One 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...
There'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.
I try and avoid the nitty-gritty of environmental legislation if I can help it, but occasionally I dip my toe in the water to keep up with broad principles. For the latest on waste/resource I head to the North East Recycling Forum which really punches above its weight - one of the few events I attend as an audience member only. At the meeting last Thursday I noticed a worrying theme in the discussion - legislation which is trying to be helpful but ends up being prescriptive.
Exhibit 1: the waste hierarchy is actually written into some European legislation. While the hierarchy is a useful rule of thumb, it is just that and not a rule of Nature. For example, it is almost always better to recycle 100% of a waste stream than to reduce it by 20% and have to landfill the other 80% because it is not economically viable to recycle. The hierarchy cannot help you here.
Exhibit 2: the next update of the Waste Directive requires Councils to implement source segregation of recycles rather than co-mingled collection unless they can prove the latter is better. I know from my own experience as a Councillor that when we shifted from source segregation to semi-co-mingled, the amount collection collected shot up by over 50% as the system was much, much easier to use - it also cut litter, traffic congestion during collection and operative injuries. So why put the onus of proof on what is for many the obvious solution?
But this is not just about legislation - as human beings we have a terrible tendency to constrain ourselves by sometimes completely arbitrary mental rules. The green movement has its own shibboleths where, to take five examples, nuclear energy, biodiesel, GMOs, markets and carbon-offsetting are all clearly the work of the devil. This fundamentalism is not helpful when we face the scale of the challenge we face - we might just need some of these tools in our toolbox in some form or other. So it is important to challenge our own assumptions, listen to well reasoned dissenting voices and not jump to conclusions.
As a sustainability practitioner, have you ever found yourself wondering if you are making a difference or even getting really down about the environmental pickle we find ourselves in?
In the second edition of Ask Gareth, I reflect on progress, the challenging situation we are in, and suggest 3 simple habits which will help you keep your enthusiasm up. What's your view? Do you agree, disagree or do you have a completely different perspective? If so, please add it in the comments below.
The above recording is from an employee engagement for sustainability webinar I co-presented for IEMA a couple of weeks ago. Unsurprisingly I was talking about Green Jujitsu - I start at about 4m 30s in. My co-presenter was Paul Rhodes from Greggs giving some really great insights from the front line.
As per usual with webinar recordings, the sound quality isn't exactly hi-fidelity, but there's a lot of value in there on this most critical of topics for the sustainability practitioner. Enjoy!
If you want more of this, I'm delivering an Employee Engagement Masterclass at Newcastle University Business School (sponsored by Santander) on 4 April 2014 - you can see the brochure here.
Last Thursday, on the last full day of my Cumbrian holiday, I took the elder two boys back to Hodbarrow nature reserve and, after an hour's Biblical battering of wind and rain, the clouds parted for a few moments and, lo, the Walney Wind Farm appeared on the horizon. The sheer scale of the installation was breath-taking - and we could just make out two other distant farms, all turning, all generating clean power.
It is very easy to get caught up in the hurly-burly of the sustainability debate and forget that we are winning, if only by a nose. But seeing is believing - and it was a scene of ecological devastation that drove me into this career and it is the sights of such progress that drive me on. Let's do it!
Sustainability is by definition the biggest challenge facing mankind and, by extension, business. In trying to meet that challenge, one of the greatest dilemmas is how high to set the bar - what targets should you set for yourself? I spend a lot of time with businesses working on targets and the inclination is either to set very vanilla targets in the near future or extremely ambitious targets so far ahead that they can be abandoned to the next generation of employees. The key of course is to find the right trade off between ambition and timeframe to push the organisation to meaningful step changes in real time.
Another strategy is to let someone else to set the targets by using external standards, whether environmental management standards like ISO14001, product standards like the EU eco-label or reporting standards. While these have many advantages - they are set by third parties, they strive to include all material issues, and they are a useful badge - they do tend to be lowest common denominator as they have to be universal. More worryingly, sometimes organisations hide behind such standards - mining company Glencore once refused to release figures on a certain type of injury because "it wasn't required by the Global Reporting Initiative" - hardly the kind of transparency that the GRI was set up to promote.
There is no easy answer to the target setting challenge and experience is the only effective guide. For large, capital intensive businesses, I prefer to see stretch targets which challenge the status quo set in the 10 year timeframe. But that is simply a matter of judgement - you'll have to rely on your own!
Half term holiday and our family - extended to include my parents - are staying in a farmhouse in the South West of the Lake District. We're pretty much off the tourist trail here - the towns and villages have something of a Wild West feel. The weather hasn't been too kind so far, but I've got some short cycles in and a fantastic if wind/rain beaten trip to Hodbarrow Nature Reserve (above) - featuring a huge brackish lagoon created by old ironstone mining. For the birders: Slavonian Grebe, Goldeneye and more Red Breasted Mergansers than I could shake a stick at.
On the way here, we got a fantastic view of one of the new wind farms off Barrow. I'm not quite sure which one as there are about three or four in that area, but if it was the Walney Wind Farm then it was the largest in the world when commissioned in 2012 but its title has already been usurped a couple of times by bigger British installations. That just illustrates how fast renewable energy is expanding in this country.
The least eco-friendly thing we've seen so far is the outdoor hot tub here at the farmhouse - who on earth would want to sit in a hot tub when it's 6°C and pouring with rain? Apparently it can't easily be turned off, but I have asked for it to be turned down to salve my conscience...
Despite the fact I let the schmaltzy tat-fest that is Valentines Day pass me by in real life, I feel strangely obliged to have something of a heart-shaped theme to today's blog. But actually, I've been mulling on hearts and minds for some weeks after a couple of exchanges on the Guardian Sustainable Business website.
Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the interests of profit blatantly conflict with the interests of people and planet, at least according to any reasonable calculation.
[this sentence originally read "my hunch is..." but has since been modified to take that out and add "by any reasonable calculation" - this is a bit dodgy as I took issue with the word "hunch" in my comment below the piece. But hey...]
Sustainability veteran Hunter Lovins responded to Eisenstein in typically rambunctious style:
It's hard to know where to start in pointing out all the failings in Charles Eisenstein's article, other than to say he's wrong in almost every particular.
There are now more than 50 studies from the likes of those wild-eyed environmentalists at Goldman Sachs showing that the companies that are the leaders in environment, social and good governance policies are financially outperforming their less sustainable peers: http://www.natcapsolutions.org/businesscasereports.pdf. Sustainability IS better business and we can prove it.
But someone calling themselves SecondChance weighed in saying:
Yeah, but at least when you read his article, the voice that jumps off the page is considered, loving, balanced.
When you read your comment, there is too much anger, scorn and derision. Not pretty and it will stop people actually listening to any valid points you make.
No point being right if no one will listen
My first reaction to this last comment was "what a load of twaddle" - basically saying we should believe what we want to believe, whether the evidence supports it or not, but actually that last sentence is quite correct. Being right is not enough - you have to speak to peoples' hearts to get your message across.
There was a comedy gold sequence on Channel 4 News last night when Garry Gibbon asked a couple of climate-sceptic politicians, including UKIP leader Nigel Farage, what their views on climate change were as they were knee deep in floodwater (it's towards the end of the sequence above). Wonderful squirming with the normally bullish Farage admitting "I don't know" when he was asked whether he thought climate change was man-made.
But behind the schadenfreude there's a serious point here. It's one thing to sneer at climate science when you're sat at your computer blogging or sinking a pint in the golf club bar, quite a different thing when you are standing slap bang in the middle of its (probable) impacts. We learn much better from first hand experience than being told something second hand.
I often talk about my road to Damascus moment on the road to Monchegorsk in Arctic Russia (below) where I saw and even taste in the air the damage done by acid rain from a nickel smelter. This propelled me from armchair environmentalist to actually doing something about it.
But experiences don't have to be negative. Nestlé allowed their employees to try out and even borrow electric cars so they could gain positive experiences and reduce the fear of the new. Other bodies such as Sustrans run guided cycle trips to give adults confidence to get back in the saddle.
Primary school children are taught to "show, don't tell" - something that sustainability practitioners - and the environmental movement in general - should take to heart.
I took the picture above this time last year as I crossed the Somerset Levels to run a workshop for a major client based in Taunton. You'd have to be living on Mars not to have heard it's even worse this year - and the storm warnings keep rolling in. As the initial shock and awe has subsided, politicians and the media have got into a bun fight over who is to blame for what - and even who turned up to witness it, when and for how long.
I am pleased, however, that there is a move away from the 'pour more concrete' approach to flood management. The problem here is the confluence of several man-made problems - fast run off in the upper reaches due to land use changes*, building on floodplains and the weather-on-steroids effect we have been expecting from climate change. Many people are realising that the solution to these problems are subtle, long term - and I hope the blame-throwing media and the blame-dodging politicos will start to pay attention to the voices of reason.
The bottom line is that we have to start thinking in eco-system terms - to be in tune with those natural cycles instead of trying to disrupt them. As someone once said, if you push nature out the door, she comes back through your window with a pitchfork.
* when I was in Somerset, the River Tone was running chocolate brown from the silt washed off the surrounding land, indicating something was very wrong upstream.
I was having another rant about the pointlessness of green awareness weeks/days/hours recently when Hiram Wurf pointed me towards the satirical song "National Brotherhood Week" by Tom Lehrer recorded in 1965. Hits the nail right on the head. Enjoy!
We're very excited here at Terra Infirma Towers about this new venture - Ask Gareth. The concept is very simple - you send me your sustainability/CSR dilemmas, challenges etc and I answer them. I intend to publish at least one of these per month, but more if you send me lots of great great questions.
This first edition answers the question "My green champions aren't happy, what can I do?"
Please add your comments and experiences in the comments below and, if you found the video of use, please share with your colleagues.
To act without knowing why; to do things as they have always been done, without asking why; to engage in an activity all one's life without really understanding what it is about and how it relates to other things - this is to be one of the crowd.
Meng Tzu aka Mencius 379-289 BC
What Mencius (the most famous interpreter of Confucius) was getting at is our innate tendency to do what we have always done and/or what everybody else does. This is the key barrier to sustainability and why 'business as usual' has such inertia.
The green movement has its own blinkers as well, and its inability/refusal to see the world through the eyes of the person in the street is a key barrier to it reaching its own objectives.
So how do we broaden our minds to overcome these forms of inertia? Here's some ideas that work for me:
Read everything and anything about change - many of the most influential books on my shelves eg Nudge, Switch, have little to do with sustainability and everything to do with psychology. I'm currently reading Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman;
Every book you read, seek out the counter argument, if any, and consider the arguments;
Do this with the news too - if you read the Guardian, then scan the Telegraph too, or vice versa;
If a statistic seems to good/bad to be true, seek out the raw data - journalists, campaigners and activists are no strangers to cherry-picking;
Learn to filter out dogmatic views, green or anti-green (reading James Delingpole is just a waste of vital seconds of your life, some green drivel is just the same);
Train yourself to always ask Why? Use the Toddler Test - ask Why? 5 times and you'll get to the true reason;
Challenge people to solve problems - if they get the kudos for the 'win', it seriously breaks down the mental barriers to success;
Interact with others - particularly those who challenge your assumptions. My Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is based on interaction, not one-to-many teaching;
Set stretch targets - incremental targets encourage incremental thinking, stretch targets make you raise your sights;
Be an intelligent contrarian - if someone blithely parrots received wisdom, gently challenge them;
Choose your words carefully - don't close down options before they've been explored;
Allow people to be creative - workshops are much more powerful than meetings.
That should be enough to be getting on with, but if you have any more, add them to the comments below:
Here's the latest in the Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Work To Your Strengths" - a plea to focus your sustainability efforts on what your organisation does well, rather than trying to turn it into some kind of hippy commune.
UK PM David Cameron gave a speech to the Federation of Small Business (FSB) on Monday where he lauded the Government's drive to cut regulation. He claimed that this would be the first Government in history to leave behind fewer laws than it found on taking office.
While as a small business owner myself, I hate unnecessary red tape, I bridle at the assumption that all legislation is bad for business. It is a constant refrain at my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group that legislation can spur innovation and create value. In fact, one of my clients, FTSE100 precious metals giant Johnson Matthey, attributes over 75% of its turnover to helping others meet the requirements of legislation whether supplying catalytic convertors for cars or NOx-reducing systems for industrial processes.
I would go so far as to say it is not the quantity of legislation that is the problem, but the quality - if Mr Cameron really wanted to help small business, he would get HMRC to completely rebuild its website which is impenetrable to mere mortals who simply want to pay their tax on time. Make being responsible easy!
We can be a gloomy lot, us environmentalists - always on the verge of despair. But, hold on a minute...
Renewable energy produced a record 15.5% of the UK’s electricity in the second quarter of 2013 – up 50% on the previous year (rewind a decade and renewables hardly bothered the statisticians);
Portugal managed a whopping 70% of electricity from renewables in quarter 1. Iceland is pretty much zero carbon in this respect, Spain and Germany are also breaking records left right and centre;
The cost of a solar panel has plummeted by a factor of 100 since the 1970s and halved in just the last couple of years;
Electric vehicle sales in the US have risen 447% on the back of the Tesla Model S. The Tesla was also the best selling car of any kind in Norway in September, but it got bumped in October - by its electric cousin the Nissan Leaf.
The amount of material going to landfill in the UK has hit an all-time low;
According to the CBI, a third of all UK growth now comes from the green sector;
The rise in global carbon emissions slowed last year.
And there's grim news for business as usual:
Fossil energy prices remain stubbornly high despite the shale gas boom in the US;
Commodity prices in general are higher than they have ever been since we started measuring them.
OK, there's no room for complacency, but we are making progress and we should be proud of that. We won't get to tipping points without struggling through the 'hard yards' of breaking open vested interests and established infrastructure first. Telling other people "we'll never make it" dispirits them as well as us. So let's cheer up, be proud and keep on at it!
I'm starting to feel my age. Throughout my career I've always been younger than average, whether in employment, in management, in local politics, in self-employment. But in the last few years since I've passed the big four - oh, I've started to notice that I've caught up with that average. It's not just that - muscle memory is much harder to develop. I've been trying to teach myself front crawl in the last 6 months and it hasn't been pretty - coughing up half a swimming pool at the end of each length. We bought a second hand piano in the summer and I can still play pieces I messed about with a few times as a student better than those I've patiently worked on week in week out in the months since. Most shockingly, I find it hard to go out mid-week and get much work done the next day - the pub quiz team has had to do without me. I have to face it - I'm getting old.
But what does bump me out of me this self-indulgent introspection is my children. I love their crazy inventiveness and imagination. The elder two (4 and 6) build amazingly intricate and complex lego spacecraft that put the rather more rectangular models of my youth to shame. They don't see barriers, they just let their minds go.
Last year I went to my eldest's school to talk about recycling and the hardest thing to explain was landfill. They couldn't believe we throw stuff in a hole in the ground. "Why don't we recycle all of it?" yelled one indignant child, a question which was very difficult to answer.
This makes me really hopeful for the future. In the same way as an iPad and wifi is just part of the furniture to my boys, they will see renewable energy, recycling, telecommuting, the sharing economy, electric vehicles and the digital technology as the norm, not something in an exotic niche or too complex. Their minds are free of the baggage of the old economy that my generation still carries.
And it is our responsibility to encourage and inspire them. To avoid letting our cynicism hold them back. We owe them that - after all, it's their future that's at stake.
This month I had to comment publicly on an important local strategy which boasted about having "a green thread" running its policies. Yesterday, someone complimented me on the way I attacked the analogy, so I thought I would share:
I don't normally like the "green thread" analogy, but here it actually seems very appropriate. It suggests the strategy is like a blanket of many colours with a single green thread running through it. If you want to look for green, you will find traces of it, but it does nothing to change the overall colour of the blanket. Likewise in this document you will find hints of green if you look for them, but sustainability has little influence on the whole.
In other words green threads are just a form of greenwash.
The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.
In other words, if you haven't already done something you should have, then get on with it. Sustainability fits that bill quite neatly, doesn't it?
Which in turn begs the question, how do you rapidly accelerate sustainability? Infrastructure and technology takes time to plan, procure and implement. Behavioural change in employees also takes time. So what can you do?
In my experience, the fastest way to see results is to remove obstacles to greener behaviour. I often find that people implement systems that make their colleagues jump through all sorts of hoops to do the right thing - and then get surprised when they demur. In a classic example, at one of my clients we found that it was much easier to book a face-to-face meeting with colleagues from across the country than it was to book the teleconferencing system. The unnecessary bureaucracy was removed and the use of teleconferencing exploded.
How do you detect these barriers? Ask your colleagues - and then you're starting to kick off the engagement at the same time.