Nostalgia is natural. I love the nostalgia section in our local newspaper, even though I'm not a native of the city. And it is always tempting to hark back to the past – very rarely do you hear anybody say "well, it's much better these days." Personally, I think it comes from evolution – in a natural eco-system the creatures that fear unfamiliar sights, sounds and smells will live longer than those who don't.
But sometimes nostalgia can reach a level of self parody. While most of us marked last Friday's coal-free day in the UK as a remarkable achievement, the Telegraph published a bizarre lament for the days of smog, smut and "the tang of sulphur" (right).
In my view, coal is fast becoming the litmus test for progressive/conservative split in politics with Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Tony Abbott backing coal. Prominent 'lukewarmer' Matt Ridley's inherited family fortune came from coal (and still does). Often 'clean coal' is invoked to deflect criticism, but coal is always a theme.
The far left dabble in this pool of fossilised nostalgia too, with the UK's Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn plugging clean coal to bring back mining jobs. One of my favourite bonkers conspiracy theories is that Margaret Thatcher 'invented' climate change to kill off the UK's coal industry. Yeah, right.
It is easy to sneer (as I just have), but we have to remember the power of nostalgia and the lure of 'it could be like our childhood again'. The renewables revolution may seem like a miracle to the readers of this blog, but change always threatens someone. And it is those people we need to engage with – on their terms – rather than preaching to the green choir.
While most sensible people were tucking into their Easter Eggs last Sunday, I was braving (very) cold, wet and windy conditions up on the MoD's Otterburn firing ranges as part of the MoD Rocker cycle sportive (we went 106km horizontally, 1.9km upwards). The picture shows what I look like after climbing steadily for an hour then hitting a couple of brutal 17-22% ramps. It's not pretty!
I've been training quite hard for this and a tougher sportive (on paper) in 2 months time. Being self-employed I can go for a ride when it suits me, but it always surprises me quite how many other people I pass out on the road during office hours. We are clearly in a bike boom.
I spend quite a bit of my time promoting cycling as everyday commuting (rather than just for MAMILs like me), but a recent study by Evans Randall Investors of 61 offices in London found that there was a serious lack of facilities for cycling commuters. There was on average just one shower per 240 employees and fewer than one in five offices offering places for cycling commuters to store work clothes.
This seems to me like a golden opportunity for both quick wins and employee engagement. Whether simply providing decent cycle storage facilities, setting up a cycle club, or engaging with the local authority to improve cycle access on/off site, you can not only reduce your impact, but make the local environment better for everybody. Gotta love that!
So, first half day back at work (I'm semi-childminding) and UK PM Theresa May goes and calls a General Election. In some ways not a surprise with the official opposition AWOL, but quite a gamble nonetheless.
And it's a gamble because the campaign will be dominated by one issue and one alone: Brexit. Mrs May wants a mandate to do what she's not really keen on doing, Labour is trying to ride both horses at once and the pro-European Lib Dems are still crawling their way back into contention after their 2015 near-wipeout [Disclosure: I'm a Lib Dem Councillor]. Who knows how this will pan out, but it will be fascinating.
So, will Sustainability feature? Brexit has huge implications for environmental regulation and the Government's Great Repeal Bill, as it stands, could be a big threat to our current environmental regulation, most of which takes its cue from EU Directives. But I don't think The Environment will change many votes because, frankly, most mainstream environmentalists tend to be Remainers and the hard Brexiteers tend towards climate disinterest at best.
But I come back to a point I've been making for a long time. Regulation helps tilt the playing field towards a sustainable economy, but if big business decides it wants to be sustainable, Sustainability will happen whether we are in or out of the EU, whether we have a green-leaning Government or not.
As a consumer, you make a choice every time you open your wallet or click 'Buy Now'. As an employee, you can make greener decisions at work, whether it is switching off a light or redesigning a new product. Of course as a voter, you can back your greenest candidate – but the first two you can do every day and that's what really matters.
"You can't have Sustainability without a whole new economic model."
"You can't have Sustainability without mindfulness."
"You can't have Sustainability without self care."
"You can't have Sustainability without a reconnection to the natural world."
"You can't have Sustainability without a global agreement."
I hear and read such statements of apparent fact all the time and my bullshit detector goes off immediately. Because, first of all they are simply wrong – maybe some of these X's would help, but none are a 100% prerequisite to Sustainability. And secondly, often the speaker is a purveyor of, say, mindfulness training, looking for a new audience – it's a bit selfish to put their own self-interest in the way of millions of other people's.
But most importantly of all, such restrictive statements either distract from the Sustainability agenda, create barriers that we don't need, or, in many cases, muddy the waters. If we want to bring the general public on board for a sustainable world, we need simple, clear, can-do messages. So let's think about our audiences rather than ourselves.
Climate and Sustainability issues can be quite overwhelming and the steady flow of bad news can be not just depressing but paralysing. And if we do nothing, we're just a rabbit sat in the road staring at the headlights.
So, what can we do? Here are few things I do:
Search out and share good news: there's some really big progress being made out there - the collapse of the coal industry, the explosion of renewables, the emergence of good electric cars. This reinforces the feeling that we can do something.
Do something: I was so put off by the holier-than-thou attitude of my local environmental campaign group 20 years ago, I went and joined BTCV and planted more than 400 trees - that felt really good. Buy a bike (and use it instead of the car), stick some extra insulation in the loft, get some more efficient lightbulbs, holiday in the same country a bit more, take the kids pond-dipping – whatever floats your boat.
Do something at work: if your work isn't taking Sustainability seriously, then ask a few loaded questions. One of my clients tells the story of how his CEO was welcoming a group of new graduates. At the end of his speech, he asked for questions. A hand shot up: "Where do I plug in my electric car?" They are now getting charging points.
Invest in the future: when The Donald was elected across the pond, I immediately went and made a modest investment in a wind farm. Take that, Trumpster!
None of these things are going to solve the climate crisis on their own. But what they do is get you off the sofa of despair and on to the front foot. Being proactive is good for the planet and your own wellbeing.
[I can't find the owner of the great pic I've used above - if it's your's, let me know]
I recently posted an article on LinkedIn which stated that responsibility for Sustainability and authority to act should be aligned. A below the line commenter agreed saying "Those with responsibility must be given authority."
Well, on reflection, it's the other way around. If you have highly empowered Sustainability champions overruling their bosses then you will get chaos – you are undermining the way the organisation works.
It's the existing decision makers who must be given responsibility. That's the proper embedding of Sustainability into the DNA of the organisation.
Last week I had a very pleasant coffee and chat with a senior executive with a strong interest in Sustainability. He mentioned in passing that he found employees under the age of 40 tended to come with Sustainability pre-programmed into their outlook, those older than 50 tended to..., er, let's say need a bit more persuading. I've come across similar anecdotal evidence before, so, when I got back to the ranch, I did a bit of googling for some statistics on the subject.
The published evidence appears to back the anecdotes. Here's just one example of what I found, an interesting analysis of US voters by Gallup:
That's quite a distinctive gap in attitudes – although if 30% of under 29s are not concerned about climate change, it's certainly not a case of 'job done'. But as key decision makers in larger organisations tend to be middle-aged, it is clear that, if roughly half of that age group are sceptical, our best engagement efforts are still required unlock progress.
When it comes to targets, I'm a big proponent of zero: zero waste, zero carbon, zero persistent toxins. Zero focusses the mind in a way that, say, a 2% cut in carbon every year, never will. Zero simply demands attention.
On the flip side, I'm also a big fan of the 80:20 rule – focus on the small number of issues which will have biggest effect on the results (20% of inputs generally cause 80% of outputs), rather than sweating the little stuff. I've also been known to say 'perfection is the enemy of success'. A lot.
Yesterday, for the first time this year, I plonked a deckchair on my lawn and drank a cup of tea and thought. And I thought about whether these two mindsets are contradictory (not for the first time).
And there's an important difference. A goal of zero isn't really about absolute zero. 0.01% is definitely as good as zero, 1% is as good as zero, and, let's face it, even 10% isn't really a disaster. What really matters is the mindset change that zero drives through an organisation. With zero, you can't tinker endlessly with quick wins, you have to go for the big wins and that pushes you to the 80:20 Rule. Once you've got those balls rolling, you can go worry about whatever little stuff is left.
Zero means: 'no more business as usual, things are going to change around here.'
It was my birthday yesterday, so I went off on a very gentle bike ride with Mrs K involving lots of coffee and cake, burgers and beer, and pretty much ignored the news. However, my twitter feeds were filled with howls of liberal despair as Theresa May triggered Article 50 and the formal start of Brexit, and across the pond, Donald Trump started tearing up Barack Obama's climate change legislation.
So where are we?
We are where we are. Now that might sound as empty a phrase as 'Brexit means Brexit', but it is true. There's not much we can do about the events of the last few days.
But we can decide what we are going to do tomorrow. Or where we want to be in 10 years time. And neither Theresa May or Donald Trump can stop us (10 years presents a couple of electoral cycles in most democracies).
So let's do it!
In January's Ask Gareth, I went into this in a bit more detail – maybe an apt time for a recap.
Another thought from last weekend's trip to Amsterdam with eldest child. I never used to wear a cycle helmet, but I got one when I bought my road bike last year, because I now ride faster and harder, and I need one to comply with sportive rules. I've started wearing it more often when out on my town bike too, partly our of habit, partly out of solidarity with the kids. So I rolled into Amsterdam with a lump of polystyrene on my head.
Of course, I stood out like a sore thumb. No-one wears a helmet in Amsterdam. No lycra or 'athleisure' wear either – just ordinary clothes (although there were a few MAMILs outside the city dressed exactly as we do here in the UK). And everybody rattles along at quite a pace on those clunky-looking 'Granny bikes' – certainly faster than the stately 10mph at which Harry and I were trundling.
I've never understood the bile which parts of the UK media and public throws at cyclists. Calls for us to pay the mythical 'road tax', mandatory cycle helmets, insurance, registration plates. I can't believe that so many people are so resentful that they aren't allowed to drive a tonne and a half of pollution-spewing metal at 70mph without a few restrictions, that they think those who choose to push 10kg of alloy, emissions-free, at 12mph should somehow shoulder the same burden.
We will hit a tipping point of course. In the Netherlands almost every driver also rides a bike, so bike-bile doesn't occur. (Well, it kind of does, as tourists who don't know what they're doing seems to wind up the locals – see pic). But I've found the same in organisations. Once a critical mass of people are involved in Sustainability, it becomes 'the new normal' and the resistance fades. But the key to getting that critical mass is to make the price of entry as low as possible – no mandatory cycle helmets, literally or metaphorically.
This month's Ask Gareth answers a great question from Dan – how do you keep Sustainability running after the honeymoon. My basic answer is that it is too late to consider it then and I suggest three ways you can design your Sustainability programme to be self sustaining.
Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.
Regular readers will know I'm a great proponent of the 80:20 Rule in Sustainability – I wrote a book about it (see below). The 80:20 Rule says that you should target the relatively small number of actions which deliver the vast majority of change.
At the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group earlier this month, we discussed the application and limitations of the 80:20 approach. These are the times you should worry about the 'little stuff':
Engaging employees: switching stuff off and waste minimisation generally won't take you that far down your path to zero carbon, but people easily understand it, so you can use these quick wins as an 'entry drug' to get your colleagues hooked on Sustainability before moving on to the hard stuff.
Avoiding cynicism: for the same reason, laypeople will get more upset about disposable coffee cups than the use of a persistent organic pollutant. So you need to make sure you are seen to be tackling those iconic issues even while you're doing the big stuff that no-one will ever notice.
Continual improvement: If you have a zero carbon or zero waste target, you've still got to do the 20% of results as well as the 80%. So while you should prioritise the critical 20% of actions, it's worth keeping the other stuff tapping along (maybe combined with the engagement above).
But, and this is a big but, these exceptions should never overwhelm the rule. When push comes to shove, if you need to make a tough choice, go for the one which will deliver the biggest results.
On Thursday, the eldest child and I set off on our bikes to Amsterdam – Harry had won the ferry tickets in a prize draw from a cyclocross race he'd won. We made a little video about our trip which you can watch below – and yes he really did slide into a stinking stream on the way to the ferry. He was very lucky he wasn't injured, but we both had a whiff of stagnant water about us for the rest of the trip.
As always on journeys abroad, I had my eyes peeled for different approaches to Sustainability. Eight years ago, a business/pleasure trip to Belgium had really brought home the difference between that country and the UK on renewable energy at that time. However this time the difference wasn't apparent; the number of wind turbines we saw approaching the Dutch coast was similar to the number we saw along the North East coast of England on our way back to the Tyne on Sunday morning.
The biggest difference I noticed was the cycling infrastructure. A friend of mine, on seeing our video, said we had managed to make the Tyneside cycle paths as good as the Dutch ones, but there is an extremely important difference. By chance, the old riverside railway on the north bank of the Tyne has been converted into Hadrian's Cycleway, connecting our neighbourhood with the ferry dock. If the dismantled railway route wasn't there to build the cycle path, I doubt we would have cycled at all – we'd have been dodging lorries the whole way.
In the Netherlands, there is no such lottery. Every route has a cycle route. Every roundabout had a outer cycling ring. Every junction is properly signposted.
When we hit Amsterdam, we didn't need to work out a good cycle route to get through the bustling city centre to our hotel – we just picked the roads that went where we wanted to go (although if you watch the video, Harry was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of Amsterdamers shooting past us on bikes and mopeds as we made our stately way along the canals).
The generic lesson from this experience is: we must make every option a Sustainable option. Customers, employees and stakeholders ideally shouldn't have to make a choice between Sustainability and non-Sustainability, and, if they do, the decision making process should be heavily tilted towards the former.
Last week saw the seventeenth – seventeenth, blimey – meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (an amazing venue, see above). Due to a couple of members being called away at the last minute, we postponed our proposed topic of maximising the value of accreditations, and did a series of short sharp sessions on topics that were bothering those in the room. The first of these was 'waste' and I thought I'd share some of the learning points arising:
Understand your waste streams, volumes and disposal routes
The true cost of waste is 10-30x disposal cost – and it ramps up from goods in to goods out as value is added
Use the 80:20 Rule – go for the big issues first eg product damaged at the end of the process
However, need to be cognisant of 'iconic' waste streams such as coffee cups. They may not be significant in practice, but laypeople often believe otherwise
General societal culture change in domestic recycling helps with recycling at work
Because it is tangible, waste can be used as an effective ‘entry drug’ for wider employee engagement for Sustainability.
Make sure reducing waste is always incentivised eg in tenancy agreements
Involve employees in developing waste solutions – you get better solutions and buy in
Don't empty recycling bins containing ‘wrong’ materials – makes the point very clearly
Make segregation easy and use a standard colour/logo scheme
Seeing somebody have to sort out mis-segregated materials can lead to a positive guilt trip (eg show the consequences)
Educate employees including understanding the benefits (eg £ per bag)
Be careful with Waste Transfer Note terms & conditions – you could be signing an ongoing contract
Supermarkets are particularly good at waste reduction from suppliers – much to learn from them
Reduce ‘bought in waste’ from suppliers
Lean manufacturing techniques target and eradicate waste
Order dimensions and quantities carefully to avoid waste
Construction Site Waste Management Plans may not be legally required by law any more, but you can still insist on them in construction projects
Can use objective-oriented procurement and forward commitment procurement to drive innovation in waste management services
On Saturday I was at a workshop looking at improving the experience of pedestrians and cyclists in inner-city neighbourhoods in our city. One of the guest speakers brilliantly summed up why that horrible 1980s/90s street design style which corralled pedestrians into convoluted, fenced routes to guide them away from busy roads didn't work:
"We're natural Pythagoreans. We'll never walk around a right angle if we can see a hypotenuse."
One of my principles of embedding Sustainability into organisations is to make the sustainable option the easiest route. That means removing barriers to that hypotenuse and making the unsustainable option(s) the 'right angled' route(s).
This can be physical (like putting cycle parking by the front door) or it can be bureaucratic (making it more difficult to book flights than trains), but I have seen time and time again that it works.
I've long preached that there is a pressing need to align responsibility for Sustainability with authority. There is no point in delegating responsibility for Sustainability targets to environmental managers, or worse, volunteer sustainability champions, if they have zero power to actually make change happen. Instead appropriate sub-targets must be embedded in the personal objectives of key decision makers. Stands to reason, but often neglected.
During the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group on Tuesday (more on this next week), I realised that this alignment principle doesn't only within organisations but also between them.
If a landlord is responsible for a heating system, but the tenants pay the bills, the landlord will go cheap on the system as efficiency is not their problem. If the heating bills are split equally between tenants rather than individually metered, then there is less immediate incentive to cut consumption. If a purchaser is responsible for disposing of packaging, then there is little incentive for the supplier to provide recyclable or returnable packaging. And, as the Carbon Trust found with Walker's Crisps, if potatoes are bought by wet weight, then suppliers are incentivised to artificially hydrate the potatoes even though Walker then has to waste energy evaporating off that excess water during the frying process.
In all these cases, there are ways and means of changing the agreements between the different parties so those who have the power to change are fully incentivised to do so, either financially or contractually.
I have a tonne of stuff to do this week, yet I’m writing this in my local NHS Walk-in Centre waiting to get my eye checked out after an unfortunate gardening incident yesterday. It’s always the way, isn’t it? Just as you want to get off to a flying start, you notice your shoelaces are undone.
I often find Sustainability practitioners waiting for the perfect moment to launch their new project, venture or strategy. And, of course that perfect moment never comes. New legislation, a change in CEO, Brexit – there’s always something that pops up to spoil the moment.
So what can we do? Are we doomed to sit in perpetual stasis?
Well the first thing I did here in the waiting room was to remind myself of my long term priorities, then sketch down what I’m going to do this week and today to help meet those goals. That put my mind at rest, dissolved most of the frustration and focussed me on forward motion.
When I’m working with clients, I use a technique called backcasting to do the same on a grander scale. Instead of trying to work through the short term noise, we work backwards from the ultimate goal to work out what we need to do now to hit the right trajectory. After that exercise, usually carried out with key stakeholders, the way ahead appears clear and straightforward, no matter what life is throwing at us from the sidelines.
Back in 2009/10 I was second in command of a small political team which steered my adopted hometown of Newcastle to be designated the UK's Most Sustainable City two years running, beating frontrunners such as Brighton and Bristol. It made a big splash in the press – "It's Green Up North" headlines etc.
The first time we got it, a strange thing happened. Individuals who had had to be bypassed because they were so intransigent suddenly started saying things like "we put Sustainability at the heart of everything we do", and whole organisations who had only had the most tenuous involvement started bragging about their contribution.
At first I bristled ("The cheeky b*******s!"), then I realised that this bandwagon-jumping was a sign of success. Our goal was not to bask in the glow of adulation of others, but to use the award to build momentum and move forward – which we did as the second year our winning margin had increased (the award wasn't given out after that). For someone with my ego, I found this magnanimity very difficult in practice!
I was reminded about this lesson recently when I saw a great environmental success get tainted by a squabble over who did what, which is a real shame. Much of it comes down to different perceptions and partial knowledge of who did what. It's sad to see the success get overshadowed and progress grind to a halt – a warning to us all.
Sometimes I just can't help myself challenging what I see as inadvertently dangerous statements on Sustainability. One tweet I saw yesterday was about how little business understands the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that this was a Bad Thing. My view is that the 17 SDGs and their multifarious subgoals do not provide a suitable structure for corporate sustainability. So I couldn't resist weighing in.
What problem have I got with the SDGs? It's the same with trying to adopt, say, the ten One Planet Living principles. There's nothing wrong with OPL, but can you recite all ten principles without looking? I bet no-one can recite the 17 SDGs without hesitating. Are all 10OPLs/17SDGs priorities for every business? After all, these frameworks are designed to be universal, and, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing.
Imagine Google trying to come up with a statement on land use. Yes, they could plant a few extra shrubs to attract butterflies at the Googleplex, but I'd rather see them focus efforts on their carbon footprint (which they do) as that will make most difference – and be most meaningful to employees and other stakeholders. Leave land use to the food, fibre and forestry industries.
There's a deeper reason why you shouldn't try to adopt someone else's framework wholesale – the concept of 'Not Invented Here'. You will never, ever get as much buy-in for an imported off-the-shelf system than you do for one which has been created by those charged with delivering on it. A inclusive process of creating the strategy and setting the goals can be used to help create the culture required to deliver them (one of the reasons why we base our strategy development process around workshops for key decision makers).
Strategy + culture = success.
Take one of my clients, Interface. When founder Ray Anderson created Mission Zero, the overall target was a zero footprint by 2020. They break this down to 7 goals which are appropriate for the business – which is good as 7 is roughly the limit to the number of things you can easily remember. They call these the seven faces of Mount Sustainability, all of which have to be climbed. My pedantic side says "but you only need to climb one face of a mountain...", but that quibble doesn't matter – Interface created the analogy, they own it, and it works for them, big time. That's what matters.
So, use the SDGs, One Planet Living or whatever as a checklist to pick and choose from, but build the strategy that works for you and your colleagues, not something off the shelf.
A funny thing has been happening in the UK over the last 7 years. We have had two Conservative Prime Ministers since 2010 who have rarely paid more than lip service to sustainability issues in general and tackling climate change in particular. We have a press which is largely sceptical about climate change science, or possibly worse, cynically calculate that climate denial sells papers. Green activists fume and rage about all of this, but how come UK renewable energy is booming and coal is dying?
Here's a few things which might explain things:
1. Ninja legislation: Some simple legislation, such as Feed-In Tariffs, the press and green activists can get their head around, but there are other bits and pieces which are more complex and stealthy in operation. A good example is the Carbon Price Floor, which has been lurking quietly in the background putting the coal-fired power sector to the sword and boosting the opportunities for renewables.
2. Supply and Demand: one good reason for cutting solar feed-in tariffs is that they have been far more effective than their designer, one Ed Miliband, expected, leading to a precipitous fall in solar PV installation prices. Cutting the tariffs may have slowed the original goldrush, but installations continue to make financial sense. Demand not only pushes down prices, but incentivises innovation – a virtuous cycle which will drive ever more demand and remove the need for any subsidy in time.
3. Responsible Business: as businesses grasp the full business case for Sustainability (ie going beyond a simplistic 'go green, save money' mindset), they are investing in renewables whatever the direct financials as they know the indirect benefits (PR, winning business, attracting and retaining staff) will deliver many times the return.
4. High fossil fuel prices: while the price of oil plummeted from its 2008 peak, at $55 a barrel, we are still facing historically high oil prices and the $147 peak in 2008 is a brutal reminder that nailing your colours to the fossil fuel mast brings significant risk.
Which all begs the question, how good could the UK be if senior politicians showed real leadership and the press woke up and smelt the coffee? I live in hope, perhaps naively.
In the meantime, if they don't do it, the rest of us will get on with the job!