Fetish night at Bruntwood: sustainability gets VERY interesting. #Manchester #climate

Not that kind of fetish (sorry for the clickbaiting). I mean the original, anthropological meaning of “fetish” – a god that we create, then forget that we created as we come to worship it. That kind of fetish was being discussed tonight at the latest and best-I’ve-been-to meeting of the excellent “North West Sustainable Business Quarterly” meeting, held on the 24th story of Bruntwood’s City Tower (#greatviews).

The events are organised by Anthesis, hosted by Bruntwood, with scrumptious vegetarian and vegan food, locally-sourced where possible, by Good Mood Food an offshoot of the charity Manchester Mind. These evenings are free to attend and have lasted where others fell by the wayside simply because they always deliver reasonable-to-brilliant speakers and reasonable-to-brilliant discussion and networking opportunities. Now, back to the fetishes….

A chap called Mark Shayler got us thinking about where the ‘stuff’ in our offices comes from (and what our offices ARE these days, and the shrinking time from waking-to-screen (1), but I’ve digressed enough). He decided to hone in on one thing, that we all have – mobile devices, be they laptops, tablets or mobile phones. And what has made the miniaturization possible? Capacitors (think Random Access Memory, but for electricity). And what do you need to make capacitors? Columbite Tantalite (“Coltan”). And where does the coltan mostly come from? “The Democratic Republic of Congo” (“Zaire” to us fossils). And does the coltan come from nice regulated mines with a unionised workforce and health and safety inspectors? Not so much, no. Think dead gorillas and street kids who are lucky if they are big enough to wield an AK-47, because the other job prospects are even worse. So much I knew. But Shayler then went on to explain that far more than the official 14% of the world’s coltan comes from Congo – neighbouring Uganda and AngolaRwanda,  for example, export the stuff, without having any mines of their own. Anyway, from there it goes to Japan, for processing, along with coltan from North America and Australia. Then it turns into those capacitors (remember) in Taiwan, and from there goes to China to be put into the circuit boards of all the little devices we now have. And that’s when the transparency of it, such as it is, disappears, along with huge amounts of water that are needed to wash these products. (2) And then it finds its way onto the shelves of the great god “Consumers”, to be used for a year or three, or until it is unfashionable. And then, it sits forgotten in a drawer, or is ‘recycled’, earning the recycler moral absolution, at least in their own minds.

This is standard Global Value Chain/Network analysis (see this blog I did on tuna), but Shayler did it very well.

He talked within this about the perverse incentives within the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment recycling (doing it by weight is not so smart – the Japanese and Chinese do it better, it seems).

He then went on to talk about the huge growth of the Chinese middle-class (hundreds of millions) and the fact that the two things Britain does – design and money (i.e. financial engineering) are both eminently exportable. He made a plea (and yes, you can call it Corbynite social democratic fantasy-land if you like) for a Britain that makes stuff – he reeled of the names and achievements of relatives “now dead, along with the skills they had.”

In his talk he also gave a shout out to a chap who set up a charity called “Falling Whistles”. I defy you to read about that without getting a lump in your thoat.

Shayler closed out his talk with a frank admission that what we’ve been doing in terms of both production and consumption, and attempts to improve it, have been grossly inadequate, and that there are going to have to be some pretty fundamental changes, but that he- like anyone who’s honest- doesn’t have any road maps to get us to the sunny uplands.

Following him was a very very tall order. Somehow Tracey Rawling Church managed it, even when talking about something as ‘mundane’ as the ‘printer zoo’ (of companies with lots of different devices). She is the CSR lead for a business-to-business printer company called Kyocera, which was founded by a Japanese chap who is now a Buddhist monk. They’re moving away from selling the hardware to facilitating the exchange of information, and that’s where most of their revenue comes from these days (a fairly rapid 80/20 reversal in five years). Normally I’d fall asleep with my eyes open (and then snore) if someone used the phrase “servitised document environment”, but I find stories of companies that are big enough to survive, but nimble enough to adapt, quite fascinating (Alcoa under Paul O’Neill, for example). But she also didn’t pretend that a little efficiency nip and tuck here and there is an adequate response to the challenges we face…  Then it was over to (a slightly truncated) Q and A before discussions on tables and then networking/schmoozing.

Concepts readers of this blog might like to look into

Compulsory consumption

So, I got soaked cycling home. And the cat was angry with me for deserting it (I’m forgiven now of course). Was it worth it? I went for the food, thinking the talks would be mostly warmed-over ecological modernisation. I got a pleasant surprise tonight. Did both the speakers overrun? Yes. Normally that pisses me off, but the chair wisely let them run, even though it ate into the Q and A. Was it worth the soaking and the feline strop? Bloody hell yes.


  1. Today I was extolling the wonders of “Shut Up and Write” days to my two supervisors. They were both incredulous – ‘Isn’t every day shut up and write day?’ #oldskool #goodpoint

  2. On the subject of water – Saudi Arabia has finally stopped using its fossil aquifers for growing wheat. They might have clocked that’s not the smartest thing to have done, given what’s coming…


About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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1 Response to Fetish night at Bruntwood: sustainability gets VERY interesting. #Manchester #climate

  1. Malte says:

    Marc, I was missing some criticism in this. Especially content-wise, a lot of reductionism from both speakers, people who used the Q&A to raffle about their own knowledge rather than to ask about something (I surely never got the reason for asking questions unless you (a) did not understand everything, or (b) want them to say something they did not, but the latter is patronizing), people hijacking the round-table conversations, etc.

    For example, I did not like Mark always mentioning precise numbers for how much better or worse something is. This is bullshit, and of course he knows it. It creates a good effect, but there is no single number unless you pretend to have an ultimately and objectively right weighing coefficient for all the different impacts something could have.
    He totally forgot to look into the context, to weigh things properly, to say there is not a single one solution (i.e. cloud computing was mentioned as the solution, in my opinion without elaborating further on implications of it), but that all the solutions are bad, and maybe some are less bad, but there is no one single way in telling.
    I did not quite get the involvement of conflict material into the whole talk. Obviously it’s important to think about conflict material, the question is: what state is there now, what would happen if we suddenly ignored all the conflict material? My friend wrote his thesis on a social life-cycle analysis of one gold wedding ring, and how especially illegal(?) gold mining in the Congo affects it, what that makes to the people. No matter how bad it is, the more or less clear power structures in the east of the country (though non democratically legitimized), give the people jobs, and money, and a means to survive. Not sure about other regions, but there they are freed from conflict and violence, simply because there is an economy flourishing. If we stopped buying these materials, this would end up in war and violence again, hunger, etc. A good idea? Mark seemed to say yes…
    And then I felt like he was not quite clear in his essence, and there was quite some inconsistency. Does he want production and consumerism? Doesn’t he? Why manufacturing, if in fact he agrees we shouldn’t have stuff anymore? Again, there is no one single solution, you can optimize supply chains for GHGs, or for water footprint, or for economic success, and all of them are reasonable given their scope. They’re not bad per se, they just have different assumption.
    And finally, what was the relation to the office environment? Why production and design studios, if we in fact should not have stuff anymore? It was a great talk, yes, but I could not quite understand what he meant to say…

    Tracey had an interesting talk as well. Maybe more consistent. Despite contextualization and comparisons missing (i.e. the 200000(0?) trees for the paper industry, how much trees have to make place for palm oil or soy/cattle production in Indonesia or the Amazon) to understand the dimensions of the problem. I did not quite understand her document management system either.
    Taking herself seriously, the company should make its printing services obsolete, right? No words on that. Also, I was wondering, whether the shift to more service provision rather than device selling was intrinsically motivated by too much waste, as she says, or rather coercion from the market, or simply offering higher revenues… And then I found it quite odd, that they had placed “dematerialization & servitised …” on top of this reversed circular economy pyramid. Did not make much sense to me, as servitistaion is their business model and thus should be parallel, and dematerialization is certainly not on top, but somewhere in the middle, already existing in the pyramid.

    But then I’m doing nutpicking. Just like critiquing. 😉
    My round table was also hijacked by someone, and instead of cradle to cradle s/he instead talked about COP21, and radical systems change. I mean, I agree, but this was not topic of the discussion, and this is not something you should talk about at a business meeting. I felt kind of embarrassed, for whatever reason.

    JM2C, was a good event, I just don’t like being overly positive…

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