Friday, 27 July 2007

Global Company seen from the inside... stuck in the past

I went for a job interview recently. The particular company has operations in the US and UK and is the world’s largest retailer in its field. It sells relatively small but valuable items through several chains of retailers, and by mail order.

The job was advertised as ‘Environmental Administrator’. It should, it transpired, have read ‘Environmental/Insurance Administrator. This was, apparently, due to an HR error.

The ‘environmental’ part of the job – the lesser part as it turned out – was principally concerned with waste recycling notes, and the maintenance of databases on greenhouse gas emissions, energy usage, and fuel used by the 200 strong company vehicle fleet. As distribution is handled by a courier firm, I could not determine exactly what these vehicles are used for.

The interviewer was very frank with me. The board was only as interested in the environment as it had to be to avoid getting fined. To date, the company had done only the minimum it legally had to do and no more. It was, I was told, likely that a more progressive environmental policy would be developed, but I was left with the impression that this was mainly to avoid any adverse publicity.

I asked if the job might involve presentations to parts of the company on issues such as energy saving, for example. I was told I could try but the board would not be very receptive. Apparently there were members of board who would fight tooth and nail against any environmental initiatives not essential to prevent prosecution. The interviewer told me that he could get any idea past the board providing he could show it would turn a profit in twelve months.

The job description mentioned liaising with NGOs. The primary reason for this, it was explained, was to keep them off the company’s back and stop them imposing fines.

The company’s website says that they seek to uphold their environmental principles and have, in the last few years, developed and tested environmental performance indicators. The US part of company recently carried out an energy audit and has begun retro-fitting premises with energy efficient light fittings.

I commented that this seemed to be a lead that UK operations needed to follow. It seems, however, that the UK and US parts of company ‘don’t really talk to each other that much’ so this is unlikely. What I was told during this interview certainly belied the impression given by the company’s website when explaining how it addresses its environmental responsibilities.

This all left me very dubious about the value of working for a company with such an attitude. I thought about it overnight, then rang them the next morning and told them to take me off the candidate list. This was the trigger for coming along to my first Birmingham Friends of the Earth meeting.


Thursday, 12 July 2007


Making Muslim Brum Beautiful!

Swathes of Brum can be and sometimes are categorized as “inner city squalor” comprising entire neighbourhoods of industrial age terrace houses. Each street sports its own stylistic variation in design, brickwork and Victorian fantasia, yet all are tantalisingly the same to all but the connoisseur or those that live there. In their ensemble they constitute a kind of national heritage of working class typicality. A museum of the mundane. Most of these same neighbourhoods, abandoned by the working class of pre-war Britain, are now occupied by post-empire immigrants, the majority of whom are from the Muslim world.

Birmingham boasts large communities of Pakistanis, Bengalis, Yemenis, Somalis, North African and other Asian inhabitants. Together they make an impressive global Muslim mix. A ghetto, if you see it that way, but remarkably multilingual, multicultural and multicoloured, broadly united (or factionalised) in a common religion. The community is now well into its second generation. The sons and daughters of the factory workers who came to Britain and built the numerous mosques of the city are now often as well or better educated than their English peers and are perfectly in tune with the here and now in urban UK. As Brummy as the rest in their own way, they mostly hold tight to their Muslim identities. It is these same young people who make the Clean Medina Campaign.

“Muslim” Brum is notoriously strewn with litter: Haram horrible and nothing to be proud of. “…You wouldn’t think that keeping clean is part of Iman (faith) and that we’re supposed to be Khalifah of our patch and watch it nice; Keep it clean, keep it green….” Proclaims the rapper in the film

The Green Medina campaign intends to prompt a self generating and self sustained movement to clean up the dirty, haram horrible inner city areas of Birmingham all which happen to be predominantly Muslim areas. At present every one blames every one else for the swirling rubbish. The council blames the people and the people blame the council. The “Clean Medina” Campaign is a spontaneous people’s “Just do it!” effort. The film of the campaign intends to pull the triggers of people- motivation which hopefully will make the campaign self sustaining. Shift the Muslim mindset from houseproud to streetproud. Bash the trash! Our Medina will be cleaner! Allah Akbar!

The campaign is designed to appeal to the Muslim psyche. Islamic principles and imagery constitute both motivation and modus operandi. Indeed the great cleanup is presented as a veritable jihad. At the same time a very contemporary “living in the UK” look is retained, designed especially to appeal to young people, “defending their patch”

From the concept of a “clean Medina” the campaign goes further to become a “Green Medina” campaign as the tidying up gears up into recycling. In an area by area, street by street approach, the mosques become the focal points of both tidying up and recycling operations. Operations are organized on a mosque by mosque basis: Friday preaching, followed by Sunday Standby!....Action! . Each clean up operation is filmed, and becomes mini festival.

The campaign derives its momentum from the principle that an event or a campaign is no more – nor less – than what the media says of it. Accordingly the media products (i.e. the proposed film and related media products, music, jingles and slogans for use on local radio promotions, posters and printed materials, etc) are being prepared first. As the film is about the campaign the campaign has to be “engineered” appropriately in order to be filmable. It might be unclear from the outside whether “Clean Medina” is a grass roots operation which is being portrayed in a film or that the entire operation is nothing more than a contrived film set. Both angles, of course, are true, until the campaign gains its own momentum as outside media and bodies begin to take an interest. The media thus produced serves to enhance the momentum of the campaign and its tone. At the same time cleaning up and recycling become “the thing to do” for Muslims. It is particularly young people who are targeted.

The Launching operation will hopefully be ready to go by late August. A film set is set up in the street, outside Birmirmingham's oldest neighbourhood mosque in Sommerville Road, Small Heath. With all the paraphernalia of performers, props, cameras, extras, “cast of thousands” fully choreographed, Smollywood-style(Small Heath) a litter-picking battle scene will take place before the cameras and your eyes. As recycling bays and wheelie bins are rolled in front of the mosque, the battle for Brum will unfold in the immediate neighbourhood on the streets and on the pavements and on the front yards of houses. Of course the entire “cast” takes part followed by multiple camera teams. The tone is ‘hip hop’ and stylish. Rappers rap, choruses chant and egg on, rhythms trance and dance the street warriors. As each house front is cleaned, campaign publicity is slipped through the letter box, which exhorts the householder to send recyclables to the mosque, where recycling bins will have already been installed. Food will be served on set for stars, unit, all comers, long beards and the beardless. We’ll keep you in touch for the day a week or so in advance. Watch this space! Come! Enjoy! Pray for good weather.

Ayman Ahwal, 12th July 2007