Sustainability needs a new colour.
Last week I went to the inaugural meeting of GreenBuzz Geneva, and it got me thinking. I met someone lecturing on migration and the various issues associated with it, someone working on improving livelihoods, and plenty of people finding their way balancing the multiplicity of issues from plastics usage and waste management to the role of women in sustainable development initiatives.
Five years ago an event like this would have featured climate change, water, possibly pollution, deforestation – all identifiably “green” (OK the water folks would have been advocating “blue” from their side of the room). Today it’s a bit different. Not only are there a multiplicity of issues that sustainability professionals need to be on top of, but as my speed dating discussions with fellow GreenBuzz first timers illustrated, social issues are in the ascendancy.
So isn’t it about time we came up with a new colour? “Green” doesn’t do our work justice, quite apart from being passé. To their credit the GreenBuzz Geneva organizers have clearly pitched their new group as being about bringing sustainability professionals together, but the use of “Green” implies environment. Luckily it did not put off those more orientated to the social aspects of sustainability.
Is this important?
I think so. Like “Eco”, “Green” gets overused and misused. The same day as the GreenBuzz Geneva event Apple announced that they have raised US$1Bn in a “Green Bond” issue. This was to fund “environmentally focused initiatives” – renewable energy sources, “greener materials to make products”, and conserving resources. Leaving aside what “greener materials” are let’s be clear, at best they are raising money to reduce costs – but that does not make such great headlines. It’s so much better to label this as a “green” initiative. Some would call this “green washing”.
Actually Apple don’t really need to raise money to save money – these kind of investments pay for themselves. The same newspaper article (in the FT) confirms as much – “For Apple, the green bond is the iPhone maker’s latest attempt to bolster its environmental credentials”.
It’s this kind of nonsense that has devalued “Green” and undermined the concept of sustainability. So should we start to call non-green bonds “Brown Bonds”?. Because that’s the implication. Green Bonds for when you want to look good, brown for business as usual. A truly sustainable company would not need to differentiate.
Then the suspicious thing. The FT article points out that Apple has “turned to the debt markets for about US$100bn in recent years to fund its US$300bn capital returns programme”. Meanwhile it has a US$257Bn cash pile, with 90% of this held offshore. It does not wish to repatriate this money, as it would have to pay taxes on it. So is the real reason that Apple is issuing a green bond to pay shareholder dividends and avoid taxes? Ahem! A functioning society needs companies to pay taxes like everyone else. Suddenly those Green Bonds are tainted, setting back the overall sustainability agenda. Apple’s Green Bond looks surprisingly Brown.
So what colour should we use for sustainability? How about Magenta, signifying harmony and balance?