This week, the SolarImpulse aircraft has completed the first solar-powered round the world flight, an epic 17-stage journey taking journey covering 42,000km, over four continents, three seas and two oceans and taking 16 months. More than anything, it was an act of human endurance, with the pilot confined to a cockpit the size of a telephone booth, whose seat doubled as the toilet, and only allowed to sleep for 20 minutes at a time.
An impressive piece of derring-do certainly, but as an example of clean technology, a 30mph plane with no practical payload is hardly going to set the world on fire is it? I kinda think it reinforces the green hair-shirt cliché. Sorry if that's a bit harsh, but we've always got to look at clean tech as others see it.
I'm shaking the lactic acid out of my legs the day after the toughest cycle I've done in a long, long time (possibly ever), a 75-mile sportive around the North York Moors with plenty of brutal ascents and descents (the pic above is actually from the Yorkshire Dales, but we did quite a few 25%+ climbs yesterday). What shocked me was, having come in the top 9% on the 'Standard' route in the 64-mile Cyclone sportive a month ago, I just scraped into the top half of the 'Standard' table yesterday. Added to that, at least two thirds of the participants did one of the two much longer, tougher routes than the one I did. It was sobering – I was suddenly plunged into a different league and it wasn't entirely a comfortable experience.
There are definitely different leagues in the Corporate Sustainability world. At the top we have those such as Interface, Unilever, Tesla, GE and, arguably, Marks & Spencer who are transforming the way they do business. The next level down contains the kind of business that signs up to the RE100 (100% renewable energy) pledge which will be tough to meet, but who aren't going through such a level of transformation. Below that are the companies who may be doing exciting things, but don't have really challenging targets. The bottom two leagues are those who are following the rest at a distance and those doing nothing.
What I find interesting and frustrating in equal measure is that many practitioners define themselves against the others in their league rather than aiming to leap up to the next level. Like my cycling, doing well at one level feels much more comfortable than being mediocre to poor in the next level up. But if you stay in your comfort zone, your efforts will inevitably plateau.
So what are you going to do to challenge yourself? Stretch targets matching those in the league above make a fine starting point.
For an outsider, the battle for the leadership of the UK's opposition Labour Party is gripping. Old school socialist and pacifist Jeremy Corbyn swept to victory last year after a number of Labour MPs naively overrode the party's safety catch, which requires any candidate to have the support of a suitable proportion of Labour MPs, in the name of "broadening the debate". Now 80% of Corbyn's MPs want rid of him, citing dismal polls and chaotic party management, but with huge support amongst the rank-and-file party membership, he's not going anywhere fast. Who knows how it will end - or when.
"Why don't the MPs just set up their own party – or join the Lib Dems?" asked Mrs K one morning.
"Identity." I answered "For the vast majority of Labour MPs, leaving the Labour Party would be like cutting off their right arm – it's part of who they are."
Politics is largely about identity – which is why elections are generally determined by a relatively small number of 'swing voters' who do not vote on gut instinct but weigh up the pros and cons of each. Sustainability isn't any different. At one end of the spectrum you have the hardcore greens, whose sometimes superior attitude puts off many who sit in the middle. At the other end of the spectrum you have the climate denialists, like Corbyn's brother Piers, a self appointed weather expert, who despite making doomed predictions, such as the one in 2008 that "the world is cooling and will continue to do so", refuses to accept he might have got it wrong.
I've found that understanding the power of identity is key to engaging people in sustainability. Most green campaigning tries to get people to take on the identity of an eco-warrior. Some might convert, but most will be left cold. But if you translate sustainability to match the identity of your audience, you will find them much more receptive. Or as I call it, Green Jujitsu.
Photo by Garry Knight, used under the creative commons license.
The UK Government's erstwhile domestic energy efficiency programme 'The Green Deal' has been damned by the Public Accounts Committee for having "abysmal" take-up. "It was too complex, with excessive paperwork, while people were also put off by interest rates of up to 10% on the loans - far more expensive than other lending" was the verdict.
The Green Deal was clearly one of those clever political ideas which makes sense logically but fails to survive first contact with the real world. As I said three years ago, expecting busy people to get their heads around the supposed benefits of the so-called 'Golden Rule' was unrealistic. I said then:
"Again and again we keep getting the same lesson - that if you offer a green option it must not only be better than the alternative, or the 'do nothing' default option, but be simpler and more intuitive as well. A walk in the park, not a slog through the mud, in other words."
The bigger point is pragmatism beats idealism hands down every time. Do what works, kill off what doesn't, and never, ever be distracted by purists. They never create anything, because the real world is not perfect.
Before the horrors of the last few days, it must have been a slow news period as the Telegraph rolled out another of their 'lycra lout' articles about the village of Great Budworth which claims to be under siege from the two-wheeled menaces. I think one anecdote summarises the story:
"One nearly crashed into my brother's car as he was pulling out of the drive and shouted at him."
Or, translated into objective language:
"My brother pulled out on to a road without looking properly, nearly knocked someone off his bike, endangering his life, and was surprised that the guy was angry about it."
What surprises me is that neither the story-teller, the brother, the journalist or the editor realised the stupidity of this line. I'm sure they're all intelligent people, but they regurgitate this nonsense because it backs up the way they have already made up their mind. This is known as confirmation bias.
As a Sustainability practitioner you will have come across this phenomenon time and time again. The presumption that Sustainability must cost more, despite all the facts and figures you provide. The presumption that renewable energy will never be cost effective despite plunging prices. The presumption that Sustainability is not a core business issue despite the fact that those who do Sustainability better have been shown to make more profit. The 'zombie arguments' from climate change deniers refuse to die for this very reason.
Like those in the Telegraph article, there is no point in trying to confront those 'misconceptions' head on (just have a look at all the Godwin's-Law-breaking arguments on Twitter for proof). My Green Jujitsu approach works on the heart as well as trying to appeal to the mind, by getting people involved in Sustainability using their core skills and interests. For example, it's said that the Netherlands doesn't suffer from this us-and-them battle between motorists and cyclists because almost all drivers cycle as well, so they identify with being on two wheels.
So if you are locked into a war of attrition over a Sustainability issue or project, stop, take a step back and think about how you can make it appealing to your opponents' hearts as well as minds.
So, another momentous week in UK politics. We get our second ever female Prime Minister in Theresa May and a very new looking cabinet. Here's my quick guide as to who's who from the point of view of the green/Sustainability agenda.
Theresa May, Prime Minister
As with much about Mrs May, her attitude to green issues is a bit of a mystery. Her initial speeches were big on One Nation values when it came to socio-economic issues, but the environment didn't even get a token mention. This isn't encouraging, however BusinessGreen reports that a delegation of 'green Tories' including key lieutenant Amber Rudd sought and secured assurances that a May Government would pursue climate change goals. As always, leadership is key, so Mrs May will need to make her position clearer if the green economy is to thrive.
Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Predecessor George Osborne was regarded as a serious brake on the green economy over his tenure. Not quite a climate sceptic himself, the 'lukewarmer'/anti-renewables/pro-fracking lobby got a sympathetic hearing from Osborne. The 2010-2015 Coalition Government saw a whole series of pitched battles between the Chancellor and Lib Dem energy and climate secretaries.
Hammond may be seen as exceedingly dull, but in his former role as Foreign Secretary, he made a number of very important speeches on climate change. One in particular caught my eye as it made a case for action from a Conservative point of view to the American Enterprise Institute - using Green Jujitsu in the lions' den. I'm always more interested in right-of-centre arguments for cutting carbon than the traditional lefty case as we need to speak to the unconverted, not preach to the choir.
Overall, we should see the economic brakes easing as Hammond gets into gear.
Amber Rudd, Home Secretary
There's little in Rudd's new brief linked to the low carbon agenda, but given her commitment to the cause, the new Home Secretary will be a key supporter in Cabinet and importantly, as we have seen, she has the PM's ear.
Well, the UK and the US are currently in the process of changing their political leadership. Many commentators are trying to second guess the implications for the low carbon economy, but I'm keeping my powder dry until the dust settles. It did, however, get me thinking about change at the top.
The best organisations at Sustainability almost always have an inspirational leader. So what happens when they come to the end of their tenure and somebody else steps up? It is a real risk that the new leader doesn't have the same commitment as their predecessor and progress will tail off.
This happened to a client of mine some years ago and we dedicated a coaching session to managing the transition. While most of our discussion was company specific (and confidential) some of the generic principles were:
Don't be defensive – your outward attitude must be that Sustainability continues to be core to the business and there is not reason to change. If you aren't confident in what you do, it will come across as unimportant to the organisation.
Translate Sustainability for the new incumbent's worldview – ie Green Jujitsu. New leaders generally like to get 'up to speed' before they change anything, so make sure you can explain Sustainability in terms they will understand (eg $ for someone from a finance background, technical innovation for an engineer, market opportunities for an entrepreneur).
Find an excuse to involve the new leader – engineer a speaking engagement for them on Sustainability, or a new opportunity for consideration.
In other words, don't give them a chance to question Sustainability before they've experienced the benefits!
As I type, the UK is in a leadership vacuum at one of the most critical junctures in post-war British politics. Following the surprise Brexit vote to leave the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron bailed out, and now two very different women, safe pair of hands Theresa May and more traditional but untested Andrea Leadsom vie for the top job. In the main Opposition Labour Party, left-wing members' favourite Jeremy Corbyn will today be challenged by the more centrist, and more experienced, Angela Eagle on the ground that the party lacks direction.
In both cases, the two Parties' members have a choice between direction and competence. Corbyn and Leadsom undoubtedly match more closely with the grassroots' preferred policies compared to their rivals, but both look seriously underpowered when it comes to the ability to do the job. It will be a tough decision, and those of us on the outside sit uncomfortably, but enthralled (in my case), on the sidelines watching.
I have long held that leadership is the difference between the best at corporate sustainability and the rest. The best sustainability leaders combine the vision to see the right direction to go and the capability to take the organisation in that direction. Or as the cliché goes: doing the right things and doing things right.
I emphasised the 'and' there because, as in politics, we cannot afford to make it 'or'. Can you do both?
[Update: 13:45: Leadsom withdraws from Conservative leadership race]
Have you ever noticed how much you notice when you are on holiday? Wander around a strange place and details leap out at you in a way they never do in your home town. There's a whole genre of travel writing based on such observations, but you rarely, if ever, get anyone writing in such detail about their own neighbourhood (Xavier de Maistre famously wrote Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre to parody travel writing). Familiarity closes our minds, travel broadens them.
I was reminded of this when a client recently told me it was great to get a fresh pair of eyes (mine!) in to sort out a couple of sticking points in his corporation's sustainability strategy. One of the most important things an outsider can do, as I did in this case, is question implicit assumptions – the way your mind closes down options subconsciously. I now do more coaching and facilitation than traditional 'clipboard consulting' as this broadening of the mind can make an order of magnitude greater impact than a report of recommendations gathering dust on somebody's shelf.
How are you going to get yourself out of your comfort zone today?
A client coaching session last week focussed on investment appraisal and how it can block sustainability progress – in this case investment in renewables. As we dug deeper and deeper into the company's systems, we realised that the process did not account for direct carbon costs as these were apportioned to a regulatory budget. Simply factoring this into the benefits of investing in renewables could change a difficult decision into a very simple one.
Total Cost Accounting is the concept of apportioning all costs, fixed and variable, to their proper place. This sounds obvious, but simply being aware of all the costs involved is a challenge in itself. This is where a coach comes in handy, as they (I!) can ask the apparently stupid questions which uncover uncomfortable truths hiding in plain sight.
My client now has the task of trying to change the criteria to factor in carbon costs. In theory this shouldn't be too difficult as it will lead to better decisions from a financial point of view as well as a sustainability aspect, but in practice, changing processes in a very large company is never easy. But once it is done, all low carbon options will compete on a level playing field on costs at least.
Of course there are many other benefits of renewables which should be factored in – PR, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, energy security, risk reduction – but getting the £, $, €, ¥ right is an important step in the right direction.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
I was at a meeting of the Green Thinkers book club last night. We were discussing Prof Tim Flannery's "Atmosphere of Hope" book published on the run up to the Paris talks last December. I was actually going to review the book here, but to be honest it's not a great piece of work, seemingly rushed out to give an alternative view to the Australian Government's official line during the talks (Flannery was head of the Australian Climate Commission which was abolished by the incoming Abbott Government in 2013). But the curious thing is that, contrary to the title, it's quite a depressing read.
Appropriately, the discussion around tackling climate change split amongst the pessimists and the optimists. For the former, we're royally screwed by a toxic cocktail of greed, capitalism and corruption. For the latter, of which regular readers will guess I'm a life member, we have to utilise technology, capitalism and design to deliver a massive transformation.
We sustainability optimists are not naive about the scale of the problem, rather we use that as a spur to go further, faster. We are trying to build a vision of a glorious sustainable future, not trying to scare people into action. We use all the tools at our disposal – including the power of global capitalism to bring economies of scale to green technologies.
And, if we fail, it won't be for lack of trying.
“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” – H.Keller
I'm down in North East London for a couple of days learning about the 'mini-Holland' project in Walthamstow – a substantial investment in making suburban streets cycle/walking/people friendly. I'm here with my local councillor hat on, but I thought some of you would be interested in both the design concepts and some of the change management 'issues'.
You see, the mini-Holland projects have kicked off some pretty virulent opposition, including organised demonstrations. Even when I tweeted I was on my way to see the project, I got two negative replies saying the changes had caused traffic chaos while doing nothing to increase cycling, with only one person being positive. So progress has been fairly gnarly despite the Council's extensive attempts at consultation and co-design.
For many people, me included, it is hard to see who would prefer to have thousands of cars rat-running through their street every day rather than a mini-orchard and wildflowers - see pic above. The project involves some really lovely design touches, such as the bollards/kids' obstacle course hybrid shown right and lots of other beautification.
While some of those who opposed changes have changed their minds, many others, as we have seen, have stuck to their guns. Unfortunately, the project manager could offer no magic wand to deal with this, other than a tin hat, and one of the team confided to us that he probably would turn down a similar project role in the future as it had been so tough.
This is a real shame as we could see benefits just pedalling around – the traffic restricted shopping streets were clearly much more vibrant than those with traffic. The dad cycling past with his 6 year old son on the roadway was highly symbolic of a better future. As with many elements of sustainability, we know where we need to be, but getting there is the challenge.
Yesterday at a kids party, a neighbour of mine asked me "You must be even more furious about the EU referendum result than I am?" She was quite surprised when I told her I was "sanguine" about it, despite having actively campaigned for an 'IN' vote.
Why? The most pivotal moment since the momentous result was the outgoing Prime Minister David Cameron refusing to pull the trigger on 'Article 50' which would start the Brexit process. This means that whoever takes over from him would have to actively pitch the country into the unknown. A poisoned chalice indeed.
If that is a Remainer Tory PM, what incentive is there to press the button and risk long term damage to our country? If it's the current favourite, Brexiter Boris Johnson, he's already signalled that there is "no rush", that initial negotiations with the EU should be "informal" and that he wants to maintain a close relationship with Europe – a statement which has been interpreted as swift back-pedalling. If a new PM went to the polls, there's a strong chance of a change of Government and the possibility of a party standing on a Remain ticket forming part of the Government. The EU referendum result is only advisory in law and could be trumped by an electoral mandate.
So there is no Brexit plan and no enthusiasm from anyone to make one. And my prediction is that, as the cold light of reality shines on the implications of walking away from the EU, Brexit will slowly but surely become Fudgit.
OK, but if I'm wrong, and we suddenly find ourselves on our own, what are the implications for Sustainability in the UK?
Well all existing EU environmental directives are enshrined in UK law during the implementation phase, so a post Brexit Government would have to actively dismantle what is there. Future directives would at least partly have to be adopted by UK companies to maintain trading links – and may be imposed as a condition of staying in the single market. The biggest downside of Brexit from this point of view would be our lack of a seat at the table when such directives are drawn up.
Also, we are a global economy. So if we want to sell to, say, Walmart, P&G or Unilever, our industry would be required to comply with their supply chain targets. These will only ever get more ambitious.
So, while I believe Brexit is the wrong path for our country, I'm not convinced that it will happen, or indeed that the drivers for sustainable business will diminish much if it did.
I've just been to the polling station to vote in the EU Referendum. And I voted... drum-roll... IN!
But you probably guessed that, not just because I've blogged about it before, but because I'm a Sustainability Professional and Edie has found that 75% of us are voting IN (and 7% are unsure).
If you knew the area I live in, you'd probably guess correctly as it's a very middle-class-intelligentsia neighbourhood, never mind that RemaIN posters outnumber LEAVE by at least 5:1.
If you knew I'm a (sometimes reluctant) Guardian reader then you'd also put money on me being IN.
I'm a bit bloody predictable, aren't I?
On the other hand, if I was wedded to my car and a climate sceptic, you would put money on me voting Leave. And almost nothing would change my mind, certainly not the towering pile of economic statistics the RemaIN campaign has been throwing around with gay abandon.
This referendum, like most elections, will be decided by a relatively small number of people who do not fit neatly into a few rather big tribes. And we tend to listen to other people in our tribes - reading newspapers which reflect our values. In social media this is known as the echo chamber as you say something and just hear the same thing back (I've started trying to break this habit and seek out articles by journalists who are interested in why people who they disagree with don't think like them.) We are tribal.
This tribalism is exactly why most employee engagement fails. Sustainability practitioners talk to their colleagues using sustainability language, images and arguments – and then get a shock when it doesn't register with the intended audience. Green Jujitsu is all about acknowledging the obvious fact that people unengaged in Sustainability aren't (and maybe won't ever be) members of the Sustainability tribe. It's about understanding the other tribe and translating Sustainability appropriately.
The NHS experiment on engaging nursing staff on energy efficiency is a fantastic example. "Switch it off and save the planet" didn't work. "Switch it off and save the NHS money" didn't work. "Switch it off and your patients will get better sleep" did – because the nursing tribe values patient care above everything else.
On Saturday, I finally tested my cycling ability (and new midlife-crisis carbon-fibre bike) at the Virgin Cyclone Sportive – 64 miles around Northumberland and including the notorious Ryals climb - hence the grimace in the pic! I did much better than I expected, coming 83rd fastest out of the 855 who finished this circuit [head swells alarmingly] - not that it's a race. No.
Actually, I'm just as delighted about my eldest son suddenly getting the cycling bug, with a 'can we go on our bikes' a constant refrain. With the younger two already keen, and their mother enjoying a tootle on two wheels too, the Kane family is gearing up for many enjoyable days out.
And next week I'm off down to the big smoke with my Councillor hat on to see the 'mini-Holland' in Waltham Forest to learn how to bring cycling to more people here in Newcastle. All in all, I'm spending a lot of time on or thinking about bikes.
Cycling is, obviously, the best thing in the world. It is low carbon, healthy, promotes clean air, cheap (unless you're a middle aged man...), supports local services, creates convivial communities – the list goes on. And, compared to many solutions to the climate crisis, it's a pretty easy way to engage with your employees. Decent bike storage, showers and lockers will go a long way to promote cycling to work. Working with local authorities to improve cycle links to your premises can lead to even bigger gains. Providing maps, maintenance courses and organising cycle events can help even further.
Are you cycle friendly? You should be.
"When I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." - H. G. Wells
I'm coming to the end of one of my favourite ever projects – some research into what motivates a client's employees to make greener decisions. I started off with a review of the academic literature and what struck me was how inconsistent it was. I've just checked for any new academic papers published in the meantime, and I found the same. Every study or meta-study I read came up with different conclusions, which is very frustrating.
If I had to nominate the three, highly interlinked, factors I think make the most difference, I would plump for:
Leadership: commitment flows from the top, and transformational leadership is required to deliver the scale of change required.
Culture: few people will stride out on their own, they need to feel they have their peers at their side.
Participation: directly involving people in Sustainability is the surefire method of getting them enthused and will give them a deeper understanding of the issues than any lunchtime lecture.
OK, that's just a gut instinct answer, but given the paucity of evidence from academia, it seems as good a guide as any.
Last week, we launched the inaugural Sustainability Masterclass – an attempt to get bring the power of the peer-to-peer learning we use in the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) to the reach and accessibility of our Green Academy webinars. It was broadly successful with very positive feedback from participants.
Having proved the concept, we are now going to have to work out how to continue delivering this into the future. If you want notification of future events, make sure you sign up to the Low Carbon Agenda (see box right).
It reminded me of one of my favourite books, How to Be Good by Nick Hornby. It concerns a middle-class left-leaning doctor, whose feckless, selfish husband suddenly flips into a paragon of selfless virtue. He insists on giving away any unnecessary possessions to those less fortunate, and lets random homeless people live in their house. She knows she should welcome his values, but hates the privation and fears for her family. It's not the world's greatest novel, but I just love the premise.
As a local elected politician for the last 12 years, I've learnt not to try and portray myself as ethically superior to my political rivals as no-one is perfect and I'll eventually stumble. And I am always instantly suspicious of those who do claim the moral high ground as they're often the very ones who turn out to be crooked.
Which brings us to business. If you are going to portray your organisation as 'ethical', you'd better expect the press to go over your affairs with a fine tooth comb and you won't be able to control the stories that emerge, whether fair or otherwise.
In my opinion, the best strategy is 'show, don't tell' – demonstrating good behaviour in practice with with no overarching claim to sainthood. After all, people believe what they see more than what they read.
Gnnyuh. I'm just off the phone to our garage. Our car battery has run flat a couple of times in the last few months, but the mechanics can't find a drain. They've concluded that because we drive so little, the battery isn't getting enough charging time between start up and shut down sequences. Yes, our mileage is 'too low' and they're recommending we work some longer journeys into our routine.
This is what we call a perverse incentive. It encourages 'bad' behaviour and penalises 'good'. You will find many examples in your organisation, too. The best way to winkle them out is get a group of colleagues together and let them grumble!
It's also a poor example of design. Our need for an urban bus that will take 3 or 4 child seats (ruling out car clubs on practical grounds) several times a week with the occasional family trip, but not for regular commuting, can't be unique.
The new Tesla Model X is a 7 seater, and if they'd like to send one on permanent trial...