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27 May 2016

Pedant's Corner: Circular Economy vs Servicisation

Circular economy vs servicisation

Twice in the last week or so, I've heard people conflate two quite distinct concepts – the circular economy and servicisation/product-service system. This has riled my inner pedant no end, so I feel obliged to set out the difference between the two:

  • Circular economy – all materials flow in closed loops just like the closed loops in nature.
  • Servicisation – provide your customers with the service they desire (eg the ability to copy documents) rather than the standard product (eg a photocopier).

The confusion arises as there is some overlap between the two concepts (see my nifty Venn diagram). Eg in chemical management systems (CMS), solvent services typically recover and recycle those solvents. However in other CMSs, materials are not recovered, eg when companies provide a coating service, the coating stays with the product and is not necessarily recovered. This is why I've placed the double headed arrow above – whether a service is also part of the circular economy depends on the design of the service.

But my main point is that if you artificially narrow the two concepts down to the overlap in our Venn diagram, you're missing out on the majority of both. Schoolboy error.


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25 May 2016

Think Different, Think Sustainability


Back in 1999,a group called the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) calculated for the Government that the 'practicable' amount of solar power which could be generated in the UK by 2025 was 0.5 terawatt hours. Fast forward to 2015 and solar power generated over 7.5 terawatt hours – 15 times as much as predicted, a decade earlier than predicted.

I can't find the ETSU report online (wonder why?), but reading the huge amount of material that quotes it, it appears to be based on the amount of south facing roof area (whether this includes industrial sites, I don't know) and doesn't appear to take into consideration, say, solar farms or solar facades. I would guess that the plummeting cost of solar with rising demand wasn't factored in either. The point is not to rub the authors'  noses in it, but rather that this report was often quoted in early 21st Century diatribes about the 'madness' of trying to rely on renewable energy in general – and solar in particular. And they were dead wrong.

And now we have companies like Solaroad producing significant amount of solar energy from somewhere most of us wouldn't have looked for it – a cycle path (see photo). Just 70m of path generated enough energy for 3 houses. Multiply that up by potential cycle path coverage (plus pavements and roads?) and you're starting to see another potentially chunky, but unexpected, contributor.

How many other SolaRoad-type ideas are there out there? Nobody knows. But we shouldn't fall into the trap of putting artificial constraints on our sustainability ambitions on the basis of what we know now. Because the one thing we do know for sure is that we don't know very much!


Photo: SolaRoad

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23 May 2016

Britain Greener in Europe

Flags of the United Kingdom and the European Union. UK Flag and EU Flag. British Union Jack flag.

About 15 years ago, I was at an international eco-design conference. As I wandered around the poster displays during a coffee break, I came across a young US researcher presenting a study on the then forthcoming EU Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive.

"Why are Americans so interested in European legislation?" I asked her.

"It's a massive market and if our brands want to sell there, we've got to comply with the legislation." she replied.

"Ahhhh..." I said as the penny dropped.

Fast forward to today and we in the UK are a month away from a referendum on whether to remain in the EU or leave. I have commented in the past that climate denial and Euroscepticism go hand in hand, and I'm sure that 'freeing' the UK of environmental legislation is one of the desires of the 'Brexit' crowd.

Except, as we have seen above, we wouldn't be free at all. If we want to export to Europe, we'll have to comply with all existing and future legislation, only we would have zero influence over the content of that legislation.

The environmental angle is probably the main reason that I'll be voting to stay in the EU. The history of the EU has been one of raising the bar on environmental issues, whether on water quality or climate change, rather than the 'race to the bottom' we see in other parts of the world. And that combined economic heft means that if the EU decides to ban a toxic substance or insist on recyclability built into products, then the whole world has to sit up and take note. On this at least, the EU is a powerful force for good.

I'm IN.


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18 May 2016

The best path to Sustainability?

bashoThe 17th Century poet Matsuo Basho (right) said:

"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old; seek what they sought."

While there is much to be said for learning from the experiences of others (my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is based on that very principle), I still find that the majority of sustainability practitioners blindly set off in the same direction as others, without thinking through where that path might lead – if it ends in a swamp, you'll sink just like them.

The second part of Basho's quote is the interesting one – focus on the destination and then the path will become apparent. In practice, I use 'backcasting' to develop sustainability strategies with my clients – we start at the end and work backwards to the start. You'd be surprised at just how much that simple change in approach can deliver.


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16 May 2016

Will the Oil Industry collapse?

Oseberg_ship_head_postI'm reading 'Collapse' by Jared Diamond at the minute – the tale of how many civilisations just suddenly disappeared off the map. While the most famous of these was the Easter Islanders, the story of the Greenland Vikings is the one which is most baffling. Surrounded by seas brimful of fish, they persevered with trying to grow enough hay in short summers on fragile meadows to maintain their cattle in barns over the long and increasingly severe winters, until their luck ran out and they simply starved to death, their last meals consisting of garden birds and their pet dogs in a vain attempt to make it through.

I got a real resonance between the blind obstinance of the Vikings and the recent warning from Chatham House Prof Paul Stevens that the International Oil Companies (IOCs) face a stark choice:  a managed decline or sudden death. While his paper stretches my grasp of economics to the limit, Prof Stevens' argument is that the IOCs are clinging to the business models that saw them thrive in the past, but the assumptions that underpin those models are looking incredibly shaky.

The fish in this case are the renewable energies. At the turn of the millennium, BP and Shell invested in renewables and then gradually let them go again, losing lots of talent in the process. Today we get news that Shell is investing in green energy once more, although the amounts are modest.

The Vikings would have survived in Greenland if they had adapted their lifestyle to fishing for their dinner, but they refused. Will the oil companies adapt to the new reality? Or will they cling to what they know, dooming themselves?


Photo: Copyright: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo, Norway


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13 May 2016

Is the world now ready for the product-as-service model?

The launch of the Riversimple's Rasa electric two seater car is remarkable for two reasons. First, it could bring hydrogen vehicles onto the market at the scale of their electric cousins, and secondly Riversimple is planning to provide the vehicles as a service rather than an outright purchase.

The Product-Service System (PSS) concept has been around for a long time, but it is generally successful in business to business (B2B) niche markets such as fleet vehicles, photocopiers (buy the copies not the copier) and chemical management systems. Some high profile attempts at B2B servitisation have failed: Interface tried to sell a floor-covering service, but customers couldn't get out of the 'carpet as capital purchase' mindset, and compressed air services have struggled in the UK when popular in France. More recently Rolls-Royce have made a success of a jet engine service, bringing PSS back to the top of the agenda.

From a sustainability point of view PSS makes a lot of sense – you break the link between the needs of the customer and the amount of stuff they are given to meet those needs. So if I buy a photocopy service from Xerox, they are incentivised to not try and sell me a new copier every year, but maintain and upgrade the one I have.

Where the Rasa will be interesting is whether it can break into the consumer (B2C) market. To date, only digital consumer services have usurped their physical counterparts (eg Netflix replacing DVDs), but with personal car leasing starting to rise in popularity, maybe Riversimple are on to something. I'll be keeping a close eye!


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11 May 2016

Reasons to be cheerful (pt 396)

old oil pump

Here's a selection of headlines from the last few days:

We're getting to the stage where headlines like these hardly make a ripple. The revelation last month that the UK produced a full 25% of its electricity from renewable sources last year, with an additional 20% or so coming from low carbon nuclear, hardly raised an eyebrow. When I got started in Sustainability in 1998, the former figure was at a mere 2% with 90% of that being Scottish hydropower.

I believe there's only one way the world is moving now and it's towards a low carbon economy. We've got a long way to go, and some rocks to navigate, but we've almost certainly pointed the ship in the right direction. Full steam ahead!


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9 May 2016

Have we run out of Sustainability ideas? Probably a good thing.

world brainAbout five years ago, there seemed to be a new sustainability concept coming over the horizon every 5 minutes: the circular economy, creating shared value, mindful sustainability, my own green jujitsu and the doomed-by-its-own-name endosymbiotic thrivability – everytime you clicked on a green business website, another idea leapt out at you. These neologisms were on top of already bulging toolbox of existing ideas including natural capitalism, cradle-to-cradle, bethinking the natural step, one planet living, factor 4/10/100 etc, etc.

Suddenly all of this blue-sky thinking seems to have died away, replaced by practical efforts to take Sustainability forward at scale. I'd argue this is a sign of maturity with the Sustainability baton being handed over from the thinkers to the doers.

We now know what we have to do, the challenge is doing it.


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6 May 2016

Sustainability: follow the signal, ignore the noise


In complex systems such as the global temperatures, we see long term trends (climate in this case), overlaid with short term fluctuations (weather). Those who seek to play down the dangers of climate change like to find short term patterns in the weather that appear to back their hunches, while ignoring the inconvenient truth of the big picture.

The importance of following the signal of long terms trends and ignoring the short term noise applies to the politics of sustainability. The need to fill sustainability blogs, news websites, podcasts and the rest can lead to an obsession about stuff outside our control: what will Brexit mean for sustainability? A Trump presidency? A corporate buy-out? I've seen such thinking paralysing organisations, bogging down progress on Sustainability in what-ifs.

The sports psychologist Steve Peters trains his clients to separate worries into two piles: stuff you can't control and stuff you can. If you can control it, deal with it, if you can't, accept it and move on. Great advice for all of us!




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3 May 2016

There's always an excuse not to do Sustainability. What's yours?

what can I do

Here are some of the excuses I've heard over the last couple of years not to move forward on a Sustainability project or strategy:

  • We're selling part/all of the business
  • We're buying a new business
  • We're in financial difficulty
  • The boss has been sacked
  • I've got a new boss, don't know what his position on this is
  • We're writing our annual sustainability report
  • It's not a good time to ask the boss
  • I'm too busy

Now, I'm not knocking any of these reasons – they're all pressures we all feel at different times. But given the overwhelming evidence to link strong Sustainability performance with strong business performance (eg here), why wouldn't you prioritise Sustainability?

The problem is the annoyingly persistent old mindset of "Sustainability costs you more" when we should be thinking "Sustainability is an engine of growth." Change the mindset and the problem becomes a solution.


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29 April 2016

On sustainability, are you running with the herd or swimming against the tide?

herd of african elephants on the move

Humans are herd animals. You can see this in every political scandal, such as the current antisemitism row in the Labour Party, where otherwise intelligent people will defend indefensible behaviour by a colleague – behaviour which they would condemn vociferously from anybody outside their clique. This herd instinct is a natural one – in prehistoric times, sticking together no matter what kept our forebears alive and we wouldn't be around if they hadn't.

In modern organisations, however, this instinct manifests itself as what I call institutional inertia – and it can make the life of the change agent very difficult not least for sustainability practitioners. We often feel we are (swapping metaphors mid-blog) swimming against the tide, slowly exhausting ourselves until we get swept along with the rest.

However, as every schoolchild will tell you, if you get caught by a tide, you shouldn't swim against it, but at 90° until the combination of the tide and your efforts get you to a point of safety. This is the thinking behind my Green Jujitsu approach to employee engagement – don't fight the current culture, but find a way to work with it to get where you want to go.


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27 April 2016

Sustainability Timescales – not too near or too far

harry binocsAn organisation I have dealings with (not a client), has recently announced an challenging sustainability target for 2050. "More ambitious than Paris" is the boast.

Which is great except for the fact that few people sitting around the table, patting themselves on the back, will still be there in 34 years time. It will be somebody else's problem – if anybody remembers to pass it forward, that is.

I have recommended they adopt at least one interim target to focus minds on a comprehensible goal to aim for now, but it remains to be seen whether they will take me up on it.

Setting a timescale for sustainability targets is as much an art as a science. It depends on the organisation – some of my clients are happy planning decades ahead as that's their natural business cycle, but most work to a much shorter timeframe. You need to find the zone where the target will affect important business decisions (particularly capital investment) but without being so far in the future that it gets shunted down the agenda.

My rule of thumb is 5-10 years as this allows for capital investment and innovation, but remains tangible to people working in the business now. Some leaders, notably Interface, have gone longer than this and stuck to it – 24 years in Interface's Mission Zero – but the commitment needs to be absolutely rock solid to deliver that far ahead.


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25 April 2016

You must forge your own path in Sustainability

indy jonesAt the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange two weeks ago, a representative from the Tees Valley stood up and gave a presentation on a vision for low carbon economy for the region. Frankly, it was almost identical to all the presentations I sat through when I worked there 10-15 years ago. "Why hasn't it happened in the meantime?" was the question I asked. Lack of coherent Government policy was the reply.

This sounded far too familiar (not least in the Tees Valley a decade ago). There is pretty much universal agreement that the UK Government's leadership on a low carbon economy has been fitful at best. Sudden changes in policy and instruments create uncertainty and hold back investment.

But when is it going to be any different?

Do you really think there's going to be a day when sustainability is easy?

The true pioneers in Sustainability – Interface, Unilever etc – don't moan about Government policy, or if they do, they don't use it as an excuse to do nothing. They set their destination and create their own path to get there – there may be a few stumbles along the way, but that's how they learn.

So it's time to pick up a compass and a machete and hack a path through the jungle that is in the way to your destination. Enjoy the adventure!


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22 April 2016

Shakespeare, Storytelling & Sustainability

william-shakespeare-portrait11It's old Billy S's 400th death anniversary tomorrow - I'm sure you could hardly have missed the fuss. It's quite extraordinary how the bard has stood head and shoulders above his peers over the centuries, with no-one coming close to his reputation.

And it all comes down to one word: Storytelling.

We love stories, whether it is the rise and inevitable fall of Macbeth or the latest on Miley Cyrus' love life, our appetite for a good tale is insatiable. This is why I always recommend using storytelling as a vehicle for communicating sustainability, as it is an intrinsically engaging medium.

One of my favourites is the story of an engineer working at one of my clients. He was given a lift by his son in the latter's new car and was fascinated at how the engine would switch off when the vehicle was stationary and spring back to life as soon as it was time to move off. At work, the production line was designed to be set up and calibrated at the start of a particular product's production and if anything was switched off, the whole set up had to start again. He applied the thinking of the start/stop technology to that production line so machines could power down automatically while waiting for the next batch, yet spring to life when it came along. This saved huge amounts of energy.

That story had permeated the business and the engineer had become a minor celebrity amongst his peers – much to his embarrassment, he was a modest man who just liked solving problems.

So next time you want to communicate sustainability, try framing it in the context of a story – how individuals overcame adversity or had a flash of genius which made something amazing happen. It will spread the word much faster and deeper than any set of statistics.


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20 April 2016

A hidden barrier to sustainability

traffic lightLast week I told the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange that the biggest barrier to sustainability is just 6 inches wide – the space between our ears. While that certainly is the case, this morning on the school run I was reminded of another pernicious barrier.

The kids and I stopped at the first of two pedestrian crossings we use on our school/nursery circuit. A Council worker had unscrewed the control panel and a whopping great incandescent bulb was hanging out – the one which lights up the 'Wait' sign. He disconnected this and started installing an LED lamp instead. While the main lights were converted to LED long ago (rightly prioritised given one light is always on), this insight into the inner workings of the light system was a reminder that over the decades we have built up a huge stock of inefficient infrastructure and that much is hidden from everyday view.

Infrastructure also suffers from a chicken and egg syndrome. Until there are sufficient electric vehicles, there is little incentive for investment in charging points, which in turn can dissuade people from electric cars. Our electricity grid was designed for centralised fossil fuel/nuclear power and not for distributed renewables. Our waste systems are still designed as disposal mechanisms rather than for material recovery.

There are several ways to address the stock of unsustainable infrastructure, whether at a national, local or organisational level:

  • Identify and target critical infrastructure bottlenecks and either address them directly or incentivise others to change them.
  • During investment decisions, whether in the public or private sector, ensure that not only are these best practice, but that they are flexible enough to allow future developments.
  • Develop highly innovative solutions which make existing infrastructure completely redundant (as opposed to needing replacement).

Simple? If only!


Photo © Unisouth used under  creative commons licence.

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18 April 2016

A Tough Sustainable Supply Chain Conundrum


At last week's Sustainable Best Practice Exchange, Shaun McCarthy of the Supply Chain Sustainability School posed us a very interesting conundrum:

You have two options for your main raw material:

A. a high sustainability, high cost supplier;

B. a low sustainability, low cost supplier.

Which do you choose?

I'm sure most readers of this would instinctively plump for A. We should be rewarding those who make the effort to address sustainability seriously, and as that supplier increases its volumes, prices should drop.

Shaun, however, argued for B(-ish). His thinking is that going for A risks keeping sustainability in a high cost niche while everybody else goes for B and nothing changes. He would go for B but insert contract requirements for them to improve their sustainability over time. Then you - and the rest of the market - will end up with two sustainable suppliers who will compete on sustainability and price.

I've been mulling on this ever since and am struggling to go 100% for either argument. What do you think?


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15 April 2016

Green Jujitsu at the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange

I had a fantastic day out at the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange at Harrogate yesterday. I used to be a regular facilitator at these events when they toured the country between 2010-2012 and I loved them as they promoted discussion over presentation and everybody learnt from each other. In fact the round table format was a formative influence on the design of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group.

Yesterday, I gave a speech on Green Jujitsu as a better approach to employee engagement. I took a (slightly noisy) recording which you can hear here:

Audio MP3

I also facilitated a session on 'getting colleagues on board', and the conclusions were:

  • Match language to audience
  • Legacy is a strong driver for CEOs
  • Peer pressure works
  • No evangelism
  • Middle management need formal objectives
  • Awards attract attention
  • Let colleagues pitch pet projects – the best get implemented
  • Give targets branding (even 'characters') to make them easy to communicate
  • Removing barriers is as important as new ventures;
  • Human interest stories beat case studies
  • Stretch targets grab attention

If much of that sounds familiar, one of the delegates had read Green Jujitsu and was quoting from it at length!


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13 April 2016

How to engage apathetic people in sustainability

The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers another critical question: how do you engage with people when they really aren't interested? I challenge the idea of apathy and suggest 3 generic ideas to help.

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

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.



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11 April 2016

Steel & Sustainability: The Future

Steel works VysokePece1

The repercussions of the announcement that Indian conglomerate Tata wants to sell off or close its Port Talbot steel making facilities continue. With the closure of its blast furnace on Teesside some years ago, closure would decimate what was once a proud industry.

Sections of the media have jumped on 'high energy prices' due to 'green levies' as the reason for the loss making on the plant. But analysis has shown that green levies cost the plant about £7.5m per year - about 1% of the plant's manufacturing costs. And it has been revealed that Tata has made £704m profit on trading carbon permits... Do the math.

So sustainability has not killed UK Steel. In fact, it may be coming to its rescue. A putative buyer for the plant wants to change from traditional blast furnaces (which use raw ore) to electric arc furnaces (EAFs) which recycle scrap. Not only do EAFs form an important part of the circular economy, their carbon footprint is 20% smaller. Win-win all over the shop.

The bigger point here is that industry must prepare for a sustainable future or wither on the vine. Go green or die.

Photo © Třinecké železárny


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8 April 2016

In Sustainability, "Everybody's Responsibility" = "Nobody's Responsibility"

what can I do

As regular readers, will know, as well as my day job as sustainability consultant/pontificator, I have another day job which fits round it of local councillor. A subset of that job is, unsurprisingly perhaps, Opposition Spokesman on Sustainability Issues.

Now, while I keep this blog free of partisan party political stuff, it is fair to say that when my party lost control of the Council back in 2011, Sustainability has dropped from a first tier priority down to the third tier of "other things we should really do". But in the last few months, it has suddenly bubbled back to the second tier, much to my delight – I finally have something to scrutinise.

While the new initiative is quite good, the thing that bothers me is that the responsibility for it is really unclear. Two of the ten Cabinet members have formal responsibility for climate change, but the new initiative was led in the press by a third, and a fourth member presented the report on the new initiative.

When challenged as to who was 'it', the answer was the same one we hear across many organisations. "We are trying to make sustainability everybody's responsibility." That line always reminds me of the old story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody...

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.  Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job.  Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

As I have argued many times, professionally and politically, somebody has to show responsibility from a leadership point of view. Somebody has to be driving that change, somebody has to stand up and defend progress (or lack of it), somebody has to be the 'face' of sustainability.

With my clients, I always recommend:

  1. There must be clear and visible leadership at both an executive and an operational level;
  2. Responsibility for sustainability in key middle management positions should not be left to chance – sustainability KPIs should be translated for those job roles and embedded into personal objectives;
  3. Once those formal roles are set, "everybody's responsibility" can be delivered through peer networks and employee engagement – but you should have no doubts that it is unlikely to deliver more than reasonable incremental change.





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