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.

Confidence breeds prosperity

This week Conscious Communications grew by 33.3%, not a huge achievement considering the team now numbers only four but for us it is a sign that there is a real market for what we do and that people genuinely like the way we do it.  We believe it is also a sign that, with enough drive and passion, businesses can fight tough economic conditions and thrive.

It became apparent to us this month that there are indeed many businesses, both large and small, across our region (and across the country) that are continuing to develop and grow.   In ghost writing a Special Report for Cambridgeshire Chamber of Commerce’s Connected magazine we were privileged to speak with business and education leaders from Chamber member organisations and, from all of them, we heard that innovation, diversification, flexibility, partnership working and a can-do attitude are the keys to success. 

Even in the toughest of industry sectors which, in recent years with the impact of climate change so apparent, has to be agriculture, businesses like Produce World show huge strength of character in their management teams.  Talking with William Burgess about events of the past year, the value of continuous innovation and research and development in helping to maintain this oldest of industries is clear.  But, while Produce World has and is surviving and still building, others have and are not, and it seems to us that the strength of individual characters within their driving team and the confidence in their ability to not only weather the storm but to beat it hands down is key.

Another family business that’s also facing 2013 with the optimism and determination now synonymous with its 100 year history,history is one of our favourite clients, Ridgeons Timber and Builders Merchants.  This week they opened their new Green Light Centre of Excellence and Training Academy, with two days of customer and VIP events, in partnership with their training partners Cambridge Regional College, NICIEC and Easy MCS.  This is a great example of how partnerships between organisations are working to help companies diversify and offer new and much needed products and services.  The initiative is an important one for the construction industry in our region and will help businesses take advantage of opportunities that the move towards sustainability offers and, importantly, is a diversification for Ridgeons which adds yet another valuable string to their bow.  The Rt Hon Greg Barker Minister of State for Climate Change even tipped up on Wednesday to look around and congratulate Ridgeons on their achievements with the Centre. 

Major players in the regional construction industry, including Kier Eastern also attended the event  and, talking with managing director, Graham Howe, it’s apparent that Kier too is feeling cautiously optimistic about the year to come, particularly in the Eastern region where there are clear ‘pockets’ of opportunity.

Graham believes that ‘doom and gloom only spreads more of the same’, while a ‘positive attitude to business and innovation has proved to help breed confidence across companies, customers and the whole economy’.   This is an absolute truism we are sure and we also believe, wholeheartedly, that ensuring you have only positive, proactive people in your organisation is another key to success.  This is why we’re so delighted to have Nicola Collenette, ex-drinks industry journalist, as our newest team member.

So, onwards and upwards and here’s to a prosperous 2013.


January, and those of us with teenage children know that we’re already into exam season.  In fact, exam season seems to be perpetual these days.  But, from next year, January and February will be a little quieter for the examining bodies, when the opportunity for 17 and 18 year olds to retake A Level modules will no longer exist.  Yes, it’s all change again for UK education.

At Conscious Communications we’re privileged to work with one of the best private schools in the country and through our work have developed an understanding of the issues and politics involved in the national education agenda.  We have also been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to discuss pressing education issues with teachers, academics and business leaders, most recently in a series of podcasts with education thought leaders as a preview to a national education conference we are organising in Cambridge next month.

Teachers are not at all shy  of voicing their opinions and indeed, they are some of the most prolific Tweeters, using the social media platform to stage lively discussions and debates at all times of day and night.  There are even several public Twitter forums which take place each week at set times, where teachers and educationalists get together, using hash tags such as #sltchat or #ukedchat, to discuss pre-agreed themes and questions, often resulting in heated voicing of opinions.

The major issues currently are those relating to the review of the National Curriculum and the government’s consultation on the future for assessment in the UK.  Teachers, seemingly universally, believe that the current system is letting children and schools down.  They are brimming with ideas for how an effective system could and should be structured and yet their frustration that the educated and informed opinions of teachers are going unheeded by the decision makers, are widely voiced. 

Something that appears to have been missed by the decision makers in their reform of the system is exploration of the fundamental question of what is the purpose of education and learning for today and tomorrow.  Not, what has the purpose of education been in the past – it is surely ridiculous that in the fast moving, digital and increasingly ‘global’ world and workplace, there is talk of a return to basics. 

Ask teachers what the purpose of learning is and, we believe, you’ll receive a range of responses which mostly focus on giving students critical and inquisitive thinking skills and equipping them to achieve ‘fulfilling’ and socially aware futures.  Many teachers we have spoken to talk about the IB learner profile and its relevance for young people entering the adult world today.  IB says that its programme is designed to ‘develop internationally minded people who, recognising their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world’.  The words IB uses to describe the type of qualities they work to instil in students are: ‘inquirers’, ‘knowledgeable’, ‘thinkers’, ‘communicators’, ‘principled’, ‘open-minded’, ‘caring’, ‘risk-takers’, ‘balanced’, ‘reflective’.  Sounds about right for the world they will face!

Educating human capital for the preservation of natural capital

Awareness of the value of natural capital is increasingly important in the commercial world, where efficiencies and effective use of resources are under scrutiny. 

The concept of ‘natural capital’ has a long history but it is only in recent years that it has carried a real weight of importance.  As early as 1937 Roosevelt referenced an article which talked about ‘balancing the budget of our resources’, a very clear reference to what we know as natural capital today.

In its true sense, natural capital refers to the natural assets we utilise for economic production.  There are three main categories of this: natural resource stocks, land and ecosystems, all of which are essential, not only to the long-term sustainability of economic development but also, of course, to the sustainability of all forms of life as we know them, including ourselves.

It is encouraging to know that so many groups and organisations now exist to examine the issues relating to the depletion of natural resources and the preservation of natural capital.  The Natural Capital Initiative (NCI) is one such forum, involving scientists, policy-makers and industry in discussing how to support the development of science, policy and practice, in-line with an ‘ecosystem approach’ to decision making, where natural good and services are valued.  The NCI has established a schedule of events and publications which aim to communicate its findings but how does all of this worthwhile discussion really translate into action?

Defra’s own Natural Capital Committee evolved from the Natural Environment White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice: Securing the Value of Nature’, published in June 2011.  It is designed to ‘ensure that government has a better informed understanding of the value of Natural Capital, and will help it to prioritise actions to support and improve the UK’s natural assets’.   With the government’s Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) already in place, we’re not sure what else the Committee will contribute that isn’t already known on a macro scale?  We hope it will be more than just further discussion and debate. 

One good thing, however, to come from the Committee is the establishment of Local Nature Partnerships (LNPs), of which there are now 48 across the country.  Our understanding is that these will focus on three priorities: sustainable land use and management; green economic growth; quality of life and local health and wellbeing.  We are pleased to see that Greater Cambridgeshire is listed among the 48 and are looking to see how our team might contribute to its efforts in the coming months.

For our own business and all others in the service sector, the key to success is our people and, although technically classified as human capital, not natural capital, there is clearly much cross-over. The role of human capital in economic development, productivity growth and innovation must not be underestimated either, nor must the role of human capital in the future preservation of our natural capital.  Education is, therefore, surely at the very heart of the issue and the development of a national education system that builds knowledge and life skills in young people, which are relevant to the future of our global digital economy, is essential – here-in lies another topic close to our hearts with the work we are involved in with the Stephen Perse Foundation

What’s your ‘calling’?

Through our work in education we are often drawn into discussions about careers and the future of assessment in UK schools.  Following one such discussion the question of terminology arose and plunged us into thought about the expectations of young people and how, over the generations, the descriptors we use for education and qualifications have changed with these expectations.

For those of us who grew up in the 60s and 70s, a vocation is something that a person feels a particular ‘calling’ to pursue and, in the process of doing so, may be lucky enough to make a living for themselves.  The dictionary confirms this with: ‘a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action, especially a divine call to the religious life’ and explains that the word originates from the Middle English vocacioun, Anglo-French vocaciun and Latin vocation.

For us then, a vocation is distinct from a career by the addition of the ‘calling’ bit.  Without this we are left with only the element that makes a living.  Having said this, we all know many people who have had and are having long and successful careers which they have grown to enjoy and sometimes even love.  However, they weren’t necessarily ‘love at first sight’ so, by our definition, they are careers and not vocations.

With this in mind, what surprises us is the modern use of the word ‘vocational’ to broadly describe less academic professional paths.  Today the term ‘vocational’ seems to be used to categorise job choices that would have previously been simply called ‘the trades’ – construction, accountancy, mechanics, and so on.   In days gone by you were either in the ‘professions’ or in the ‘trades’, it was pretty black and white.  But in the same way that so many other boundaries have become blurred and broken, the meaning of these words has changed.  

The dictionary definition of ‘vocational’ is ‘pertaining to or instruction/guidance in a ‘vocation’.  So the question is, when and how did a trade become a vocation?  For some people we’re certain a trade really is a vocation but all trades surely can’t be generally grouped in this way.

The history of vocational education dates back to the vision for technical schools contained in the Butler 1944 Education Act.  Through the 60s, 70s and 80s the availability of technical courses and apprenticeships grew and organisations like the City & Guilds were established.  From what we can find, the word ‘vocational’ first appeared officially in the mix with the announcement of the Technical & Vocational Employment Initiative in 1982 and from this stemmed what we recognise as NVQs and so on. 

So what else was happening in education during this period?  Margaret Thatcher was rewarding schools for academic performance with extra funding; corporal punishment was banned in state schools; low pay and the stress of the national curriculum was fuelling low morale and teacher strikes.  There are clearly many complexities to the evolution of education and the language we use to describe elements of that mix but we wonder if there is any correlation between the modern use of the word ‘vocational’, as a glamorisation of the traditional ‘trades’, and the 30 years of reform and restructure we have seen through various governments which continues today?

Fanning the sparks of the sustainability revolution

The Growing British Business report says that ‘growth pioneers’ will be responsible for the UK’s recovery.   Learning from history, we know that this is true and we don’t really need a survey of 500 UK decision makers to confirm it.  Indeed, it is this pioneering leadership which we believe is the only way to a truly sustainable future for our planet, let alone for business. 

As a race, humans will do as little as necessary to satisfy external demands and mostly will only do this once self-serving motivations are fulfilled.  Every day, we hear that the only way for businesses to realistically adopt positive change towards a more sustainable future, is for change to be practical and for it to deliver to the bottom line.  This is, of course, true.  So, knowing that really self-less leaders will be the notable exceptions that headline in history, we are reliant on exceptionally successful business leaders, who can afford to take the high road, to dedicate their time and energy to leading the way forward.

The Growing British Business report shows some interesting regional groupings with Cambridge earning a top ranking for fostering many of growth pioneers in its ‘hi-tech hub’.  Dr David Cleevely of Analysys fame, Charles Cotton, Chair of Cambridge Phenomenon Ltd and Neul Ltd, and Hermann Hauser UK Computer Personality of the Year in 1984, are a few of Cambridge’s great names, and companies like Ubisense, Abcam, Amadeus, Redgate Software, RealVNC, Autonomy, Jagex have leaders snapping at their heels.

Growing British Business claims that Cambridge has reached the heady rankings of a ‘super city’, primed to spearhead the UK’s economic recovery and, earlier this year, The Guardian reported that Cambridge’s hi-tech cluster now sports 1,400 companies, supporting 40,000 jobs.  Indeed David Cleevely recently told Prince Andrew that the city has the potential to develop a new clutch of $10bn companies taking it to the ‘next level of global greatness’. 

So, maybe Cambridge, with its hot-bed of pioneering leaders, is where the real sustainability revolution is set to start.  We’re glad we’re here to fan the sparks!

Peddle Power Still the Front Runner

It feels as though we’re just about to witness the birth of the electric car movement.  Suddenly there are a growing number of options and offers, for buying or leasing these super quiet, nippy little city hoppers.  It’s now possible to obtain your own corporate Peugeot iOn on HP for around £150/month, with no tax ( so you can be forgiven for wondering why we aren’t all flocking to get one.

Like many SMEs, Conscious Communications works from managed offices.  We benefit from the support and infrastructure of the team which provides everything from our telephone answering service to our car parking.  There is, however, one minor draw back that we’ve now discovered.  We have no electric car charging point and, with limited car parking, no immediate prospect of one being installed.  So, for us, the options are limited to charging our electric car at one of the few charging points in town, or driving the car home each night to charge it for the following day.

For now, while we wait for a response from the owners of the business park, we comfort ourselves with the latest news that a network of ‘rapid charging points’ is to be installed in motorway service stations across the country (, allowing owners to recharge in just 15 minutes – less time than the take-away cappuccino queue. If this goes ahead, by the time we eventually find a way to make an electric car practical and feasible for our company, we’ll be able to use it for longer distances, travelling to and from client meetings up and down the country.  This would certainly change the outlook for and fortune of people currently living within hearing distance of our motorways – silent motorways, quite a concept!

But, before we get carried away with this thought, there’s a set-back.  We read last week about a new study undertaken by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (, which seems to show that electric cars may cause more pollution than petrol or diesel-powered cars.  The research looks at the complete life-cycle: how the cars are produced, the use and the end of life dismantling, and concludes that “the global warming potential for electric vehicle production is about twice that of conventional vehicles”.

So, for now, we revert to our traditional Cambridge peddle power and hold out for the arrival of a new generation of solar powered electric cars. 

Global Shrinkage

On the day we learned that scientists are predicting that marine fish could be up to 25 per cent smaller by 2050 because of the impact of global warming, I listened to Malcolm Keay from the Oxford Institute of Energy Studies presenting at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge. 

He presented statements from eminent people and institutions on the importance of energy efficiency in fighting global warming – the EU Commission, the IEA, and Chris Huhne were examples, then presented scientific evidence demonstrating how wrong they are.  To hear that outcomes of efficiencies can be counter-intuitive and can work against sustainability is alarming – the efficiencies of international shipping, for examples, have doubled since 1990 but, with that, emissions have doubled too.

According to research (Sorrell), energy demand and efficiencies increase with GDP growth, and may even cause it.  Keay examined the circumstances in which efficiency may lower demand and these seem few.  He posed the question ‘when might energy efficiency reduce emissions?’ and concluded that ‘when it reduces demand for energy AND the energy saved is carbon intensive AND is not offset by more carbon intensive demand elsewhere AND efficiency policies do not conflict with other policies.

His conclusion to the dilemma: energy efficiency is about energy – the problem is carbon.  To enable energy efficiency to result in sustainability, there is a need to reduce demand, emissions and costs.  He believes this will require an integrated approach, carbon taxes for example, as the process is not automatic.

Keay’s presentation was the opener to a long morning of technical presentations much of which is above a non-physicist’s head.  I left the University wondering what the impact will be on plant life, mammals and, of course, humans if warmer oceans, carrying less oxygen will shrink our fish by a quarter of their current size.

Blowing hot and cold on warming

It is extraordinary to me that there are still such a number of climate change skeptics.  The frightening thing is that so many remain in influential positions – are they really of the view that climate change doesn’t exist or does it just suit their own agendas to say such.  The Berkely Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project appeared to show, indisputably, that the Earth’s land surface has warmed by 1.5c in the past 250 years. 

The study, by Professor Richard Muller and his team at the University of California, found that human emissions of greenhouse gases are almost entirely to blame for the rise in temperatures.  Muller, previously a climate change skeptic himself, claimed to be surprised by the findings but has conceded that there now is enough evidence to make him change his mind.  He also said that the analysis suggests we can expect a further 1.5 degree warming in the next 50 years.

The study included the analysis of a staggering 14.4m land temperature observations from 44,455 sites across the world, dating back to 1753.  On top of this, the data was analysed automatically to ensure that it was free from human error or influence.

So, why do many skeptics remain who are unable to fully accept these results?  Prof Judith Curry, a climatologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a consulting member of the BEST team, told the Guardian that the method used to attribute the warming to human emissions was “way over-simplistic and not at all convincing in my opinion”.  Really?  Can the picture painted by 14.4m land temperature readings be that woolly?

John Coleman, founder of the Weather Channel in USA, is reported just this week to have called global warming a ‘hoax’, and a report in Forbes claims that it is ‘criminal’.  It goes on to say that looking back through history to the Ice Age, it would be worrying if the earth wasn’t getting warmer.

Luckily, I believe that the majority of people are now convinced, so I am happy to ignore the propaganda spread by some.  The real challenge now though is reaching agreement across the political, diplomatic and cultural spectrum, as to what can and should be done.  We seem to have been debating this for far too many years already and, while we continue to debate and prevaricate, the problem continues to go unrestrained. 

The latest turn of events, or about-turn of events, is George Osborne’s ‘dash for gas’, criticised by the Climate Change Committee for jeopardising the country’s carbon reduction commitments by questioning the development of zero-carbon electricity generation over new gas power stations.  It appears that fulfillment of his proposal may breach laws relating to Britain’s carbon reduction commitments, but the fact that this debate is taking place, at this stage, is disheartening to say the least.  Sadly, if the decision makers keep changing, as they inevitably will through the electoral cycle, vital decisions about the future of our world will continue to be delayed.

London 2012 race to sustainability finish-line

In 2005, the framework for the first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games, Towards a One Planet Olympics, was put together by WWF, London 2012 and BioRegional:   It formed part of London’s bid to host the Games and set out to create a legacy for sport, the environment and people, while respecting the planet’s ecological limits. 

So, how has it performed?  We’re still waiting for the full post-Games report to be delivered after the Paralympics but a pre-Games report, published just before the start of the Games, makes interesting reading.

The framework was, of course, a massively ambitious project, but then the whole Games were.  So far, there appear to have been some real successes, including the lowering of the Games’ embodied carbon footprint.  Half of the total carbon emissions of the Games was due to construction of the venues and a lot of thought went into the use of low impact materials, design of lightweight structures and how to get maximum use from temporary buildings.  The figures for carbon reduction show, among other things, that the stadium is delivering 38% less embodied carbon than the original design promised, so a big tick in the box here.

A huge disappointment however, is the project’s failure to deliver its target of 20% of energy from onsite renewable sources – you might be forgiven for thinking this should be easier to achieve than the carbon targets.  Central to the plan was an onsite wind turbine and a combined heat and power (CHP) energy centre running on renewable fuel.  But, the wind turbine was never built, reportedly because of changes in health and safety legislation – with four years’ warning and wind turbines popping up across the country, you would imagine the government could have foreseen and overcome this obstacle.    

A great British success story in renewable energy and CHP development is the British Sugar Wissington factory, which generates enough energy for 100,000 homes and fuels the country’s biggest single tomato glasshouse, Cornerways Nursery   I can’t help thinking that if LOCOG had called on the experience and commitment of British Sugar, or any other of the growing number of corporations now generating their own renewable energy, the energy centre would have been up and running well ahead of the Games. 

Waste was another focus for Towards a One Planet Olympics and targets for reuse and recycling have been achieved but, so far, five additional legacy targets, which set out to extend zero waste policies across East London and increase the market for recycled products, have not.  We wait to see what the final sustainability report for the Games shows and whether any progress has been made in recent weeks.

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