Friday, November 26, 2010

Price of tap water x 2000 + plastic bottles + manufactured demand = The Story of Bottled Water

We've been meaning to write something on Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff" online phenomenon for some time. But then we thought: why not give some real "digital natives" the opportunity to express what they think about it? So we set a challenge for a class of undergraduates at Copenhagen Business School who we knew were using our book and were about to watch some of the Story of Stuff content as part of their CSR course. Write us a review, we said, and we'll feature the best one on the Crane and Matten blog.

And so here it is - a terrific guest blog from the winner of our challenge, Camilla Marie Thiele, a bachelor’s student at CBS.

The Story of Bottled Water” presents a narrative of how the bottled water industry came into being by “manufacturing demand” for an unnecessary product through misleading advertisements, and how this product is effectively trashing the planet. This narrative, which is cleverly presented in animated video form with smartly drawn cartoon characters that attract the attention of adults and children alike, attempts to expose the bottled water industry and its deceptive selling practices in an effort to help us consumers see through the deception. That said, the video also points the finger at us – the consumers – who purchase these millions of litres of bottled water every year and toss them out with little regard to where those chunks of plastic pile up.

Annie Leonard, the writer and narrator, offers a compelling argument of how the bottled water industry has worked to deceive us, where that industry has strategically called into question the quality of regular old tap water and manipulated all of us into thinking that water from the tap is inferior to water from the bottle. This is part of the bottled water industry’s plot to manufacture demand with an ultimate goal of relegating tap water to just showers and washing dishes!

And, as Leonard argues, it is obvious why the bottled water industry must work to manufacture demand because it costs 2000 times more for bottled water than tap water - not to mention that tap water has been shown over and over again to be just as high quality (if not better) than bottled water. Leonard goes on to argue that this has led to the current situation where because of this manufactured demand, people around the world are spending their money on bottles of water whereas the real demand issue of access to clean tap water is grossly underfunded. And this happens while the bottled water industry is laughing all the way to the bank!

Leonard is right - that does not sound sustainable. It is time that we took back the tap.

The seven minute animated video that is “The Story of Bottled Water” is part of a wider collection of videos known as The Story of Stuff Project. Since the first The Story of Stuff video was put out in 2007, this project has become an online phenomenon clocking up over 10 million views. This figure now includes my fellow classmates and I since we viewed both the Story of Stuff and the Story of Bottled Water as part of our bachelors course in Corporate Social Responsibility at the Copenhagen Business School.

The Story of Bottled Water critically examines the environmental and social consequences of an unchallenged allegiance to consumerism by using the bottled water industry as a compelling example of the harms that can result. And it is effective because even though The Story of Bottled Water is part of an activist campaign taking on a suite of very serious issues, Leonard frames the points in a satirical and highly entertaining way. Despite - or maybe because of - the simple videos and their easy-to-understand-manner, it is a message that provides substantial food for thought for every kind of audience. And perhaps most importantly for my fellow business school students and me, The Story of Stuff provides the opportunity to really dive into the questions about the responsibilities of business, in particular the responsibility of companies that manufacture demand for products that are not even needed.

Making a product that is not needed, and then spending all of your time and energy to manufacture demand for it? Hmmmm, that sounds like a huge waste. Why don’t we call for companies to focus their time and innovative energy on meeting real demands? The world is full of a lot of really big challenges and thus there are a lot of very real demands out there that could use creative people and companies addressing them, and ultimately turn these problems into more sustainable solutions. This calls for a re-calculation of the first equation:

Real needs + innovative products + sustainable solutions = Responsible and sustainable profits.

And who knows – you might even smile on your way to the bank. So be smart and think outside of the bottle.

Camilla Marie Thiele is a bachelor’s student at the Copenhagen Business School studying Business Administration and Organizational Communication. She can be reached at

The blog challenge was facilitated by Robert Strand, a PhD fellow at CBS and one of our occasional guest contributors. Thanks Robert!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer

"All I ask for is an unfair advantage.” Reputedly a favourite line of Hank Greenberg, the former Chair and CEO of AIG, it makes for an apposite tagline for a leader forced to resign by his own board as a result of investigations into financial impropiety. The Greenberg investigations were instigated by then New York Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, who made a habit of making enemies amongst the city's most powerful  corporate leaders during his uncompromising campaign to prosecute corporate misconduct. And as writer and director Alex Gibney argues in Client 9: the Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer it was the foes he created in his day job as much as the night time friends he sought among the high class escort world that ultimately brought him down.

Gibney, the oscar winning documentary maker of Taxi to the Dark Side, Casino Jack, and Enron: the Smartest Guys in the Room, is no stranger to the twilight morality of big business, and the powerplays of American politics. In Client 9 he weaves the two together in a fascinating and surprisingly gripping account of Spitzer's downfall. It's played out like a battle of giants, Spitzer the so-called "Sheriff of Wall Street" fiercely defending the moral purpose of his achievements, and a cast of highly entertaining, and visibly bristling combatants like Greenberg who can hardly contain their pleasure at tough-guy Spitzer's remarkable demise ... and their own part in contributing to it.

There's no shortage of insight here about the ethics of business and politics, and especially in Spitzer's spectacular rise and fall, about the intersection of public virtue and private vice.  He gives a frank and compelling interview to camera, insightful and erudite on his public achievements and then stilted and seemingly at a loss to explain his private problems. The question at the heart of this is how could someone so vigorous in policing the law so knowingly engage in illegality. Spitzer himself doesn't offer too many answers. But one of his aides makes the case in terms of a balance sheet - on the one side cracking down on the financial misdemeanours that led to a worldwide financial crisis that cost billions and billions of dollars - and on the other side having sex a few times with a prostitute. In those terms, Spitzer is on the side of moral good. The good he did far outweighed the bad - at least that is how Gibney couches it in a balanced but ultimately sympathetic portrayal of someone that tends to divide opinions. But Spitzer also admits to hubris, albeit in rather ironically self-important terms. “The only metaphor I can think of" he says at the outset of the movie, "is Icarus. Those whom the gods would destroy, they make all powerful.”

It's not just Spitzer's brittle character though that gives Gibney's movie it's edge. It also features some wonderfully revealing portraits of his enemies and other players in the story. These include: Kenneth Langone, a billionaire American businessman and an outspoken critic of Spitzer; Roger Stone, the infamous lobbyist with a Richard Nixon tatoo on his back; Joseph Bruno, Spitzer’s chief political rival when he became governor of New York; “Angelina” his preferred escort; and audience favourite Cecil Suwal, the disarmingly ditzy CEO of Emperors Club VIP, the escort agency at the heart of the scandal. It's a feast of moral messiness, perhaps best summed up  by the giggling Suwal who admits to getting "confused" about the illegality of high end prostitition given the huge sums of money involved. Gibney doesn't give us any reason to believe that she was the only one.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Baby shopping: ethics, fiction and the marketization of human reproduction

We are big fans of the power of film to illuminate business ethics issues, but we don't often discuss the role of fiction.  But that doesn't mean we're not interested in it. And to prove the point, we thought we'd point out that a short story written by Andy has been short-listed for a writing prize, the AnyBook Award, organized by the American Book Centre in Amsterdam.

The theme of the competition is Redesign Your World, and Andy's entry "Baby Shopping" is all about the marketization of human reproduction. It doesn't offer any ethical answers or certainties, but uses fiction to explore what happens when the emancipatory forces of choice get the better of ethical considerations ... and the very human problems that ensue. It's all focused around personal relationships rather than abstract ethics, which is where fiction has some obvious obvious advantages over our more usual academic writing. It's not to be taken too seriously, but if you've ever cringed about stories of celebrity adoptions, or wondered whether you really could get just anything on the interenet, you might want to take a read. The competition limited entries to 1000 words so it won't take long! 

For the next week, until 22nd Nov 2010, the top 10 shortlist are the subject of a public vote, so if you like Andy's entry, do give it your vote. The other shortlisted pieces (which include art and poetry as well as short stories) are certainly worth a read too, and in keeping with the Redesign Your World theme, some include strong sustainability themes. So stop reading this and step into the creative world with us for a minute.

Photo by ^^TILSIM^^. Reproduced under Creative Commons License

Monday, November 1, 2010

The art of finance

Money. Cash, moolah, dough, readies, greenbacks, dosh. Whatever you call it, you can't get away from it. Most of us like to have it, of course, but we also know that it's a dangerous drug. "Money," as the saying goes, "is the root of all evil."

With the financial crisis and executive greed currently giving money a particularly bad name, we were interested to hear of a recent experiment in Amsterdam in the Netherlands which is seeking to provide a new and more positive way of thinking about the value of money. It's called the Bijlmer Euro, named after a much maligned quarter of the city called de Bijlmer which is home to many of Amsterdam's many immigrant communities and a good proportion of its less successful examles of high rise urban planning.

The Bijlmer Euro is a local currency, which for those of you that have not come across them before, are specially designed notes or other form of exchange certificate that are used within a specific locality to enhance local social and economic systems.

Local currencies like the Bijlmer Euro operate as exchange tools giving people the opportunity to buy and sell goods and services among a particular community without resorting to the usual pounds, euros or dollars. Why would communities want to do this? Well there are a whole lot of reasons, which vary depending on the local currency concerned. But some of the more common reasons are that they are help stimulate the local economy (because they can only be used locally), they can encourage people to ‘buy local’ and get to know local providers, or they can be part of an attempt to reduce reliance on existing financial systems and actors such as banks and credit card providers.

There are thousands of local currencies out there, including in our own home town of Toronto, where the Toronto Dollar operates around the St Laurence Market community. But what makes the Bijlmer Euro so interesting is that the whole project was designed by an artist, namely Christian Nold, who is mainly known for his 'emotional cartographies' project which saw him using lie detector technology and Google Earth to create user-generated emotion-based maps of neighbourhoods and towns. Interesting stuff. So while in Amsterdam recently, we spoke to Nold about the Bijlmer Euro and what he's hoping to achieve.

Probably the most interesting aspect of the whole project is that Nold has designed it so that you can actually see how the money is circulating in the local economy. The Bijlmer Euro notes are regular Euros with a special chip (recycled from used public transport tickets) overlaid on them which means that everytime a note is used, the transaction is tracked. In this way it is possible to trace the networks of exchange that are taking place among the participants. You can see a live visualization on the project website. This, Nold says, is especially important for an area like de Bijlmer which is most commonly presented as a 'problem area'. So his central objective was to help people see the Bijlmer also as a thriving economic network. "People described it to me as the Dutch Bronx" he says, "but with this you can replace that with a vision that gets you a little bit closer to the NASDAQ."

Of course, to get people involved in the whole project, it needed more tangible aspects that this. So users of the notes get discounts at local stores,and shop keepers get to make new connections with residents and hopefully stop leakage of economic value from the local economy. There are also some fun touches included such as the ability to put electronic messages on the notes for people to read, and a bright yellow, bicycle-powered 'mobile bank' (as shown above) where you can get the notes and input your messages. Even these though have a deeper purpose, as Nold explains:
"Money is an economic tool, but I think it is also very much a social tool. Banknotes are this weird thing that doesn’t really belong to us, but is really a social medium that moves between people. I think that having messages on them is a funny way of reclaiming the money in some way and making it personal."
Looking at it this way, you can see how there's more to money than meets the eye. Talking to Nold - whose personal explanation for the project takes in everything from the financial meltdown, baffled economists, the Falun Gong, transition towns, the end of capitalism, and the Iranian 'Green Revolution' - makes you look at the spare change in your pocket in ways that you really haven't considered before. However, whether the residents in de Bijlmer have seen this as anything more than a fun way to save a few cents remains to be seen. But Nold certainly thinks that a number of people have gotten sufficiently excited about the initiative that it may now go into a new phase now that the initial experiment is over. As he says:

"At the start of the project lots of people were telling us this is impossible, this is totally illegal, you can’t do it. But it’s possible, it’s doable and we’ve just done it. We have almost 2000 notes in circulation... I’m not sure it’s having huge mass appeal – we’re not getting tens of thousands of people using it – but we’re certainly getting a committed group of people who are seeing the value of it. The next really big step is the continuity of it."
And that really is where we'll see if this turns out to be anything more than an interesting experiment. Having now discovered who's spending what and where, Nold has been turning his thoughts to the large employers in the neighbourhood, especially the major banks, many of whom have their headquarters nearby, and whose staff have been using the Bijlmer Euros. Perhaps they can be persuaded to have a rethink about the social and economic value of money in the communities that border their offices.

We think it would be a fascinating development to have a major financial player involved in supporting a alternative currency like this in Amsterdam. And if they don't get involved, it looks like Nold will be taking things in new directions. He's already planning a book about the project to serve as a model for others, and is even plotting to set up an alternative financial organization to support low cost overseas remittances."We want to become a bank," he says boldly, "to see if we can get rid of Western Union." Finance, it seems, is the new art.