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15 September 2014

Everybody is an Environmentalist


Last week, I posited five rules for Pragmatic Environmentalism. Over the next couple of weeks I'm going to expand on/refine this a little to explain my thinking, so, first up is:

Rule 1: Everybody is an Environmentalist

Yup, everyone. We pay good money to holiday in beautiful places, we pay a premium for houses with a view of nature or near a park, we get very excited at the sight of a whale or a bird of prey. Mainstream environmental NGOs have a massive membership - 4.5 million in the UK,  1 in 10 of British adults, or an order of magnitude more than the political parties can muster.

Even those hate figures of the green movement have a sliver of environmentalism - the Daily Mail has campaigned against single use plastic bags, climate troll James Delingpole has been known to fret about fish stocks, and Margaret Thatcher remains the only prime minister to make a major speech on the environment.

However, this does not mean we are a nation of goateed, yurt-dwelling tree huggers. There is a strong suspicion that the more vociferous elements of the green movement are 'watermelons' - green on the outside, socialists/reds on the inside - trying to use the environmental agenda to deliver wider political ends. I don't think there is a great conspiracy, just that many in the movement can't divide the two in their own minds - or acknowledge that people who disagree with them politically are allowed their own view.

I'm proud to be a 'mango' - green on the outside, orange (liberal) on the inside. I like to think that liberalism sees the plurality of environmentalism and that we have to form a broad coalition to tackle global environmental challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss or resource depletion. And key to that is to tap the inner environmentalist in everybody.


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12 September 2014

The (Draft) Rules of Pragmatic Environmentalism

business angel

I was called a hypocrite last week.

Not to my face, the individual is too cowardly to look me in the eye. No, he took to Twitter and attacked me for not being 100% against fracking - merely 80%. My arguments for leaving the door slightly ajar were a. while shale gas is a fossil fuel, shale gas is almost certainly much better than coal, b. we could find ourselves in an energy security crisis before too long, and c. the sensible end of the environmental movement has left such black and white dogma behind them and is making swift progress without that baggage weighing them down.

I resisted the temptation to hit reply and leave either a pithy one-liner or fire a torrent of scorn in his direction (it never works out the way you would like, anyway - I just end up waking up in the middle of the night 'cos I've though of a REALLY good put-down).

But it got me thinking about the difference between the new breed of pragmatic environmentalist and the old style ideologues. What about these rules of pragmatic environmentalism as a starter for ten:

  1. Everybody is an environmentalist - you just have to find what is important to them.
  2. Evidence rules: you can't cherry-pick the data that suits you.
  3. No inner priesthood: we have to make sustainability relevant to others, not bend them to our will.
  4. Technology and markets mechanisms are powerful tools: we must use them to our advantage.
  5. Think big or go home.

Comments? Thoughts?

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10 September 2014

What if employees won't engage in sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I tackle the nightmare scenario when employees refuse to engage in sustainability. The answer, naturally, is Green Jujitsu!

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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8 September 2014

Fashion kills sustainability

tombstoneFor a newspaper from the Guardian stable that prides itself on its approach to sustainability, I winced when I read this in a Observer article on fashion yesterday:

The ability to recycle favourite dresses is being curtailed by sites such as Facebook and Instagram.

When the journalist said 'recycling', she didn't mean passing it on to a mate, selling it second hand or using the fabric for something else. No, she meant "wearing the same dress twice" - claiming women are afraid to do so as their friends will see this cardinal sin on social media. To a man who still wears dozens of garments over a decade old, this is an alien concept.

But it illustrates a much bigger point. Our modern design and manufacturing supply chains are capable of delivering us very high quality, low price products exceptionally quickly. But it is not quality or design that consigns those products to the bin - it's fashion. And by fashion I don't just mean clothes - Douglas Coupland nailed the phenomenon in his 1991 novel 'Generation X' when he referred to 'semi-disposable Swedish furniture'. Even a ship will be scrapped when the value of its steel is thought to be higher than keeping the ship in use, rather than when it 'wears out'.

Our problem is that the 'make do and mend' concept is unlikely to storm mainstream consumer culture. There are other models which can help:

  • The service economy: despite the slip on 'recycling', the Observer article did reference services where you can rent high fashion items for one night only, so each dress will be worn dozens of times. You can do this with everything from a luxury yacht to industrial solvents.
  • The circular economy: designing products to be recycled continuously means short product lives doesn't have to be dependent on extracting more raw materials and creating more waste.
  • The sharing economy: purchasing a product and then sharing it with others. When my parents moved into their house 40 years ago, they found it came with half a hedge trimmer!
  • The retro economy: many well designed products have as much value when they are old as when they are brand-spanking new.

In the meantime, I will be recycling - in the true sense of the word - my favourite pair of cords as I have worn them threadbare. Don't think I'll be gracing the fashion pages of the newspapers anytime soon!



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5 September 2014

Why you need to be a pain in the ass to deliver sustainability

rantAn offhand tweet yesterday got me embroiled in a debate about the efficacy of environmental awareness weeks. This spilled onto the ZeroWasteWeek Facebook page where most participants politely tried to argue for awareness weeks (largely that this one had worked for them), but there were a couple of more tetchy contributions:

"Some people will do anything to try and create an argument."

"If he doesnt doesn't care for it, why bother tweeting?!"

Maybe I am just a bit of a pain in the backside, but, on the other hand, as the legendary software pioneer Rear Admiral Grace Hopper is quoted as saying:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is: "We've always done it this way."

When we are trying to facilitate massive change, we need to challenge everything - both in the system we are trying to change and the methods we use to change it. Circling the wagons around our comfort zone stifles progress.

My Green Jujitsu technique was a reaction against standard practice in employee engagement for sustainability - and the wider approach to change management. I could see that standard practice - all those drippy posters and jute bags - wasn't working. So, I stopped and thought it through. I came up with an idea that made sense, tried it, refined it, tried it again, refined it some more et voilà!

Same with organisational systems - the most powerful weapon in your armoury is the Toddler Test - keep asking 'why?' until the person can't answer.

So don't be afraid to be a pain in the ass - a nice, polite one, but a pain in the ass nonetheless.


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3 September 2014

Infographics for Sustainability: A Love/Hate Relationship

I LOVE a good infographic. A good infographic (let's call it 'an infographic' for short) adds value to data by presenting it in an easily digestible and engaging form. The graphic above from, demonstrates the difference between the scientific view on climate change and that of the general public (although the colour key is missing for some reason). But, even for the most numerate, the graphic illustrates the point much more strongly than the numbers.

Volvo_infographic_DG_v11I HATE false infographics. Take this one by Volvo (click to enlarge). It consists of numbers and statements, put into a quirky format and with some broadly relevant clipart scattered over it. You could argue that the layout and images distract rather than add to the information (and patronise the reader), but at best they merely decorate it.

There is no doubt that infographics, if done properly, can add hugely to our communication of sustainability issues. But that's a big 'if'. If it doesn't add value, go back to the drawing board.



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1 September 2014

When sustainability gets tough...

low gear now

Back in the (work) saddle today after a wonderfully lengthy August break in Belfast and latterly Wensleydale, Yorkshire. Speaking of saddles, I took my bike with me to enjoy the glorious countryside of the latter. And those U-shaped glacial valleys give the cyclist plenty of challenges - I did the Buttertubs pass as featured on the Tour de France earlier in the summer, the more difficult climb to Fleet Moss from Hawes (supposedly one of the 10 most difficult in the UK) and plenty of even steeper backroads like the one above by Semer Water which I climbed 3 times all told.

It is said that major cycle races are won on the climbs, not the descents. I try to remember this at work all the time and I strongly believe it applies to sustainability practitioners in general. We are trying to facilitate change on a massive level, often against prevailing short-term trends and some bizarre prejudices (the bile of the anti-cycling lobby is downright frightening). But it is the organisations and entrepreneurs who attack the climbs with gusto that will win in the long term.

That's not to say we should make life difficult for ourselves - expert cyclists know which gear to choose, when and what to eat and drink and subtle variations in cycling position. In the same way, sustainability techniques such as my own Green Jujitsu will help you facilitate change much more easily, just like riding a lighter bike will help you climb faster.

But we shouldn't shy away from those big steep climbs - they are the road to success. Relish the challenge!


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28 August 2014

Stupidity and employee engagement for sustainability

einstein tongue outEinstein famously said:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

And so, apparently, did Ben Franklin, Rita Mae Brown and Confucius... but whoever said it (and the smart money's on Ms Brown), they could have been talking about employee engagement for sustainability.

Again and again and again, I see the same old eco-clichés wheeled out - the hand-wringing, the clichéd imagery and the switch it off stickers and posters. None of this works, but everybody keeps trying it, bashing their head repeatedly against a brick wall.

The whole point of my Green Jujitsu approach is to break this cycle of stupidity. The concept is very simple - you abandon the 'green activist' point of view and look at sustainability through the eyes of the people you are trying to engage with. This simple, but profound switch will transform your fortunes.

My little cartoon, The Art of Green Jujitsu, is over 18 months old, but the message is still fresh. Watch it and think 'what is the difference between our protagonist Barry's initial approach and his brainwave?' Once you can work that brainwave out for yourself, you're flying.

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26 August 2014

Leadership is (still) THE key factor in Sustainability

Green Executive coverFour years on, I'm back in the Yorkshire holiday 'cottage' - actually a 3.5 bedroom stone house - where I beat my second book, The Green Executive, into shape. It's lovely to be back in such an important location to me, even though the leather recliner and ottoman upon which much of the work was done has sadly gone.

I write in a very non-linear style. Once I have a theme, I start by sketching a structure to lay out the overall framework. Then I copy and paste all my previous musings on each topic (from this blog and elsewhere) into that structure. Then I start on an epic cycle of filling in the big obvious gaps (some of that text can appear back on this blog!) and editing the recycled text so it is fresh, up to date and coherent with the new text.

This cycle continues until I get to the tipping point - the critical read-through and edit after which only superficial changes are required to ease the passage of the reader from introduction to conclusions, along with the odd minor fact sourcing. It was here in Croft House, Askrigg where I did that crucial edit for the Green Executive - it only took me two weeks of early morning sessions!

Anyway, the central theorem of The Green Executive is that Leadership is the difference between those who dabble in sustainability and those who really succeed. How does that argument stand up four years down the line?

Well, perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence was the survey of challenges faced by sustainability practitioners by the 2degrees network. The No1 challenge? (drum roll...)

Engaging senior management.

In other words, lack of leadership is what most practitioners think is the factor holding them back. Why is this important?

Because without proper leadership, no significant change will happen in the organisation. That's what leadership is for - to set the strategic direction in the business. So, yes, without buy-in you might persuade someone to specify a much more efficient boiler or trial electric vehicles in the fleet, but the really big stuff - exploiting business opportunities in the low carbon economy, deleting product lines which are intrinsically unsustainable and/or investing in a supply chain to provide recycled material at a competitive quality, quantity and price - all that just won't happen.

And all too often, in my experience, sustainability gets stuck at the middle management level because no-one at the leadership level wants to pick up the baton and run with it.

The Green Executive still sells moderately well (ie at all) for a specialised business book, but I await the day it shoots up the charts as maybe that will be the sign that the penny has finally dropped!


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21 August 2014

Aligning sustainability to success (and vice versa)

Upton_Beall_Sinclair_JrLast Sunday, John Naughton quoted 1930s campaigning author Upton Sinclair (right) in a piece in the Observer about the social contract and tech companies:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

While Sinclair was coming from a political activist point of view, the quote resonated deeply with some of my thoughts on corporate social responsibility:

  • On an individual level, it chimes with my concept of 'green jujitsu' - that we must translate sustainability into terms which make it attractive to each employee.
  • On an organisational level, it illustrates my oft spouted opinion that if the business's core function and sustainability pull in opposite directions, the former will win - in the short term at least.

Too many corporate sustainability efforts fail through cognitive dissonance - employees are told to think about the long term future of civilisation AND to maximise short term profits at any cost (or suffer the consequences). There is often an implication that what the individual/business is doing is morally abhorrent and, as Sinclair says, people will switch off.

To square this circle we need to find the common ground between sustainability and the interests of the individual/organisation. That sweet spot gives us our 'in' for engagement and understanding - then we can work on further alignment on a win-win basis.


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19 August 2014

Greetings from the Green Dales of Yorkshire

tdf yellow bikeI'm into phase II of my summer holidays - back in our favourite spot of Askrigg in Wensleydale. In the past, I've always refused on principle to holiday in the same place twice, but we love this old croft house so much, this is our third visit. First time we had one child, second time two, this time three. And no, we won't be continuing that particular trend...

You can't miss the Tour de France paraphernalia still adorning every house from the Grand Depart almost six weeks ago. I've been pedalling up hill and down dale a couple of times already, giving the old muscles a warm up before I hit the 'Côte de Buttertubs' that Nibali, Froome, Contador et al made look like a speed bump. Unlike them, I'll be stopping for tea and cake or a pint halfway around my circuit.

Naturally, I like to seek out local sustainability efforts when I'm on holiday. The amount of rooftop solar installed had increased once again, but the biggest permanent change I noticed was this fantastic archimedes screw on the river Bain in nearby Bainbridge - capable of powering 45 houses and generating £35,000 per annum for the community group which installed it - once the investors are rewarded, the profits are being invested in the local environment.

I remember reading an article in New Civil Engineer about a decade ago suggesting that hydro-projects at this scale are very cost-effective and avoid the impacts of large scale hydro. Nice to see a good, (presumably) successful community energy project too.

Another thing I like about Askrigg is the local produce, whether Wensleydale Cheese, local bread and honey, and, of course, the eponymous local ale. Don't worry, I'll have one on you!

askrigg ale

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14 August 2014

It's not about who YOU can trust, but about who THEY can trust...

oil pricesI'm thoroughly enjoying the first phase of our family summer holidays visiting my parents in my home town of Belfast. My dad has become something of an investor, and I'm starting to dip my toe into clean tech investment, so it was a good opportunity to get some hints and tips.

The only slight tension was he's an archetypal Telegraph reader who invests in traditional blue chip companies and I'm looking at the much riskier emerging green markets. To bridge this gap, I made sure that data I showed him came from sources he would trust rather than sources an environmentalist would naturally reach for first.

This is a classic green jujitsu move. If you want to sell sustainability to a Telegraph reader, then use Telegraph-type sources rather than, say The Guardian. If you want to sell sustainability to an economist, use analyses from major business schools or respected economic sources. And so on...

It's good discipline to challenge yourself in this way anyway. If you use sources that will almost always agree with your gut instinct, confirmation bias is a serious risk.

So, while ignoring the climate change denying lunatic fringe, I deliberately seek out well argued opinion and analysis that I wouldn't naturally gravitate towards. It broadens my mind, challenges my assumptions and keeps me on my toes.


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12 August 2014

The problem with One Planet Living...

world brainIn the latest edition of my monthly e-mail bulletin The Low Carbon Agenda, I made an aside that an organisation should not have more than 7 top-level sustainability goals. I immediately got an e-mail from a sustainability practitioner saying she was being asked to use the One Planet Living system which has ten objectives and was this a problem?

The problem was illustrated by the fact that, even though I have read the One Planet Living objectives many times, I still had to look them up to remember what any of them were. OK, you could argue I'm going senile early, but if you go over more than 5-7 objectives, they all just become a haze.

For the record, here are the ten:

  • Zero carbon: Making buildings more energy efficient and delivering all energy with renewable technologies.
  • Zero waste: Reducing waste, reusing where possible, and ultimately sending zero waste to landfill.
  • Sustainable transport: Encouraging low carbon modes of transport to reduce emissions, reducing the need to travel.
  • Sustainable materials: Using sustainable healthy products, with low embodied energy, sourced locally, made from renewable or waste resources.
  • Local and sustainable food: Choosing low impact, local, seasonal and organic diets and reducing food waste.
  • Sustainable water: Using water more efficiently in buildings and in the products we buy; tackling local flooding and water course pollution.
  • Land use and wildlife: Protecting and restoring biodiversity and natural habitats through appropriate land use and integration into the built environment.
  • Culture and community: Reviving local identity and wisdom; supporting and participating in the arts.
  • Equity and local economy: Creating bioregional economies that support fair employment, inclusive communities and international fair trade.
  • Health and happiness: Encouraging active, sociable, meaningful lives to promote good health and well being.

Some of these could clearly be sub-objectives of the others. Sustainable transport could be a sub-objective of zero carbon. Local and sustainable food - local should be a possible subset of sustainable, but overall this objective could be covered by zero carbon, sustainable water and land use. (One could also ask where phasing out persistent organic pollutants fits in... Oh, I do get very pedantic...)

Anyway, my point is that One Planet Living, like all such systems, is a framework developed to help you, not ten commandments carved in stone. If you find yourself struggling to match your efforts to the framework, then the tail is wagging the dog and you should adapt the framework to your needs, find another one or generate your own. And, whichever you do, if you go over 7 objectives, you will find other people struggling to remember them - not just me!


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6 August 2014

Ask Gareth: 5 Steps to Make Sustainability 'The New Normal'

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I set out the 5 things you really need to do to make sustainability 'the new normal' in your organisation.

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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4 August 2014

Sustainability Strategies in an Uncertain World

screamI'm a news and current affairs junkie, but the news is so unremittingly grim at the minute, I'm trying to ration my intake for my own sanity. Whether it's Ukraine, Gaza, the Ebola virus, Boko Haram or ISIS, we seem to be in a swirl of instability where one small event can pitch us into a crisis.

Sudden disruption is a feature of corporate social responsibility too. The 24 hour news beast needs constant feeding and social media means allegations, legitimate or otherwise, can spread across the globe like wildfire, unfiltered by the reality checks a traditional NGO would be expected to apply. This can turn into a self serving cycle where the mainstream media finds itself reporting on a 'Twitterstorm' which in turn feeds the rumour. All this using a technology which is only 8 years old.

As one of the Sustainability Mastermind Group Members put it ten days ago "Instability is the new business reality." So how can you deal with the beast?

  • Make sure your strategy is separate from your action plans. A strategy should tell you where you want to get to, but you need to be flexible on how you intend to get there. Action plans need to be flexible - remember the old military adage 'a plan never survives first contact with the enemy';
  • Dump liabilities overboard. If you've got a product which you think could get you in trouble in the future, develop a replacement. If you use a chemical of concern - find an alternative or design it out of your process. GM got rid of Hummer after its Government bail out for a very good reason;
  • Open up: Apple has defused much of the bad publicity around its Chinese subcontractors by publishing all its audit reports. This incentivises Apple to deal with problems, incentivises the subcontractors to deal with problems and removes the sting from the NGOs.

But the bottom line is, instability is here to stay, get used to it!




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1 August 2014

Making Your Business Resilient with the Sustainability Masterminds

Last week saw the eighth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. We rolled up to another top-notch venue, the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland - a County Durham village recycled out of a monastery many centuries ago (is that upcycling or downcycling? discuss...).

The topic of this meeting was Resilience - how do we prepare for and deal with unexpected and sudden changes. The Group chose to focus on raw material security, legislation, NGO campaigns and changes in key personnel. Here's a selection of the learning points generated:

  • Unpredictable things happen - Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous ‘unknown unknowns’;
  • Instability is the new business reality;
  • Unpredictability makes risk assessment increasingly difficult;
  • Too many people like to bury bad news or ignore ominous weak signals;
  • Sometimes a bad experience is required to focus minds on preventative measures – do not be afraid to use it;
  • Review each crisis – how did we handle it? What can we learn?
  • Legislation can come over the horizon very quickly eg ESOS;
  • Can spend a huge amount of time and energy reacting to legislation when proactive planning can be more effective;
  • Turn trauma into opportunity via new product/service development;
  • Clicktivism means campaigns can rise up the agenda very quickly;
  • Develop a set procedure and script to deal with a PR crisis – don’t ‘do a Tony Hayward’;
  • Warning signals on security of supply are flashing eg China’s monopolisation of rare earth metals or US food production problems;
  • Develop long term supplier relationships for key strategic raw materials;
  • Circular economy and renewable energy solutions may be more resilient to global risks;
  • Have sustainability properly embedded so back-pedalling by a new executive is more difficult than moving forward;
  • Work out what makes a new person tick and pitch sustainability in those terms.

As always it is how we got to these points that held the most value for participants.

The meeting concluded with a fantastic lunch followed by a circular stroll up onto the moors above the village and back along the river Derwent. Life's hard sometimes!

If you want more information on the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group click here.


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30 July 2014

Turbocharging Employee Engagement with the 80:20 Rule

Pareto eighty twenty principle

Life isn't even.

But strangely, much of it is predictably uneven, leading to what is commonly called the 80:20 rule where 80% of outputs often arise from 20% of inputs, known to mathematicians as a power law distribution.

I can see myriad examples of the 80:20 rule from where I am sitting: 20% of Terra Infirma's clients bring in 80% of income, 20% of our YouTube videos deliver 80% of visitor views etc. The patterns are uncanny and also incredibly powerful as understanding the rule can lead to great leaps forward in performance whether in sustainability or quality or speed or whatever.

In the last two days, I've had meetings with three MegaCorps to discuss employee engagement. All three were struggling with how to engage very disparate cohorts of front-line employees given geographical, contractual and IT difficulties. While I was travelling to and from these sessions, I was working on my next book - on applying the 80:20 rule to sustainability - so the principle was at the forefront of my mind.

Probably the most useful thing I did for the companies was to challenge the underlying assumption that all employees needed to be engaged in sustainability on an equal basis. If you have limited resources (and who doesn't?), it is clearly more effective to focus on employees whose decision making has biggest effect on the footprint of the company.

One company estimated that the mass of hard-to-reach front-line workers they wanted to engage only determined about 10% of its environmental impact, whereas a much smaller cohort of relatively easy-to-reach white collar workers determined the vast majority of the other 90% (probably a 90:1 rule in this case). The conversation then changed, with almost audible relief, on to how to effectively engage the latter.

This kind of thinking is heretical to the 'mindfulness' movement who want everybody to be at one with nature every minute of the day. But in my mind, the choice between ideological perfection and making rapid substantial change with targeted intervention is a very easy one to make.



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28 July 2014

Donald Rumsfeld was right (about one thing, anyway...)

RumsfeldDonald Rumsfeld, US Secretary under George W Bush has long been derided for this explanation of the flimsiness of the evidence for going to war against Saddam Hussain.

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.

While this was a blatant attempt at obfuscation, on face value it is actually a very pithy treatise on the types of uncertainty we face in the world.

Rumsfeld's quote came up at last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group where we were discussing how to make sustainability programmes resilient to sudden change - in particular those 'unknown unknowns' which can come over the horizon very quickly. One of the themes of the conversation was making sure that our faith in known knowns doesn't open us up to unknown unknowns. And you don't need to look beyond the current, horrific newspaper headlines to see how events in, say, Gaza or Ukraine, can spiral out of control very quickly.

One of the benefits of the shift to a sustainable economy is its resilience to such unknown unknowns. Solar panels and wind turbines are wonderfully oblivious to global crises and their effects on energy prices. A circular economy undermines the political power of those with monopolies on scarce resources (eg Russia and gas, China and rare earth metals). Sustainable use of resources such as water defuses potential conflicts in drought zones.

The problem is that we cling to our known knowns, but remain shocked when unknown unknowns happen. One of the key challenges is to get people to understand that the status quo is the risky option and sustainability is the low risk option, not the other way around.



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25 July 2014

Prioritise everything and you prioritise nothing...

go green

The UN has just released its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) - when I saw there were 17 of them, my immediate thought was "how do you prioritise any of that?" Then I saw each goal was broken down into about 5-8 sub objectives and you end up with  somewhere in the the region of 150 objectives. Where to start? Can anybody actually recite all 17 off the top of their heads?

By comparison, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for 2015 numbered just eight with fewer sub-objectives. Just having glanced at them, I can remember a couple as I'm not overwhelmed with detail.

When I'm developing sustainability strategies with my clients (note: with, not for) I usually recommend 5-7 top level goals as we can get our heads around that number - and remember them. It is always better to make breakthrough progress on the 5 biggest issues than incremental progress on 100.


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23 July 2014

Mind the Credibility Gap

ants bridge

I'm continuing to plough my way through the background information from a sustainability training course I'm reviewing for a client and it's throwing up all kinds of interesting nuggets. One sustainability primer produced by a major NGO caught my eye.

The first section was a description of different sustainability definitions - the Brundtland definition, The Natural Step and the Forum for the Future Five Capitals Model. All very high level and philosophical.

The second section said the starting point of tackling sustainability was to engage stakeholders, with some good suggestions of who to consult and how to go about it.

And the third section said... um, well, no, there was no third section. That was it.

So this primer told us we face humongous, existential challenges and have to completely redesign the way we think about society, but the only tool it gave us to tackle them is a suggestion to talk to people we know about it.

I had an immediate flashback to the Live Earth concerts in 2007 where we were given apocalyptic accounts of the potential impacts of climate change - and then urged to turn of our phone chargers at night to 'do our bit.' Or all those books which describe the world's problems in great detail and then in the last chapter offer incredibly vague and untested solutions to actually solve them.

People aren't daft. If you tell them there's a huge problem but proffer trivial or ill-defined solutions, they simply won't believe you are credible - and rightly so.

If you want to tackle sustainability properly - whether at a global level or in an organisation - you not only have to describe the problem but to break it down into its constituent parts and sketch out solutions which are commensurate with the problem such as the circular economy, smart grid technology, the digital economy, etc etc etc.

It's good to talk - and I make a living out of it - but make sure you don't fall into the credibility gap by having nothing meaningful to talk about.


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