When I first read the bumf around Mark Lefko's new book Global Sustainability, I was a bit worried that it clashed with my own tome, The Green Executive. Both are aimed at senior management, both take a more strategic look at Sustainability and both are built around a series of interviews with senior executives. However, on the latter Lefko has roped in considerably more star wattage than I did, with Sir Richard Branson and the CEOs of TATA, Dow, Cargill, and Unilever featuring amongst the 21 interviewees.
From these interviews, Lefko has extracted 9 best practices which make up the chapter titles of the book. The content of each chapter consists mainly of interview quotes from those CEOs, some extending to quite lengthy extracts. The nine chapters are:
Establish Guiding Principles
Practice Long-Term Thinking
Deal Fairly and Ethically with Suppliers, Employees, and Customers
Be Concerned about Your Employees’ Motivation and Well-Being
Support the Well-Being of the Communities Where You Do Business
Form Good Partnerships
Find Ways to Reduce Waste
Be Adaptable—and Seize Opportunities
Measure the Return on Your Sustainability Investment
The book's aim is clearly to persuade senior business executives to get on board the Sustainability train via peer pressure – if these business titans are doing Sustainability, shouldn't you be? And it does this job very well, with a consistently clear and upbeat message, reinforced by those captains of industry.
I've had plenty of arguments with publishers over book titles and, to me, Lefko's subtitle "(21 Leading CEOs show) How to do well by doing good" would be a more accurate title for the book – and one more compelling to its target audience of CEOs and those new to Sustainability than "Global Sustainability".
The book is not really a 'how-to' on making Sustainability a strategic business priority (check out The Green Executive for that!). As someone who lives corporate Sustainability day in day out, I got a couple of new insights and some nice fresh case studies, but nothing to shake up the status quo on planet Sustainability. That's not a criticism, just an observation on the target audience.
A couple of times in recent weeks and months I have heard/read calls for 'long term thinking' for Sustainability - 2050 seems to have a particular allure due to UN climate targets. As is all too common in our field, there is no challenge to the assumption that this is a good thing. But in my experience, setting organisational targets too far in the future, is counter-productive. Here's why:
1. People, particularly key decision makers, assume they will be on the golf course or pushing up the daisies by then and don't see the targets as their problem, so you create drift;
2. For everyone, 2050 seems a long time away, so there will be plenty of time to do something about those targets when all this short term stuff gets sorted;
3. The assumption that technology will come to our rescue, also negating the need to act now – solar powered hover cars and all that.
In other words, we need timeframes which create a sense of urgency while giving time to make substantial change. I find 7-10 years is optimum for most organisations with significant assets; you can go a bit shorter in, say, the service sector. If you are wedded to 2050, make sure you set some interim targets (2025?) to create that urgency.
I suppose a bit like 'Think Global, Act Local', we need to 'Think Long Term, Act Now.'
My big theme this year is 'Sustainability conversations', and one thing that sets 'conversation' apart from 'communication' is you've got to listen as well as talk.
If you actively listen to those you are trying to communicate with, you will find the following benefits:
1. Your audience will trust what you are trying to say if you show that you care about what they think;
2. You will be able to respond to your audience's hopes, fears and uncertainties and the audience will get a deeper understanding as a result;
3. If the audience feels it is 'in the loop', individuals are more likely to embrace new ways of working;
4. You will learn how to adjust your language, tone and imagery to appeal to your wider audience (I don't guess what the culture is like when I'm using Green Jujitsu, I tend to ask them);
5. You will discover the barriers your audience see to more sustainable behaviour and be able to remove them.
The last one is not to be underestimated – some of my biggest 'wins' with clients have come from listening to what frontline employees say. Fixing such problems is often at low or no cost and tilts the playing field permanently towards more sustainable behaviour for all.
As the old saying goes, you've got two ears and one mouth and you should use them proportionately!
I needed an example of user influence on a building's carbon emissions for my CIBSE talk on Tuesday night. I had a nagging feeling that the lofty goals of the BedZed zero-emission development in South London had been compromised by user behaviour and, after a bit of digging, found a study which suggested the difference between the highest energy users on site and the lowest was an incredible factor of 8. That's a colossal range given everybody has the same technology. And it's not just BedZed, the Western Harbour development in Malmo and the Vauban neighbourhood in Freiburg have both struggled to get residents to change their behaviour to match the ideal.
This goes for virtually any product – you can design washing powders to wash clothes at low temperature, but if consumers keep pushing the temperature selector on their washing machine upwards 'for luck', the benefit won't be felt. User behaviour is probably the ultimate challenge for the sustainability professional.
There are two responses to this:
1. Continue to design the neighbourhood/product/system to make green behaviour easier than business as usual. At one client we removed the bureaucracy around using their teleconferencing system and it went from gathering dust to being overwhelmed almost overnight;
2. Accept that your product is only one part of the larger jigsaw and you can only do what you can do. It's not P&G's fault that my washing machine doesn't have a 15°C setting, so I can't make the most of Ariel Excel Gel's low temperature performance, but there is now an incentive for the washing machine manufacturers to design one in.
I think the latter is very important – someone needs to jump first. We talk about 'chicken and egg' to describe apparently unsurmountable problems, but in evolutionary terms the egg did appear before the chicken. Are you going to be that egg?
I gave a talk last night to the Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers about behaviour change in building users. One of the themes was the need to get out of the green echo chamber and speak to the unconverted in a way that will appeal to their worldview aka Green Jujitsu.
For this very reason, I am more interested in politically right-of-centre arguments/solutions for tackling climate change than centrist/left-of-centre arguments because on that side all but the very far left have accepted the need for urgent action. Bringing those who are uncertain for that need is much more important than virtue signalling to those who already get it.
So this morning's reports that a group of US Republican old guard are proposing a carbon tax as a conservative approach to climate change really pricked my interest. If left, right and centre want to tackle climate change in their own way, then that's much more viable and robust than trying to persuade one side to adopt the views of another. Progress is always better than no progress.
As I said last night, finding the sweetspot of overlap between Sustainability and the views of key stakeholders is the road to success.
A very topical question for this month's Ask Gareth – what will happen to Sustainability in the age of Donald Trump? I offer three important principles to make sure short term political upsets don't derail your Sustainability programme.
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.
A tweet appeared on my twitter feed yesterday urging people to buy loose fruit and veg to avoid packaging waste. However loose veg leads to 20% higher wastage than packaged veg, so while you might save on a plastic bag (you're going to need a container to get them home anyway, even a paper bag has an impact), you're going to be responsible for 20% more land-use, 20% more irrigation and fertilisation, 20% more washing and processing, 20% more transport and 20% more waste. I haven't done the sums, but I'm guessing the packaged fruit comes out on top by a country mile. Excess packaging is wrong of course, but we package goods for a very good reason.
You get similar simplistic thinking about bottled water. Now I try to remember to take tap water out with us on family trips (Mrs K is much better at this than me), but if I don't have any and I have to buy a drink from a shop, which is more eco-friendly – bottled water or a soft drink (= bottled water + sugar + chemicals)? I've seen people buy a coke rather than water on this basis - madness.
This simplistic good/evil demarcation in the environmental world is potentially damaging. The anti-nuclear move in Germany has propped up the coal-fired power sector. As Mark Lynas points out, the vilification of carbon offsetting by green commentators has almost certainly had a negative impact by cutting off a flow of finance into green projects.
These issues aren't particularly complicated but the dogmatic mantras of some campaigners can do more harm than good. Let's think before acting.
Over the last couple of days I've been writing about understanding the business case for sustainability, why it varies for different companies and why it is imperative to understand how it affects you. What bothers me is the way most commenters have defaulted to the 'Go Green Save Money' mindset. I'm clearly not getting my message across!
I can see why people default to 'save money', you can and probably will save money through your sustainability programme. For some companies this is a strong driver, but for most, keeping regulators and customers happy will be much more important for the business. After all, breaking compliance can lead to product recalls or plant shut downs, disappointing your customers can lead to loss of market share; both of which will have a much bigger financial impact than shaving a few % off the energy bill. From a positive point of view, raising turnover by gaining market share or exploiting new emerging markets will dwarf any efficiency savings.
This is extremely important as if you stick to the 'Go Green Save Money' mindset you will not do make any of the step changes required to get your business fit for the 21st Century. You'll be debating returns on investment while your competitors plunder your market share.
I recorded the following video on the business case a few years ago. It's getting a bit long in the tooth, but the core message still rings true.
I love a good Venn diagram so, when I was reviewing the contents of this week's Business Case for Sustainability webinar, I realised there was an interlocking-circles shaped gap in the introduction. So, I came up with the above.
It illustrates a basic principle of Sustainability success: when Sustainability programmes are synergistic with business interests (and, more importantly, are seen to be synergistic) then that programme will in itself be (small 's') sustainable. Conversely, if you design a Sustainability programme which doesn't fit with business interests then you will have a constant battle to keep it on the agenda at all, never mind making significant changes. First bump in the road and you can say goodbye to the commitment.
What does this mean in practice? Well if your Sustainability programme is driven by customer demand, then you focus Sustainability efforts on those customer demands, rather than, say, cost reductions. If, like one of my clients, you are selling reasonably complex products globally, then compliance is at the fore (eg eradicating problem chemicals) rather than cost cutting. However, if you are a bulk commodity producer you may find that a cost reduction focus will give your Sustainability programme traction with the powers that be.
I sometimes get accused of cynicism when I present ideas like this, but idealism is the enemy of success. And don't forget this pragmatism is just a starting point; once you have embedded Sustainability in the organisation as a friend, not a a foe, you can work to increase the area of overlap by converging the two circles. But finding that starting point is crucial.
I don't know about you, but my 2017 hasn't really taken off yet. I started the year with minor surgery followed by quite a lot of physio and Mrs K has been away for two week-long trips leaving me in sole charge of the Kane gang (the two weren't meant to coincide, but Sod's law...). So while I've been able to keep things ticking over and prepare some of the groundwork, none of my big plans have taken off just yet.
What about you? How are your plans progressing? If you've had a sluggish start to making Sustainability happen in 2017, let me know and I'll do what I can to help.
Yesterday I downloaded the Carbon Trust's Zero Waste guide. As most of the content could have been written a decade ago, it was, frankly, a waste of electrons. Where was the aspiration, the innovation, the inspiration? We get a nod to the circular economy and design, but no more detail. Instead we get the 3Rs and talking to waste management contractors.
If you want zero waste, paradoxically you've got to stop thinking about waste. You've got to think about preventing resources being wasted instead (my mantra is "waste is a verb, not a noun"). You've got to think about loops, not linear processes.
Once you've changed your mindset, you've got to find quality uses for every stream of material or design it out of your system. You need to talk to suppliers and customers about closed loop business models and innovations. You've got to talk to other organisations who may be able to use unwanted material as a raw material. You, and plenty of other people, have got to do things radically differently.
We cannot face a challenge like zero waste with a linear waste minimisation mindset, it's like taking a pea shooter to a war zone. As Einstein said "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has a reputation as something of an inscrutable sphinx and we only get glimpses of what makes her tick. When she stepped up to the hot seat, there was none of the husky-hugging of her predecessor and she abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the dismay and anger of the green commentariat. However, I was less worried about that as DECC had been folded into the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy where arguably it could be better integrated into business as usual rather than being treated as a special case – and BEIS Minister Greg Clark is a champion of carbon reduction.
Delivering affordable energy & clean growth: We will keep energy costs down, build the energy structure we need for new technologies, and secure the economic benefits of our move towards a low carbon economy.
Added to this is various public statements by the PM and BEIS ministers over the last 48 hours singling out electric vehicles, battery technology, 'smart energy' and nuclear as areas they would like to boost. I'm very pleased with this as I've long called for Government intervention to accelerate the smart grid as a way of unlocking more, and greener, growth, than the usual road building.
So far, so good, but what's not there?
The big omission is the circular economy which as usual has to play second fiddle to low carbon energy. For as long as I've been in the sustainability trade, this has been the case – 'waste' is simply not seen as sexy enough. I think it is time for a rebrand, focussing on technologies such as bioprocessing, smart disassembly, automatic sorting technologies and using big data methods to facilitate reverse logistics. More white coats and coding, a bit less in the way of tipper trucks, in other words. A circular economy would also boost the robustness of a post-Brexit UK economy – a key way of selling it to the green-sceptic amongst May's backbenchers.
The other problem is that the industrial strategy launch has been overshadowed by news of another – a misfiring Trident missile last year which hit the headlines yesterday. Events, my dear boy, events...
There has been a raft of big Sustainability announcements from Corporations recently:
Ikea achieving zero waste last year;
Google saying they'll be 100% renewable-powered by the end of the year;
Unilever's pledge to make all its plastic packaging ‘fully reusable, recyclable or compostable’ by 2025.
These are BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) and a half. And what's more they're being delivered. That's because big stretch targets such as zero waste or 100% renewable energy make you think in a quite different way to incremental targets. Business as usual will not do the job, neither will Sustainability as a bolt on.
Before I had kids I used to see myself as a bit of a songwriter. One of my enduring insights from that time is that is much more difficult to write a good happy song than a good sad song. For the latter, you only need to reach for a minor key, a slow tempo and some pseudo-intellectual phrases and you're away. I could never get it right with an upbeat, positive song, so I used to fall back on scathing satire to make it work.
I find the same happens with sustainability news (or any news for that matter). It is very easy to create a headline from a negative story, much more difficult to be impactful with a positive one. So you get articles like this one from the Guardian's Robin McKie which includes the line
"The trouble is that very little has been done in the past decade to trigger changes that might wean us off [the UK's] fossil fuel addiction."
That is utter nonsense. We have seen a renewable energy boom and a collapse in the coal-fired industry. OK, so the domestic heating/insulation sector and transport are proving harder nuts to crack and the Government should be putting this much higher up the agenda, but the picture is encouraging. Of course we need people like McKie to keep the pressure on, but the context is important or people will get despondent.
You can scale this up to the global level. Carbon emissions are stalling, as is population growth, and extreme poverty is falling fast, but you'd never know it from the press. The war isn't won yet by any means, but our front lines are moving forward. Let's keep the troops motivated!
As I've said before, our big theme in 2017 is Sustainability Conversations as this is where we believe breakthroughs lie. But the critical question is how do you get the right people interested in having that conversation in the first place? The answer lies in our old friend, Green Jujitsu.
Green Jujitsu is the art of framing Sustainability in terms which each audience will find irresistible. That means finding the overlap between Sustainability and that person's/those people's perspective on life. So for an Technical Director talk technical solutions, for a CFO talk £/$/Euros, for a CEO talk competition.
In practice this means the following:
Engineering an opportunity to start a discussion on their terms ("Can you help me with something?");
Using their language, imagery and idioms, not impenetrable Sustainability jargon;
Put the ball in their court by asking killer questions (eg "our competitors have just launched a non-toxic version of our product, how should we respond?");
Listen to their responses and encourage them to keep trains of thought going by asking follow up questions (this is essentially how I do my client coaching and it is very powerful).
Summarising conclusions and next steps at the end of the conversation.
Key to all this is realising that Sustainability success will not be so much about how well you do your job as how well you can get other people to do their job. Let them take credit for success even if you've had to drag them kicking and screaming to that point.
We'll be discussing sustainability conversations and green jujitsu in more detail on our webinar on 18th January - more details here.
I was born and bred in Northern Ireland, my 19 years living there coinciding with the bulk of 'The Troubles' – the Unionist/Protestant vs Nationalist/Catholic (delete as applicable) conflict which cost in the region of 3,500 lives over 30ish years. Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, an elaborate power-sharing structure has just about held peace together and the province has returned to some state of normality.
The NI Assembly has been pitched into one of its periodic of crises, ostensibly by the revelation that the local implementation of the Renewable Heat Initiative has overspent by £400 million.
Now, I've semi-deliberately avoided keeping up to date with Norn Irish politics as I find the tribalism depressing, but I know enough to assume that the crisis is probably more than a failed renewable energy subsidy scheme. But I am very angry at just how inept the NI RHI scheme was. It paid users of biomass heating systems a staggering 150% of fuel costs. The safety mechanisms that prevent abuse in the rest of the UK were not implemented, resulting in a 'cash for ash' goldrush (Irish politics are notable for their memorable rhyming nicknames). Rumours abound of farmers heating empty barns and factories heating previously unheated spaces to profit from the subsidy. What did the scheme's architects think was going to happen?
Why does this anger me? Because bodged subsidy schemes, like the UK's original Feed-In Tariff scheme (which didn't take into consideration plummeting solar PV prices) or the Green Deal insulation scheme (which loaned householders cash at an interest rate higher than a standard commercial loan), give renewable energy a bad name. They create uncertainty and apprehension amongst the general public, anger amongst tax-payers, and feed into the clarion calls from the anti-renewable/climate change denying/pro-fossil fuels lobby. The RHI scandal has had far more press coverage than, say, the record levels of renewable electricity generated in the UK in 2016, even though the latter is in many ways a much more significant story.
Delivering on sustainability is hard enough without tying our shoe-laces together and falling flat on our faces. We can try and fail on technology or private-sector initiatives, but when it comes to spending public money, we must get it right first time.
About 17 years ago, I took a job establishing and running the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) at the University of Teesside. At the time, the Uni was known for one thing above all else – Virtual Reality. Our building was called the Virtual Reality and Technology Centre – every other engineering and science discipline was crammed in under the afterthought. And then, suddenly, it was decided that VR had no future and the VR Centre was unceremoniously shut.
I mused on this when my sister presented the boys with a Google Cardboard for Christmas. Just a decade after the VR Centre closed and a piece of cardboard with a couple of lenses in it, costing less than a fiver, is giving us VR in our living room. Of course you have to add in the critical element yourself – a (my!) smartphone. And that's probably where the VR centre went wrong – it closed a few years before the smartphone revolution changed the way we interacted with technology for ever. You could accuse those decision makers of being short-sighted, but the extent of that supposedly-unrelated revolution was extremely hard to anticipate.
When you look at clean technology trends they follow a similar trend – individual ideas will appear, get hyped and then disappear. And then, suddenly, we get something like the current renewable energy boom, far exceeding all predictions. The traditional way of explaining this is the hype cycle (see below), but to me this is over-simplistic.
I believe such breakthroughs occur as much by the convergence of technologies as by the maturity of individual technologies. If we go back to the smartphone, all the component technologies: mobile telecommunication, data transmission, the internet (in the form of bulletin boards etc), GUIs and even touch screens were all bimbling along in the 1980s but it took until 2007 for a certain Mr Jobs to conceive the smartphone as we know it. But I doubt that even Jobs would have foreseen, say, the addition of a piece of cardboard bringing VR to the masses. Predicting the future is a mugs game.
We're starting to get to the stage where the Energy 2.0 revolution could go really huge. At the minute we still have a centralised energy system (1.0) slowly morphing into a distributed one. You can see the other elements starting to fall into place – smart(er) grids, electric cars (with their batteries for storage), the Internet of Things, variable energy pricing and the ubiquity of smartphones as a potential interface/control system. That vision of sitting in front of the TV getting an alert on your phone that you could sell some of your solar-generated, EV-stored energy at a premium price if you tap OK right now could soon be with us. Or it could be something completely different, who knows?
I write this from a ward of Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary after surgery on the little finger upon which I cleverly landed when out running/dancing-on-ice exactly a year ago. Not the most auspicious start to the year, but the enforced time out is giving me a chance to reflect on the last year or two and plan the year ahead.
One thing I have concluded is that our non-project delivery mechanisms often deliver much more value to our clients than the traditional consultancy project. A project is tightly defined and the client gets what they asked for. But in Sustainability it is often the stuff that people don't know that they don't know where major breakthroughs lie – those crucial issues take conversation to uncover, not phases and milestones and deliverables.
We have three main non-project delivery mechanisms (in increasing level of conversation richness):
But shameless plugs aside, with whom are you going to (or do you need to) have conversations about Sustainability in 2017? Is it everybody, or, more likely, key influencers? How will you start that conversation? What language will you use? What format will it take? And how will you work with the results?
And, as that last paragraph demonstrates, one of the best ways to kick off a conversation is with a question.
Here's to a successful and more sustainable 2017, full of rich conversation!