There are a number of interesting events taking place during this year’s National Ethical Investment Week – one of which was hosted by Ethex, a non-profit that gives clear and simple information on ethical investment that recently featured on Blue & Green Tomorrow. Here’s what happened when some of the sector’s leading lights got together for an afternoon of tea and debate.
English coffee shops and tea houses of the 17th and 18th centuries were famously the venues for vigorous debates on everything from democracy to artistic avant-garde, so perhaps it was no surprise that the crowded back room of Drink, Shop & Do proved such a perfect venue for our ‘Tea & Debate’ on ethical investing on Monday.
We made our way through the craft shop entrance and the high ceilinged tea room to pack out a domed chamber, where our four panellists debated the motion, “This teashop believes that socially responsible investment (SRI) is for dummies“, ably moderated by Matt Black of Social Enterprise Magazine.
A vote from the audience at the outset demonstrated a mountain to climb for those arguing in favour of the motion: two supporting; 38 opposing.
Ethex’s founder, Jamie Hartzell, set off up the foothills, with a passionate and fact-filled case that SRI is for dummies in three senses: firstly SRI promoters are dummies to think it is truly ‘responsible’; secondly we are dummies for believing them; finally,everyone is acting like dummies for doing nothing about it. “How can you take seriously a set of products that includes a ‘sustainable futures’ fund with large holdings in oil shale exploration, one of the most ecological damaging forms of fossil fuel extraction?!“, he asked. This couldn’t go on, Jamie argued, and “this will change, because ethical investors are good people and you can’t keep selling good people bad products“.
Too strong, replied Clare Brook, founding partner at WHEB Asset Management: yes, many of the flaws highlighted are true, but taking a look at the overall picture there is much good being done. She’d seen some company board members literally perspiring under the pressure of shareholder engagement from SRI fund managers. Furthermore the best sort of SRI is investing in companies providing solutions to the most serious crises faced by the world – everything from clean energy and transport to efficient lighting, healthy eating and improved surgery.
“The son of one of our advisers heard seagulls for the first time recently thanks to a Siemens hearing aid”, she said. So SRI – the best kind – is doing much good. “It’s only for dummies if it’s dumbed down!” she concluded.
Good, but almost irrelevant argued Louis Brooke (no relation to Clare!), from the Move Your Money campaign. Look at the numbers: SRI makes up 0.2% of managed funds in the UK. Given the current growth rate, it would take 70 years to achieve 10-15% market share. If we wait for SRI to change the financial system, and save the world, we’ll all be dead! SRI supports the financial status quo rather than challenging it to the root and branch reform that is needed. We are dummies if we think that SRI will get us there.
Hold on a minute, said James Vaccaro from Triodos Bank, finishing off the presentations from the panellists. “Is fair trade for dummies because it doesn’t reform the global trade system?” No, of course not. We are all here because of the progress that has been made. We need to celebrate what has already been achieved, as well as looking at the huge amount yet to do.
After such passionate cases in support and opposition, the rest of the room eagerly joined in, with many excellent points excellently made: is mass shareholder engagement not far more important than SRI, asked a representative of FairPensions – surely that is the way to influence trillions of dollars rather than billions?; the great problem is a disconnection between the public and the workings of the financial system, argued Patrick Hynes from OikoCredit (an Ethex business member) – it’s not SRI that’s needed, but “education, education, education“.
Ultimately, all four panellists were on the same side. “This debate is dividing four people who essentially agree into two camps for everyone’s entertainment!” said Clare Brook – but perhaps the key dividing line fell between how much they favoured evolution versus revolution. “Like the politicians we are all arguing for the middle ground“, summarised Hartzell, “but there is a role for more radical alternatives“.
In spite of their valiant efforts, Jamie and Louis did not completely turn the audience vote around. The final score (-ish) was:
Yes, SRI is for dummies = 7
No, SRI is not for dummies = 20
Abstentions = 3
After much mirth, and even more cake, the event wound to a close with general agreement that the first annual Ethex Tea & Debate on Ethical Investment should most definitely be followed by a second, and James Vaccaro summed up proceedings with a question that everyone in the room could agree with: “How can we spread this debate wider, and get the public at large engaged?” Perhaps we should go for the O2 Arena next year, he suggested.
We love your optimism, James. Ethex is being launched to open up truly ethical investment to everyone – so why not set our sights high? Thank you to our panelists, moderator and everyone who attended for a lively, fun and thought-provoking evening. And thanks to Drink, Shop & Do for a lovely venue and those delicious cakes.
Two Ancient Japanese Philosophies Are the Future of Eco-Living
Our obsession with all things new has blighted the planet. We have a waste crisis, particularly when it comes to plastic. US scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made – 8.3 billion tons! Unfortunately, only 9% of this is estimated to have been recycled. And current global trends point to there being 12 billion tons of plastic waste by 2050.
However, two ancient Japanese philosophies are providing an antidote to the excesses of modern life. By emphasizing the elimination of waste and the acceptance of the old and imperfect, the concepts of Mottainai and Wabi-Sabi have positively influenced Japanese life for centuries.
They are now making their way into the consciousness of the Western mainstream, with an increasing influence in the UK and US. By encouraging us to be frugal with our possessions, (i.e. using natural materials for interior design) these concepts can be the future of eco-living.
What is Wabi-Sabi and Mottainai??
Wabi-Sabi emphasizes an acceptance of transience and imperfection. Although Wabi had the original meaning of sad and lonely, it has come to describe those that are simple, unmaterialistic and at one with nature. The term Sabi is defined as the “the bloom of time”, and has evolved into a new meaning: taking pleasure and seeing beauty in things that are old and faded.
Any flaws in objects, like cracks or marks, are cherished because they illustrate the passage of time. Wear and tear is seen as a representation of their loving use. This makes it intrinsically linked to Wabi, due to its emphasis on simplicity and rejection of materialism.
In the West, Wabi-Sabi has infiltrated many elements of daily life, from cuisine to interior design. Specialist Japanese homeware companies, like Sansho, source handmade products that embody the Wabi-Sabi philosophy. Their products, largely made from natural materials, are handcrafted by traditional Japanese artisans – meaning no two pieces are the same and no two pieces are “perfect” in size or shape.
Mottainai is a term expressing a feeling of regret concerning waste, translating roughly in English to either “what a waste!” or “Don’t waste!”. The philosophy emphasizes the intrinsic value of a resource or object, and is linked to hinto animism, the notion that all objects have a spirit, or ‘kami’. The idea that we are part of nature is a key part of Japanese psychology.
Mottainai also has origins in Buddhist philosophy. The Buddhist monastic tradition emphasizes a life of frugality, to allow us to concentrate on attaining enlightenment. It is from this move towards frugality that a link to Mottainai as a concept of waste can be made.
How have Wabi-Sabi and Mottainai promoted eco living?
Wabi-Sabi is still a prominent feature of Japanese life today, and has remained instrumental in the way people design their homes. The ideas of imperfection and frugality are hugely influential.
For example, instead of buying a brand-new kitchen table, many Japanese people instead retain a table that has been passed through the generations. Although its long use can be seen by various marks and scratches, Wabi-Sabi has taught people that they should value it because of its imperfect nature. Those scratches and marks are a story and signify the passage of time. This is a far cry from what we typically associate with the Western World.
Like Wabi Sabi, Mottainai is manifested throughout Japanese life, creating a great respect for Japanese resources. This has had a major impact on home design. For example, the Japanese prefer natural materials in their homes, such as using soil and dried grass as thermal insulation.
Their influence in the UK
The UK appears to be increasingly influenced by thes two concepts. Some new reports indicate that Wabi Sabi has been labelled as ‘the trend of 2018’. For example, Japanese ofuro baths inspired the project that won the New London Architecture’s 2017 Don’t Move, Improve award. Ofuro baths are smaller than typical baths, use less water, and are usually made out of natural materials, like hinoki wood.
Many other UK properties have also been influenced by these philosophies, such as natural Kebony wood being applied to the external cladding of a Victorian property in Hampstead; or a house in Lancaster Gate using rice paper partitions as sub-dividers. These examples embody the spirit of both philosophies. They are representative of Mottainai because of their use of natural resources to discourage waste. And they’re reflective of Wabi-Sabi because they accept imperfect materials that have not been engineered or modified.
In a world that is plagued by mass over-consumption and an incessant need for novelty, the ancient concepts of Mottainai and Wabi-Sabi provide a blueprint for living a more sustainable life. They help us to reduce consumption and put less of a strain on the planet. This refreshing mindset can help us transform the way we go about our day to day lives.
What Should We Make of The Clean Growth Strategy?
It was hardly surprising the Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) was much anticipated by industry and environmentalists. After all, its publication was pushed back a couple of times. But with the document now in the public domain, and the Government having run a consultation on its content, what ultimately should we make of what’s perhaps one of the most important publications to come out of the Department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the past 12 months?
The starting point, inevitably, is to decide what the document is and isn’t. It is, certainly, a lengthy and considered direction-setter – not just for the Government, but for business and industry, and indeed for consumers. While much of the content was favourably received in terms of highlighting ways to ensure clean growth, critics – not unjustifiably – suggested it was long on pages but short on detailed and finite policy commitments, accompanied by clear timeframes for action.
A Strategy, Instead of a Plan
But should we really be surprised? The answer, in all honesty, is probably not really. BEIS ministers had made no secret of the fact they would be publishing a ‘strategy’ as opposed to a ‘plan,’ and that gave every indication the CGS would set a direction of travel and be largely aspirational. The Government had consulted on its content, and will likely respond to the consultation during the course of 2018. And that’s when we might see more defined policy commitments and timeframes from action.
The second criticism one might level at the CGS is that indicated the use of ‘flexibilities’ to achieve targets set in the carbon budgets – essentially using past results to offset more recent failings to keep pace with emissions targets. Claire Perry has since appeared in front of the BEIS Select Committee and insisted she would be personally disappointed if the UK used flexibilities to fill the shortfall in meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, but this is difficult ground for the Government. The Committee on Climate Change was critical of the proposed use of efficiencies, which would somewhat undermine ministers’ good intentions and commitment to clean growth – particularly set against November’s Budget, in which the Chancellor maintained the current carbon price floor (potentially giving a reprieve to coal) and introduced tax changes favourable to North Sea oil producers.
A 12 Month Green Energy Initiative with Real Teeth
But, there is much to appreciate and commend about the CGS. It fits into a 12-month narrative for BEIS ministers, in which they have clearly shown a commitment to clean growth, improving energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. Those 12 months have seen the launch of the Industrial Strategy – firstly in Green Paper form, which led to the launch of the Faraday Challenge, and then a White Paper in which clean growth was considered a ‘grand challenge’ for government. Throughout these publications – and indeed again with the CGS – the Government has shown itself to be an advocate of smart systems and demand response, including the development of battery technology.
Electrical Storage Development at Center of Broader Green Energy Push
While the Faraday Challenge is primarily focused on the development of batteries to support the proliferation of electric vehicles (which will support cuts to carbon emissions), it will also drive down technology costs, supporting the deployment of small and utility-scale storage that will fully harness the capability of renewables. Solar and wind made record contributions to UK electricity generation in 2017, and the development of storage capacity will help both reduce consumer costs and support decarbonisation.
The other thing the CGS showed us it that the Government is happy to be a disrupter in the energy market. The headline from the publication was the plans for legislation to empower Ofgem to cap the costs of Standard Variable Tariffs. This had been an aspiration of ministers for months, and there’s little doubt that driving down costs for consumers will be a trend within BEIS policy throughout 2018.
But the Government also seems happy to support disruption in the renewables market, as evidenced by the commitment (in the CGS) to more than half a billion pounds of investment in Pot 2 of Contracts for Difference (CfDs) – where the focus will be on emerging rather than established technologies.
This inevitably prompted ire from some within the industry, particularly proponents of solar, which is making an increasing contribution to the UK’s energy mix. But, again, we shouldn’t really be surprised. Since the subsidy cuts of 2015, ministers have given no indication or cause to think there will be public money afforded to solar development. Including solar within the CfD auction would have been a seismic shift in policy. And while ministers’ insistence in subsidy-free solar as the way forward has been shown to be based on a single project, we should expect that as costs continue to be driven down and solar makes record contributions to electricity generation, investment will follow – and there will ultimately be more subsidy-free solar farms, albeit perhaps not in 2018.
Meanwhile, by promoting emerging technologies like remote island wind, the Government appears to be favouring diversification and that it has a range of resources available to meet consumer demand. Perhaps more prescient than the decision to exclude established renewables from the CfD auction is the subsequent confirmation in the budget that Pot 2 of CfDs will be the last commitment of public money to renewable energy before 2025.
In short, we should view the CGS as a step in the right direction, albeit one the Government should be elaborating on in its consultation response. Its publication, coupled with the advancement this year of the Industrial Strategy indicates ministers are committed to the clean growth agenda. The question is now how the aspirations set out in the CGS – including the development of demand response capacity for the grid, and improving the energy efficiency of commercial and residential premises – will be realised.
It’s a step in the right direction. But, inevitably, there’s much more work to do.
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