Did Patagonia drop the ball with this year’s Black Friday ad?

I’ve long had a fondness for Patagonia and their Black Friday communications in particular. They’re invariably thought-provoking and generally do a wonderful job of using the world’s greatest day of consumerism to tell a powerful story about overconsumption and waste – one linked to their core design values of durability and modularity.

So that story goes, top of the waste hierarchy is to just not buy stuff you don’t need in the first place. Second, if you must buy something, buy something that’s designed to last and that can be easily repaired. Only after these two stages will you see the words ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ start to appear – i.e., passing on your gear to someone else when you’re done with it, or returning it to Patagonia for materials to be recovered and remanufactured into new stuff.

Patagonia’s classic ‘Don’t buy this jacket’ ad from a few years back told that story brilliantly. Reflecting on last week’s offering, though, my sense is they’ve missed the mark somewhat. The main body of their ad read as follows:

We’re all screwed

So don’t tell us that

We can imagine a better future

Because the reality is

It’s too late to fix the climate crisis

And we don’t trust anyone who says

We need to demand a liveable planet

Because we don’t have a choice

(Now read this from the bottom up)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a very clever piece of communication. What, at first glance, comes off as fatalistic resignation to impending doom suddenly transforms into a defiant message of hope there’s still time to ‘fix’ the climate crisis – and that message is an undeniably important one. But here’s the thing…

Hope and optimism are not the same thing. A feeling of belief and trust that things can be made better is very different from the expectation that they actually will. Optimism, you might say, is hard-edged hope, rooted not in faith that ‘everything will be alright in the end,’ but rather in confidence that concrete action will change the future. And therein, as the bard once wrote, lies the rub…

“Imagining” a better future just doesn’t cut it anymore.

This is precisely the kind of framing that has had us kicking the climate can down the road for decades, and the time for this sort of utopian envisioning has long since passed. Now is the moment for real and profound change and, for that, we don’t need hope. What we really need is optimism.

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Boris’ green recovery plan: big step in the right direction, or falling short?

Having bemoaned the dearth of green recovery plans, it would be remiss of me not to call out the 10-point plan announced by UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, earlier this week. In summary, this involves the following aims by 2030:

  • Offshore wind – UK to host 40GW of offshore wind generation, enough to power every UK home and support up to 60k jobs
  • Hydrogen – £500m to generate 5GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity
  • Nuclear – £525m to support up to 10k jobs and roll out smaller projects
  • EVs – £1.3b for charging infrastructure, and ban on sale of new petrol and diesel cars brought forward
  • Public transport – £5b to support walking, cycling and low-carbon buses
  • Aviation and shipping – research projects for zero-emissions planes and ships, with £20m set aside for clean maritime innovations
  • Domestic and public sector buildings – £1b to support energy efficiency in homes, schools and hospitals, including aim to install 600k heat pumps annually by 2028
  • Carbon capture and storage – £1b to support a target of removing 10MT of CO2
  • Nature-based solutions – 30k hectares of trees to be planted annually, plus £5.2b ringfenced to strengthen flood defences
  • Innovation and finance – making the City of London the global center of green finance

So, has the PM truly heeded calls for an environmentally sustainable and socially just recovery from COVID?

Opinion seems somewhat divided. For example, while the UK Climate Change Committee has heralded the plan as a “landmark moment” for the UK’s net-zero transition, others, such as Carbon Brief, have appeared rather more circumspect. In a great series of tweets, CB’s Dr Simon Evans scratches beneath the surface of each point in the plan and concludes that it won’t be enough to reach net-zero.

I must say, I find myself feeling somewhat conflicted about the announcement, too.

On the one hand, whether or not these measures are sufficient to achieve net-zero, they’d sure as heck wipe a massive chunk off the UK’s emissions over the next decade and beyond. My inner pragmatist says not to look a gift horse in the mouth – it’s a big step in the right direction and, for that, we should be thankful.

On the other, though, my inner idealist can’t help feeling deflated by the apparent lack of systems thinking. Especially given this announcement isn’t so much a ‘plan’ as a statement of intent, it would’ve been nice to see something more indicative of a joined-up vision, as opposed to a bunch of headlines.

For example, instead of thinking in terms of the wholesale replacement of the internal combustion engine with EVs, where’s the vision for how we might redesign our cities and/or hang on to more home working, so we need fewer cars in the first place? Instead of just recycling the previously announced 40GW of offshore wind, where’s the thinking on how to overcome the ‘not-in-my-back-yard’ objections to onshore wind, which could be up to ca. 13x more effective in reducing carbon emissions, according to Project Drawdown? And while planting 30k hectares of trees a year may be great, why does that not appear as part of a more comprehensive strategy around shifting land use and conserving biodiversity?

My overriding feeling, therefore, is that while this announcement is certainly a great start, it could have been so much more.

What do you think?

Why it’s time to get behind container-based sanitation

Today is World Toilet Day. It’s a day to focus minds on the fact that 4.2b of our fellow humans still lack access to the basic need of safely managed sanitation; to reinvigorate efforts to reach the SDG target of safe and equitable sanitation for all by 2030; and to shine a light on entrepreneurial enterprises innovating better answers to the global sanitation crisis.

That’s why I’m pleased to have had a hand in important new research, which, I hope, will help to remove a major barrier to scaling container-based sanitation (CBS) enterprises, which are vital to making safely managed sanitation accessible and affordable to some of the world’s least-served populations.

In case you’re not familiar with CBS, it’s a service-based business model built around provision of standalone toilets that store waste in sealable, removable containers. CBS enterprises provide the toilets and maintain a managed service for the collection of full containers, their replacement with empty ones and the transport of full containers to facilities for safe treatment, disposal or reuse of the collected waste (an excellent example of circular economy principles).

Whether toilets are provided in people’s homes (household-level CBS) or as facilities shared by multiple households (shared CBS), it’s a model ideally suited to urban slums and other hard-to-reach locations. In short, it reaches people and places that other forms of sanitation often can’t.

CBS already ought to be a much more prevalent answer to the question of how we provide equitable access to safely managed sanitation for all by 2030. Cited by the World Bank, an EY report from a couple of years back – The world can’t wait for sewers – has helped make significant headway, contributing to formal recognition of household-level CBS as a “safely managed” form of sanitation by the Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP) for Water Supply and Sanitation (the official UN body that monitors progress toward SDG6).

However, a big barrier to scale remains…

Many governments, funders and investors still think of sanitation as they do other public infrastructure investments — i.e., involving high upfront capital outlay, with smaller ongoing costs for operation and maintenance. With CBS models typically the exact opposite, this has led to misconceptions that they’re more expensive over the long term than traditional forms of sanitation, such as pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers, thus hampering investment.

But what if that wasn’t the case?

Enter this new research, carried out for the Container-Based Sanitation Alliance (CBSA), which compares the direct costs of CBS vs. other in-market sanitation options across low-income communities in Haiti, Ghana, Kenya, Peru and Madagascar. Analysis reveals that CBS can, in fact, be provided at significantly lower cost than pit latrines, septic tanks and sewers – and well below the World Bank’s benchmark for water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) affordability.

Compared with sewer connections, safely managed, household-level CBS models examined cost between 37% and 83% less per household per year. The majority, specifically those operating at scale, are also less expensive than pit latrines and septic tanks, by up to 38% and 74% per household per year. Shared CBS services compare even more favorably, costing 65%, 79% and 93% less per household per year than household-level pit latrines, septic tanks and sewer connections respectively.

What’s more, CBS is still a relatively immature technology compared with these other more established forms of sanitation, and there’s every reason to believe that even greater economies of scale can be achieved.

So what does this all mean?

Myth dispelled that CBS models are more expensive to implement and maintain than safely managed sewers, septic tanks and pit latrines, it should mean that governments, funders and investors do more to create the conditions for CBS to thrive and fulfil its true potential to scale. That includes building policy and regulatory frameworks that:

  • Endorse CBS as an essential component of city-wide, blended approaches to sanitation provision (on which front significant progress has already been made in Kenya)
  • Enforce provision of safely managed sanitation for poor and marginalized communities
  • Incentivize creation and support of markets for the reuse of waste
  • Encourage public-private partnership to provide CBS enterprises with more reliable revenue streams and lower their costs of capital and customer acquisition

Just as was called out in another previous EY report — Make way for the future of sanitation — it includes developing more innovative, outcomes-based financial instruments that can encourage greater investment in the sector – blended financing that recognizes the challenges of operating an innovative utility focused on the urban poor, and that emphasizes social impact over financial returns.

In the case of shared CBS models, it also includes encouraging the JMP to disaggregate its criteria for safely managed sanitation. At present, this highest-level classification requires all three of the following:

  • Hygienic separation of excreta from human contact
  • Safe treatment or disposal of waste
  • That the sanitation facility is not shared by more than one household

This dictates that no shared sanitation option can currently be classed as safely managed, even if it hygienically separates waste and provides for its safe treatment or disposal. Nor do these criteria account for other dimensions of safety – for example, resilience to climate variations, such as floods, which can render pit latrines, septic tanks and sewer lines unusable.

Separation of JMP criteria would support clearer recognition that shared CBS models are, in fact, safely managed across multiple dimensions, helping to encourage further investment in these models, as well as household-level ones. Since shared CBS models are frequently deployed in the lowest income communities, and may be the only viable means to significantly improve the safety and quality of sanitation in those locations, this would be a hugely important and valuable development.

Has ‘sustainability’ run its course?

For someone who built his reputation off the back of a book subtitled ‘the 55-minute guide to building sustainable brands,’ and who’ll wax lyrical about the Sustainable Development Goals to anyone who’ll listen, that may seem like an odd question to ask. Nonetheless, it’s one I’ve been pondering this week.

Why? Well, it’s largely the result of reading a report recirculated by McKinsey, as part of its Climate Week campaign, which analyses the kind of things that need to happen in order to achieve a 1.5oC pathway. As the report is quick to emphasize, while technically feasible, the math looks daunting:

  • Reforming food, e.g.
    • Halving our consumption of ruminant meat to just 4% of the global dietary mix
    • Adopting new cultivation methods to achieve a 53% reduction in the intensity of methane emissions from rice farming
    • Curbing waste to no more than 20% of global food output
  • Electrifying our lives, e.g.
    • Halving sales of internal combustion vehicles by 2030 and fully phasing them out by 2050
    • Increasing the share of households with electric space heating almost three-fold from 10% to 26% (a tough ask when more than 1.1b people still lack any electricity supply)
  • Reshaping industrial operations, e.g.
    • Reducing methane emissions by 60% by 2030, and 90% by 2050, across sectors such oil and gas, coal mining, agriculture and waste management
    • Abating one-third of emissions across heavy industry vs. 2016 levels by embracing the circular economy and boosting efficiency
  • Decarbonizing power and fuel, e.g.
    • Decreasing coal-powered electricity generation by 80% by 2030
    • Ramping up solar and wind generation, to the tune of building out 8x more solar panels and 5x more wind turbines every year, vs. current levels
  • Ramping up carbon capture and sequestration, e.g.
    • Multiplying the amount of CO2 captured by carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technologies by more than 125 times by 2050, vs. 2016 levels
    • Potentially needing to reforest an area half the size of Italy every year, on top of halting current deforestation and replacing forests lost to fires

When you look at the magnitude of these shifts, and their interdependence, it feels increasingly like sustainability – however you choose to define it – just isn’t up to the job.

  • Sustainability understood strictly in terms of environmental issues? Inadequate. This framing is simply too narrow to encompass the systemic level of change required – a collective root and branch transformation of entire sectors.
  • Sustainability understood as the ability to maintain something at a certain rate or level (as in ‘sustainable growth’)? Inadequate. Against a backdrop of massive biodiversity loss, and global resource use still vastly outstripping what the planet can naturally absorb and replenish, any notion of ‘maintenance’ seems woefully insufficient.
  • Sustainability understood in its broadest sense, as the capacity to survive and thrive over the long term? That’s certainly been my preferred framing over the years, but even this is starting to feel inadequate, raising more questions than it answers. The capacity of what to survive and thrive (communities, whole nations, the global economy?)? For whose benefit (a select few, all humans, all life on Earth?)? For how long (decades, centuries, in perpetuity?)?

The urgency of the challenges we face arguably requires a better conceptual framework – one that looks beyond merely sustaining the social, economic and environmental systems upon which all life depends and embraces the need to regenerate them.

It’s an important distinction – one that can be seen, for example, in the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ increasingly supplanting ‘sustainable agriculture.’ Whereas the latter tends to be understood in terms of the mantra of doing no harm – a system of production that doesn’t deplete or destroy the resource base it utilizes – the former emphasizes actively improving that resource base, such as by helping to restore soil health and biodiversity.

Writ large, a conceptual shift from sustainability to renewal and regeneration charges us with taking bolder and more immediate action to repair the damage we’ve done. To restore the health of our soil, our forests and our watercourses, rather than just allowing them to limp on in a degraded condition. To power human settlements and commerce efficiently with renewable energy. To reconnect cities to the regional hinterland, regenerating local communities and economies left behind by the forces of globalization. To create a circular rather than linear industrial metabolism, which recognizes symbiotic relationship between the health of human and planetary systems, minimizing waste, pollution and demand on virgin natural resources.

For me, the disconcerting feeling is crystalizing that the language of sustainability I’ve used for more than a decade is really the language of maintaining a steady state – of preserving and prolonging the way things are, rather than unleashing a thunderbolt of transformation. If we’re to truly build back better from this time of social, economic and environmental crisis, I can’t help feeling that we need something more – something that truly reflects the realization that continuous human development and prosperity for all cannot happen at the expense of the health of the planet; something that more explicitly expresses the criticality of establishing a restorative relationship between humanity and ecological systems.

So maybe it’s time to call time on sustainability and embrace regenerationinstead. What do you think?

Celebrating a major milestone for GARV

For me, few things are guaranteed to raise a smile quite like an unsolicited progress update from an impact enterprise that EY has previously supported. It’s always a pleasant surprise – a great reminder of why we do what we do, under the auspices of the EY Ripples program, and of the life-changing impact each of these enterprises can create for hundreds of thousands (sometimes millions) of people in marginalized communities.

Earlier this week, I received just such an update from GARV Toilets, which proudly announced a major milestone – installation of its 1,000th IoT-enabled public restroom, which now collectively cover 118 locations across India and provide safe, dignified sanitation for 190,000 low-income customers daily.

Alongside other past and present innovators in the Toilet Board Coalition’s Sanitation Economy Accelerator program, GARV was called out in a major report I had a hand in writing earlier this year Make way for the future of sanitation. And like other enterprises in that program, GARV has also benefitted from previous EY Ripples projects – in its case, using business modeling to help figure out how it might achieve profitability and impact at scale.

What’s cool about GARV loos is the way they tackle the issues of vandalism and poor maintenance that hinder the safe and effective functioning of public toilets. This includes not only the modular design of loos in vandal-proof stainless steel, but also how toilet cubicles are solar powered and integrate smart technologies such as sensors and RFID tags.

These sensors automatically activate LED lights, exhaust fans, and floor and toilet pan washing, for example, making for a much safer and more pleasant user experience – particularly valued in schools, where the absence of decent facilities is often a significant cause of kids (especially adolescent girls) missing or dropping out of school. Sensors also enable monitoring of the number of user visits and user behavior (e.g., how many times they flush and use the soap dispensers), providing a wealth of insights to inform development of more effective public health strategies and campaigns.

Especially when you consider the still-shocking statistics – e.g., 4.2b of our fellow human beings still without access to safely managed sanitation; more than 670m people still practicing open defecation; and almost 830,000 people in low-income countries dying each year from the preventable effects of poor water, sanitation and hygiene – it’s great to feel part of the story of enterprises like GARV and their continuing mission to transform the sanitation economy.