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Observer Ethical Awards 2014: a look inside the ‘green Oscars’



Listing names as varied as Sir David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley, Caroline Lucas and Lenny Henry among its winners, the Observer Ethical Awards are back for a ninth year.

Few events in the sustainability space can match the Observer Ethical Awards for impact. Nine years and eight ceremonies since their inception in 2005, the awards handed out have become some of the most influential in the green and ethical economy.

The likes of Colin Firth and his wife Livia regularly attend and, diaries permitting, are judges in 2014; Sir David Attenborough and Joanna Lumley are previous winners; and leading ethical retailer Ecover has sponsored the event since it began in 2006.

The brains behind the event is Lucy Siegle – a columnist with the Guardian and Observer and reporter on programmes like The One Show and Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent. While in recent years her focus has been on sustainable and ethical fashion (she was appointed a visiting professor in the subject at University of the Arts London in 2008) the Observer Ethical Awards remain her baby, and she is returning this year to host the event again.

2014 brings with it new categories – including a community energy award, sponsored by National Grid. This will seek to reward communities that display real vision and aspiration in producing home-grown power.

Meanwhile, hardware chain B&Q has helped develop the Great Energy Race, a competition between 20 households across the UK to see which can save the most energy. The winner gets £10,000 to ‘future proof’ their home.

Sustainable fashion is also playing a greater role this year, with the event asking everyone – from big brands to individuals – to enter sustainable fashion pieces. These will be whittled down to a final six, which will be displayed as a collection on the night of the event.

Away from the new categories, delegates will get the opportunity to walk down a green carpet this year – fitting for an event often referred to as the ‘green Oscars’.

However, speaking to Blue & Green Tomorrow, Siegle explains that she hopes the 2014 event won’t be dramatically different, given the well-documented success of the previous eight years.

She says, “I was very taken – a few years ago – when the awards attracted the soubriquet of the ‘green Oscars’. At the risk of over emphasising this, just as the Oscars don’t reinvent every year I don’t want the awards to differ substantially.

If the awards night has even a fraction of the heart and emotion of last year’s, where the audience applauded Malala Yousafi for what seemed like forever and Lenny Henry gave an unbelieving moving speech about Comic Relief, I will be very pleased indeed.”

Lucy Siegle presenting at the South West Fairtrade Business Awards 2014. Photo: Jon Craig photography

Henry, a co-founder of Comic Relief with celebrated scriptwriter Richard Curtis, is just one of a whole host of famous faces to have picked up Ethical Awards over the years. Sir David Attenborough, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Jane Goodall, Caroline Lucas and Joanna Lumley are among some of the others.

But while recognition of the work these celebrities have done is crucial in opening the Observer Ethical Awards up to the mainstream, its real attraction is its championing of the everyday people and businesses doing incredible things in sustainability.

There was a touching moment at the 2011 edition, for example. Speaking to Siegle after collecting an award for their bat and bird boxes, two students from Savio Salesian College in Merseyside were asked what they were going to do with the money.

Build more boxes. Expand. Go into Europe”, one replied. “Do what we can do. And help save the world.”

Siegle says, “I think [the awards have] retained the same heart and soul and the same celebratory feel that we began with and this is so important.”

The entries have become more nuanced and innovative as this market matures. We are world leaders in sustainability in the UK, and it’s important our categories reflect this. Ecover, our headline sponsor, is incredibly innovative so we always consult on tone, categories and actually spend a lot of time exploring how ecological and social justice thinking and research has changed and moved on.”

On paper, a connection between someone like Sir David Attenborough and a group of schoolchildren from Merseyside is remarkable. But Siegle believes all winners have at least one consistent attribute that connects them all: “They mean it and have the commitment to follow change through.”

Along with headline sponsor Ecover and category sponsors National Grid and B&Q, those supporting the Ethical Awards include Econyl, Virgin Holidays and Eco Age.

With financial sponsorship crucial in making the event not only happen but become a success, it would be easy for it to seek funding from firms simply in it for the reputational benefit. However, by opting instead for companies with clear and robust corporate social responsibility (CSR) credentials or a defined sustainability benefit, they ensure the event’s good name isn’t tarnished.

Asked whether CSR has passed its sell-by date as a term, Siegle says, “No, because we are still dependent on non-responsible industries, like it or not. Would you sooner those industries did not change at all or made no attempt to ameliorate resource use or pollution?

CSR – done properly – can provide a level headed, strategic approach to change. It is also established enough to have its own culture and protocol that other elements of the business community, i.e. investors, have got to grips with and understand or feel comfortable with.

My problem with it comes when after many years a CSR strategy in a company is still tokenistic. The targets never increase and change can never be scaled in a company. This is sometimes deliberate (greenwashing) but sometimes down to a lack of vision and courage. At which [point] get some objective help from outside experts.”

Judges for the 2014 event, alongside Siegle, include the singer and model VV Brown, Guardian environment correspondent Damian Carrington, TV presenter Rick Edwards and the writer and adventurer Ben Fogle.

The closing date for nominations is March 21 and a shortlist will be drawn up in May. The event itself takes place at One Marylebone in London on June 11.

For more information, visit:

Further reading:

Nominations open for 2014 Observer Ethical Awards

Sustainability top priority for quarter of British small businesses

Why businesses must ‘shape and innovate’

We need more people with complete sustainability literacy

The Guide to Corporate Social Responsibility 2013


Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?



self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo |

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.


Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035



renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart /

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.


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