The Green Agenda – help or hindrance?

Malcolm Tucker, star character from The Thick Of It – in more profane words – would tell us to ‘just get on with it!’ For many reasons, however, we still find ourselves debating the effectiveness, and in some instances the need case, for ‘green’ policies and ‘green’ initiatives. So we’re asking whether the green agenda is a help or a hindrance to economic growth in the 21st Century.

The first place to start is the term itself. The green agenda has become a label wielded as a tool by political parties in the past to demonstrate their credentials for being forward-thinking and progressive. Initiatives such as ‘vote blue, go green’ and pledges to be the “greenest government ever” have eroded the inherent value in the ‘green’ label by not being followed through. Moreover, the term has event been painted as a burden on consumers by some sections of the popular press. Allegations – strenuously denied – of statements such as "get rid of all the green crap" hardly help. 

For every committed organisation striving to adopt and embed Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), there is another paying lip service, playing a short game or greenwashing.

And it’s not just the Prime Minister or Coalition grappling with what to do or say about the green agenda. In a tough economic climate the economy tends to trump the environment in the minds of the electorate. In late 2013 Ed Miliband was said to have “reset the political debate” to focus on the narrower standard of living, rather than the broader quality of life Labour used to promote (including protection of the environment). In this year’s Budget the Chancellor announced a multi-billion pound package of green tax cuts that he said would help UK businesses cut their energy costs and ensure they remained competitive with the rest of the world, in the short term.

This short-termism can often be a barrier to genuine progress for challenging, long-term, sustainable investment, which often involve significant change. As well as a tough economic climate, we are currently experiencing a very fragile political climate where the manifestos of the parties become more about the here and now rather than expressing long term vision. 

And it is much the same for businesses. For decades, the UN and other institutions have been articulating the need for businesses (alongside governments) to adopt sustainable practices – think Brundtland Report 1987, Rio Earth Summit 1992, Kyoto Protocol 1997, Rio+20 in 2012… and so on. Many of the larger organisations claim to have embedded sustainability into their operations. If that is the case, if it is ‘embedded’, do we need a ‘green’ policy label? The reality is it isn’t embedded in all cases. Unfortunately, for every committed organisation striving to adopt and embed Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), there is another paying lip service, playing a short game or greenwashing.  Perhaps these other companies are playing politicians at their own game?

There is no doubting that green growth is the way to go to secure a legacy for the 22nd Century and beyond. But it has to be genuine. The green agenda – aka long term, sustainable investment – has to feel right. It has to feel natural. 

John Twitchen is executive director of Copper Consultancy