Another thought from last weekend's trip to Amsterdam with eldest child. I never used to wear a cycle helmet, but I got one when I bought my road bike last year, because I now ride faster and harder, and I need one to comply with sportive rules. I've started wearing it more often when out on my town bike too, partly our of habit, partly out of solidarity with the kids. So I rolled into Amsterdam with a lump of polystyrene on my head.
Of course, I stood out like a sore thumb. No-one wears a helmet in Amsterdam. No lycra or 'athleisure' wear either – just ordinary clothes (although there were a few MAMILs outside the city dressed exactly as we do here in the UK). And everybody rattles along at quite a pace on those clunky-looking 'Granny bikes' – certainly faster than the stately 10mph at which Harry and I were trundling.
I've never understood the bile which parts of the UK media and public throws at cyclists. Calls for us to pay the mythical 'road tax', mandatory cycle helmets, insurance, registration plates. I can't believe that so many people are so resentful that they aren't allowed to drive a tonne and a half of pollution-spewing metal at 70mph without a few restrictions, that they think those who choose to push 10kg of alloy, emissions-free, at 12mph should somehow shoulder the same burden.
We will hit a tipping point of course. In the Netherlands almost every driver also rides a bike, so bike-bile doesn't occur. (Well, it kind of does, as tourists who don't know what they're doing seems to wind up the locals – see pic). But I've found the same in organisations. Once a critical mass of people are involved in Sustainability, it becomes 'the new normal' and the resistance fades. But the key to getting that critical mass is to make the price of entry as low as possible – no mandatory cycle helmets, literally or metaphorically.
This month's Ask Gareth answers a great question from Dan – how do you keep Sustainability running after the honeymoon. My basic answer is that it is too late to consider it then and I suggest three ways you can design your Sustainability programme to be self sustaining.
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.
Regular readers will know I'm a great proponent of the 80:20 Rule in Sustainability – I wrote a book about it (see below). The 80:20 Rule says that you should target the relatively small number of actions which deliver the vast majority of change.
At the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group earlier this month, we discussed the application and limitations of the 80:20 approach. These are the times you should worry about the 'little stuff':
Engaging employees: switching stuff off and waste minimisation generally won't take you that far down your path to zero carbon, but people easily understand it, so you can use these quick wins as an 'entry drug' to get your colleagues hooked on Sustainability before moving on to the hard stuff.
Avoiding cynicism: for the same reason, laypeople will get more upset about disposable coffee cups than the use of a persistent organic pollutant. So you need to make sure you are seen to be tackling those iconic issues even while you're doing the big stuff that no-one will ever notice.
Continual improvement: If you have a zero carbon or zero waste target, you've still got to do the 20% of results as well as the 80%. So while you should prioritise the critical 20% of actions, it's worth keeping the other stuff tapping along (maybe combined with the engagement above).
But, and this is a big but, these exceptions should never overwhelm the rule. When push comes to shove, if you need to make a tough choice, go for the one which will deliver the biggest results.
On Thursday, the eldest child and I set off on our bikes to Amsterdam – Harry had won the ferry tickets in a prize draw from a cyclocross race he'd won. We made a little video about our trip which you can watch below – and yes he really did slide into a stinking stream on the way to the ferry. He was very lucky he wasn't injured, but we both had a whiff of stagnant water about us for the rest of the trip.
As always on journeys abroad, I had my eyes peeled for different approaches to Sustainability. Eight years ago, a business/pleasure trip to Belgium had really brought home the difference between that country and the UK on renewable energy at that time. However this time the difference wasn't apparent; the number of wind turbines we saw approaching the Dutch coast was similar to the number we saw along the North East coast of England on our way back to the Tyne on Sunday morning.
The biggest difference I noticed was the cycling infrastructure. A friend of mine, on seeing our video, said we had managed to make the Tyneside cycle paths as good as the Dutch ones, but there is an extremely important difference. By chance, the old riverside railway on the north bank of the Tyne has been converted into Hadrian's Cycleway, connecting our neighbourhood with the ferry dock. If the dismantled railway route wasn't there to build the cycle path, I doubt we would have cycled at all – we'd have been dodging lorries the whole way.
In the Netherlands, there is no such lottery. Every route has a cycle route. Every roundabout had a outer cycling ring. Every junction is properly signposted.
When we hit Amsterdam, we didn't need to work out a good cycle route to get through the bustling city centre to our hotel – we just picked the roads that went where we wanted to go (although if you watch the video, Harry was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of Amsterdamers shooting past us on bikes and mopeds as we made our stately way along the canals).
The generic lesson from this experience is: we must make every option a Sustainable option. Customers, employees and stakeholders ideally shouldn't have to make a choice between Sustainability and non-Sustainability, and, if they do, the decision making process should be heavily tilted towards the former.
Last week saw the seventeenth – seventeenth, blimey – meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (an amazing venue, see above). Due to a couple of members being called away at the last minute, we postponed our proposed topic of maximising the value of accreditations, and did a series of short sharp sessions on topics that were bothering those in the room. The first of these was 'waste' and I thought I'd share some of the learning points arising:
Understand your waste streams, volumes and disposal routes
The true cost of waste is 10-30x disposal cost – and it ramps up from goods in to goods out as value is added
Use the 80:20 Rule – go for the big issues first eg product damaged at the end of the process
However, need to be cognisant of 'iconic' waste streams such as coffee cups. They may not be significant in practice, but laypeople often believe otherwise
General societal culture change in domestic recycling helps with recycling at work
Because it is tangible, waste can be used as an effective ‘entry drug’ for wider employee engagement for Sustainability.
Make sure reducing waste is always incentivised eg in tenancy agreements
Involve employees in developing waste solutions – you get better solutions and buy in
Don't empty recycling bins containing ‘wrong’ materials – makes the point very clearly
Make segregation easy and use a standard colour/logo scheme
Seeing somebody have to sort out mis-segregated materials can lead to a positive guilt trip (eg show the consequences)
Educate employees including understanding the benefits (eg £ per bag)
Be careful with Waste Transfer Note terms & conditions – you could be signing an ongoing contract
Supermarkets are particularly good at waste reduction from suppliers – much to learn from them
Reduce ‘bought in waste’ from suppliers
Lean manufacturing techniques target and eradicate waste
Order dimensions and quantities carefully to avoid waste
Construction Site Waste Management Plans may not be legally required by law any more, but you can still insist on them in construction projects
Can use objective-oriented procurement and forward commitment procurement to drive innovation in waste management services
On Saturday I was at a workshop looking at improving the experience of pedestrians and cyclists in inner-city neighbourhoods in our city. One of the guest speakers brilliantly summed up why that horrible 1980s/90s street design style which corralled pedestrians into convoluted, fenced routes to guide them away from busy roads didn't work:
"We're natural Pythagoreans. We'll never walk around a right angle if we can see a hypotenuse."
One of my principles of embedding Sustainability into organisations is to make the sustainable option the easiest route. That means removing barriers to that hypotenuse and making the unsustainable option(s) the 'right angled' route(s).
This can be physical (like putting cycle parking by the front door) or it can be bureaucratic (making it more difficult to book flights than trains), but I have seen time and time again that it works.
I've long preached that there is a pressing need to align responsibility for Sustainability with authority. There is no point in delegating responsibility for Sustainability targets to environmental managers, or worse, volunteer sustainability champions, if they have zero power to actually make change happen. Instead appropriate sub-targets must be embedded in the personal objectives of key decision makers. Stands to reason, but often neglected.
During the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group on Tuesday (more on this next week), I realised that this alignment principle doesn't only within organisations but also between them.
If a landlord is responsible for a heating system, but the tenants pay the bills, the landlord will go cheap on the system as efficiency is not their problem. If the heating bills are split equally between tenants rather than individually metered, then there is less immediate incentive to cut consumption. If a purchaser is responsible for disposing of packaging, then there is little incentive for the supplier to provide recyclable or returnable packaging. And, as the Carbon Trust found with Walker's Crisps, if potatoes are bought by wet weight, then suppliers are incentivised to artificially hydrate the potatoes even though Walker then has to waste energy evaporating off that excess water during the frying process.
In all these cases, there are ways and means of changing the agreements between the different parties so those who have the power to change are fully incentivised to do so, either financially or contractually.
I have a tonne of stuff to do this week, yet I’m writing this in my local NHS Walk-in Centre waiting to get my eye checked out after an unfortunate gardening incident yesterday. It’s always the way, isn’t it? Just as you want to get off to a flying start, you notice your shoelaces are undone.
I often find Sustainability practitioners waiting for the perfect moment to launch their new project, venture or strategy. And, of course that perfect moment never comes. New legislation, a change in CEO, Brexit – there’s always something that pops up to spoil the moment.
So what can we do? Are we doomed to sit in perpetual stasis?
Well the first thing I did here in the waiting room was to remind myself of my long term priorities, then sketch down what I’m going to do this week and today to help meet those goals. That put my mind at rest, dissolved most of the frustration and focussed me on forward motion.
When I’m working with clients, I use a technique called backcasting to do the same on a grander scale. Instead of trying to work through the short term noise, we work backwards from the ultimate goal to work out what we need to do now to hit the right trajectory. After that exercise, usually carried out with key stakeholders, the way ahead appears clear and straightforward, no matter what life is throwing at us from the sidelines.
Back in 2009/10 I was second in command of a small political team which steered my adopted hometown of Newcastle to be designated the UK's Most Sustainable City two years running, beating frontrunners such as Brighton and Bristol. It made a big splash in the press – "It's Green Up North" headlines etc.
The first time we got it, a strange thing happened. Individuals who had had to be bypassed because they were so intransigent suddenly started saying things like "we put Sustainability at the heart of everything we do", and whole organisations who had only had the most tenuous involvement started bragging about their contribution.
At first I bristled ("The cheeky b*******s!"), then I realised that this bandwagon-jumping was a sign of success. Our goal was not to bask in the glow of adulation of others, but to use the award to build momentum and move forward – which we did as the second year our winning margin had increased (the award wasn't given out after that). For someone with my ego, I found this magnanimity very difficult in practice!
I was reminded about this lesson recently when I saw a great environmental success get tainted by a squabble over who did what, which is a real shame. Much of it comes down to different perceptions and partial knowledge of who did what. It's sad to see the success get overshadowed and progress grind to a halt – a warning to us all.
Sometimes I just can't help myself challenging what I see as inadvertently dangerous statements on Sustainability. One tweet I saw yesterday was about how little business understands the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that this was a Bad Thing. My view is that the 17 SDGs and their multifarious subgoals do not provide a suitable structure for corporate sustainability. So I couldn't resist weighing in.
What problem have I got with the SDGs? It's the same with trying to adopt, say, the ten One Planet Living principles. There's nothing wrong with OPL, but can you recite all ten principles without looking? I bet no-one can recite the 17 SDGs without hesitating. Are all 10OPLs/17SDGs priorities for every business? After all, these frameworks are designed to be universal, and, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing.
Imagine Google trying to come up with a statement on land use. Yes, they could plant a few extra shrubs to attract butterflies at the Googleplex, but I'd rather see them focus efforts on their carbon footprint (which they do) as that will make most difference – and be most meaningful to employees and other stakeholders. Leave land use to the food, fibre and forestry industries.
There's a deeper reason why you shouldn't try to adopt someone else's framework wholesale – the concept of 'Not Invented Here'. You will never, ever get as much buy-in for an imported off-the-shelf system than you do for one which has been created by those charged with delivering on it. A inclusive process of creating the strategy and setting the goals can be used to help create the culture required to deliver them (one of the reasons why we base our strategy development process around workshops for key decision makers).
Strategy + culture = success.
Take one of my clients, Interface. When founder Ray Anderson created Mission Zero, the overall target was a zero footprint by 2020. They break this down to 7 goals which are appropriate for the business – which is good as 7 is roughly the limit to the number of things you can easily remember. They call these the seven faces of Mount Sustainability, all of which have to be climbed. My pedantic side says "but you only need to climb one face of a mountain...", but that quibble doesn't matter – Interface created the analogy, they own it, and it works for them, big time. That's what matters.
So, use the SDGs, One Planet Living or whatever as a checklist to pick and choose from, but build the strategy that works for you and your colleagues, not something off the shelf.
A funny thing has been happening in the UK over the last 7 years. We have had two Conservative Prime Ministers since 2010 who have rarely paid more than lip service to sustainability issues in general and tackling climate change in particular. We have a press which is largely sceptical about climate change science, or possibly worse, cynically calculate that climate denial sells papers. Green activists fume and rage about all of this, but how come UK renewable energy is booming and coal is dying?
Here's a few things which might explain things:
1. Ninja legislation: Some simple legislation, such as Feed-In Tariffs, the press and green activists can get their head around, but there are other bits and pieces which are more complex and stealthy in operation. A good example is the Carbon Price Floor, which has been lurking quietly in the background putting the coal-fired power sector to the sword and boosting the opportunities for renewables.
2. Supply and Demand: one good reason for cutting solar feed-in tariffs is that they have been far more effective than their designer, one Ed Miliband, expected, leading to a precipitous fall in solar PV installation prices. Cutting the tariffs may have slowed the original goldrush, but installations continue to make financial sense. Demand not only pushes down prices, but incentivises innovation – a virtuous cycle which will drive ever more demand and remove the need for any subsidy in time.
3. Responsible Business: as businesses grasp the full business case for Sustainability (ie going beyond a simplistic 'go green, save money' mindset), they are investing in renewables whatever the direct financials as they know the indirect benefits (PR, winning business, attracting and retaining staff) will deliver many times the return.
4. High fossil fuel prices: while the price of oil plummeted from its 2008 peak, at $55 a barrel, we are still facing historically high oil prices and the $147 peak in 2008 is a brutal reminder that nailing your colours to the fossil fuel mast brings significant risk.
Which all begs the question, how good could the UK be if senior politicians showed real leadership and the press woke up and smelt the coffee? I live in hope, perhaps naively.
In the meantime, if they don't do it, the rest of us will get on with the job!
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.