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27 October 2016

All the leaves are falling...

Colorful autumn leaves, top view.

Half term means it's half-working, half-child-caring here at Terra Infirma Towers, although I did sneak off for a 47-mile cycle this morning. And it was glorious, with the late-ish autumn giving a spectacular display of colour across the rolling hills and river valleys of Northumberland and the crunch of leaves and fruit under my wheels.

I always find autumn a time of reflection – whether about life, working practice or Sustainability philosophy. Those leaves falling, becoming food for a variety of microfauna whose own 'waste' feeds plants and so on, is the basic model of the circular economy. That cycle, like every other natural cycle, is powered by solar energy, which gives us another basic principle for Sustainability. And it's beautiful – a much neglected element in Sustainability where sheer pleasure is often neglected.


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25 October 2016

Heathrow – The Litmus Test for UK's Climate Strategy


If, as expected, this lunchtime sees political approval for the expansion of Heathrow Airport, there will be some serious political fall out – including the resignation of MP Zac Goldsmith. Much of the debate will be over local environmental issues – noise, air quality – but the carbon argument has been largely confined to green circles.

Basically, as this excellent piece by Carbon Brief from last year points out, expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick will take us over the aviation carbon 'budget' for 2050 (which should be capped at 2005 levels to meet our requirements for an 80% cut). When Lord Deben wrote to Davies about this, the latter claimed that a combination of biofuels, a (steep) increase in carbon price and efficiencies should deliver those requirements. Carbon Brief raises some serious doubts about Davies' assumptions.

Aviation is probably the hardest nut to crack in terms of techno-fixes. Biofuels are unlikely to provide sufficient quantities to make a dent without serious land use issues (unless there is a major breakthrough in, say, algae biofuel technology). Electric planes or nuclear planes have yet to make it past old episodes of Thunderbirds.

Policy changes are also difficult. I recall that over a decade ago, the PM's own Conservative Party mooted a frequent flyer levy – you'd get one flight tax-free each year, after that you pay through the nose – but this perfectly reasonable solution was shot down in flames by The Telegraph and other right-wing papers. The average family at the time took 0.75 flights per year, so the papers' argument that this would hit ordinary people's holidays falls a bit flat, but they won anyway and the proposal was swiftly dropped.

The alternative to Heathrow is expansion of Gatwick. This is regarded as 'less bad' in terms of all environmental impacts, local and global, but only just.

There is of course another option: no expansion, anywhere. I've often said the litmus test for corporation's sustainability commitments is not what they start doing but what they stop doing. So when B&Q refuses to stock patio-heaters on carbon grounds or Interface deletes product ranges with harmful chemicals, that's true commitment. Putting a real constraint on aviation would be the most powerful incentive for low carbon alternatives.

So this is a litmus test for the May Government, and everybody expects them to flunk it. We may, of course, end up with 'no expansion' whatever decision is made today, if the process gets bogged down in years of protest, legal arguments and political wrangling. We shall see.


Photo: Konstantin Von Wedelstaedt - Gallery page

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21 October 2016

Are wind turbines green? Do bears...

viz-turbinesCame across this clipping from the satirical Viz magazine that made me chuckle, but it isn't a million miles from some of the nonsense I've seen printed in the supposedly serious media over the last few decades. My own esteemed engineering institute's journal printed a letter about a decade ago postulating that climate change was actually being caused by wind turbines slowing air movements around the world. Of course the letter cited no actual evidence, it was purely opinion.

What gets me about all this anti-green stuff, whether from those who hate cyclists or full on climate change deniers, is the assumption that 'experts' are idiots and can't see what's in front of their nose (Viz nailed that in the 'letter'). Boris Johnson's "I can see snow in the garden, therefore the world can't be warming" is one of the most unintentionally funny examples.

I never take anything on blind faith, but if I want to know about my health I'll talk to a doctor, about my car or bicycle, I'll talk to a mechanic and on climate I'll listen to a climatologist. If I'm not convinced about what they tell me, I'll dive deeper. But I never listen to armchair philosophers with extraordinarily high confidence in their own opinion.


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19 October 2016

Is your Sustainability Programme hitting a ceiling?

go green

This week I read an article on entitled "Why I’m breaking up with sustainability" by Tara Holmes, which suggests that Corporate Sustainability programmes are plateauing. Holmes says:

...the word sustainability has devolved into a word that embodies a non-offensive, contradictory acknowledgement of the need to address the dire issues facing our rapidly changing climate without actually having to shift core business models...

...I bump into professional contacts of mine at various conferences and events in the sustainability space who say they feel disempowered in their role. They’ve “hit a ceiling” with executive leadership, they’ll tell me. Or they work in a silo in the facilities department or operations, or only have an intern for support. How can any single person in a massive organization have the opportunity to fundamentally shift the bottom line, particularly when that bottom line is triple-down, without the necessary backing and support?

I find this analysis depressing, a tad self-pitying and ultimately self-defeating. Enough exemplars have shown that massive leaps towards Sustainability can be made while making increased profit. The contradiction Holmes identifies is only in the mind – it's not an 'or', but an 'and'.

And, yes, one person will struggle to make a difference if they adopt the silo mentality of their organisation, but they need to turn that mindset around and see their role as facilitating others to make a difference instead (check out this edition of Ask Gareth). You don't need a huge team, or a team at all, to do that.

In her conclusion Holmes proposes education, suggesting starting over, for which, as she points out earlier in the article, we have limited time. Personally, I think if your organisational Sustainability programme is stuck under a ceiling there's a very simple formula to smash through to the next level:

  1. Get buy-in from key players using Green Jujitsu (in large part by involving them actively in the following steps);
  2. Set stretch targets within a reasonable timeframe (7-10 years typically);
  3. Use backcasting to work out what that future vision of the organisation would look like and a list of what you have to start doing now to get there;
  4. Help those key players do the things on your list which will have biggest impact, while identifying and eliminating barriers as you go along.

The first step is the most important. By involving key players, they have 'skin in the game' and you will start to see those ceilings disappear. The backcasting process itself is fun and really energises those involved. You'd be surprised how often meaningful engagement makes resistance to melt away like snow on a warm spring morning.


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17 October 2016

Sustainability by habit


How many decisions do you make everyday?

Real decisions, I mean, where you actively choose between two options rather than follow your usual practice. When you got in the shower this morning, did you choose a shampoo or grab the only there one, your usual one or the nearest one? When you fired up your computer at work, did the option of not doing that cross your mind? How often have you bought a different newspaper to usual, just to get a different perspective on life?

I realised this morning in a coffee shop that, by choosing a cappuccino for a change rather than my default black americano, I was making different choice that I take maybe 1 in 20 times. Last week I read the Daily Mail cover to cover for the first time in years (which was a shock to the system in more ways than one). A few years ago I signed up to a 'green household awareness' scheme but failed to weigh my rubbish for more than a couple of days at a time before defaulting to chucking it straight in the appropriate bin. Me – Mr Sustainability himself – couldn't even cope with this minor deviation from the norm. Embarrassing.

We are creatures of habit.

And, as Sustainability practitioners, we have to embrace that, rather than fight it. We've got to appreciate new habits take a long time to form and, more importantly, working with people's normal routines rather than against them is the quickest way to get Sustainability embedded into the organisation.


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14 October 2016

Hey! It's World Standards Day!!!

CalendarHold onto your hats folks, it's finally that one day of the year that we can celebrate the most unlikely of causes, the humble ISO standard. But, hold on, should we not document how we should celebrate before we celebrate?

Now, sarcasm aside, environmental standards do help on the move to Sustainability by raising the game of the poorest performers. But, in the same way you could get an ISO9000 quality standard for a concrete lifejacket (as long as it meets its specification), ISO14001, as one wag put it, lets us destroy the planet in a well-documented manner. Management standards are about process, not results.

It bothers me that they give businesses a false sense of security. This morning I clicked on the 'Sustainability' tab of a local manufacturer and found endless references to ISO14001. That's all well and good, I thought, but where are the results? When I dug around, they had done some interesting stuff, so why not promote that? Why not set out some ambitious Sustainability goals? Or put some product stories first?

Most people take ISO14001 as read in a modern forward-looking company. It's what you do above and beyond that which will make you stand out from the crowd.


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12 October 2016

Squaring the Sustainability vs ROI circle

The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers the problem of making sure Sustainability benefits are considered fully in investment appraisals/decision making so it can stand up against 'return on investment' calculations – a critical issue if we are to move away from 'business as usual.'

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.

You can see all previous editions here.


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10 October 2016

Supply Chain Wisdom from the Sustainability Masterminds


The end of last month saw the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meet at the sumptuous Acklam Hall in Middlesbrough to discuss supply chain issues. Here's a baker's dozen of the many nuggets which emerged from the meeting for your delectation:

  • Many organisations have no idea about what’s in their supply chain which is an enormous risk as problems bubble upwards;
  • Poor supplier performance on Sustainability is often indicative of wider incompetence;
  • Need to keep an open mind regarding risks, eg slavery occurs in the UK as well as developing countries.
  • Write contract conditions to pass sustainability risks to the suppliers who represent those risks eg traceability;
  • Innovation should always be put into contract extension commitments to drive continual improvement;
  • Can be a tension between need to collaborate and get tough on suppliers – need to present carrots and sticks;
  • Get suppliers to solve your problems, rather than you trying to solve theirs;
  • Run award schemes for ‘supplier with best sustainability performance’ eg Johnson & Johnson;
  • Internally, need to align responsibility with authority so the actual decision maker is held accountable for the Sustainability implications of their decisions;
  • Consider using emotive words such as ‘Risks’ rather than ‘Sustainability’ on meeting agendas;
  • External speakers can sometimes bring gravitas that internal practitioners can’t;
  • Recruit people who have ‘been there, done that’;
  • Make suppliers compete on sustainability by having ‘open’ scoring system in addition to proscribed/box-ticking requirements.

The Mastermind Group meets quarterly in the North of England to discuss Sustainability issues under the Chatham House Rule. We are currently working on kicking off a South East branch with the first meeting pencilled in for 10 November. Contact me ( for more details on either Group.


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5 October 2016

Slim Sustainability Pickings from UK Political Leaders

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)Every year I sift through the leaders' speeches at the UK political party conferences so you don't have to. My theory is that, no matter what is discussed in the rest of the conference, the content of the leader's speech shows just how much of a priority is put upon green policies. Last year, I concluded the content was disappointing, this year makes that look like a low carbon bonanza. All the conferences were dominated by one word – Brexit – and most of the party leaderships where in something of a state of flux, but still, this was poor stuff. Here goes: Read the rest of this entry »

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Sustainability: do the same old, get the same old...


This week I read an article on employee engagement for Sustainability on a well-known eco-business website (I won't bother linking to protect the guilty), wondering if it had a new angle, a nice case study or a clever technique I hadn't come across before. Unfortunately the piece could have been written 10, 20 or even 30 years ago – we had 'switch it off' stickers and posters on the walls when I started in the Civil Service in 1993.

Here's a thing – if it hasn't worked in the last 23 years, why would it start working now?

This approach is so old hat, I parodied it in an animation 3 and a half years ago. We have so much more sophisticated approaches including gamification, 'nudge' techniques and my own Green Jujitsu (translating Sustainability for the worldview of each audience) that you would have thought that a half-competent environmental consultancy may have come across (hint: try Google). But apparently not.

To deliver Sustainability, we need new thinking across the board. Whether that is managing distributed energy, developing new business models or effective employee engagement; blindly trying the same old technique whether or not it works is the epitome of stupidity. One of the joys of working in Sustainability is learning something new every day – revel in it!



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3 October 2016

Activate your sustainability programme!


At last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, I (re)used my 'monster truck' template (above). The analogy is that we are in the truck, transversing the boulders which are in the way of 'the new normal' - ie meeting our sustainability goals.

As we were packing up, one member, a chemist by background, referred to the pile of boulders as the 'activation energy' for sustainability. I can remember enough of my A-level Chemistry to remember that this is the energy required to get two reagents to react, even if the results are more stable than the ingredients you started with. So to light a wood fire, you need to light a match and set it to paper and kindling to give the main fuel enough energy to burn itself. In a way the wood is sat there waiting to be burnt, but if you just throw a match at it, nothing happens.

I thought that activation energy was a great analogy. One of the big frustrations of Sustainability practitioners is that a sustainable world is clearly more desirable than an unsustainable one. Who really wants pollution, an unstable climate or the destruction of natural habitats? So why do we allow those things to happen? Or why do our efforts to change things often flounder? The answer is the activation energy required to get from here to there.

What do chemists do if activation energy is too high? They find a catalyst to reduce it. Sustainability catalysts include policy changes, technological breakthroughs and facilitators – the last of which is where we come in.

Here are several ways that you, as a sustainability catalyst, can reduce that activation energy:

  • Focus people on defining 'the new normal' rather than obsessing about 'business as usual' (this is how we start with the template above;
  • Expand this into a backcasting approach to define intermediate steps;
  • Frame sustainability to match the culture of the audience (aka Green Jujitsu eg talk engineering for engineers, health for the health sector, cash for accountants etc);
  • Involve people in solutions generation to get enthusiasm and buy-in for change;
  • Get visible leadership buy-in;
  • Demonstrate progress;
  • Get people (employees, suppliers etc) to compete to be the most sustainable;
  • Remain upbeat, encouraging and cunning.

But don't just chuck matches at the fuel and complain when it doesn't light.


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30 September 2016

How to get the most from a Sustainability Expert

YodaWe had another great Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting yesterday, focussing on the supply chain (full summary next week). Almost every meeting ends up discussing the supply chain to some degree, and in turn the supply chain meeting was dominated by the need for engagement of procurement staff and suppliers. There's something of a hierarchy of subjects developing of which engagement is always at the base.

One engagement theme that emerged yesterday was how external experts and speakers can influence people in a way an internal change agent can't. This is kind of the opposite of 'not invented here', but it is certainly true that people often give more credence to an outsider with suitable status telling them about change than someone they know. We demonstrated this last Tuesday by getting Colin Thirlaway of Stanley Black & Decker to open proceedings to demonstrate that Sustainability was a real world business issue, not just a theoretical one.

I spend a lot of time facilitating workshop sessions for my clients. In this role my outsider status works really well, and I have one golden rule to maintain that independence:

I will never, ever become a proponent of 'the party line'.

Doing so would not only instantly destroy my position as the honest broker, but on a practical level, I will never understand the context or sensitivities sufficiently well to win an argument. If there's a message to be communicated, then I insist that a staff member take that role.

In fact, I've turned down the chance of a lucrative training contract with one of the world's largest brands because they insisted that a dubious health claim be included in the content. I couldn't defend that to anyone who challenged it, so I said no.

In other words, use an outsider to help with your engagement, but don't expect them to become an insider.


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28 September 2016

Sustainability: Engineering in the Real World


Yesterday I was facilitating a workshop for the School of Engineering and Computer Science at Durham University. The purpose was to find ways to further embed Sustainability issues (social, environmental and economic) into the syllabus. I entered the room with a touch of manflu and no little trepidation - academics can be a tough audience as they, rightly, have a culture of questioning everything.

Here's how I approached it to make sure I didn't lose the room:

  • I went straight into the first session without more than a 2 minute pre-amble. No pointless round of introductions to put everyone to sleep.
  • We started with a presentation by a client, Colin Thirlaway, global compliance manager for Stanley Black & Decker. Colin made a powerfully persuasive case that, as SBD's 20,000 product lines had to be designed for a sustainable economy, the engineers of the future will need plenty of appropriate skills and knowledge. In doing so, he killed off any doubt that this was an important subject. This made the rest of the workshop really easy.
  • Next we split into groups and asked why Sustainability should be in the syllabus. This doubled down on the message that it was a critical subject – and the classic Green Jujitsu technique of getting delegates to sell sustainability to themselves.
  • The following segments followed up the "Why?" with "What topics are required?", "Where in the syllabus?" and "How should Sustainability be presented?". For each question, delegates had to write their own ideas on Post-Its before they came together. This stops any individual dominating any group and captures the full gamut of thoughts.

As usual, it went swimmingly, although my brain got a little fugged as the Lemsip wore off towards the end. Now I've just got to write it all up...


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26 September 2016

Bradley Wiggins and the Spirit of the Law

braddley_wiggins_2011_criterium_du_dauphine_stage_7There can't have been a more disconsolate figure than that of Bradley Wiggins, almost certainly the greatest cyclist of our generation, on the BBC yesterday explaining the conditions under which he (legally) took a steroid injection before his 2012 Tour de France win.

You are probably aware of the backstory – a group of Russian hackers have taken revenge on the sporting world for the banning of many of its athletes for illegal doping by releasing the medical records of others, in particular the therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) which allow athletes to get treated with banned substances for particular medical conditions. And Wiggins' name popped up with a TUE for a steroid which has long been linked with cheating in the sport, taken at a particularly convenient time.

The hackers have certainly won this one as Wiggins and his former Team Sky have long made a virtue of a zero tolerance to doping. In his 2012 ghost-written memoir Wiggins claimed to have a no-injection policy, but now claims he was referring to intravenous injections, not intramuscular ones (a bizarre distinction as illegal doping can involve either or both). And only a few weeks ago, Wiggins lambasted women's world champion Lizzie Armitstead (now Deignan) for missing doping tests.

On the other hand, the TUE system approved the dose and the 40mg dose he took is the standard medical injection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I can't find precise details of how much the dopers took, except that it can be 10-100 times as high (I don't know how much you have to take to make a difference to performance). If the system is wrong then change the system.

Well, at the end of the day, Wiggins is not being judged in a doping investigation (because he didn't dope), but in the court of public opinion with the mainstream media as prosecutor in chief. And, as many disgraced politicians will tell you, that court looks to the spirit of the law, rather than the letter, and it looks as if Wiggins and Team Sky fell short of the expectations they created for themselves.

There are obvious parallels here between sporting ethics and business ethics. In both, the media will be sniffing out any perceived hypocrisy and the public will not give the subject the benefit of the doubt. Transparency can go a long way, particularly by qualifying any broad statement of principle. And, it goes without saying, being seen to walk the walk as well as talk the talk is all important.

By all means set yourself a high ethical bar, but you better clear it by a wide margin of error.


Photo © Petit Brun, used under a creative commons license.

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21 September 2016

Getting the sustainability message through


What makes you stop in the street and stare?

Regular readers will know I'm (more than) a bit obsessive about road cycling. I will walk past the shiniest, most expensive motorbike without a glance, but if there's a carbon fibre road bike locked to a railing beside it, I will stop. Doesn't matter if I'm running late for something, I will pause and admire.

A motorbike fanatic would think I'm mad. They'd stop at the motorbike and admire the power, the transmission or the chrome before striding past the carbon fibre object of my desire without noticing it. An aero seat post or a Di2 derailleur would mean nothing to them, just as much as the latest supercharger (or whatever) would mean nothing to me.

This shows how the filters in our brain act so we ignore the vast majority of the world around us. The filters only draw our attention to what is important to each of us. This has critical implications for engaging people in Sustainability: if someone is already ambivalent to sustainability, then their mental filters will block out (almost) every sustainability message you throw at them.

Green Jujitsu is the art of finding the overlap between what turns your audience on and the Sustainability agenda – and starting engagement there. Because you are packaging Sustainability with their interests, the message will get past their filters – and you get engagement. So, if you want to engage an engineer in Sustainability, then challenge them to solve Sustainability problems. Engineers love solving problems, so the message gets through their filters. And, if you're really good at this, you'll find their filters start to open and let more and more sustainability stuff through.


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19 September 2016

Blinkered views block the road to Sustainability


George Osborne may have been unceremoniously booted out of the UK Treasury by incoming PM Theresa May, but one of his legacies will live with us for decades as May rubber-stamped his deal with the Chinese Government to finance new nuclear reactors at Hinkley Point. For a man who denigrated renewables on value for money grounds, Osborne's parsimony deserted him on Hinkley, with even nuclear's biggest proponents wincing at the cost of the new facility.

Unrelated, but related, The Independent's Sean O'Grady launched an anti-cyclist tirade at the news that West Midlands Police are fining drivers who skim rider's elbows. He completely omits to mention that the crackdown was in response to the Police's own evidence that only 2% of serious collisions involving cyclists were the cyclist's fault.

Both can only be explained by ingrained mindsets. Osborne clearly buys the old "renewables too expensive, nuclear too cheap to meter" myth and O'Grady plays the old "cyclists aren't real road users, so should simply keep out of the way" saw. Neither men are stupid, but they manage to argue stupid things because humans tend to see the world through a rather fixed worldview.

I cleave to the belief that the biggest barrier to sustainability is just six inches wide, the space between our ears. For sustainability to become the norm, we've got to change these, and many other, worldviews. Rants, like mine above, won't work to change those minds – we've got to find ways of finding the common ground and moving on from there. What I call Green Jujitsu.


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16 September 2016

Do you have a Sustainability Strategy? Really?

pencil figure checklistWhat is a Sustainability Strategy? Is it just a document containing all your targets? Is it something to show your stakeholders? Is it a baseline against which you can measure progress? Or is it something more than that?

I saw this quote from Stuart Cross on general business strategy this morning which applies equally to the subject of sustainability:

A strategy doesn't just impact the 'big' investment choices; it drives a myriad of decisions of actions taken by colleagues and managers from across your organisation on a daily basis. Like a magnet being waved over iron filings, a strategy creates alignment and ensures that everyone is pointing in the same direction.

I really like that magnet analogy and it applies to all the truly great sustainability strategies: M&S's Plan A, Interface's Mission Zero or Unilever's Sustainable Living Plan. These transcend mere documents or targets, they become more like a Roman legion's standard for the troops to follow into battle - and rally around when things go wrong.

Does your sustainability strategy do this? Or does it just tick the boxes?




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14 September 2016

Embedding Sustainability is a Banker

Tax calculator and penFascinating article in this week's Economist, traditionally no friend of sustainability, about investing in low carbon firms. They quote research by BlackRock who found that companies in the top quintile for cutting their carbon intensity outperformed the MSCI World Index by 4% since 2012, while those in the bottom quintile trailed the Index by 5%.

On the downside, the author quotes other research which shows 'green mutual funds' trailed others  between 1991 and 2014. The blame for this is put on volatile fossil fuel markets and Government policies. My own (rather modest) green investments seem to have flat-lined over the last couple of years, deflating my enthusiasm slightly.

The article also mentions that the cost of LEDs has plummeted by 90% since 2010, showing how quickly green technologies are still maturing. It will be very interesting to see how this and similar price drops through economies of scale and innovation across the green tech sector will impact in the medium term.

The conclusion from all this is that while the green sector itself is still immature and thus risky, embedding sustainability into a conventional company will almost certainly reap dividends.


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12 September 2016

Pick your climate gurus with care

epicfailMy regular paper is The Guardian, somewhat under sufferance ever since my previous favourite The Independent started to shrink in size and quality about a decade ago. One of the things that bugs me about The Grauniad is its insistence on turning to novelists for wisdom on the big issues of the day whether terrorism, migration or climate change. Why listen to experienced diplomats, politicians, soldiers, scientists or engineers when you can ask Hilary Mantel what she thinks?

And lo, we get an article about Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh complaining that the arts, along with everybody else, haven't addressed climate change enough. The article concludes:

Worryingly, Ghosh has few solutions to offer. “I am not sure there are solutions. The problem is of such a scale that we are dwarfed by it,” he said.

Maybe it's just me, but it doesn't worry me much at all that a novelist doesn't know how to solve climate change. We have plenty of people who know how to do that. They're beavering away at making it happen quickly enough while Mr Ghosh tours India in a self-appointed role as a prophet of doom.

As the second most populated country in the world, and developing fast, India is currently pivotal to the whole battle for climate change. The recent G20 communiqué on the Paris Agreement was diluted by the Indian Government worried about economic impacts. If the arts really can deliver change, it will have persuade the country's leadership that tackling climate change will also deliver economic and social benefits, if they do it right. That's going to take a positive vision from Ghosh and his colleagues.


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9 September 2016

Greenwash of the Week


You would have to have a very strange existence if your whole footprint was "greatly reduced" and all your waste was eradicated simply by changing from disposable earplugs to reusable ones. Of course they mean that reusables are better than disposables, but they should say that.

Sloppy, but all too common.


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