News & Views from the front line

23 April 2014

Why storytelling gets your Sustainability message across

ReadersIf I had to choose the best method for communicating sustainability, my automatic first choice would be involvement (workshops, problem solving etc). But if you are need an effective broadcast method, then storytelling is the next best thing. We relate to stories in a way we can't relate to raw facts or data.

I must admit my evidence for this came mainly from my own experiences and received wisdom, but now scientists have weighed in with proof. Some recent neuroscience research by Uri Hanson at Princeton shows that when you tell a story, brain activity of audience members starts to reflect that of the storyteller:

By simply telling a story, the [storyteller] could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains.

[Hasson] found that the more the listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker's.  When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.

So the next time you are giving a talk on sustainability or writing the 'green pages' on your company newsletter, make sure that you tell stories - lots of them. It's what your audience will latch onto. And that's scientific fact.



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16 April 2014

The Insiders' Guide to Making Sustainability Sustainable

Baltic template

Last Thursday, the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group celebrated its second birthday at the place of its birth - the iconic Baltic art gallery in Gateshead. With views of the Tyne and Millennium Bridges and the kittiwakes wheeling around outside, it was great to be back. And just like two years previously, I couldn't resist adding a little artwork of my own to the walls - one of the graphical templates I use to structure the discussion just enough.

The topic was 'Making Sustainability Sustainable' and our journey was to go from 'business as usual' to the ideal place where sustainability was 'the new normal' by driving our (low carbon) monster truck over the big pile of boulders in our way. If you want a copy of the template, click here.

By the time we finished, the template looked like this (plus a couple of dozen tangential points captured on the flip chart):

CoSM7 results

Here's a selection of the ideas the Group generated:

  • Need to clearly define and communicate the compelling reason to act
  • Give sustainability a strong corporate brand to lock it into the business (eg Mission Zero, Plan A)
  • Use storytelling, not ‘tractor production statistics’
  • Set clear, ambitious high level goals
  • Cascade goals down through the organisation, translating them as appropriate
  • Build these goals into job descriptions/personal objectives of key people
  • Play the system – identify the key driving processes (eg risk register) and get sustainability in there
  • Identify key individuals and engage them directly eg CEO, FD
  • Put leaders on the spot eg “Can you give a presentation on sustainability?”
  • Don’t be afraid to shake things up
  • Never give up!

But as always, there was as much value to be gained from the discussion and the debate than from these bullet points. As one delegate put it "that was the best one yet - the light, airy venue was really conducive to free thinking." Not to mention the fantastic lunch in the 6 restaurant on the top floor.

The next meeting in July will discuss a related topic "How to Make Sustainability Resilient" - ie to sudden upheavals such as changes in legislation, markets, business structure or key personnel.

The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is suitable for senior sustainability managers from large organisations - see our FAQs here.


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14 April 2014

Nature and Industry in Harmony (-ish)

little egret teesside

On Friday I took school holiday boy down to Teesside for a treat - not words that often go together, but despite having worked in the area for six years, I have never checked out the wildlife before. We visited the RSPB reserve at Saltholme where we notched up 45 species of bird plus a fox, and stopped at Greatham Creek where the pictures shown here were taken. All around us, heavy industry loomed large - literally and figuratively.

In many ways Teesside is a candle of hope. There was nothing here until the 19th Century when discoveries of iron and coal led to an industrial explosion. This was followed by explosives factories during the wars which were demobbed into fertiliser production and then later came the petrochemical industry. By 1960 the Tees was biologically dead, and the seals that gave the northern estuary its name, Seal Sands were gone.

Fast forward to today and the seals are back - the only colony in NW Europe to have been wiped out by industry and recovered. The seals, the fish they must live on and the large number of wading birds such as the little egret (above) show that the local pollution has been successfully dealt with. This hasn't happened by chance - instead it has been driven by a mixture of legislation, protest groups and a massive effort from the industries themselves.

seal sands

Of course, the petrochemicals, inorganic chemicals and iron works on Teesside are still not sustainable in the global sense of climate change and resource depletion. But it goes to show what you can do if you really try.


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11 April 2014

The Curse of Mid-Table Mediocrity

muddy footballIn the English Premier League, it is hotting up at top and bottom - with about 6 games to go, there's just four points separating the top 3 teams and 5-7 points separating the relegation zone and the teams hovering above. It is, as the cliché goes, all to play for.

But in the middle is a dead zone. Teams like Southampton, Newcastle and Stoke could win or lose all their remaining games and their fortunes would be unlikely to change. This is the zone of mid-table mediocrity and, if like me you're an armchair Newcastle fan, it's a dismal end to what was a sometimes exciting season as the cosseted overpaid playboys players can hardly be bothered.

This analogy came up at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting (I'll post a full report next week). What happens if your performance is good enough to avoid the wrath of NGOs, regulators, customers and employees in the sustainability relegation zone, but lacks the competitive excellence shown by the Champions League of Interface, Marks & Spencer, Unilever at al? It is all too easy to embrace the comforts of mediocrity and simply drift. I'm not talking about you personally, of course (you are reading this after all), but your board, your shareholders, your senior managers.

It is, as the Masterminds agreed, a false comfort. As with professional sport, people might think they are standing still in this game, but they will soon start drifting down the table as others improve - often so gently that they don't realise until they're in the drop zone. Breaking out of such complacency and putting some vim back into performance is a real challenge - as many a football manager can attest.


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9 April 2014

What does the gender pay gap say about CSR?

Environmental data and analysisA very disturbing report from BusinessGreen (£) on the gender pay gap amongst CSR executives - women earn 23% less than men. To put that in context, the gender pay gap in the UK economy as a whole is 10% amongst full time employees and 16% amongst all employees, part- and full-time (source: Telegraph).

Does anybody see the irony here? Companies that employ CSR professionals are meant to be good at this stuff, but these stats suggest they are worse than average at gender equality. Much worse!

Can 'doing CSR' make you worse at CSR? That's a serious question a lot of people have to ask themselves.


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7 April 2014

Are You The Real Sustainability McCoy?

Not the real McCoy

Not the real McCoy

One of the more illogical species of spam e-mail/cold call I receive goes "outsource your thought leadership!"

How on earth can I do that? Work with a clairvoyant? Stick a probe into my brain and transcribe the random thoughts over the web? Or, more likely, pay someone to pass some anodyne 'content' off as my own wisdom?

Readers of this blog, my articles and books know that I write every word myself - no plagiarism, no ghost writing, no reheated clichés - this is the real McCoy (OK, maybe the occasional cliché!)

Which brings us neatly to authenticity and sustainability. People believe what they see rather than what they are told. So no amount of posters, reports or publicity campaigns will overcome sloppy behaviour, flip flopping or dissembling from leaders and sustainability professions. If you want to change the behaviour of your colleagues, the place to start is your own.


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4 April 2014

Leadership is everything in CSR

I wrote The Green Executive in 2010 to provide both an inspiration and a manual for the new generation of responsible and progressive business leaders which appeared to be emerging from the ranks of the grey suits.

Therefore it is a bit depressing to see "engaging senior management" hitting the top of the 2degrees Network's survey of corporate sustainability challenges.

Let's get one thing straight:

Leadership is everything in Corporate Social Responsibility

Without leadership, you will not get the convergence of sustainability and business strategies. Without leadership you will find it impossible to change the behaviour of your employees (whether they'll admit it or not, most look to the leadership as exemplars). Without leadership you will never get the organisation to stop environmentally/socially damaging practices voluntarily. Without leadership, you are pushing, erm, water uphill.

And if it doesn't come within, it is very difficult to persuade indifferent business leaders to take on such an enormous challenge. But I'll give you a hint. The key is not to try to hector bosses into submission, but to help them to work it out for themselves. And that's green jujitsu, the topic of another book...


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2 April 2014

Embedding Sustainability OR Culture Change?

world brainI'm busy writing up the results of a client workshop and something that has struck me is how the following two phrases are used interchangeably:

"Changing culture to embrace sustainability"

"Embedding sustainability into the culture of the business"

I must admit I sometimes mix the two up, but, if you think about it, they are quite different mindsets and it is very important to distinguish between them.

"Changing culture" carries the impression of imposing a worldview on employees - at worst trying to brainwash them. This is extremely difficult to do, morally dubious and most people trying it simply flounder.

"Embedding sustainability into the culture" implies working with the culture that is already there to find common ground between people's attitudes and sustainability - in other words what I call Green Jujitsu. This isn't easy either, but it is a much more effective approach than trying to change culture wholesale.

Language matters - so we must choose our words carefully.


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31 March 2014

Why I Hate IPCC Climate Change Reports

IPCCI hate the IPCC climate change reports and I'm kind of avoiding the latest one published today.


Well, firstly, getting told climate change impacts will be "severe, pervasive and irreversible" first thing on a Monday morning is no good start to a week of tireless working to avoid those impacts happening. I've only glimpsed the top headlines today and that was enough to make me want to go back to bed.

Secondly, doom is not an easy sell when you are trying to persuade others to act. As Anthony Giddens once pointed out, Martin Luther King did not stir his audience in 1963 by saying "I have a nightmare". A survey of 700 businesses out this month from 2degrees found that the biggest two sustainability challenges are engaging the boardroom followed by employee engagement in general. We need to channel MLK and evoke the dream of a sustainable future instead.

And, lastly, the report will give all those poorly-qualified climate 'contrarians' another hour in the sun, trying to persuade us, in face of that avalanche of evidence, that there's nothing to worry about as it was a bit nippy in Scunthorpe this morning.

Of course, I am only (half) joking. Later today, I will man up and wade through the main points of the report. But then I will go back to focussing on the dream, not the nightmare.


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28 March 2014

Ask Gareth: Do I need a better poster?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I discuss the limitations of telling employees to behave in a more sustainable manner - in this case to travel less - and present some ideas of how to embed sustainability into the fabric of the organisation.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.


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26 March 2014

Back(casting) to the Future

Back_to_the_FutureI spent yesterday running a sustainability strategy workshop for one of my major clients. The main challenge in getting people to think strategically is to help them escape 'the tyranny of the present' - all those  gripes, battles and personality clashes that encumber what we are trying to do right now.

I used two methods to overthrow this tyranny:

First I got all the gripes out in the open by getting the attendees to write on Post-its the positives and negatives in the organisation's sustainability efforts so far and clustered them on a wall template - this formed the current situation;

Secondly, we used a 'backcasting' methodology as follows:

  • Agree what targets we would like to hit in 10 year's time;
  • Split into teams and brainstorm visions of what the organisation would look like if it had hit that target - these were drawn on flip chart sheets;
  • Still in teams, generate a list of what the organisation would need to have achieved in 5 years' time to be on track to each 10 year vision;
  • Finally generate a list of actions the organisation would need to do right now to get from the current situation to each 5 year list.

By arranging the flip chart sheets from the current situation to the 10 year visions on a wall, we ended up with a map showing several pathways from today to that 10 year goal. Interestingly, the 'right now' action lists were quite similar, which means the initial strategy will be flexible enough to encompass a gamut of future possibilities - they won't have to bet on a single outcome coming to pass.

Not only does backcasting break with the present, but it's very inspiring, creates some really substantial and meaningful debate, and it's good fun to boot. It's a bit like building your own time machine - and you don't even need a DeLorean...


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24 March 2014

Sustainability Workshops Work (or I wouldn't run so many)

BenFranklinI'm off later today to Birmingham to run a client workshop to develop a sustainability strategy. As I've mused before, given the number of workshops I run, I could be accused of thinking "The answer's a workshop, now what was the question?", but I will reach out to "The First American", Benjamin Franklin, in my defence:

"Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn."

Too many sustainability practitioners are in the first category, some fall in the second, but only a few genuinely do the third. If you want people to 'get' sustainability, you've got to involve them, and I find the workshop is the best vehicle for this. I tend to bring in my expertise after participants have had their say, not beforehand, to polish the workshop outputs into a workable plan/strategy and fill in the gaps, but the process is as important as the output.


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21 March 2014

Why a blank sheet of paper will get you blank looks

brainstorming tool

I've been busy this week drawing and printing some of my signature A0 templates for a number of workshops I'm running in the next couple of weeks. I don't know why more people don't do this - if you present people with a blank sheet of paper, you will generally get blank looks. It takes half the workshop for participants to work out what they think you are after - which may not be what you are after.

By providing a well designed template, you accelerate that "what did he say?" period so people can start thinking about the meat of the problem earlier. Also you can use it to set the scope of the exercise. My original fishbone template (above) was designed to make sure that workshop participants didn't focus solely on technology and included human factors and how technology is used/maintained. Four boxes is all it took and yet I could get hundreds of suggestions from a 35-40 minute exercise which is very good going.

So, don't throw your participants in at the deep end and expect them to learn to swim - give them a rubber ring!

PS: I'll publish some of my new templates here once I've had a chance to try them in practice.


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19 March 2014

Interview with Andy Griffiths, Sustainability Manager, Nestlé UK

Here's the latest in a series of interviews I have carried out with key industrial sustainability practitioners. Andy Griffiths is Sustainability Manager at Nestlé UK's Newcastle site which is the test bed for sustainability across the business. You can see the rest of the interviews here.


Hi Andy, how did you personally get started in sustainability?

I’m an engineer by trade so I’ve always been interested in engineering and technology but also I’ve a strong interest in self build and off-grid properties and how it would affect us in terms of lifestyle and where we would sit in our local community. When I came into this role two years ago, it was my first formal environmental management job.

My role covers safety, health, environment and security. From an environmental perspective, because we identified our Newcastle site as a 'lighthouse' site for sustainability, we have been looking at how we could structure an appropriate model to deliver that. So a lot of my time and focus, particularly in the first 18 months, has been establishing that model and the core activities within it.


What does the lighthouse status mean?

The lighthouse concept was developed a few years ago to pick one site which we could use as a sustainability model. This could be blueprinted and shared across our other sites.

We’ve got six pillars within the model: energy, water, waste, biodiversity, value chain and, most importantly, people and community. We identified early on that different things float different boats for different people. So instead of having an overall environmental message for everyone to buy into, we have those individual pillars with an aspirational ambition against each one. This allows individuals to tailor their preferences, so if someone is particularly interested in biodiversity, for example, they can really get hold of that. Someone else may be much more interested in energy so they can work on that instead.


Why was Newcastle picked as a lighthouse site?

There were two very important reasons:

First the variety of processes. This is a very complex site and covers a wide range of confectionary so anything we do here is as transferable as possible to other sites.

Secondly, the age of the site. Some organisations have developed really good principles and protocols for green field sites but it is much more challenging on pre-existing sites. This site has been here 56 years so if you can do it here, there’s no reason why you can’t do it anywhere else.


Read the rest of this entry »

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17 March 2014

Are you hard enough for Sustainability?


Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility roles were traditionally filled by bright young things with shiny hair, clean fleeces and extraordinary niceness, but over the years I've noticed a distinct toughening up of the profession - several of my clients and industrial contacts are ex-military and a number of others talk as if they should have been!

So what's changed? Frankly, as Chuck Norris might say, if you are going to make an omelette, you gotta break a few eggs. Are you tough enough to:

  • Ditch a loyal supplier because their sustainability performance isn't up to scratch?
  • Lose a director because 'they don't get it'?
  • Kill off profitable product lines because they conflict with sustainability?

These are the questions where idealism meets harsh reality - and where others will expect you to show leadership. Sustainability is not just about partnership, mindfulness and worrying about the polar bear - sometimes you have to kick ass.

Photo © Alan Knight and used under Creative Commons Licence


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14 March 2014

Are you capturing all the benefits of Sustainability?

Tax calculator and penThe news that wind power is saving Europe €2.4bn worth of water each year (source BusinessGreen) reminded me that we need to capture all the benefits of sustainability measures like renewable energy. Carbon is just one part of the reason to go down the renewables route - other benefits over fossil fuel include security of supply, safety, reduced transportation, air quality - and now we see reduced water consumption added to the list.

The same applies to assessments of organisational sustainability options - the benefits can be much wider and deeper than you expect. For example, Marks & Spencer launched Plan A with the intention of protecting the its 'trusted brand' status, but have found that it's more than paying for itself by cutting costs. Interface wanted to install renewable energy to cut carbon, but ended up producing 'SolarMade' carpet as a brand. Other businesses have found that using natural light has boosted productivity.

This requires a more intelligent approach to assess costs and benefits and not rely on a narrow trade-off. But you can manage that, can't you?


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12 March 2014

Confidence in Sustainability requires direction and magnitude

go green

Another day, another story that the Government is having a rethink about one of its key green policies - this time the Carbon Price Floor (see BusinessGreen for details). This latest wobble has lead to another wobble in investor confidence - and if you want people to make a long term investment, confidence is a key factor in those decisions.

One of my clients, Sean Axon Global Sustainability Director of Johnson Matthey plc is fond of saying sustainability is like a vector. As mathematically literate readers will know, a vector consists of direction and magnitude. It is represented by a straight line with an arrow in it - the length of the line being the magnitude and the arrow showing the direction. A vector doesn't wiggle.

In other words if you want change on a global, national or organisational level, you need to communication both the direction you want to move in and how far that move is going to be - and stick to it. Confidence will follow. Hopefully the Treasury boffins can get their heads around that.


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10 March 2014

Ranting & Raving Won't Get You Anywhere

Angry manager

All of us know somebody who has an obsession about something or other. Every time you speak to them, you know that the topic's going to come back to that issue sooner or later. So what do you do? You try and get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. Does the obsessor have a point? Who knows? It isn't worth anybody's while to stop and find out.

Large chunks of the green movement fall into the same trap. Believing that they are right (often about everything), self appointed activists believe it is their mission to keep up a constant barrage of pressure/slogans/abuse. If the target of this campaign clamps their hands over their ears, it's the fault of the target rather than the campaigner.

The roots of my Green Jujitsu approach to engagement were witnessing what works (working to strengths) and what doesn't (pressure, insults, abuse). The clever pressure groups tap into the natural competitiveness of business leaders by publishing league tables of sustainability performance like Greenpeace's electronics firm rankings. Likewise I found that getting engineers to develop sustainable solutions was much more effective than throwing a guilt trip at them. As Socrates says, you should speak the language of your audience, not the one that resonates with you.

This takes a strange brew of humility and guile - to work out what your audience's 'buttons' are and how to press them. To get what you want, you have to first think about what they want.


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7 March 2014

Hair shirt? What hair shirt?

Porsche_918_Spyder_IAA_2013One of my quirks is my fondness for the distinctly non-green, carbon-laden guilty pleasure that is Top Gear. Last night I caught up with Sunday's edition where, after poking fun at the self-righteousness of the cycling community (of which I am one), they flew Richard Hammond to Dubai to race the new Porsche 918 super car which can exceed 210mph and will do 0-62 in 2.6 seconds.

So what's the planet-frying carbon hangover of this beast?


Yep, I typed that right. I didn't miss a '2' off the front end. This chunk of testosterone on wheels is a plug-in hybrid with lower emissions than that icon of green motoring the Toyota Prius (not at 200mph, obvs).

Somehow I think a sustainable future is about to get a lot more exciting...


Photo © Thomas Wolf,

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5 March 2014

Let Sustainability Sinners Repent...

business angelThere's been a small kerfuffle in the sustainability world over the news that Staples is considering lifting its ban on Asia, Pulp & Paper (APP) following the latter's conversion to sustainable production of wood pulp after being boycotted by virtually every major brand over its clearance of virgin rainforest in SE Asia. Despite being an obscure primary producer, APP had become one of the great corporate pantomime villains of our time.

I'm not a religious man - in fact I come from a long line of staunch atheists - so it was strange that a Biblical quotation should immediately spring to mind when reading this story:

I say to you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repents (Luke 15:7*)

Why? To encourage change, we need carrots to compliment the stick of boycott. Without the carrot, any company in APP's position is likely to put on a tin hat and try and find other, less obvious, paths to market for its products. The rainforest destruction continues. Nobody wins - except the holier than thou.

The greatest corporate reputation recovery must be the story of Nike. Go back 10-15 years and the sportswear company's reputation was horribly tainted with allegations of sweatshops and child labour in its supply chain. Now it is seen as a paragon of sustainability - champions of Creating Shared Value, rated one of the best companies for tackling climate change,  even recycling their trainers into children's playground surfaces amongst the values. Like Apple, it is now Nike which publicises issues in its own supply chain, not the pressure groups.

I'd much rather have 'good' Nike than 'evil' Nike, 'good' Apple than 'bad' Apple, 'good' APP than 'evil' APP - so we have to provide a redemption pathway for sustainability sinners to become reborn as sustainability saints.

* Yes, I had to look that up.


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