30 April 2010

another reason for alternate energy

Photo Courtesy: www.euronews.net

There are many many reasons why we should wean ourselves off of petroleum and advocate for alternate energy sources. One of the reasons has been all over the news. The Gulf of Mexico oil spill might be worse than the Exxon Valdez spill nearly twenty years ago. NOAA has concluded that oil is leaking from the rig at the rate of 5,000 barrels or 200,000 gallons a day. The Gulf of Mexico is a key area for the seafood industry and one of the world's richest fisheries and it could be badly affected, perhaps for years to come.

Oil spills are devastating to the environment. Oil once spilled onto the ocean forms a thick layer called the slick, which depending on the weather can split or get thinned out further to become the sheen. An oil spill far off the coast can be carried to the coastline due to wave action and can therefore affect coastal marine life. Coastal spills, unless cleaned up will stay around until it is broken down by weather or decomposed by bacteria - this takes a very long time. The gooey black tar-like substance coats everything it comes to contact with. On the surface of water, it is not only toxic but also cuts of oxygen supply to the waters below.

Coastlines and estuaries act as important nesting grounds, marine nurseries and oil spills in these areas prove devastating to birds, animals, juvenile fish, larvae and reefs. Microscopic diatoms and plankton are most severely affected and so are organisms like mussels, clams, crabs, other arthropods and burrowing animals. Birds and marine mammals when coated with oil can die by ingesting the oil trying to clean themselves or due to the toxic chemicals present in the oil. The effects of a spill this size might damage the ecosystem for years to come according to some biologists.

Burning the oil to clear it from the water faster which is what might be done will release more pollutants and GHGs into the atmosphere. Oil spills, volcanoes, earthquakes, tornadoes, forest fires - all man-made and natural disasters are no more localized events of catastrophe. Harm to a part is harm to the whole.

BP PLC the company responsible for the spill has stated that it will "take help from anyone". What happens to the people who depend on the Gulf for their livelihood, the ecosystem and the fishing industry is anybody's guess...

Every a****** who ever chanted 'Drill baby drill' should have to report to the Gulf coast today for cleanup duty - Bill Maher

29 April 2010

my latest news

I have recently started writing for www.examiner.com and will be writing exclusively about corporate social responsibility. You can follow me here. You can also follow me on Twitter. I posted my first article on Examiner today and would love your feedback.

On here, I will continue posting issues relating to general sustainability and green living.

Thanks for the support and keep reading!

27 April 2010

why CSR is important to SMEs

Last week I said that I will write a post about how small-enterprises can gain by employing principles of CSR and here it is. In a previous post I talked about how CSR plays an important role in current economic times and how companies that employ these principles have an edge over others.

First of all it must be stressed that CSR is not just policy, it is a
principle of doing business. It is not something that is done as an add-on, it is something that is incorporated into your way of doing business. In this scenario, it offers businesses many benefits in terms of better shareholder relationships and also acts as a powerful tool for word-of-mouth advertising.

As mentioned in my last post, it offers SMEs added benefits in terms of strengthening their relationship within the community and acting as an example to make people's lives better. The most important reason why small companies should engage in CSR activities is to improve their export markets. Acting as a part of the supply chain means that export products to a big company needs to meet certain standards all along the chain. This is the single more important competitive benefit that SMEs have by incorporating CSR into their business. It is especially important for small businesses in emerging economies supplying to companies with multiple supply chains.

Secondly, mainstreaming CSR into any business is a challenge. By incorporating the principles of CSR in the early stages of growth, SMEs have another advantage over companies that have already reached a certain size. Forming principles, processes and structures becomes easier along with reporting and policy writing. Developing a culture of sustainability within the organization becomes more streamlined and employees know what it means to be sustainable.

Finally, it makes business sense. This is something that the larger companies are beginning to understand. When the small companies jump on this idea, the limits to green business has no bounds. Infact, the term might just become obsolete along with the term 'business as usual' because every business will be ethical, sustainable and profitable. This is a dream worth working towards...

22 April 2010

goldilocks planet

Earth Day is becoming a big deal everywhere and we're all a happy bunch of treehuggers. I am always rather cynical about these things which seem to be a big deal one calendar day of the whole year. If you recall my post for Earth Hour last year, I expressed the same sentiment. This year Earth Hour came and went whilst I was in Chicago.

For Earth Day, I am in California - home of hippy-chic and the original renaissance center. Celebrations are set to take off everywhere this year. Recently I have been pondering our incredible planet aided no doubt by copious amounts of documentary watching. It fills me with this goose-bumpy feeling of belonging as well as paralyzing frustration. Somewhere in between the two is also a calm place that feels hopeful.

It feels so odd to be hopeful in the midst of chaos and yet I am and there are reasons why:
1) More and more businesses are taking note of sustainability issues and incorporating these principles into their activities
2) Small green-start ups are pushing the envelope in terms of technology and innovation forcing the big guys to get their act together
3) Most people are aware of the fact that there is something terribly wrong with our planet and something must be done. They are changing their life-styles, getting involved in their community, asking their government to make positive choices - all excellent signs
4) Governments are taking notice with EU rapidly pushing for better, cleaner, greener-everything
5) America has finally woken up from the dark Bush years and although the country is in serious debt, they are investing in increasing green jobs which is something they cannot out-source. Many cities in America are now making recycling and composting mandatory. Chicago recently started a recycling program which up until now, did not exist!
6) Emerging economies - India and China, are investing in greener technology; this combined with their already lower carbon lifestyle is a powerful move
7) Consumer awareness is at an all-time high, not only about planetary health but also of human health and these two are intricately connected. Meatless Mondays anyone?
8) NGOs and businesses are finally finally learning to work together and realizing that they are on the same side
9) Everyone is talking about it! The information out there is incredible, almost to the point of overload.This is great because it hastens the tipping point
10) The recession is forcing people to have some free-time to think, reflect and figure out what they want to do with their lives. Some of this reflection means that people are getting in touch with what really matters to them. Unemployment is not all bad!

My wish-list for the year:
1) More businesses to jump on the green-wagon especially SMEs who have the immense power to change the world around them and don't even realize it yet
2) More empowerment so that people have an easier time being green - education, awareness, tax-breaks, incentives, information - all of these will hasten a revolution yet to come
3) More docu-movies like Age of Stupid, Blue Planet, Sharkwater, End of Line etc to be made and publicly screened. These work in two ways: to educate, increase awareness and also to create within us a sense of wonder for the natural environment which is key to protecting what it so precious
4) More funding to discover new technology that can be used to improve quality of life everywhere
5) Less war, stable governments and less poverty - all of this provides an ideal environment for our focus to shift elsewhere

In addition to this, this year I want to:
1) Travel to a rain-forest and do a small expedition
2) Grow my own organic vegetables

Mars is too hot and Venus is too cold... Earth is just right. Anyone else reminded of the story involving a little girl and porridge? We live on an Goldilocks Planet - nobody knows if it is too far gone already, but I believe we can still try. We can still hang on to what we know is right and make choices that are least harmful.

Have a greener, cleaner year everyone. More power to you!

21 April 2010

CSR and SMEs

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has been around for a long time and has evolved to its current form after great many mutations. It is one of the key components of business today and addresses interaction of a business with its people, environment, customers and employees. It is also almost always talked about in the context of MNCs and big businesses. However it is time that even SMEs start taking notice of this business formula. One of the best ways that CSR can help SMEs is by influencing competitiveness and may also increase production and productivity. The idea is to start thinking of CSR as a part of business and not something you do as an add-on.

This concept was further explored in the CSR Practitioners workshop conducted by the Center for Sustainability and Excellence (CSE), Chicago. CSE offers an IEMA (Institute of Environment Management and Assessment) approved professional certificate to become a CSR Practitioner. Some of the concepts covered in the workshop included how CSR acts not only as an enhancement to business as usual but essentially how it is rapidly becoming business. As an aside, I highly recommend the workshop for its pace, content, presentation and the extremely helpful directors of CSE who conducted it.

It was only when I was working on my post-workshop project that I realized the far-reaching impacts of CSR practices on small-business models. Without over-simplifying CSR, smaller companies have a lot to take away from this concept; not only as a method of doing cost-effective business but also to create a USP for themselves in the market. According to recent reports, nearly 50% of all EU small business follow a sustainable business model. This proves that if capacities and competences in business intermediaries are increased; it will go a long way to help mainstreaming CSR in the SME sector.

If the four pillars of CSR are responsibilities in the workplace, marketplace, community and environment; SMEs play a pivotal role in all four avenues. 90% of the world's business comes from SMEs and they employ about 50% of the world's population. The kind of change they are capable of is community-based, continued investment to uplift their key stakeholders. This is something that CSR models based on big companies can never hope to achieve. Change at the grass-root level is what every ethical business dreams of and this is where small enterprises stand to gain enormously.

Diverting away from the kitschy big-business idea of CSR, small business have the advantage of direct interaction with the community from out of which they operate. What they need to be convinced about is whether or not it makes business sense for them to be 'socially responsible'. The answer is a resounding yes! Watch this space and I'll tell you why.

Picture: Tom Fishburne ©. Used with permission

17 April 2010

upcycling in the windy city

My last weekend in Chicago was spent going to a craft fair and checking out various handmade things made from unwanted items - upcycling in effect. I must say that my first encounter with 'turning junk into funk' in a land of plenty was met with delighted surprise. Some of the creativity on display was rather cool for want of a better word. One stall in particular stood out for me.

Nancy Maize is a jewellery designer making creative pieces like necklaces, bracelets, rings and earrings using old watch gears and other items commonly termed as 'junk'. As they are hand-crafted all her pieces are one of a kind and quiet creative. She said that she started of making beaded jewellery for her son's project in school and has now graduated towards using bits of old watches, buckles, drawer handles etc to create artistic, wearable pieces. You can check out her website here.

Upcycling is not a new concept - it can be defined as creative recycling or value-added recycling. Every time you convert a piece of 'junk' into something of value, you are upcycling. At the fair I also met a woman who converted bottle caps into miniature portraits and magnets. Another used zippers to express her creativity by converting them into rosettes for hair-bands. She also used designs on old crockery and cut them out to convert into pendants.

With upcycling, the creative potential is limitless as you can convert, change, modify literally anything into something of value. There is lots of information out there on upcycling and how to convert something that is worn-down, worthless and old into something new and of use. It may even lead to new business ideas or attractive presents for family and friends.

Many of the women at the fair used their upcycled products as a means of additional income . As they always say, "one's man trash, is another man's treasure". I walked away from the fair with a fairly strong impulse to rummage through all my old stuff and get creative.

Photos: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©
Image 1: Necklace made of old watch parts
Image 2: Headbands made of zippers

08 April 2010

parking with dogs

I must say that I am a big fan of urban greenery. One of the things that I miss terribly whilst living in India is the lack of green spaces within cities. It does the getaway to the wilderness all the more meaningful but I think all cities should have a space for people to walk around in and enjoy greenery even if it is in the form of a small park with grass and a bunch of trees.

Most western cities have this concept down-pat with excellent parks sometimes several acres in size and almost always incorporating water-bodies. These urban ecosystems play an important role in preservation of those species that have evolved along-side humans like foxes, several species of birds, butterflies and other insects, as well as various kinds of plants and trees. Apart from this, these open spaces create a sense of equilibrium to the city and offer important aspects of recreation in the form of walking, running and biking trails.

Many cities take this concept further and incorporate within these parks an area for dogs and their owners. An enclosed area or a dog park where dogs can run around off-leash and 'socialize' with other canines. Whilst in Chicago, we took my friend's dog for one such jaunt and a merry time was had indeed.

It is curious to observe dogs off-leash and as an ardent dog person myself, it was fascinating to watch dog-dog interaction up-close. What was even more surprising, contrary to common belief is that dogs hardly ever fight once a certain hierarchy has been established. Some bigger parks also permit their owners to run around with their dog and play with them off-leash and this is not only great exercise for you but also a very good bonding ritual with your pet.

I believe human-animal interaction is very important not only to understand the environment better but also to reinforce our instinctual connection with Nature. Animals never lose this connection no matter whether they are wild or domesticated and through them we can regain the lost world of the vast wilderness.

Photo: Akhila Vijayaraghavan ©