Credit and recognition where it’s due

It was the British Nutrition Foundation’s Annual Day yesterday.  Academics, health professionals, industry, and students gathered at the Royal College of Physicians in the presence of HRH The Princess Royal, to hear this year’s British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) Annual Lecture, delivered by Professor Sean Strain, Professor of Human Nutrition at University of Ulster.  Professor Strain was winner of the BNF Prize 2012, awarded in recognition of his outstanding leadership and research related to human nutrition, food and health. 

Professor Strain’s lecture, titled ‘Eating Fish for Two’, examined the prevalence of mercury in fish, the result of both natural and human activities, and looked at the scientific evidence behind the effects of methylmercury exposure and advice given to women about eating fish during pregnancy.  This fascinating presentation concluded that there is a need for a change in policy advice to motivate increased fish consumption in pregnant women.  The benefits outweigh the risks according to Professor Strain. 

This extraordinary presentation of scientific significance was followed by a raft of award presentations by HRH The Princess Royal on behalf of BNF, to students, nutritionists and dietitians.  Some were given in the memory and under the name of Sir Jack Drummond, who played an important role in the history of nutrition, in particular during and after the Second World War.

So why is this interesting?  The Chairman of BNF said a few words at the reception that followed the awards giving and his words will resonate with many people.  Nutrition and food security are of huge significance across the globe and climate change is posing many challenges for governments, academics, agriculture and food industries.  These challenges will continue to escalate unless the work of organisations like BNF continues. 

BNF’s modest team of scientists and education professionals work tirelessly to analyse, interpret and communicate nutrition science to multiple audiences.  They are sometimes criticised by the naïve and uneducated for their collaborations with industry but they remain true to their aims and scientific principles, and under strict governance to remain unbiased, balanced and focussed on scientific evidence.

BNF’s work this past year in promoting food provenance, healthy eating and cooking to primary and secondary schools across the country during Healthy Eating Week was an unparalleled success.  With over 3,000 schools taking part and activities involving 1.2 million children it demonstrates the huge appetite and need for knowledge, skills and resources in the community.  .

The small not-for-profit team also works hard to secure funding for its work and they deserve greater support and recognition to build on their vital work helping to address the burgeoning obesity  and associated disease crisis. 

Is red tape restricting the green house building agenda?

Domestic and non-domestic buildings are responsible for around 37 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions.   Taking domestic building in isolation, there are 26 million homes in UK and over 40 per cent of our CO2 emissions come from these buildings – the comparative figure for emissions globally is around a third.  These figures don’t even take into account current energy and water usage and means that there’s a massive amount of retrofitting to be done if we’re to meet our climate change goals.

The government’s flagship Green Deal was officially launched just nine months ago and last week the All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment published its report ‘Re-energising the green agenda’, in which it concludes that the Green Deal already needs reviewing.  Apparently not many people know what it does or why it exists – this comes as no surprise to the Conscious Communications’ team which has heard the same from clients and at the green and cleantech events we attend.

A view reaffirmed by Dr Aled Jones, director of Anglia Ruskin University’s Global Sustainability Institute, today at the Retrofit East conference where he hold delegates that an “urgent reform” of the Green Deal policy is needed.  He believes that the only way to cut domestic carbon emissions by the required 29 per cent is by legislation and compulsory energy and efficiency standards.

Apparently only 700 people have so far taken out Green Deal loans, and just 12 installations have been completed to date.  99 per cent of people who have had a Green Deal assessment done on their home have not gone on to progress their project. 

The All Party Parliamentary Group’s report says: “…we feel it is time to take another look at the detail, make it work for social housing, galvanise the schemes locally across the country and make financial incentives permanent. The concern is that in the current form the Green Deal and Energy Companies Obligation will deliver fewer carbon emissions reductions than the policies they replaced.”

So, in conclusion, the Green Deal has taken us backwards. 

The report goes on to make several recommendations including making retrofit more financially attractive; making the Green Construction Board an industry focal point for delivery and action; and establishing an Existing Homes Hub to engage with industry on sustainability issues.

From a new build perspective, the UK has targeted itself with achieving a carbon neutral status for all new homes by 2016.  This appears to be an easier target for us to achieve, and the Code for Sustainable Homes is now being widely implemented.

Yet the Conscious Communications team understands that one of the key players in the green new build sector, Skanska – three times award winner at this year’s BCI Awards, whose president and CEO is co-chair of the Green Construction Board, has just pulled out of the UK residential market, largely due to the complexities of the planning process.  As an innovator in the market that has been setting the bar for other construction companies, we see this as a shocking indictment of our system, bogged down with red tape, and a calamity for the UK.  Surely there should be measures in place to help companies like Skanska to speed through planning, build progressive housing and help us reach our environmental targets.  Who will lead the way for new green homes in the UK now?

According to the Carbon Disclosure Project’s annual FTSE 350 Climate Change Report 2013, construction companies scoring highest in a ranking of corporate carbon footprints include Morgan Sindall, Balfour Beatty, Carillion, Interserve, Costain, Kier. 

In our region, where the property ‘bubble’ continues to bulge, it is good to see so many of these companies have a presence.  Indeed, the Conscious Communications team was proud to have been part of Kier Eastern’s new office opening in Cambridge recently – we hope that they have more success with the planning process than Skanska did, and that they continue to strive in helping the UK reach its carbon neutral targets.

When is CSR not CSR?

Does corporate social responsibility (CSR) mean different things to different organisations, or do organisations choose to interpret the meaning of CSR in different ways?  This was the question that came to the minds of the Conscious Communications team following a recent ‘CSR’ presentation that we attended in Cambridge.

A number of not-for-profit organisations and SMEs delivered talks at the event and there seemed to be an interesting mismatch in application of the name ‘CSR’ to different activities.

There are various definitions of CSR to draw on but one that the Conscious Communications team favours is ‘corporate self-regulation’ integrated into the business model.  This ‘self-regulation’ refers to ethical standards, and the furthering of social good, beyond the interest of the company itself and its required legal compliance.  CSR is not just about philanthropy, it’s about having a positive impact in and around all areas of business which includes, most topically, taking responsibility for your supply chain.  Marketing Week presented an overview of opinions from CSR leaders – which makes for an interesting read.

It is, of course, inevitable that organisations will engage in CSR activities at different levels, and some more actively than others.  But, what is less obvious maybe, is that organisations will still, in 2013, go about ‘dressing up’ their own promotional activities as CSR, by simply bolting on a charity element.  Giving to charity is always to be applauded and we are sure that the charities concerned are happy to benefit from these activities – we all know how difficult fundraising is today.  But to start with a business or marketing objective and work backwards to develop an event or stunt that fulfils an audience reach imperative, and then add a fundraising attraction to draw in maximum involvement, doesn’t speak to the true essence of social good.  Nor will this approach deliver the long-term business benefits associated with genuine CSR activity, embedded in the culture and strategy across a business.

These benefits are now tangible to the large companies, such as Unilever, which have really embraced their CSR journey.  They know that real CSR can have a positive impact on reputation, employee satisfaction and recruitment, operational efficiency, investor relations, customer loyalty, market positioning and profitability.  Forbes gives six reasons a company should embrace CSR which are echoed across many other sources.

There is no doubt that embedding a robust CSR strategy and culture within an organisation so that it underpins corporate decision making is not easy.  But, if large corporations such as Unilever can do it effectively then it must be possible, if not easier, for SMEs to also do it.  The change needs to come from the very top of the organisation and, therefore, it could be argued that the smaller the company, the easier the implementation of a CSR strategy should be.  So, we believe there’s no excuse for dressing up a customer event as CSR activity – the first step to achieving a genuine CSR strategy is openness and honesty at board level about the organisation’s motivations and objectives.  This is how the Conscious Communications business was conceived, with our ethics and CSR strategy firmly rooted at the very beginning, and now evolving and strengthening as our company grows. 

Power to the wind-people

Wind power is free.  It is a genuinely sustainable energy source, which offers us huge environmental benefits. 

Last month saw the official opening of one of the UK’s greatest feats of modern engineering to date, the London Array – the largest offshore wind farm in the world.  175 wind turbines now generate enough power for 500,000 homes, around two thirds of all homes in Kent.  It has been predicted that the wind farm will lead to a cut in CO2 emissions of more than 925,000 tonnes a year.

The UK also plays host to the world’s second largest offshore wind farm, Greater Gabbard off the East Anglian coast. 

Both of these wind farms were developed as part of what is known as ‘Round 2’ which, as the name suggests, came after the Round 1 of the UK offshore wind farm developments and built on lessons learned.

At the opening of the London Array Prime Minister David Cameron was reported to have said: “This project has been built by some of the bravest seaman, some of the most talented engineers, some of the hardest workers, and it’s going to continue to bring benefits to people in Kent for many, many years to come….. I think this demonstrates Britain is a great place to invest.“

For once it appears that government, industry and the environmental charity sector are united in their sense of achievement and purpose.  Andy Atkins, Friends of the Earth’s executive director, was quoted as saying that the London Array is an energy scheme Britain could be "proud of”.

However, he went on to say: “The UK has some of the best renewable energy resources in Europe, but ministers aren’t doing nearly enough to develop this huge potential and create thousands of new jobs.”

We all know that there is opposition to land based wind farms but it is widely recognised that wind energy has the potential to contribute positively to our environmental targets.  The massive offshore renewable energy projects also provide thousands of jobs and help to boost the economy.  Round 3 of offshore wind farm developments was kicked off by Crown Estates (which leases the seabed) in 2009.  Across Europe 277 offshore wind turbines were connected to the grid in the first 181 days of the year, double that of the previous years, according to the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA).  This brings the total European capacity to 6,040 MW over 58 wind farms in ten countries.  So what is it that Friends of the Earth think the government isn’t doing enough of?

According to the EWEA, while construction activity and preparatory work for new wind farms which already have funding is high, the financing of new projects has slowed down and only one project has reached financial closure so far in 2013.  A major contributing factor in this is regulatory uncertainty.

The UK is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% (compared to 1990 levels) by 2050, yet the Electricity Market Reform’s (EMR) legislation is only due to be finalised by the end of this year. A key element of the EMR is the introduction of long-term contracts, designed to provide a level of security for project developers.  So, it is no wonder that development has been slow to date but at least by the end of the year there will be a clearer way forward for accelerated development and delivery in the wind energy sector.

But it seems that what will still be missing is a clear indication of the direction of power strategy for the future, which would provide security and support for supply chain investment and project development.  Without this the EMR cannot succeed.  

Going back to David Cameron’s comments at the opening of the London Array, currently the oil and gas industry generates around £27 billion for the UK each year and support 440,000 jobs.  The engineering prowess the UK demonstrates in this sector and the sophisticated technology that is designed and installed offshore all over the globe by UK companies, is very similar to that required by wind farms.  So, with both technology and skills transferable, there is surely an opportunity for the UK to drive its recovery through high tech renewables technology. 

But with a growing skills shortage, particularly in engineering, already evident in the existing energy sector, it is difficult to see how the demands of this emerging industry will be serviced.  Perhaps the prospect of a career path in renewables is more attractive than one in existing energy sectors and maybe, therefore, industry, education and government are missing a trick in their collaborative efforts to market engineering careers to school children.  With a focus on careers in renewables, maybe the skills shortage could be more effectively addressed and a whole new generation of young men and women could be drawn to complete engineering degrees. 

On a lighter note and harping back to our very serious opening statement about wind being a sustainable energy source, one remaining question the Conscious Communications team has on the topic of wind farms is whether the ‘farming’ of wind makes it less windy?  We found our answer here in Popsci: unless and until wind farms are omnipresent we surmise that there are only upsides. 

Agricultural research crucial to relieve environmental strain

The region around our base in Cambridge is known as Silicon Fen due to the area’s cluster of high-tech businesses, which focus on electronics, software and biotechnology.

However our beautiful rural location also means that a lot of pioneering research work is undertaken in the field of agriculture (excuse the pun).

Our locality is teeming with movers and shakers from the agricultural research world, from BBRO in Norwich, the UK sugar beet industry’s scientific research and technology transfer hub, to the globally-recognised expertise coming from Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research, an R&D facility owned by AHDB and operated by its Potato Council division. There are extensive crop trials happening at ADAS Boxworth along the A14, and of course around the site of Cereals – the leading event for the UK arable industry, which is taking place in the next couple of weeks at Boothby Graffoe in Lincolnshire. One of our clients has this month been working with Wicken Fen, the National Trust’s first Nature Reserve, acquired back in 1899. Today it remains one of the most important wetlands in Europe.

We have been lucky enough to see some of this impressive research and development in action, and this has undoubtedly helped our colleague Nicola to recently pass her foundation BASIS exam in agronomy.  Her course was an excellent introduction to the integrated crop protection and crop nutrition of the UK’s combinable and root crops – including crop walking in snow, sunshine and rain, a good indication to the variety of strange weather we’ve experienced so far this season.

Responsible use of pesticides was an important component of the course, which saw Nicola study alongside some of the younger faces of the farming industry who will help to shape the future of UK agriculture.

Sustainability should be at the heart of every farmer’s business. At first glance recent headlines seem to show that isn’t the case, for example the European Food Safety Organisation’s findings looking at the decline in the number of bees due to neonicotinoid pesticides, or the joint State of Nature report, compiled by 25 wildlife organisations, which assessed the population and distribution trends of  3,148 species. But if we delve deeper, to see what steps the industry is talking to safeguard against the harm done by past generations and older farming solutions, for example polluted watercourses due to high levels of slug pellet use, we can see that the UK’s agricultural research and development isn’t going to waste.

In the words of Sir David Attenborough: “This ground-breaking report is a stark warning – but it is also a sign of hope.  We have in this country a network of passionate conservation groups supported by millions of people who love wildlife. The experts have come together to highlight the amazing nature we have around us and to ensure that it remains here for generations to come.”

Educating Business for Women Leaders

The on-going debate about women on boards confounds the Conscious Communications team. 

Angela Merkel’s well publicised campaign to increase the number of German companies appointing women to senior posts is currently heading for a quota of 30% by 2020.  Our own Vince Cable has said he’ll look again at quotas if the target of 25% female representation on boards is not met by 2015.

Of course there should be as many women on boards as there are men but the thought that laws should be put in place to ensure that this is the case seems at odds with the net required result: successful businesses and a thriving economy. 

The central issue is one of discrimination and there is absolutely no doubt that women have been discriminated against for many reasons throughout history – employment is just one of the many arenas in which this discrimination has played out.  Extremely capable women have been blocked from rising up the ranks of male dominated companies and there have been many widely publicised cases where salaries for female employees have been unacceptably low compared with male counterparts. 

Culture and geography have also played a major role in women’s ability to achieve their potential in business.  Internationally, women account for only 11% of all board positions: Europe has the highest percentage, with Norway, Sweden and Finland at the top of the league and US lagging way behind.  This is despite the fact that up to 20% of the growth in US productivity in the past 50 years has been attributed to the inclusion of marginalised groups, including women, in the work force.

Looking at an industry close to our hearts, research has shown repeatedly that gender diverse executive teams demonstrate strong CSR performance.  But men still dominate senior CSR roles in US.  The GreenBiz 2011 salary survey found that two thirds of senior sustainability roles in large companies were held by men.

But are laws really able to impact on this discrimination?  It’s a little like legislating to stop a playground bully – the act itself will not stop, it will simply become better disguised.  No, the answer, we believe, lies not in legislation but in EDUCATION.

A recent article in the Independent cited a report showing that the average British CEO is a 53 year old male with a background in finance.  Apparently 52% of CEOs have a finance or accountancy background; only 8% have a background in marketing or advertising – no comment from Conscious Communications on this statistic!

However and wherever a woman starts on her career journey, it can’t be avoided that if she is to have a family it is likely that she will have a career break of some length. In fast moving, ever changing industries like our own, even a short career break will require her to embark on a steep learning curve to catch up when she returns.  Here, again, education is the key and Conscious Communications wonders whether investment in provision for training and CPD for women, enabling them to compete on a level playing field, would be a better use of government resources, than enforcement of legislation.  

History has taught women that they can overcome adversity if they put up enough of a fight.  There are enough great modern-day female role models to demonstrate what can be achieved.  But, we believe that all self-respecting women in business want nothing more than to know they have earned their place in the business hierarchy, not achieved it by leapfrogging capable men to the role through the exercising of legal muscle.  There’s no satisfaction or achievement in that.

Dying Commotion in our Ocean

95% of the planet’s oceans are still unexplored, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, US Department of Commerce).  That’s an extraordinary fact, especially when you consider that 70% of the earth’s surface is covered in salt water and that water contains some of the most fascinating and extraordinary forms of life we will ever encounter.  Giles Andreae’s inspired trip through the wonders of the sea with Commotion in the Ocean speaks volumes about our endless fascination with sea life (if you’re not familiar with the book and have young children, it’s a must-get!).

Not only are there beautiful things to see in these waters but the oceans also provide food and work for many millions of people – in the US over 1/3 of the Gross National Product originates from coastal areas, in the UK it is estimated that maritime activity provides employment for over 1m people.

However, the health of our oceans continues to be threatened from three sides: climate change, pollution and over-fishing and, while these are all things that humans have the ability and wherewithal to do something about, precious little has yet been done.  In March, Huffington Post reported on the latest Greenpeace campaign to raise awareness of sustainable fishing, ‘Shark vs. Mermaid Death Squad’.

In the UK (and other parts of the world) we vehemently protect our green spaces – the green belt makes up 13% of our total land area.  Yet, only 2.3% of our oceans is protected by marine reserves according to Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE).  

Human propensity for an ‘out of sight out of mind’ approach to the environment ensures the continued steady decline of these beautiful, much unknown underwater worlds.

Climate change: Ocean acidification is now a widely recognised term referring to the reduction of pH in the water caused by the absorption of CO2 from the atmosphere.  When CO2 is absorbed by seawater the water becomes more acidic and causes carbonate ions, which, among other things, are the building blocks of structures such as shells and coral skeletons (a bit like calcium for bones), to be less abundant.  The ocean absorbs around 30% of CO2 that’s released into the atmosphere and, as the levels of CO2 increase with global warming, so do the levels present in the ocean.

Pollution: Statistics for pollution of our oceans continue to be shocking.  Interestingly, around 80% of global marine pollution comes from land-based sources, according to UNESCO  – mostly agricultural run-off, discharge of nutrients and pesticides and untreated sewage (including plastics).  The UN Environment Programme states that there are 46,000 pieces of floating plastic in every square mile of ocean!  This pollution has left us with around 245,000 km2 of deadzones globally (equivalent to the size of the UK’s landmass) where marine life can’t survive and ecosystems collapse. 

Over-fishing: The third ‘ocean-attacker’ is possibly the most widely known due to media interest in recent years.  TV documentaries and films such as The End of the Line, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival 2009, have highlighted the issues which have resulted in three quarters of the world’s fish stocks being harvested more quickly than they can reproduce.   The ocean provides a vital source of human nourishment, especially to people in the world’s poorest nations – many millions of individuals depend on fish for their primary source of protein.

But funding for marine conservation is still pitifully low when compared with other environmental concerns.  It seems the issue still remains that a huge part of the ocean belongs to no one and, unlike our green areas, is so far removed from our everyday lives (and mostly out of sight) that no one has taken responsibility for it.  But we only have one planet and if we want our children and our children’s children to have a future worth living, we need to be taking action now. 

Like other environmental and sustainability challenges, it is apparent that the collaboration between commercial partners, NGOs and governments can help to drive considerable change.  This partnership approach is now the driving principal behind organisations like BLUE, which aims to increase the area of protected marine reserves, where commercial fishing is banned, to 10% by 2020.  As a percentage, this will still be less than the protected green areas in UK for example but it is certainly a long way in the right direction and, if this can be achieved, it will clear the path for further progress.

Collaboration will be a major topic of discussion at the forthcoming Responsible Business Summit 2013, 7-8 May in London.  Speakers from Greenpeace, The Economist, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, RiiR and London Business School will kick off two days of discussion about the ability for business, NGOs and government to successfully address long term corporate responsibility and sustainability challenges post RIO +20.  The Conscious Communications team is proud to be helping Ethical Corporation promote this event, which we hope will have far reaching impact and help fuel constructive collaborations.

We have a client enjoying a well-earned break in Thailand this week, with plans to do some leisurely snorkelling.  We know he’ll enjoy some extraordinary underwater sights, which we hope as a race we can help to preserve for generations to come.

Exploitation of chuggers

Last year there was a growing body of negative feeling towards street fundraisers, ‘charity muggers’ or ‘chuggers’ as they are unaffectionately known.


A Local Government Association survey of councils revealed that charity fundraisers who approach shoppers had become unwelcome in three quarters of towns across the country. Complaints were recorded from the public in more than two thirds of high streets where ‘chuggers’ were said to operate.  Concerns weren’t just expressed by unwitting shoppers; they came from shopkeepers too who said that the presence of chuggers was driving down trade.


Street fundraisers, whose aim is to obtain bank details and signed direct debit forms, are not currently governed by the regulations that restrict the activities of collectors who rattle tins and collect cash.  So, there were calls for new legislation to control their activities.  


Late in 2012 there was an inquiry into the activities of street fundraisers working for a company called Tag Campaigns, which found that the company and its employees were in breach of charity law.  It was claimed that the chuggers had been making misleading claims.  The case was referred to the Charity Commission.  However, Tag is a profit-making company and not a charity and, therefore, the Commission was unable to prosecute. The regulations governing the way that face-to-face fundraisers operate on the streets are set by the Institute of Fundraising and this is meant to ensure that aggressive tactics are not used.


Now it seems that some councils are taking the situation into their own hands. In Shrewsbury, for example, where Pride Hill has reportedly become a particular hot-spot, the Council and police are working with the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association to set a limit on the number and frequency of fundraisers allowed to operate in the area. 


In Edinburgh, investment in the city centre and the launch of the Essential Edinburgh business plan has sparked a campaign to clean up the streets including discussion about the banning of chuggers as reported by STV


With jobs in short supply, should we be considering the chuggers themselves?  An 18 year old, known to the Conscious Communications team, was recently approached in the street and asked if he wanted a job helping to raise much needed money for a major and very worthwhile charity.  Casual work is scarce as we know and young people across the country are finding it hard to earn cash to do the things they would like.  This particular young man was saving to be able to travel for a few months and jumped at the chance to earn, without much thought for why a total stranger would offer him a job.


The interview process was brief and with some sales experience already under his belt, successful.  In no time he was off to Nottingham where he was to stay for four months, working 6 days a week on a commission based package, which included accommodation.


All went well for a few days.  He had a bedroom in a large house and shared a bathroom with the few other new recruits.  However, within the week, more people had arrived in the house and now there weren’t enough beds or bedding to go around.  The recruits were set strict financial targets and given their ‘patch’.  At the end of the second week our 18 year old hadn’t reached his target, was given two days to bring in the money and, when he couldn’t find enough willing victims on the Nottingham streets, was fired.  


There is so much in this sorry little tale that isn’t right.  Should the recruitment and business practices of these fundraising companies come under greater scrutiny? Maybe this would point a way forward for curtailing the exploitation of both shoppers and other vulnerable groups – the young and unemployed who are also the victims of these companies and the charities that commission them.


A key issue, of course, is that chugging is a very useful and lucrative fundraising tool for charities, so we imagine there must be a certain reluctance to restrict their activities.  


Confidence breeds confidence

Last week we were invited to join a party from the Cambridgeshire Chambers of Commerce in travelling to London for the British Chambers of Commerce Annual Conference.  It was a privilege to be part of the group and our thanks go to John Bridge, Chief Executive of the Cambridgeshire Chambers for involving us.

The speaker line-up for the day was quite extraordinary, with Rt Hon William Hague MP and Rt Hon Ed MIlliband MP making personal appearances; the Prime Minister, not to be outshone, delivered a pre-recorded speech to the conference, in which he talked about the UK’s battle for its economic future and how the work of the BCC is “vital for winning that battle”. 

In his presentation, the Foreign Secretary talked eloquently of five areas of focus for the government in strengthening Britain: building stability; increasing UK competitiveness; boosting trade and investment; fighting for an open and fair global market; investing in international security.  His full speech can be found here.

Other speakers included Rt Hon Dr Vince Cable MP, Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Rt Hon Lord Heseltine CH, Rt Hon Patrick McLoughlin MP.

For us, the most memorable words of the day were delivered by John Longworth, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce: “Hope is not a strategy”, he said.  “It is no use hoping for a Eurozone recovery any time soon, or a booming US economy in the immediate future.”

The underlying message of the conference was the need to ‘drive business confidence’, a strapline that our own Chambers in Cambridgeshire have adopted for the coming year.  John Longworth told the conference:  “Bold action must be taken now to boost confidence so that businesses can create wealth and prosperity….. Confidence is the key, confidence and an enterprise friendly environment.” 

Export was another strong theme of the conference.  William Hague illustrated the importance of the international marketplace for UK businesses with the examples of Brazil, Russia, India and China, which now account for 20 per cent of world economic output, double that of ten years ago.  The UK still lags “behind European competitors in the market share of exports to emerging markets,” he said.  “British SMEs are currently less likely to export than their European competitors.  Our ambition is to see as many as 100,000 more exporters by the year 2020.” There could certainly be no misunderstanding at the conference that the government is expecting and imploring UK SMEs to lead this international growth.

One of the most interesting discussions during the day was that between Chris Sullivan, Chief Executive, UK Corporate Banking Division, RBS Group, Samir Desai, CEO, Funding Circle and Lucy Armstrong, Chair, Capital for Enterprise.  A rather apologetic opening speech from Chris Sullivan set the scene from corporate banking and there followed a lively discussion about the growth of peer to peer lending platforms and the potential for new challenger banks to enter the market.  Regional banking featured as an important potential focus for the future.  For those of us old enough to remember how banking used to be, this news may herald a welcome return to something that delivers a little more control as well as flexibility, and the personal attention of old-fashioned bank managers who understand their customers businesses.  We can’t see any negatives in that.

The other highlight of the event was a lively delivery by the passionate Wayne Hemingway MBE, Founder, Red or Dead.  Wayne Hemingway stressed that creativity is the 2nd biggest driver of our economy and claimed that by losing control of our city centres the people have lost the ability to grow that creativity in the way that his own business started.  He went on to lambast multiple retailers for treating UK manufacturers as a soft touch and claimed that, in doing so, they were contributing to the UK slow economic recovery.

Echoing the sentiment of John Longworth’s words, he concluded that we “all need to recognise that we can do better” and that recognising the need for change is a vital first step.

Conscious Food

Deep in the midst of yet another food industry crisis one can be forgiven for wondering how, in this day and age, this can happen.  For those of us who remember the salmonella crisis or BSE and the devastating impact they had on the farming and food industries, it is extraordinary to think that, with so much emphasis on traceability and provenance, we can still find ingredients in our food that shouldn’t be there.  Never mind the fact that in the UK we may find eating horses repugnant, it’s the fact that we have no idea really where those horses came from and what state they were in when they went into our food that’s most alarming.  One thing we can guarantee is that they weren’t caringly fattened steeds from a conventional farm!

Being very familiar with the work of World Horse Welfare, the charity dedicated to protecting and promoting the welfare of horses around the world, the Conscious Communications’ team is well aware of the issues relating to the European horsemeat industry and the long-distance transportation of horses across Europe for slaughter.  If you’re not aware of what goes on, it’s worth reading some of the information for the charity’s website.   Thousands of horses and donkeys face a miserable prolonged demise at the hands of unscrupulous traders every year and many of them are diseased and unfit to travel, let alone eat.

It beggars belief that our government can reassure consumers that there is no risk to human health in eating meat from horses that have come from unknown sources.  How can they make such a claim when charities like World Horse Welfare have been presenting them with evidence of the scandal for so many years?   The shame is that, being a seemingly non-UK issue, the UK media has paid little attention over the years so the plight of these horses has gone unnoticed on our shores, with the exception of a few articles in Horse and Hound.

So, what next?  The people who engage in animal cruelty and illegal trafficking on this scale are not about to simply say ‘sorry’ and stop doing it.  The companies that process the meat may be prosecuted and stop using their suppliers but the trade will not cease, it will simply go further underground.  These are people who think nothing of driving horses and donkeys, already half dead with disease and fatigue (and probably full of the banned drug bute) for thousands of miles, with no food, water or rest, until they meet their grizzly end. 

The biggest issue in this whole sorry tale is that of trust.  Trust is such an important commodity, whether your customers are consumers or other businesses.  People like to do business with and buy from people, organisations and brands they trust and if the trust continues un-abused then businesses flourish, whether they’re selling lasagne or holidays. 

As a small business built with trust and integrity at our core, we know the value of trusting business relationships.  When trust breaks down, as in any relationship, there can be massive fall-out and the damage to businesses involved in the horsemeat scandal is currently immeasurable.   We are sure many will not survive but all involved are equally to blame for inadequately policing their supply chains when their customers had placed trust in their integrity.  For this there is no excuse.

We would like to think that one positive consequence of the horsemeat fiasco may be a resurgence in the ‘back to basics’ movement.  Some of our most delicious and nutritious foods are, after all, those which are cooked from scratch and eaten in season, with a sprinkling of fresh herbs from the kitchen garden.  There are no hidden, salts, sugars, fats, colours, flavours or DNA in the things nature provides for us.  We may even find another net positive effect in this – a reduction in obesity, CHD, diabetes and any number of other diseases that drain the life out of people and resources from our NHS.

So, while the environment secretary meets again with the food processors, retailers, FSA and others, in an attempt to get to the bottom of this mess, it would be good to think that our rather romantic notion of people turning their backs on ready meals and stocking up on good old fashioned potatoes, cabbage and apples instead, may become a reality.  After all meat and two veg is exactly what it says it is, nothing more or less, and there’s an inherent reassurance in recognising what animal you’re eating because you bought it from the farm shop or trusted butcher in your high street.

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