What do they do with your money?

logoDid you notice it was Good Money Week last week? The annual campaign to raise awareness of responsible finance so people can make informed choices about their money’s impact could do with a little more oomph.

Surprisingly few of us realise how great an impact our money can have.  The pounds in your pension could have a much greater clout than Fair-trade coffee.  As John David, Head of Rathbone Greenbank Investments, quoted in a related Good with Money article, explains “Avoiding companies that contradict personal values and actively making ethical choices as a consumer is a great first step, but the possibilities for any long-term, tangible impacts often stretch beyond simply boycotting a particular brand or product.”  Shareholders can play a powerful role in shaping behaviours companies, and the financial system.

This short (ish at 3:30 minutes) video from Aviva illustrates how our savings are linked, via the investment system, to companies. As the video shows, as the ultimate owner of the money, pension savers can influence, where and how money or funds are invested. The intermediaries, pension providers, and investment fund managers, should be communicating with savers about how they engage with companies’ on the issues that savers care about from climate change to executive pay.

Nearly all (97%) of the CEOs in the latest UN-Global Compact-Accenture CEO survey believe sustainability is important to the future of their business. 59% of CEOs say that they are able to accurately quantify the business impact of sustainability initiatives. Yet, only 10% report that investor pressure is one of the top three factors motivating them to take action. Why are investor voices not louder?

At Good Money Talks, Simon Howard, CEO of UK Sustainable Investment Forum, shared UKSIF’s research shedding light on savers’ disengagement. Essentially, 60% of 25 to 34 years olds do not know that there are sustainable financial products available, but 55% of them would like to choose fossil-free financial products.  Earlier that day, Andrew Bailey and officials at the FCA voiced concern that saving rates are low, particularly among younger cohorts. The UKSIF research offers one insight into why: the products on offer do not appeal. Greater transparency and product choice are why I choose to save in an ISA or invest directly through crowd-funding platforms rather than top up an old employer pension.   The onus is on the industry to do more to tell their customers about all the available choices.  It might just motivate people to save, if they felt empowered and enthused by the ability to fund the future they want to live in.

The conflation of ethical, responsible, sustainable labels is also confusing and polarising. Bruce Davies, co-founder and Managing Director of Abundance Investment  remarked we need to move away from divisive to inclusive language, “I don’t think there’s a difference in ethics. People young and old worry about the future”.  Some still think there is a binary choice between strong environmental, social and governance performance or financial performance. Thankfully research abounds that debunks this view (see right).  Incscreen-shot-2016-11-09-at-13-40-39reasingly sustainability management is taken as an indicator of a company’s sound management, innovation and the potential for long-term value.

Environmental, social and governance factors are all business risks that manifest over longer time horizons, the horizons that many of us have as savers. Climate change and the risk of stranded assets are now widely accepted, though not necessarily yet widely reflected in the options available to savers. The Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures is working towards a single framework on climate risk exposure, which will drive transparency of companies, and funds’ exposure to climate risk. Michael Bloomberg, Chair of FSB notes, “Increasing transparency makes markets more efficient, and economies more stable and resilient.” Disclosure is important, but does not necessarily drive action, unless the risks are communicated through the investment supply chain to the ultimate asset owners, the savers.  The industry needs to explain how greater stewardship with and on behalf of savers to mitigate these risks is in all our interests.

cwbif4iwiaegmyjIt is incredible that pension funds investing the savings of millions of people resist engaging with them. Pension providers are editing savers’ choice, with out asking about their preferences for the allocation of their capital. Recently, I co-chaired ShareAction’s Pension Power Parliament at the House of Commons where members of a range of pension schemes shared stories of perseverance and occasional success, such as Royal London’s appointment of a customer representative to its independent governance committee (IGC).  We have a long way to go before savers can compare providers, and the underlying funds.  Pension providers could make more use of  digital platforms to deliver engaging and useful toolkits to ensure savers are putting aside enough for the future, and for savers to collectively to feedback their preferences.

Those within the financial industry need to do more to engage, educate, and enable their customers to make prudent, informed choices about their future.  If you want to know what they do with your money, ask your provider.  You could also join a ShareAction Pension Power team for a louder voice.

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Click to access ifc-businesscase.pdf

How does your garden grow? A look back at RHS Chelsea

FullSizeRenderRHS Chelsea Flower Show burst into bloom, and our television screens, at the end of May, perfectly timed for superlative displays of plants and gardens.  Far from a horticultural expert, I went, with my Mum for a great day out, free to wander and see what caught our eye.  There were exemplary specimens and designs on display, fit to make the gardening enthusiast swoon, marvel, and for some, the occasional wry smile sparked by Diarmuid Gavin’s kinetic sculptures for Harrods’ British Eccentrics Garden; there were also powerful stories about the importance plants, gardens and healthy soils play in our lives.

This year’s aesthetic excellence was matched with celebration of the gardens and plants’ function, spearheaded by the RHS’s Greening Grey Britain campaign. With about 1550 Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation, covering over 30,000 hectares, or 19% of London’s total land area, you might assume that wildlife has space to thrive, but increasingly intense urban development is crowding out wildlife and natural processes.  London Wildlife Trust’s London’s Living Landscapes initiative is working to create a network of natural green spaces, wild and managed, creating ecological networks that link core areas of wildlife habitat via corridors such as embankments, allotments, and gardens.

As the RHS’s 2015 report noted more of us are paving over our gardens, turning our cities grey. Nearly one in four UK front gardens are completely paved over, and London faring worst of all with half of all front gardens paved over, a 36% increase over the last decade.  Paving might be an effective quick fix to a parking problem, but it comes with a big environmental footprint.  Our gardens are vital habitats for wildlife and green infrastructure can maintain effective natural processes that help provide clean air and water, healthy soils, food production and flood management.  Gardens soak up rain, helping to slow run off and reduce stormwater surges into drains. Trees, plants and climbers help summer cooling savings of around 30%, and plants absorb pollutants so we can breath easy.

IMG_0846Designer Tom Hoblyn used mango and palm trees (right), effective green infrastructure, to provide shade and encourage rainfall enhancing the micro-climate in Lifeworks Global’s kitchen garden. Unsustainable farming practices have degraded and polluted the soil in parts of Tamil Nadu, south India. Working with local charity, SCAD (Social Change and Development), Lifeworks provide traditional crop seeds, subsidised water filters and teach families organic farming techniques kickstarting a virtuous circle that heals the soil, and fosters community regeneration.

IMG_0875This year’s RHS Greening Grey Britain for Health, Happiness and Horticulture, designed by Ann-Marie Powell, looks to build resilient communities closer to home. The garden (pictured left), with bright bursts of colour, effused positivity even on a cloudy day. The on-message bee-friendly meadow helps boost the environmental impact, but the garden also addresses broader themes of resilience bringing communities together to grow food with edible potted plants and a small kitchen garden. This model community garden is now being relocated to Angell Town, Brixton.

Gardening gets us moving outdoors, and researchers at Coventry University are using the latest motion capture technology to catalogue the benefits. Their research reveals that gardening can improve bone mineral density, muscle strength, joint mobility and co-ordination.

IMG_0872Several show gardens focused on mental health benefits. The Vestra Wealth’s Garden of Mindful Living and the Morgan Stanley Garden for Great Ormond Street Hospital both took inspiration from the East to create calm sanctuaries for quiet reflection. Jekka McVicar’s garden for St John’s Hospice – A Modern Apothecary, inspired by Hippocrates words, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”, and conversations with medical professionals.  The garden includes plants with known health benefits. Red-leaved herbs, Atriplex, Beta, Brassica and Lactuca, are high in anthocyanidins, strongly linked to oxidative stress protection and cardio-vascular health. Herbs include rosemary effective for age related memory and mental function; hops for relaxation; and lemon balm for upset stomachs. You can even forage in your garden for chicory or salads.

chelsea_2-websiteThe AkzoNobel Honeysuckle Blue Garden, designed by Claudy Jongstra, part of the Farm of the World initiative, celebrates traditional use of plants to dye fabrics. Knowledge and appreciation of natural dyes are disappearing, this garden showed off the plants and the subtlety and beauty of their produce to great effect.

RHS Chelsea provided plenty of inspiration for even the smallest balcony, and a reminder that if we crowd out nature and green space, we undermine our own prosperity and well-being.  On that note, I am off to the garden centre to buy some pollinator friendly plants to create a wild fence to absorb the Euro 2016 chants bouncing down the street!

Image credits: St John’s Hospice, Claudy Jongstra

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What are our pension savings funding?

CigmTBXXEAA25dOThough we may not realize it, all those of us who are savers are stakeholders in the financial system, and should be able to find out where and how our money is being invested. However, it can be complex to map the chain of relationships between us as savers and what our money actually funds.

I was part of the ShareAction Pension Power team that visited the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP). We had a simple message for the officials that met with us: the government should take steps to improve transparency in the pensions industry. Simply put, we want the people that manage our retirement savings (pension providers) to communicate clearly with members like us, and be open about the investments they make our behalf.

A meeting with government officials might seem a little daunting, but we were accompanied by ShareAction staff and armed with some home truths. We were sure our personal stories of engaging with pension providers would drive home the arguments we wanted to make.

A key point was related to democracy. The majority of us save for retirement via our workplace. Employers pick the pension provider that suits them and, unless we opt out and don’t save at all, we’re stuck with that provider, for a long, long time. It seems sensible then, that we should get a say in how our pension scheme operates.

In particular, we should have the ability to hold key decision-makers to account. These people manage and invest trillions of pounds of our savings. With great power comes great responsibility. Or at least it should do which is why we told the officials at the DWP that pension savers need formal opportunities to find out what those decision-makers are up to and if they’re doing a good job.

What do these formal opportunities look like? We pointed out how some pension providers are already stepping up in this area. Some are organising annual members’ meetings to update savers face-to-face. Others appoint people to their boards who are selected by the members themselves. So the saver’s voice gets right to the heart of the action. These are tangible steps towards a democratic pensions system.

To truly work out if the people managing our savings are looking after our long-term interests, we need information as well. That’s why we stressed that the government should also concentrate on promoting transparency. Pension providers own large shares in the biggest companies in the world. But what are they doing with these holdings? Are they meeting with company bosses to encourage good governance that promotes long-term value? Are they using their right to vote on key company decisions, including environmental and social issues that have a material financial impact? They should be. We made it clear in the meeting that savers deserve to know this information about their pension provider’s action.

The DWP officials seemed impressed by our knowledge, and our personal stories had a real impact on their team. They said they wanted to hear more savers’ stories and case studies to paint a clearer picture of how their policies work on the ground.

We also had some time to hear about the government’s priorities for the coming years. Not surprisingly, they are focusing on auto-enrolment and providing value-for-money for savers.  With so many new pension savers entering the system, there’s a huge opportunity to use policy to improve consumer outcomes and choice. Increased transparency will be vital in making the most of this opportunity.

Better pensions policy for savers won’t happen overnight. We have high hopes that the meeting was the start of a sustained relationship with the DWP. But for now, we are glad that we had the opportunity to take the voice of savers to heart of government!


Related links:

The post first appeared on the ShareAction blog:

Show us the money (or at least where it goes): talking transparency in pensions with the DWP

How do we value nature?

FullSizeRender“Does nature come with a price tag?” asked the Earthwatch Spring Debate, deliberately provocative for an audience committed to conserving it.  Tom Heap, presenter of the BBC’s immensely popular, Countryfile, attributes the programme’s success to our hankering “after the real and natural”.  We are drawn to nature, we depend on it, thrive in it and yet, as Tony Juniper’s opening remarks reminded us, all indicators of nature’s health are pointing in the wrong direction. After thirty years of environmental campaigning, Juniper argues that putting a monetary value on nature help make the case for conservation with decision-makers. Otherwise, nature is cast as an impediment to economic growth and George Osborne promises ensure “things like Habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses.”

Georgina Mace, Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystems, Head of the Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research at University College London, and member of the Natural Capital Committee (though not speaking on their behalf) explained that in the past supply of natural capital was much greater than demand.  Today, negative impacts in one locality can no longer be offset elsewhere.  We cannot expect stocks to recover in the future, and resource constraints are starting to bind.  Scarcity of nature, as with all things, requires choices, which imply priorities, and, Mace argues, make valuation imperative.  It is not a matter of whether to value nature, or the services that it provides us, but, how to value it, in order to justify and generate funds for its restoration, protection and enhancement.

Mace distinguished between price and value.  Prices can be distorted, are subject to fashion (witness the rise of kale), focus on one aspect of value, and depend on the flow, not the stock of something.  Natural capital is our planet’s stock of natural assets including geology, soil, air, water and all living things.  The flow of benefits, or ecosystem services, is a function of the stock’s condition.  Revealing the value of these ecosystem services can tip cost-benefit analyses in nature’s favour. For example, degradation of upland peat bogs through burning, drainage, or removal of peat for fuel damages their ecosystem service provision.  A five-year project by South West Water, and its partners, to restore the peat bogs of Exmoor is demonstrating significant benefits through water and carbon storage, improved water quality and mitigation of downstream flooding.

The final speaker for the motion, Mark Huxham, Director of Academic Strategy at Edinburgh Napier University, the founding director of the charity ACES (The Association for Coastal Ecosystem Services) talked about the Mikoko Pamoja initiative (‘Mangroves Together’ in Kiswahili) in Kenya.  Mangroves provide biologically diverse marine habitats, protection from storms and coastal erosions, vital fish nurseries, and are among the most efficient natural carbon sinks.  The project in Kenya uses the mangroves’ ability to store carbon to deliver payments for ecosystem services (carbon credits) that fund conservation and community projects. Sustainable livelihoods are a key part of the puzzle, with well-managed ecosystem services one way to deliver value to those who so intimately rely on nature.

Miles King, CEO of People Need Nature, opened for the opposition asserting that the value of nature is far greater than the sum of its parts. Mike Hannis, Research Fellow in Environmental Ethics at Bath Spa University, observed natural capital accounting fails to capture the complexity and unpredictability of nature’s system-dynamics. What is more, the cultural value of nature is subjective. As Mace accepted attempts to value the intangible benefits of nature for aesthetic, inspiration and spiritual purposes are “at best compromised, at worst terrible”.

Sian Sullivan, Professor of Environment and Culture at Bath Spa University, echoed her colleagues’ criticism of flawed financial markets framing nature as a liability. Sullivan, described a pattern of capital moving in and striping away the natural assets in Namibia: first whaling, then guano and diamonds. Sullivan spoke of the Yasuni-ITT Initiative, where Ecuador’s government promised not to drill for oil in the national park in exchange for international. While figures were forthcoming, funds were not, and the initiative failed. Market preferences, Sullivan observes, have been to not pay.

Both teams agreed that power and wealth distribution are intrinsically linked to sustainable development and the fate of nature, as the tale of rising farmer suicides, water shortages and corrupt water management in a recent Financial Times article.

My heart empathized with Team King, though my head supported the pragmatism of Team Juniper.  The choice was between how we would like the world to be, and how it is. As Mace said “If we treat nature of infinite value, or of no value, then it gets trashed”. The audience seemed swayed.

Screen Shot 2016-05-14 at 12.46.40While we chuckle at cartoon Sullivan shared from the New Yorker, take a moment to reflect that through our pensions, savings, and ISAs we are the very shareholders lampooned. Global financial systems are dynamic. Some major players such as the Financial Stability Board, the G20’s Green Finance Study Group are studying environmental and social risk and long-term value. Oxford’s Smith School of the Enterprise and the Environment runs programmes so environmental NGOs can advocate for financial systems that deliver better environmental outcomes. As an individual ask your IFA, or pension provider about the environmental and social impact of your savings. If we engage with the system we can challenge the out of date assumption that short-term shareholder maximization is in our best interests.

A video of the full debate is available here.

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The Financial System We Need

IMG_0295“Practical action needs to follow political will shown at COP21”, the rallying cry reverberated around Mansion House at the co-launch of the City of London’ Green Finance Initiative and the UNEP Inquiry’s report, The Financial System We Need. Issuers, investors and regulators increasingly recognize that sustainability is a strategic and material consideration, not a moral or ethical optional extra. The UNEP report describes a “quiet revolution” of over 100 policy measures across 40 countries, to integrate sustainable development and finance. Under China’s Presidency of the G20, the People’s Bank of China and the Bank of England will co-chair a Green Finance Study Group, with UNEP acting as secretariat.

Just last month, the Financial Stability Board (FSB) set up the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), chaired by Michael Bloomberg.  The task force aims to deliver specific recommendations for voluntary disclosure principles. Speaking at the event, Andrew Bailey, Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, described the risk of future permanent impairment in value of assets and insurance liabilities. Clear, reliable and comparable disclosure from companies will enable investors to better identify and quantify stranded assets, and total ‘value at risk’.  As Elizabeth Corley, CEO, Allianz Global Investors, noted consistent disclosure requirements will reveal those companies that are best-in-class, enabling them to attract more capital, at a lower cost.

It is not just about risk, the amount of investment needed in green infrastructure is staggering, no matter whose statistics you read. The International Energy Agency estimates that meeting global energy demand by 2035 will need US$48 trillion of investment, with total spending on renewables and energy efficiency respectively of US$6 trillion and US$8 trillion by 2035.  The opportunities extend beyond bow-carbon, nature-based solutions can make our cities more resilient and liveable.  Writing from Davos, Mark Tercek, president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, describes two pilot projects using green infrastructure to reduce the speed and pollution content of stormwater and improve air quality.  The Green Infrastructure Taskforce report, Natural Capital: Investing in a Green Infrastructure for a Future City makes the case for planning, managing and funding our own natural capital city.

There is increasing appetite for sustainable finance. The UN Principles for Responsible Investment have attracted signatories with more than US$59 trillion in assets under management. 120 investors representing $10 trillion in assets have committed to measure and publicly disclose the carbon footprint of their investment portfolios on an annual basis under the Montreal Carbon Pledge.

Opportunities extend beyond low carbon investments, Ma Jun, Chief Economist of the People’s Bank of China, described the environmental imperatives facing China of poor air quality, high levels of contaminated land and water pollution. Global Water Intelligence (GWI) estimate that US$1 trillion investment is need globally for water infrastructure and water preservation by 2022. Ma Jun says China is looking to the private sector to finance 85% of these investments in remediation.

The City of London Corporation and the Government are keen to seize this market opportunity, hence the Green Finance Initiative. Harriet Baldwin, Economic Secretary is right to champion the City of London’s track record in innovation and ingenuity, as Nick Robins, co-director of the UNEP Inquiry and co-author of the report said, “It is striking just how many key global initiatives are clustered in London – whether on responsible investment, green bonds, unburnable carbon, sustainable banking, climate disclosure or insurance risk”.

So where are the bottlenecks? As a former fund manager, Baldwin, knows investors like simplicity and returns, to that end, she highlighted the need “repeatable and scalable processes”, to unlock the flow of projects generating liquid and observable investment opportunities. Baldwin was less vocal about the need for clear, consistent policies to support low-carbon infrastructure in the UK, as her Cabinet colleague Amber Rudd continues to face criticism and tensions with the CBI escalate.

Comparable and credible accreditation standards are vital to build confidence in green or sustainable products. Overlaying environmental, social and governance data on top of existing performance metrics to understand how sustainability effects companies’ financial and commercial health is complex. While some investors such as, Allianz GI and Aviva, have been integrating environmental, social and governance into their analysis and investment decisions for several years, others have dragged their heels. Now, fiduciary duty, long-term returns and ESG are converging. Research, such as the meta-study by Arabesque Partners, shows good quality stewardship is a source of added value. This week, MEPs voted in favour of mandating consideration of environmental risks in pension schemes’ investment processes.

Steve Waygood, Chief Responsible Investment Officer, Aviva Investors, called for integration of ESG considerations across the financial supply chain, including credit rating agencies.  He suggested using benchmarks linked to the Sustainable Development Goals, with a consumer-friendly dashboard accessible for all. Such a democratization of information would raise awareness and engagement of the ultimate beneficiaries, pension savers.  Savers and investors would be able to see the impact of their portfolio on issues they care about, from deforestation to child labour. Responsible investment has in the past been bound by a limited choice of what to avoid, rather than a positive selection. If consumer choice is to be a driver of change in the savings market, new communication approaches are needed that make climate information easily accessible, comparable and relevant, particularly to young savers, Green Alliance.  Attending the event as a guest of ShareAction, I could not agree more.  So it is exciting to learn that Morningstar will release ESG ratings for a large proportion of the 200,000 funds it tracks in the coming weeks.

Georg Kell, vice chairman of Arabesque Partners, has said “the consumer is the sleeping giant”. Awaken the giant, show them the impact of their choices, and you might just find a client pool confident to invest for the long term.

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Growing well

IMG_0207I did not grow up in the City.  As long as I have lived here, I have sought out green space as a salve for my mental state.  A distant horizon and open sky allow my eyes to relax and my mind to expand.

As a recent move to a more urban home loomed, I wrestled to keep my mind open about the experience.  I wasn’t prepared for how quickly I would feel claustrophobic, and fraught.  On our first weekend, I frog-marched the family to a local garden centre to inject some green into the grey patio.  After a couple of days the bright blooms had attracted bees, but my sensibilities were not as easily placated. Two stops on the Overground, and I could breath in a glorious Autumn day as I ran around Hampstead Heath.  It is a remarkable natural resource that I am fortunate to live close to.

With urban populations swelling, green spaces in and around our cities are increasingly valuable for our health, wellbeing, climate change resilience, and recreation.  The value of natural capital close to cities is widely recognised.  The recent Aldersgate Group report, Investing in our Natural Assets highlighted the link between public health and natural capital, not least because of strained NHS budgets.  Natural England has estimated that if every household in England had equitable access to good quality green space, then £2.1bn could be saved in averted health costs.  Time spent in nature or urban green spaces can produce better outcomes for patient rehabilitation.  The NHS Forest project is focused on improving “the health and wellbeing of staff, patients and communities through increasing access to green space on or near to NHS land”.

As well as space to exercise, exposure to green areas helps reduce blood pressure, reduces stress and muscular tension. MIND’s report ‘Feel Better Outside, Feel Better Inside’ evidenced the positive impact on mental and physical well-being of gardening based activities and horticultural therapy. “Ecotherapy initiatives have the potential to improve health and wellbeing for individuals and to significantly reduce public health costs by encouraging healthier communities”.

However last year a UCL report, Natural Solutions to Tackling Health Inequalities highlighted the large variations in the number of people using green space for health and exercise by local authority. The report noted, “There are clear inequalities in access and use of natural environments. People living in the most deprived areas are 10 times less likely to live in the greenest areas. Indeed the most affluent 20% of wards in England have 5 times the amount of parks or general green space than the most deprived 10% of wards”.  Planning authorities must embed quality green infrastructure in their development plans, as income-related inequality in health is moderated by exposure to green space.

We need to make good use of green space in our cities, one inspiring example is the Hammersmith Community Gardens Association (HCGA), a local environmental charity that manages several community gardens sites in West London. From conservation training schemes, volunteer gardening sessions, health and wellbeing projects, environmental play schemes and education, there is an ingenious mix of people and projects delivered by a passionate team, that Karen Liebreich, guerrilla gardener and trustee, had invited me to visit.

IMG_0160As we arrived at Ravenscourt Park glasshouse, Zoe Lyall, School and Community Gardener was chatting with two spritely seventy-something volunteers for the afternoon’s Grow Well session, therapeutic gardening for carers. Even on a bitter winter’s day the greenhouse was lush, and inviting. Grow Well complements, the NHS funded Plant a Seed which trains NHS staff to develop therapeutic gardening and food growing projects within their own setting. Nearby in White City, HCGA is a partner managing the Phoenix School Farm and Learning Zone, where Cath Knight co-ordinates the one acre site growing vegetables for the Phoenix, other schools, and now the Salt Yard tapas restaurant. The Get Out There! project offers local unemployed people the opportunity to learn new skills in basic environmental management. Keith Bittan, a graduate of Get Out There is now working for the related social enterprise, Cultivate London. Keep your eyes peeled for Cultivate London’s plants at a London Farmers’ Market in the spring.

So, if the Festive cheer is overwhelming, wrap up and walk out the door for a breath of fresh air.  Feel the wind on your face, hear the birds, smell the damp soil and cherish the simplest of pleasures in the holiday season. Oh, and may be see if there is a moribund bit of space that you could nurture back to green nearby?

Related links:



Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health (2015) Green Infrastructure, Ecosystem Services, and Human Health.

Natural England (2009) Our Natural Health Service: The role of the natural environment in maintaining healthy lives.

Growing for Health’s report on ‘The Benefits of Gardening and Food Growing for Health and Wellbeing


Is CSR dead? Long live CSR (and Shared Value)! #BarclaysDebate

CQv4qacWIAAmh7kThe Barclays Debate, chaired by Matthew Tayor, Chief Executive of the RSA, pitched John Elkington, Founding Partner and Executive Chairman of Volans, originator of the “Triple Bottom Line” against Mark Kramer, CEO of nonprofit consulting firm FSG, and co-author of “Creating Shared Value” with Michael Porter to discuss, “Is CSR dead?”.

A virtual poll of the audience revealed the split was fairly even at the start of the evening.  I was for #TeamMark, surely corporate social responsibility of old has quietly passed on to more productive pastures?  CSR teams as an outpost of corporate affairs, staffed with communications professionals, set CSR firmly outside of core business operations.  As such, many totemic activities were scythed in cost-cutting exercises during the economic downturn.

Mark Kramer framed the debate as the choice between the responsibility of “doing less harm” and the strategic opportunity of generating economic value in a way that also produces value for society by addressing its challenges”.  Kramer honed in on the role, and definition of profit, “I think John believes we need to reinvent the model to take into account things that have no monetary value – the use of natural resources, the welfare of people – so that we can present them to companies as a bottom line that frankly is fictitious.” Externalities are out of the equation.  Companies respond to reality, the real incentives of the bottom line, government policy and the regulatory framework context.

IMG_0038 (1)The “Triple Bottom Line” accounting framework with three parts: social, environmental (or ecological) and financial, or people, planet, profit, was coined by Elkington in 1994.  Acknowledging the complexities of valuation, the framework has been a powerful tool to reveal the full cost benefit analysis of doing business.  However, the framework separates people and planet from profit, perhaps reinforcing the sense that CSR sits apart from core operations.  With his opening comments, Elkington expanded this narrow frame of reference, and influence, from within to without an organisation: “CSR is a deep rooted, ongoing conversation across sectors about the role of business in society. It is about transparency, accountability and sustainability.”  Shared value, Elkington counters, may provide limited win-wins, but will not deliver the breakthrough capitalism we need, described in his latest of 19 books, “The Breakthrough Challenge: 10 Ways to Connect Today’s Profits with Tomorrow’s Bottom Line”, co-authored with Jochen Zeitz, and central to the B Corps movement that launched in the UK last month.

Elkington did question whether CSR is fit for this greater goal of systemic change.  As the mutual dependency of people, planet, profit is increasingly recognised by the mainstream, so CSR is facing serious problems.  Resource scarcity has risen up the business risk agenda, so activities that may have been within the CSR remit, are now considered part of core business, but the question of intention remains.  Citing that day’s news of John West’s woeful performance on sustainable fishing, Elkington said, “John West promised to get to 100% pole and line caught tuna by 2017 – it’s currently at 2%. Does that completely wipe out CSR? Absolutely not. It means John West are semi-criminal”.  John West and the VW emissions scandal are examples of an absence of integrity and values.

Janet Voute, Global Head of Public Affairs, Nestle, in her opening remarks as #TeamMark seconder, quoted Nestle’s CEO as saying the corporate sector has had a values crisis.  At Nestle there is no ‘Shared Value’ department, rather Voute asserts the values of Nestle are aligned across the organisation with the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact, looking to create shared value, and value for shareholders, over the long-term.  The time horizon is a vital disclaimer, echoing Kramer’s caution that companies short-term incentives may conflict with shared value. The externalities of environmental, social and governance factors getting squeezed out by short-term profit and pay incentives.

A quick show of hands revealed most of the audience agreed that capitalism itself needs a serious health-check.  Patrick Thomas, Chairman of Board of Management of Covestro, joining the debate as #TeamJohn seconder, was fresh from meetings with fund managers: were they won over by Covestro’s products or their commitment to the triple bottom framework? Hermes Investment Managers latest paper on Responsible Capitalism and our Society finds that while awareness of environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues amongst institutional investors is growing, it is not being reflected in decision-making. Saker Nusseibeh, Chief Executive of Hermes Investment Management, said “Today’s siloed and short-term investment approach is the antithesis of responsible capitalism. Change is necessary, if we are to ensure today’s savers and their children will be able to enjoy a fruitful world in the future”.

IMG_6226Finally, as a coalition of 19 investors with over £625 billion in assets under management has written to 11 major automobile companies calling for improved reporting of their public policy interventions on emissions standards, we need greater transparency of the relationships between business, regulators and policymakers.  The air quality in our cities is testament to the current system failure.

#TeamJohn won the vote, but the consensus in the room was that rather than either CSR or CSV,  we need both.  A revitalised CSR agenda to build momentum for systemic change, and shared value to reconnects businesses and all their stakeholders. A panellist at a Harvard Kennedy School Leadership dialogue in 2007, said “CSR is dead! Long live CSR.”  In eight years hence, I hope we have met the breakthrough challenge.

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Click to access report_17_EO%20Framing%20Paper%20Final.pdf



Joining the Dots in the supply chain

pp_1The first talk of the SustainRCA 2014/15 year, Joining the Dots, drew quite a crowd.  Held in collaboration with the People’s Parliament the event was held in a House of Commons committee room.  A fitting location as transparency, accountability and human rights are at the heart of the push to join the dots on the supply chain.  Baroness Lola Young introduced the speakers, and the evening, in the context of the Modern Slavery Bill.  The Bill, due for its second reading in the House of Lords on 17th November 2014, will compel large companies to annually disclose what they have done to ensure their supply chains are “slavery free”.  As well as regulatory pressure, customers increasingly expect businesses to delivery great products and services responsibly.  The demand for greater transparency is matched with growing interest in the narrative behind products, a desire for authenticity, the result of a centrifugal force driving remote, homogenous, global brands at one extreme, and a revival of artisan, heritage and craft at the other.

logo@2Celebrating materials, maker and method gives meaning to a product, in fact the object derives greater meaning from the sum of these stories, and here lies the rationale for Provenance, a new online retail proposition from RCA graduate Jess Baker.  Every product has a story in its supply chain, and “not all products are created equal”.  Baker felt that retail experiences where look and price are the only metrics available are missing something and she suggested customers would pay up to 70% more if they knew that the benefits were going to the local community.  Observation made, Baker, with a PhD in computer science, is optimistic that technology can help us be better citizens, redressing the informational asymmetry that currently defines the retail experience.  Provenance tells the story of the people, places, processes and materials behind products.  Oh joy to discover I live a stone’s throw away from where Prestat, chocolate purveyor to H.M. The Queen is making dark salted caramel truffles!  The Provenance  API offers makers a host of smart perks, such as the ability to serve stories on other sites, but essentially it is the products’ stories that provide the marketing clout.
The second speaker, Leah Borromeo took us to the other end of the spectrum with the trailer for her documentary, “The Cotton Film: Dirty White Gold”.  The film shines a light on the cotton industry in India, where around 300,000 cotton farmers have committed suicide to escape debt.  The political, social, cultural and economic context is such that 28.5% of the Indian population (343.5mn) are destitute and the estimated net worth of the top ten was $102.1 bn, around 5.5% of GDP in 2013.  The plight of cotton farmers is part of a web of relationships and pressures more complex than can be tackled in this film, but it poses some tough questions.
Cotton is just one commodity at the base of complex, dynamic, global supply chains increasingly under scrutiny.  Tim Wilson, Historic Futures, works with a range of multinational firms to map the value-chains (a term Wilson prefers to supply chain) from where raw materials are sourced to the retail distribution of products in a format that can be rapidly updated.  80% of social and environmental impact is in the value chain, and typically organisations have limited tools to measure this accurately.  We know deforestation, climate change and biodiversity loss are increasingly cause for concern, and that the rates of change of going up.  Yet lack of accurate, complete information undermines an organisation’s ability to make informed and reliable sourcing decisions.  Without the ability to convey their best practice to management or buyers, participants in the value chain can not differentiate themselves from less responsible competitors, and justify what may be a higher cost or investment.
We should not underestimate the complexity of these relationships.  For example, working with Marks & Spencer, Historic Futures, mapped 12.5 million items over 15 months, from more than 700 third party suppliers, and more than 6,500 retail points of sale.  It can be done with accuracy and precision.  Historic Future’s String 3 is working on a platform that is verifiable but does not reveal the suppliers, so enabling companies to share information, and preserve their competitive advantage.
Demand for this data is growing.  Earlier this year, PricewaterhouseCoopers bought Geo-Traceability, a company that uses GPS mapping, Geographic Information System (GIS) technology and mobile phone and bar coding systems to track products from origin to shop floor.   GeoTraceability has collected data from 113,000 small holder farmers in developing countries and is developing new approaches to trace conflict minerals, and monitor of key biodiversity indicators. Ian Powell, Chairman and Senior Partner, said: “Resource scarcity and supply chain management are significant issues for our clients. The acquisition of GeoTraceability is another example of how we are investing in innovative technologies and services that enable our clients to make better business decisions, establish trust and reduce their risk.”  For the smallholders the platform provides information to help improve their production, farming practices and build a more sustainable livelihood.
6114_pcThe final speaker, Bruno Pieters, designer and founder of Honest by, is striving to be the first company in the world to offer customers price transparency.  Pieters is an entrepreneur, fashion designer and art director well-known for his sharp tailoring developed while working with designers such as Martin Margiela, Thimister and Christian Lacroix.  Pieters returned from a sabbatical in India, with a deep-seated concern for the environment, and wider impact of fashion industry.  His vision brings radical transparency to the entire supply chain.  Click on an item that catches your eye and, in addition, to conventional information about the garment’s size and care, scroll down for details of the material, manufacture, carbon footprint, and price calculation: with 0.5 euros of thread, and the retail mark-up.  What a fascinating exercise!
Many of these ESG (environmental, social and governance) impacts materialise in the medium or longer term, beyond the horizons of quarterly returns or short-term profitability.  Momentum supporting a culture of long-termism, transparency and accountability in business, and the finance industry, is developing on several fronts.  Following the Kay Review of UK Equity Markets and Long–Term Decision Making, the recent establishment of the Investor Forum, is the latest in a series of initiatives that will drive demand for integrated analysis incorporating ESG factors into standard financial valuations.  These developments reflect a wider discussion about the role of business, and banks, as corporate citizens, such as the Blueprint for Better Business, Aviva’s Roadmap for sustainable capital markets and the Banking Standards Review.  In a survey of 30,000 consumers across twenty countries in five continents carried out by the UN Global Compact-Accenture Study on Sustainability, in collaboration with Havas Media, found “72% of people globally say business is failing to take care of the planet and society as a whole”.
Joining the dots on the supply chain is only the first part of a linear model of manufacture and consumption, characterised by “take, make, consume and throw away”.  Measuring and valuing resources reveals the real business benefits opportunities of using them more efficiently, and effectively.  The Disruptive Innovation Festival, was a virtual festival ideas from leading thinkers, entrepreneurs and businesses sharing knowledge about the circular economy, an economic model that is restorative by design.  Environmental scientists have long urged us to recognised that we live in a closed system or biosphere.  Mapping impacts is the beginning of better decisions, to borrow the words of Maya Angelou, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”
P.S. Andrew Hill will interview Honest By Founder & CEO Bruno Pieters at 12pm GMT on Day 2 of the FT Innovate 2014 conference in London, ” The Digital Big Bang, how digital technologies and practices are transforming the way companies innovate and do business.”
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The Wish List

wishlistThere was no better way to kick off my London Design Festival 2014 than The Wish List” at the Victoria and Albert Museum.  With a mentoring relationship at its heart, the project began with a conversation between Benchmark, Terence Conran and the American Hardwood Export Council.  They conceived of ten leading designers commissioning the object that they had always wanted but never found or had time to design themselves. The ten commissioners chose, or were matched with, up-and-coming designers, for whom it was the commission of a lifetime!

Each of the young designers was given a box of American hardwoods, and the design process unfolded, culminating in an intense, “Making Week”, or first furniture festival, at Benchmark working with master craftsmen skilled in traditional techniques, as well as the latest technologies.  Benchmark has embraced sustainability from its outset in 1984, after Sean Sutcliffe, co-founder with Terence Conran, was influenced by Jonathon Porritt. The commitment to sustainability, craftsmanship and expertise in timber (though they also have a specialist metal workshop and an upholstery studio), made Benchmark an ideal partner for AHEC in The Wish List. AHEC were keen not only to showcase the range and properties of American hardwood, but also share the AHEC’s work on life-cycle assessment (LCA) with the designers.

Wood has many environmental virtues: it is organic, renewable, versatile, and a carbon sink.  The area covered by American hardwood forests is equivalent to UK, France & Spain combined, and the AHEC estimate that the carbon footprint of all ten projects is less than one return flight to New York.  Wood is also probably the material that man has been working with for longer than any other.  Wood is sensual and tactile, overtime it responds our touch, changing patina, becoming smooth, or chipped, with each knock or indent becoming part of the story of the object.

RTEmagicC_Sebastian_Cox_2883_txdam9114_dfa4c8.jpgThe young designers made careful choice of their material.  Sebastian Cox asked David Venables of AHEC which were the least popular in the UK and deliberately chose to work with them, seizing the opportunity to elevate their status. Cox, who usually works with greenwood, relished the opportunity to experiment with red oak and cherrywood.  Initially Conran had wanted a rail and curtain to screen his desk, in response Sebastian suggested a curved, woven screen. The kiln-dried oak was too inflexible to weave, so Cox made use of swilling, a technique he recently learnt with Lorna Singleton to soften the timber so it was malleable enough to weave.  Swilling, or soaking, the timber in the stream at Barton Court, Terence and Vicki Conran’s 18th-century country home, connected the piece to the landscape of its future home.

wishlist2Known for his innovative use of wood, Alex de Rijke, Dean of the School of Architecture, RCA, and a founding Director of the architectural practice dRMM, pioneered the use of hardwood for cross-wishlist3laminated timber (CLT) for the Endless Stair he designed at last year’s London Design Festival, so it is unsurprising that he and Barnby & Day chose to use CLT made of American tulipwood.  But this fast-growing timber, that is is often overlooked, overpainted and “chopped through to get to the good stuff” is here given the Midas touch.  Nathalie de Leval’s shed for Paul Smith was made of thermally modified ash (pictured right, and below with Terence Conran, Paul Smith and Nathalie de Level).  Thermally modified timber (TMT) is heat-treated for three or four days in an inert atmosphere (no oxygen).  The process irreversibly changes the chemical and physical properties of the wood so that does not need additional treatment as it is more resistant to rot, fungi and moisture.

RTEmagicC_Wish_List_Hadid_Ves-el_Petr_Krejci_Photography_33_txdam9267_071dd1.jpgThe Wish List fused the craft of design and the craft of making.  A conversation with some of the designers, commissioners, and Sean Sutcliffe, chaired by Edwin Heathcote, explored the relationship between the two.  Heathcote recounted a recent visit to a design school without workshops.  Today industrial design is often separated from making with products moving from design to rapid prototyping and then manufacture overseas.  Sean Sutcliffe offered a definition of craft from Richard Sennett, author of The Craftsmenas when “the point of focus becomes the limit of the tool”.

The Ves-sel that Gareth Neal made for Zaha Hadid is a perfect example of engaging traditional process and digital manufacture.  Neal said he “provocated Sean to use the CNC router”, and Benchmark had to upgrade wishlist4its software accordingly.  Neal had been invited to Hadid’s company offices and use their modelling software to create the vessel’s design that captures the fluidity of Hadid’s designs, and functions as a water carafe.  One of the vessel’s was left unpainted, after consultation with Hadid, to reveal the natural colour.  The vessel is extruded along one axis, with a slit at the end creating what Neal describes as a ‘cathedral-like space’. If not monumental in scale, it is in complexity.  Sutcliffe described the object as an outstanding piece of craftsmanship, “the most remarkable thing we have ever made”.

Continuous involvement in the process, and evolvement of skill underpins the best craftsmanship, and several commissioners warn of the limitation of digital tools.  As Amanda Levete noted the link between intellect and hand becomes more remote with technology, an element of control is relinquished.  Something may seem perfectly resolved, but not be conceptually perfect, but without space for adjustment.  With rapid prototyping a hundred options can be quickly, and extravagantly, produced, but does this ease compensate for a lack of rigour at the design stage?  Making great objects is often an iterative process in response to the material.  For Alex de Rijke one of the constraints of digital technology is that computers do not have the same dialogue with materials or scale.  Alison Brooks, too, describes how computer design can quickly take a designer into complexity that they have to navigate out of, often through physical experimentation.

RTEmagicC_Win_Assakul_2755_txdam9130_dfa4c8.jpgThe “Making Week” brought many of these tensions to the fore.  With no experience of physical making, Win Assakul was persuaded to pick up hand tools to craft the 3m long serving dish he designed for Amanda Levete.  Hand-making is part of the story of the object, requiring considered, elegant solutions to the complex shape and presentation of the dish.

RTEmagicC_Banaby_and_Day_2425_txdam9093_dfa4c8.jpgThe “Table-Turned” Barnby & Day designed for Alex de Rijke presented the challenge of scale.  Weighing 170kg, and with a diameter of 2m, the table is quiet possibly one of the largest objects to be turned on a lathe.  Benchmark brought in specialist turner Mike Bradley to turn the table in 3 sections, with the largest section turning at 62mph on the outer edge.

wishlist6Even skilled craftsman, Sebastian Cox was presented with new challenges.  The Conran commission, “Getting Aware from it All” was, Cox said, “the most intricate and challenging thing that I had ever made, but how often will I get the chance to design for someone who is so important in the industry?”  If the screens were 1mm out at the joint, they would be 5mm our where they met. The rolling tambour is made from solid strips of wood, rather than cloth-backed and there is a secret drawer.  The compliment was repaid by Conran, “I have been making furniture for 60 years but I am still learning from Sebastian”.

RTEmagicC_Wish_List_Pawson_Room_Petr_Krejci_Photography_12_txdam9295_12e383.jpgNot all the project were conceived as one-offs. Felix de Pass’  “A Stool for the Kitchen” designed with Alison Brooks could in future grace our homes.  The series of architectural elements, “Room”, designed by Atelier Areti with John Pawson could indeed make the everyday more beautiful.  Simple, elegant forms finished with an incredible attention to detail.  For example, the grain on the dimmer knob of the light switch is aligned with that of the base plate when it is switched off.

wishlist7Wish list is about design, and beautiful materials. For the commissioners it was an unusual role reversal, a process Amanda Levete found moving as though handing the baton on to the next generation of inspiring designers.  It is also about the intensity of making, the joy of sharing collaboratively, and the richer learning that results: that was perhaps the real alchemy of the Wish List.  Sean Sutcliffe certainly hopes that seed has been sown.

The AHEC Wish List page has a playlist of short films of each of the pieces, but the installation is definitely worth a visit to the V&A!

Image credits: AHEC, or my own.

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Come & watch Lorna Singleton demonstrating swill basketry this Wednesday

Abundance of blooms at New Designers Part 1

holmesAesthetic beauty was blooming at New Designers Part 1, the first chapter of an exhibition that shows work from over 3000 UK graduate designers over two weeks.  Part 1 showcased textiles, fashion, contemporary applied arts (including ceramics and glass), jewellery and metalwork.

Fauna and particularly flora (Laura Holmes pictured left) provided a deep well of inspiration for many of this year’s graduates, with bold, outsized, colourful prints of flowers greeting you as soon as you walked. Flashes of tropical colour from Sophie Painter,  Loughborough University, who garnered a “John Lewis Loves” label sat alongside, the ethereal, wintry prints from Robyn Dark.  Amy Malcolmson, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, also won a “John Lewis Loves” label for her clean, crisp spring and autumn floral series.  Her hand-painted wallpaper samples echo the fresh, vibrant, if whimsical florals of Dame Elizabeth Blackadder.

cravenLayering images to depth and structure to floral was a popular technique.  Ellie-rose McFall‘s handprinted textiles, which overlay wildflowers on cracked surfaces, are inspired by the Garden Bridge, planned for London in 2016.  Sophie Tattersall, De Montford University, Leicester, uses layered photographs to create delicate floral patterns.  Sophie Thompson, Nottingham Trent University, builds up layers of detail taking inspiration from nature, enhancing hand drawn imagery with digital techniques.  I was drawn to “In the Undergrowth”, with a mix of birds, bugs and silhouettes.  Charlotte Raven‘s wallpaper (pictured right) is a like of snapshot of a summer garden in bloom.  Malin-Charlotte Ødemark work draws on landscapes creating a subtle, earthy palette that worked to great effect as upholstery on Ercol’s classic sofa.


Natural beauty went more than skin deep for Emily Buchanan, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design.  Her work, Living+Dying displays the wonderful array of colours accessible from nature using traditional craft methods.  Red cabbage, red onion, eucalyptus, and other plants dyes, two mordants, time and a couple of serendipitous accidents were used to dye peace silk a rich spectrum of soothing tones.  buchanan2Peace silk allows the silkworm to emerge from their cocoons. The silk is degummed and spun like other fibre, instead of being reeled.  Conventional silk is made by boiling the intact cocoons, which kills the silk worms.  Emily is a passionate advocate of the joys, and beauty, of natural dyes.  She continues to run workshops with schools and interested groups.  There were a couple of interested parties at the show.

From the natural, to the utterly fabricated, Laura Holmes makes fantastical floral displays from recycled plastics.  Laura works with milk bottles, coke bottles, offcuts of acetates, sequin film and all manner of plastics.  They are cut, painted and flocked inspired by colours from the aquarium.  The result is almost fantastical.

healy2Karoline Healy‘s Domestic Mining is also an ethos that makes good use of the things that we find in our homes.  Karoline was first inspired by reading0 Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.  A visit to India and encounters with street vendors and road-side workshops prompted Karoline to design a kiosk.  The kiosk is constructed from household objects, an old shredder, file, bicycle chain. Discarded plastic bottles are shredded, moulded, marked with the appropriate recycle sign and then a watch assembled from the flat pack kit.  No glues, nails, paints, or varnishes are used, so the watch can be readily repaired or recycled.

rosakSophie Rosak’s table lamp with a shade of naturally-tanned leather, and copper, is simply constructed and so easily dissembled at its end of life. Its industrial style is softened by the warm tones of the leather and copper.  priceA simple aesthetic defines Rebecca Price’s work.  Scouted by the Design Council’s ‘One to Watch’, her food storage jars (pictured left) are covetable for any contemporary kitchen.  The lid of each vessel is also a portion measure.  What is more the vessels nestle snuggly together saving precious space on your worktop.

More covetable vessels were on display as part of One Year On, which showcases the work of 50 emerging designers in their first year of business. I was delighted to catch up with Isatu Hyde, who I met at New Designers 2013.  hydeAfter a stint with Kilner to develop her foraging project, Isatu is now an apprentice with Marches Pottery in Ludlow.  Isatu has worked with terracotta for the first time to throw distinctive coffee drippers, carafes, cups, and milk jugs, as well as continuing to develop her own distinct style.  I fell in love with these bowls, inspired by those used by Medieval monks.

boonsNext door was Sofie Boons, the Alchemical Jeweller, a graduate of the RCA, 2013.  Available as a recipe book and kit, with an elegant silver pin, I was lucky enough to experience Sofie’s solid perfume.  Grapefruit zest, TicTacs, mint, cardamon, coconut and salt were put in small pouch and pinned as a brooch to my chest. My daughters thought it smelt good enough to eat.  I was reminded of Lauren Davies Alchemists Design Table, encouraging a transparency and honesty about what we put on our skin.

The show was a feast for the senses.  Appreciation of the environment was visually evident, but scrabble around in the undergrowth and the homage rarely has the opportunity to go deeper.  There was a desire to design textiles and surfaces that take their appreciation of the natural world to a more tangible level, constrained by cost, college facilities, and a sense that demand is limited.  As the exhibition for emerging design it would be great to see more innovative and sustainable textiles on show as they begin to be adopted more widely, especially by contract clients.

New Designers Part 2 will be at the Business Design Centre in Islington from 2nd until 5th July.

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