in the business knows, is necessary to make most people notice and actually change behaviour. No ‘leave your car at home’ for instance, no instruction to factory owners to cut back pollution.
For the population in general it says:
Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors.
Not exactly alarm bell stuff. Reference to sore eyes or throats frames it as a very minor problem. There’s no call to action which might lead to a wide public conversation and to questions such as “what’s going to be done about this”. Which is, I guess, the idea.
Met Office – nice sunny day
Most people just think it looks ‘a bit hazy’ in the sunshine. It’s been building up for days: I’ve been at the E Campaigners Forum in Oxford (ECF2015) with hundreds of campaigners but nobody said anything about it there. If the campaigners aren’t noticing, then politicians who want to avoid doing much about it (as it involves hard stuff like reducing traffic pollution, which Britain has been failing on), have little to worry about.
It’s left to some of the media to say black and white things like “don’t go running” today.
When air pollution levels break legal thresholds for health and nobody takes much notice, you know they have been successfully decoupled from politics: it’s a non-issue. If anti-pollution campaigners want to get some action, they need to focus on setting some triggers that call for clear public action, which are visible and create social proof (signs that other people are doing something).
(a sign from Paris not London, and China)
There’s an election campaign underway in Britain today but the parties arguing about other things, such as Scottish finance, a ‘sausage roll probe’ for UKIP, rail fares, and rents. Tells you all you need to know really.
Professor Paul Monks, chairman of the Air Quality Expert Group, said air pollution is not taken seriously enough because it is an “invisible menace”. (BBC)
“If they can’t see it they often don’t think about it,” he said.
Professor Monks said the levels of air pollution had reduced since the 1990s, but warned that the levels that remain are a “persistent problem”.
“This episode at the moment is one of about a dozen episodes a year,” said Simon Birkett, founder of campaign group Clean Air in London.
“Day in day out the average levels of nitrogen dioxide on many roads in central London will tend on average to be the highest in the world.”
I’ve been doing a bit of work with Richard Elsner from MORE (see later), looking at the potential impact of TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). It is a classic case of where campaigning is tricky because the subject is seen as ‘too difficult’ for politicians, media and campaigners to pay attention to. Easier to leave it to someone else.
Savouring the very name Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership can induce deep sleep. Even so it’s triggered a lot of earnest highbrow analysis of why it’s a bad idea in macro-economic terms. Yet those with most to lose – their jobs for a start – may well be those who have so far played almost no role in the debate: small businesses (SMEs). In Britain this includes the iconic ‘White Van Man’.
“TTIP will have the most far-ranging impact on UK companies since the creation of the European Union. But, while the benefits to big business are clear, SMEs seem set to lose out”.
Strange thing is, that while TTIP was hatched in a behind-closed-doors conflab between the European Commission, the US Government and big business groups, it’s now being promoted by the EU as ‘good for small businesses’.
The reason for this change of tack is fairly obvious: politicians and officials supportive of TTIP, see any hint that it might actually be bad for business, as a potential Achilles Heel. They probably aren’t too worried that rafts of the ‘usual suspects’ oppose TTIP because most of these appear to be rabidly-through-to-mildly critical of capitalism. More worrying than the placard wavers, will be NGOs and others who might put some sort of legal spanner in the works – for example based on the legal opinion of a Bremen University Professor who says mechanisms in CETA (the Canadian-EU version) may be unconstitutional in Europe, violating a ‘principle of democracy enshrined in constitutional and EU law’, prejudicing the guarantee of local self-government’ and going beyond the ‘competence’ of the EU to negotiate such stuff. But who cares about the EU constitution ?
Nor will they be exactly happy that economists like Paul Krugman have attacked its ‘false rationale’, not to mention the growing beat of critical noises from various University studies and journalists like John Kay in the FT. But they know that your average SME boss simply does not read the FT, or blogs about macro-economics. She or he is too busy packing the van or checking that the customers are kept happy.
However, if German bakers, English plumbers and decorators, and French farmers actually got it into their heads that TTIP might allow multinationals to eat their lunch by importing cheaper American versions of their goods and services, that would make TTIP politically toxic in Europe. After all, at least half of the European economy and employment is in ‘SMEs’ and White Man Van is a key political battle ground in Britain.
Never Mind the Quality: Feel the Width
TTIP is about trade but its claims to make a difference rest not on lowering ‘tariffs’ or custom charges between Europe and America (already rock bottom) but on removing other ‘barriers’.
For example rules and regulations about consumer protection, environment, health and sustainability. Through TTIP-Goggles these can all be seen as ‘barriers’. European businesses have developed products and services which comply, and this is one reason why Europe’s ‘quality of life’ is generally seen as higher than that in the United States , and why US products and services are cheaper.
In short, the promise of TTIP is more trade through less quality. That may look ok on a Brussels spreadsheet. It may not feel so good in real life.
Local Suppliers First ? Maybe Not
What’s’ this mean for businesses ? Well some of those most vulnerable might be farmers and growers and food companies who supply “local produce” to supermarkets and any Local Authority or public body where there is a policy or practice to buy-local. Any preference given to buying local first could be open to challenge by companies in the US. This lynchpin of ‘sustainable sourcing’ might be swept away.
If you’re a small business in Europe that creates products adhering to long-running EU rules, your products are probably going to be more expensive to produce than their US equivalents, which can make greater use of cheap labour as well as, potentially, questionable chemicals and practices. If many of the EU’s regulations are scrapped, many of these cheap US products that were previously banned on the continent are likely to flood in, undercutting your prices.
Meanwhile, in the UK, many local councils have implemented schemes that aim to strengthen communities and support small businesses by prioritising relationships with local suppliers. The UK government recently pledged support to smaller businesses by setting a target for 25% of its supplier contracts to be fulfilled by SMEs by May 2015. From the information available at present, it seems that both of these arrangements would be deemed illegal under TTIP, which would prevent organisations from adopting a prejudicial stance against global corporations.
Hypocrisy or Happy Wilful Ignorance ?
How can Europe’s governments and many business groups be so keen to sign up to something so potentially disastrous for much of their electorate and members ? Most probably, planning fallacy and optimism bias. As with that trans-Atlantic project, the Concorde, blind faith leads them to continue with the policy. This despite mounting evidence that TTIP could ruin the livelihoods and hopes of millions working in small and medium sized businesses. It’s comfier than adjusting their views.
For the public, it’s counter intuitive that this can be happening. After all leading supermarkets like ASDA stress their commitment to ‘local sourcing’: we see the evidence every time we go into a store; and the government keeps saying it’s a ‘good thing’.
Waitrose, favourite store of the ‘London elites’ says:
‘We’re backing British …It’s what we call responsible sourcing. Waitrose encourages its suppliers to: provide the best possible conditions for workers; protect the natural environment; promote high standards of animal welfare’.
Umm, how will that work if TTIP goes through ? Is this something that John Lewis Partnership has an answer to ?
Poll after poll shows the British consumer likes the idea of buying local, and sometimes actually does it. Eg (YouGov) “59% of consumers prefer to buy UK-sourced meat and poultry compared to imported meat” and the UK Government: “most shoppers [are] saying they actively seek to buy healthy foods (82 per cent) and British seasonal produce (72 per cent)”.
What will it do for the many businesses that have built their business model on meeting the demand for local food ? Eg Accent Catering which ‘makes sourcing ingredients from local suppliers a top priority’ ?
‘The east’s passion for the provenance of goods has seen its results soar above the national average – with 86pc of small and medium sized companies in the area and just 77pc nationally choosing local suppliers. The survey, carried out by Norwich-based Signs Express, asked more than 1,000 businesses across the country about their buying habits. The top three reasons companies gave for choosing local suppliers was it helps boost the local economy, speaking to the supplier is easier if there are any problems, and there are benefits in dealing with people who play a positive role in the community’.
Quite so. SMEs are part of the quality of life. People who are in some way more likely to care because they share your community and might meet you again.
SignExpress is a supplier to SMEs, ie mainly “local” businesses. Why is it relevant to a company like them ? Because of all those signs needed by SMEs, such as on White Vans. These are not obvious companies. A survey by the AA found the top five white-van-driving occupations in the UK were 1. Builder 2. Delivery Courier/Driver, 3. Shopkeeper, 4. Electrician, 5.Handyman. They do not get interviewed on TV or invited to speak for British business. But they are the unseen ‘strivers’ and so far silent majority of European businesses.
Many Local Authorities and Public Bodies also have shop-local policies designed to enhance sustainability and support local economies. Those are potentially just as vulnerable and would if anything, be easier for any multi-national to challenge using the measures proposed for TTIP.
‘Questions about TTIP for SMEs’
If small British business are largely asleep on TTIP, in Germany and other countries in the EU, things are stirring. Richard Elsner at MORE (Movement for Responsibility in Trade Agreements) based in Germany, has published five questions SMEs should ask themselves:
1: Overall, will the impact of TTIP be favourable to the European economy?
2: Will the impact of TTIP be favourable to Europe’s SMEs?
3: Will TTIP advantage big business’s interests over SMEs’?
4: Will the lowering of European regulations be a good for European SMEs?
5 : Will TTIP reduce SMEs’ influence over the regulatory process?
In a nutshell the answers are roughly: 1 – dubious and marginal at very best, could be negative; 2 – not likely; 3 – yes; 4 – no; 5 – yes. Have a look at his Blog for references and detail.
The Friends of the Earth (FoE) ‘bottle dump’ in London, 1971. This became a famous image and helped establish FoE as a leading campaign group of the time.
I am not alone in advising anyone starting out in campaigns, that it is essential to be able to communicate the campaign in both pictures and stories. Blindingly obvious as that may seem, it’s not how people from many walks of life get trained to think, for instance in science, law, business, economics or politics.
But ask most people how they think a campaign is going, and they will tend to use a heard-of-it/ seen-it shortcut. As in, that must be a success “it got so much publicity”, or “everyone’s talking about it online”, or less positively, “you don’t see much of them these days so …”.
In other words they use Kahneman’s heuristics to create an opinion using limited information. What’s easy to recall seems more convincing. What can be recalled may be taken to be representative. What we see is taken to be all there is to see. This is one reason why images are so ‘powerful’: they prompt us to instantly ‘make up our minds’ on this basis. After that, the ‘consistency effect’ kicks in and we stick to our initial conclusion.
Fame is Right
A famous image creates its own credibility. People tend to assume that more prominent or famous organisations are the more successful ones, for example that higher profile companies will be richer. We also tend to assume that when ‘an issue disappears from the headlines’, any problem associated with it has more than likely been solved or at least got better (a bias to positive inference on closure – or ‘no news must be good news’).
As anyone involved with campaigning throughout the duration of a ‘disaster’ may have experienced, this is often compounded by the media’s tendency as a story-teller to want to justify no-longer telling the story, leading to excessive reassurance (the seas are once again blue, the oil has gone; the people are eating again, the aid is flowing, rebuilding has begun, etc).
Winning the Media War, Losing the Campaign
It is also widely known amongst campaigners, who often sit upstream in the story-flow, that it is quite possible to win the media war and lose the campaign.
What looks like huge success early on, may make this more likely, particularly if it either ‘derails’ the campaign from a critical path it needed to follow, or convinces potential supporters that they are ‘not needed’. (Of course if you don’t have a critical path leading to your final objective, in which one step has to be to be achieved, to reach the next, you may not notice this is happening). I would be interested to hear about any cases you may have come across (email@example.com).
Social media prominence – the number of tweets, likes etc – is essentially the same as ‘news media’ coverage in this respect because both imply ‘attention’. It is human nature (ie Kahneman’s ‘system 1’) to rationalise, or back-fit a rise or fall in attention, to reasons that can plausibly, and just as important satisfyingly, explain it.
Because ‘the public’ will not understand ‘the issue’ as policy communities and campaigners do, it is in the interests of campaigns to try and avoid this because the reasons that people use to ‘fill in the gaps’, come from beliefs they already hold as immutably true (eg values or values laden). As Walter Lipmann pointed out, people make up their minds before they define the facts (System 1 not 2), and once they have made up their minds, it is very hard work to get them to change (asking them to use System 2 to overturn System 1).
Schhh … you Know Who ?
Late 1960s Schweppes advertising campaign
In 1971 ‘environmentalism’ was newly minted and a hot topic. Concern about the planet and our impact on it was fiercely debated. The ‘issue’ was often framed as planet versus ‘progress’, or modernity. On the one side stood hippies and concerned scientists, and on the other, business, plastic, CFCs, consumption and, ‘getting ahead’.
So when in England, the popular and aspirational tonic water brand Schweppes, which had been running a successful marketing campaign based on the onomatopoeic slogan ‘Schhh, you know who …’, announced that it would no longer use returnable, re-usable bottles (which carried a deposit) and instead go over to modern, conveniently disposable ones, Friends of the Earth was presented with a campaign gift, which it seized.
FoE returned thousands of the ‘non-returnable’ bottles to the front doorstep of the drinks company. This got huge press coverage, became an iconic image and made Friends of the Earth into environmental heroes of the time. It is often used as the iconic British environmental campaign image of the era. When in 2011 The Guardian newspaper wanted to ask the public to share their images of the environmental movement over the previous forty years, the doorstep action was the image they picked.
Despite the success of the action in creating an image, it did nothing to change Schweppes’s decision. Returnable (also now known as re-usable, multi-trip or refillable) bottles, progressively disappeared from British shops and lives. Returnable bottles ceased to be an ‘issue’. Today, the CPRE or Council for the Protection of Rural England, is trying, with very little attention by comparison, to revive it with a campaign for a ‘Deposit Return System’ in England.
So what happened, and does it hold any lessons for campaigners today ?
An Unexpected Impact
FoE was only a nascent organisation at the time but it exploited a moment when there was an action-deficit, and filled it. Robert Lamb, in Promising the Earth, quotes Richard Sandbrook talking about Graham Searle: “Graham – bless his heart – stood up at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, where they were holding a seminar about the environment, and said ‘Well I’m going to take my bottles Saturday morning over to Cadbury Schweppes.’ Schweppes had just announced they weren’t going to use returnable bottles for their drinks products and people had been vocal about this through the seminar”.
FoE then did three ‘bottle dumps’. A lot of gin and tonic had to be drunk by Pete Wilkinson (later to become famous at Greenpeace) and others, to get the required number of bottles but “the first was enough: we got 50 yards of bottles quite closely set. It made a terrific photograph” said Sandbrook.
The resulting coverage attracted thousands of supporters to join the newly formed Friends of the Earth (FoE). Although the organisation had many ‘larger’ concerns (eg energy), the bottles action energised FoE. Local groups were forming rapidly and picketing Schweppes distribution depots gave them a local focus. It was easily understood, it crystallised two opposing ‘paradigms’, it dealt with a brand and choices that mattered in the shops, pubs and living rooms, and it was tactically novel. Hard to believe now but in Britain it was a ‘first’.
Most of all though it ‘put Friends of the Earth on the map’. The unexpected impact was not measured in terms of the impact on the problem of returnable bottles. ‘It forced no change’ said Lamb but ‘that didn’t seem to matter … it set the fledgling organisation up as a credible voice in any environmental controversy from now on’. Fair enough: an organisational rather than a campaign gain and one FoE walked into by luck rather than design. But could it also have been a campaign success ? It’s impossible to say for sure at this distance but perhaps.
Recycling: The Diversion
What’s for sure is that Friends of the Earth then went on to became almost synonymous with ‘recycling’, and strategically, that was a diversion.
‘We weren’t trying at that point to run a ‘recycling’ campaign at all. I don’t think we had even heard the term. We were advocating ‘reuse’. The industry people, once they realized the threat we posed, introduced ‘recycling’ as their fall-back position – still leaving the onus on the user, and still wasting a lot of energy compared to reuse, even after taking into account transport and cleaning. As we gradually came to understand, the big opponents were not the drink manufacturers nor the bottle makers but the retailers, especially the supermarkets, who would have had to run the reuse programme.’
After the picketing at distribution depots, FoE went on to organise with National Packaging Days. From the start , some of it’s local groups took the bottle dump as a cue to start demonstration recycling projects, which eventually led FoE into large-scale initiatives such as ‘Recycling City Partnership’, many of which spun off green businesses and led into mitigation and problem reduction rather than the more ambitious option of returning and re-using whole bottles.
Whatever it’s origin, the well-known ‘waste hierarchy’ of reduce (or prevention), re-use, and then recycling (above ‘energy recovery’, above disposal) has been a guide in sustainability and enshrined in many policies from the 1970s onwards. The bottle campaign was reuse, recycling was a lower order strategy.
Whatever Happened to Returnable Bottles ?
You can still buy Schweppes tonic in returnable tonic bottles in Britain (the brand was sold to Dr Pepper Snapple Group in 2008) but it seems only those imported from Germany. So good luck taking them back*. Unlike Britain, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands have had government rules and regulations requiring forms of ‘deposit return schemes’
I haven’t yet found any data on the demise of the returnable tonic bottle but a 2009 report for Defra’s Waste and Resources Evidence Programme states that the share of refillables in packaging soft drinks in Britain, declined from 46% to 10% between 1980 and 1989, while the proportion of returnable beer bottles shrank from 33% to 0.3% between 1961 and 2006. In 1975, only 7.5% of the UK beer market used one-trip containers, yet in 2000 this had increased to 36.5%
The slow motion failure of the campaign for returnables in England is played out in the graph from a WRAP report, above (beer bottles). Friends of the Earth were originally trying to expand the orange bit.
Even use of returnable milk bottles (Britain is still notable for doorstep milk deliveries, and at one point some dairies even took back tonic bottles) declined from 94% to 10% between 1974 and 2006.
English returnable milk bottles: endangered ?
In 2007 British drinks manufacturer Britvic ‘pulled the plug on its reusable bottle scheme for pubs and clubs’. It claimed disposables were ‘more appealing’ to consumers and played up their ‘recyclability’. The ‘last ever’ returnable version of the iconic glass Coca Cola bottle in the US rolled off the production line in 2012
Actual re-use of non-milk bottles in the UK is now tiny, for example by Reno Wine (make your way to their store in Wymondham, Norfolk). The stand-out larger scale British ‘success story’ is Scotland’s soft drinks firm AG Barr, which makes ‘Irn Bru’. It has offered deposit refunds on its glass bottles for 140 years. It’s website says ‘During 2009 nearly 7 in every 10 returnable glass bottles was returned for refilling at our Cumbernauld plant. In the last 2 years the bottle deposit has increased from 20p to 30p during which time we have seen a 3% increase in bottle returns’.
In England, Harveys Brewery based in Lewes, Sussex, uses returnable bottles. Good old Harveys ! Maybe I should have stayed in Lewes. My East Anglian equivalent, Adnams, may be green in other ways but does not seem to use returnable bottles.
Harveys also state: ‘80% of Harveys beer is consumed no more than 50 miles from Lewes. We have turned away trade if it’s too far away’. And there’s the rub. Since Schweppes got off the hook, recycling has become the dominant option, not reuse, and every investment made in the recycling system has embedded that choice. Harvey’s green cred is probably based on values and marketing (the green-ness of its drinkers) but to get an English outcome more like that in say Denmark or Germany, we’d need regulation to force supermarkets, pub chains and other bottle users to change their ways. And for that to happen we’d need political will, and for that we’d need public demand, and for that we’d need campaigns.
It’s doable. In countries where ‘deposit schemes’ exist, they work. Rates of return for beer bottles in Denmark, where there is a refundable deposit and non-glass containers were for many years prohibited, have been as high 98%, with each bottle being reused over 30 times.
It seems that the Westminster UK government (though perhaps not the Scottish government) has given up on returnable bottles, perhaps preferring to fudge the issue and take the easy route of voluntary agreements and going along with the preferred options of the packaging and established ‘recycling’ industry. It’s advisers WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) have published reports on ‘single trip or reusable packaging’, on the practicalities of using beer delivery vehicles to take back bottles, and on reducing the weight of beer bottles. It’s report on wine bottles says: ‘The environmental and business pros and cons of single trip versus returnable bottles are still open for debate. However, suffice to say that the observable trend to single trip containers has led to a reduction in average container weights, although some legacy effects remain, wherein design features associated with returnable bottles have been retained in single trip bottles. This therefore offers an opportunity to explore redesign leading to reduced container weight’. Of course this means designing bottles which probably cannot be re-used.
The current British government has cut funding to WRAP by two thirds. WRAP relies on projects developed and funded mainly by industry, eg the glass and glass recycling and ‘waste’ industries and their customers. This obviously has advantages for projects designed to maximise potential efficiencies within the business models they want to pursue but is hardly a recipe for a public interest watchdog role, nor is it likely to finance projects to consider significant changes to the industry. No wonder perhaps. that none of WRAP’s detailed reports seem to have anything positive to say about Britain introducing a statutory scheme for deposits on bottles.
A campaigner who has worked with FoE more recently commented to me that the
‘problem with the issue is that I think it would be very difficult to get it [a deposit scheme] to happen in the UK (at least England), and I’m not sure the benefits would merit this expenditure of effort. This is one reason why … FOE instead went down the line of getting rid of residual waste/maximising reuse & recycling’.
Which no doubt makes great sense but maybe misses the potential.
CPRE may lack the campaign clout to exploit it but the ‘common sense’ appeal of reusing perfectly good bottles rather than crushing them up for road aggregate or even wasting huge amounts of energy to melt them down into identical new ones, still has public resonance. CPRE President Bill Bryson, an American much loved in England for his gently mocking travel books, perhaps has a better common touch. It is, he told the Daily Telegraph in 2010, “nonsense” for the UK not to have a bottle deposit scheme, pointing out that they were still popular in Australia and the US (and Canada and about ten other countries).
CPRE commissioned consultants Eumonia to study the issue. Their report Have We Got the Bottle? Implementing a Deposit Refund Scheme in the UK, calculated that a 15p deposit for small bottles and a 30p deposit for large bottles (including cans, glass bottles and PET plastic bottles) would achieve a return rate of 90% and save each household £7 in litter cleaning costs, as well as saving over 600,000 tonnes of carbon pollution. In 2011 CPRE calculated such a scheme could create 3 – 4,000 jobs.
A Renaissance for Returnables ?
It seems to me that Friends of the Earth were probably right all along, and maybe they’re going to be proved right but won’t be in the game to pick up the credit. Back in 1971, tiny, hopeful and chaotic, it was left up to them to state the obvious. Forty years later it’s the likes of the World Economic Forum which is ‘taking up the bottles’ as it were:
‘Returnable glass bottle systems are a signature example of closed regional and local loops, and give bottling companies full control of their materials flows. For instance, South African Breweries (SAB), the local subsidiary of SABMiller, currently sells more than 85% of volume in a closed loop returnable bottle system. If this were converted to a one-way packaging and distribution system, the country’s glass output would have to be doubled just to cater for the increase in demand for beer bottles. Modelling shows that in beer beverage packaging, the economics of these return systems are far superior to those of one-way systems, even compared with 100% recyclable PET bottles.
So perhaps not all is lost for the returnable bottle.
SABMiller is a global brewing giant headquartered in London, and one of many large companies taking ‘sustainability’ seriously because it makes good business sense. It likes returnable bottles, particularly if you look at emerging markets. 49 per cent of its beer is sold in returnable packaging, which it says is much more carbon efficient throughout its lifecycle than cans, PET bottles or non-returnable bottles.
It’s 2014 Sustainability Report said:
“Around half of our beer is sold in returnable packaging. For example, in Latin America the super-returnable bottles used by Bavaria in Columbia are refilled an average of 44 times. Now we are targeting improvements in Europe, where we already have 700 million returnable glass bottles in circulation but where there are large differences between markets in returnable bottle penetration and consumer behaviour”.
“There are tensions. A recent study in Europe examined the potential barriers to bottles being returned: some consumers are very loyal and committed to using returnable bottles, while others find it inconvenient to return empty bottles to the retailer”. Territory surely, for campaigners ?
A 2014 study (p 133) into the potential of the ‘circular economy’ by the Institute for European Environmental Policy for the European Commission, reported that the German system of a 25 cents deposit fee on beverage packaging ‘has provided motivation for high return rates (98%) [and] for beer it helped re-usable packaging increase from 68% to about 90%. It also says that ‘A cost reduction of 20% per hectolitre of beer sold to consumers would be possible across all markets by shifting from disposable to reusable glass bottles, which would lower the cost of packaging, processing, and distribution’. (p 56)
A Campaign for Cheaper Beer ? That has to be a selling point.
England no longer has a watchdog on waste. It’s only mobilisation of public opinion which is likely to shift UK government policy. David Cameron yielded to public pressure from the ‘Break the Bag Habit’ campaign to levy a charge on public bags in England, although only after being confronted by children campaigning on behalf of albatrosses, along with proof that a similar charge had worked in Wales (an 80% drop in plastic bag use), Scotland and Northern Ireland.
England does not ‘rock’, so much as lag behind the times. Time for Friends of the Earth to return to the fray.
*I do know an English delivery driver who does just that. He has a crate in the back of his van, brings his favourite German beer back to England, drinks it with friends, and takes the empties back on his next job to Germany.
Or what happens when (a) you bring up your children eating wholesome organic stuff, and (b) mum goes on a low fat low sugar diet, and (c) they finally snap. This mysteriously appeared overnight on our family ‘messages’ board for shopping.