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6 March 2015

Forget Mindfulness, we need mindless Sustainability

world brainI was once solemnly informed "We won't get to Sustainability without Mindfulness."

If you don't know what Mindfulness is, it's apparently "the intentional, accepting and non-judgemental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment." And it's all the rage.

My response to my pious friend was "Why not?"

He struggled to answer that one. Maybe I wasn't being accepting enough.

And the more I think about it, the more I think he's 100% wrong.

We cannot function as human beings if we have to be entirely conscious of everything we do - we'd spend all our time focussing on breathing and walking and sitting so much we'd never do anything else. If we require a conscious focus on every sustainability-related decision every day, it'll never be fully integrated into our routines. You can only focus on one thing at a time.

Much better to take the sustainable option by default, by habit or because it's the path of least resistance. We need to design our world so you don't even have to think about sustainability - it just happens.

Frankly, I think we have to be more mindful of nonsensical pronouncements that aren't properly thought through.


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4 March 2015

Are we ignoring the 'social' in Sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I consider whether we tend to ignore the social when we talk about 'Sustainability' and some of the issues surrounding definitions.

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

I rely on a steady stream of killer questions to keep this series running - if you want to submit one fire away!.


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2 March 2015

Obama's Litmus Test is Keystone XL, What's Yours?

iStock_000004249001SmallBarack Obama knows that his commitment to tackling climate change will be critically tested by his decision whether or not to permit the Keystone XL pipeline which would massively increase the flow of oil from the Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. There was something of a false alarm last week as it was reported that he had vetoed the pipeline, but he had in fact vetoed a bill in Congress trying to force approval - keeping the decision for himself (source Grist).

These big decisions can take on a symbolic significance way beyond their actual environmental importance (although this is important). Personally, I would like to see the environmental movement adhere to the same faith in scientific evidence with which we berate the climate change denial movement, but it's a fact of life that symbolism matters. This is a litmus test, whether Obama likes it or not.

You may think your decisions are insignificant compared to the POTUS, but they carry the same symbolism within your organisation. It is relatively easy to start doing 'good' stuff, but the litmus test is whether you will stop doing 'bad' stuff.

Great examples include Interface killing off profitable product lines because they involve hazardous flame retardants and B&Q refusing to stock patio heaters because they were against their environmental commitments. In both cases planet was given preference to profit.

So your litmus test is what are you going to STOP doing?


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27 February 2015

Are we afraid of success in sustainability?

As regular readers will attest, my most recent soapbox has been the use of the 80:20 Rule to get sustainability programmes out of the mire of incremental improvements and 'green tape' and onto a straight, fast road to our goals (see video above).

The awkward question is why does the sustainability movement tend towards the comfort zone of incremental improvements, bureaucratic systems and mediocrity? Why favour activity over outcome? Why stultify creativity and innovation?

screamI think it is, to a large degree, down to fear.

Fear of moving out of our comfort zone.

Fear of rocking the boat.

Fear of taking a punt.

Fear of failure.

Fear, possibly, of success.

Fear is a natural emotion, but we need to programme ourselves, Anthony Robbins-style, to fear the status quo rather than being scared of actually fulfilling our goals.


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25 February 2015

Are eco-labels worth the sticky paper they're printed on?

fairtradeInteresting article in the Guardian yesterday about the drop off in FairTrade sales. Some of this decline is due to squeezed consumer wallets, but there were plenty of coffee and chocolate producers who believe that they go way beyond the guaranteed price of FairTrade and that some of the movements' ambitions are misguided:

“When you get to the bottom of it, [the Fairtrade scheme] is kind of neo-imperialistic,” [says chef Olivier Roellinger] “It’s something we impose on them.” He’s thinking particularly of the pressure for producers to form groups, usually co-operatives, in order to join. “Can you imagine what British farmers would say if their American customers came to them and said: well, I’m only going to trade with you guys if you get together and I can buy from all of you at the same time?”

We have seen this kind of complaint about many others or labels - the inclusion of homeopathy for animals in the Soil Association organic standard is another worrying example.

eulabelThe advantage of any eco-label is they present an easy way for consumers and buyers to ensure they are getting minimum standards of performance against (hopefully) objective criteria. The original EU energy label (right) transformed the market, but the EU unfortunately blotted its copybook by adding extra levels (A+, A++ etc) instead of tightening the criteria on the original A-G rankings. This removed the driver for producers to want to avoid slipping down the scale.

The questions for any eco-label to answer are:

  • Who sets the criteria?
  • Are those criteria scientifically/objectively robust?
  • Do those criteria move with the times to keep pressure on the holders?
  • Are those criteria sufficiently ambitious for the label to mean something? I have been told by a representative of a major corporation that they actively lobby to water down any standard in their sector.
  • Are there any potential side effects of the label?
  • Are the criteria flexible enough to allow breakthrough innovation?
  • What level of administration is required to meet the criteria and is this justified?

My advice for producers on eco-labels is to adopt them if you see a clear benefit for your organisation (ie if the customer wants them), but don't feel obliged to do so if they don't work for you.



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23 February 2015

The Circular Economy is Circular, Stupid!

journal circular economy
I saw this explanation of the circular economy in the business section of our local rag last week and it made me grind my teeth.

It was trying to distinguish between a linear economy and a circular economy by adding the '3 Rs' to the linear economy. It's not the first time I've seen the circular economy drawn as a straight line – and it's a really stupid way of illustrating the difference for a number of reasons:

1. It still looks like the linear economy at first glance;

2. Figure 2 is actually the way our economy is at the minute – linear + 3Rs – so no-one would notice the difference between that diagram and the status quo;

3. Psychologically, it doesn't get across the most important difference between the two. In a circular economy, pre-used material is more desirable than virgin material.

If you draw the circular economy as a circle - see below -  it changes the whole way we look at materials. In particular we see the loop as producing quality raw materials at a competitive price, not as a form of waste diversion (3Rs). Yes, you could add in other loops and some minor leakage/input, but the core circle is a very powerful metaphor in our minds and we need to emphasise it.

circular circular economy

So let's draw the circular economy as a circle. The clue is in the name.



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19 February 2015

The Only Way is Ethics...

timebombLook at the headlines.

Has HSBC been helping very rich people people avoid tax? Did the Conservative Leader know about it before ennobling an HSBC boss? Did the Labour Leader avoid tax himself on his father's estate opening him to accusations of hypocrisy? Is it OK for a national newspaper to avoid reporting on the scandal given HSBC is a major advertiser? Is it OK to pay tradesmen cash in hand? Did the Shadow Chancellor always get a receipt from his window cleaner?  Are the energy companies exploiting vulnerable customers by keeping them on higher tariffs? Is it OK to kick a robot dog?

In none of these cases did anything illegal take place - they are all about ethics.

So why then do leaders of great organisations still see ethics/corporate responsibility as a side-issue? Why do you rarely hear people talking about doing the right thing in a genuine sense, instead doing what is expedient and hoping for the best? Why are people happy to leave a ticking time bomb under their business?

Doing the right thing may involve a bit of pain at first, but compared to the agony of what can happen in the long run.


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17 February 2015

Most leaders don't understand that leadership is critical to sustainability

Opening eyes

An anecdote from another consultant this week really resonated with me. He had a meeting with a C-level executive at a major client about an aspect of sustainability (you'll have guessed by now that I'm being deliberately vague to protect my colleague). The executive got rather hot under the collar because the consultant asked questions pertaining to the level of leadership on this issue. The meeting didn't end well.

This has happened to me many a time - at middle or senior management levels. When I used to do simple waste minimisation visits on behalf of the now defunct Envirowise, there was always the point where I was taken to the operations manager or production manager as the environmental manager, who had typically invited me in, couldn't answer the questions. So I would sit in the former's office, politely working through my questions while the temperature plummeted. Fierce glances would be fired at the environmental manager who would eventually cut the meeting short.

There's a big lesson for sustainability practitioners here - whether internal or external. People don't like to be challenged on their own patch. And the further up the reporting chain you go, the worse it gets.

This is exacerbated by the fact that many senior managers see paying lip service to sustainability as 'leadership'. It's not - leadership on sustainability almost always involves driving step changes in the way the organisation operates, not just finding the right words.

Unless you have built up a really trusting relationship with that individual, if you even imply that the putative 'leader' is not really leading, things can get very heated, very quickly.

My preferred approach is to help the leader work out for themselves what they need to be doing. Easier said than done, but it does work - and without any bruised egos.


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13 February 2015

I've seen the future, and it's a taxi...

tesla taxi cropped

"Fancy a go in a Tesla Model S?" they asked.

"When? Where?" it took a real effort not to scream.

Like many in our sector, I worship Tesla as not only the first company to get EVs right, but as true cleantech pioneers, shaking up traditional business models with their open sourcing of patents and sales of batteries for domestic energy storage. But I'd never actually had a go in one.

And when I saw the Model S, I was stunned. It is a very, very handsome car, clearly aimed at the Jag/Lexus market. I couldn't wait to get going.

The only snag was this one is a registered taxi - the only Tesla Taxi in the North of England, no less - so I couldn't drive it on the public highway. So we set off with Bryan Chater (above, right) of Phoenix Taxis driving, me in the passenger seat, attention split between marvelling at the car and scanning the horizon for a piece of non-highway tarmac so I could get my mitts on the steering wheel.

Read the rest of this entry »

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11 February 2015

How personal should you make sustainability?

In this first edition of Ask Gareth in 2015, I'm asked about whether it is appropriate to engage employees in sustainability by talking about their private lives. I explain why, with one important exception, I think it's a silly, if popular, idea and suggest my alternative.

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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9 February 2015

Unsustainable Suppliers: Stick or Twist?

downsizing 3One of the more controversial statements I make on sustainability is that you have to be prepared to drop suppliers who are not pulling their weight on sustainability. After all, their carbon footprint is part of your carbon footprint (and your customers') and their reputation is part of your reputation.

However, many companies - including some big names - tell me they would rather work with suppliers to improve their performance than show them the door. I can understand that sentiment, but I think the full implications of that approach have to be understood (see above).

Here's some thoughts on when to nurture suppliers and when to walk away.

  • Clearly, if the supplier shows no intention of improving, or they present a clear and present danger to your reputation, drop them as soon as you can find an alternative.
  • If you want to build a new supply chain (part of the circular economy, part of the hydrogen economy etc) and your current suppliers are sticking to their traditional technologies/business models, then no matter how well they perform otherwise, you've got to thank them and move on.
  • If a new entrant into the market can provide materials/technology which will revolutionise your ecological footprint, then you should challenge your suppliers to match that and, if they can't, move on.
  • If the existing supplier is enthusiastic about sustainability and keen to solve your sustainability problems (rather than you trying to solve theirs) then keep them - and work with them.

This might seem harsh, but we cannot create a sustainable economy while remaining faithful to suppliers who do not deserve that loyalty. We owe it to ourselves and the greater good to be firm but fair.



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6 February 2015

Cheer Up! The planet may depend on it...

Happy as a clown in the corporate worldOK, the bad news - 2014 was the warmest year on record and carbon emissions are still rising. There's still a long, long way to go.

But there are signs of hope.

Take renewable energy - which is is booming - Germany hit a record 28% of power from renewable sources in the first half of last year, the UK is at around 20% and the US 13% with all on a strong rising trend. UK Solar installations doubled in 2014 alone. As demand rises, costs are plummeting.

You might say I'm clutching at straws, but I am unashamedly upbeat for two reasons.

  1. Doom and gloom turns other people off. We have to make a sustainable future an attainable desirable, even sexy, goal to bring people along with them.
  2. Doom and gloom slows me down personally. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think we could 'win' and I am determined to help as many organisations as I possibly can. That takes a huge amount of energy and I simply couldn't do it if I focussed purely on the negative.

Back in the days when I used to record my own music, I would muse that it's much harder to write a good happy song than a great sad song. But that's our challenge - being miserable is easy, being positive much more difficult. But ultimately the planet may depend on it.

So keep your pecker up!


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4 February 2015

A bit of healthy competition in sustainability



We are competitive beasts.

Whether in business, sport, the arts, science or technology, there is a natural, human drive to be the best - the fastest, the strongest or the best selling. And we can harness this in sustainability:

  • League tables of sustainability indices to set business vs business, city vs city or even country vs country;
  • Making suppliers compete on sustainability as well as price and performance to win your business;
  • Setting up internal competitions to see who can cut the most carbon, save the most paper or develop the best innovation.

I've seen all of these deliver fantastic results. Yet many sustainability practitioners seem to think that this is against the spirit of the overall goal. I have no such qualms.

Of course, you have to make sure the competition is well refereed - if people can game the system, then you could end up in a mess cf the banking crisis, mid-90s professional cycling or a million and one accounting scandals.

Play on!


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2 February 2015

Dyson's Carbon Claims - Not Just Hot Air!

handryerWe took the kids to the National Railway Museum in York yesterday, in part to sate the train-mania of the littlest one. The Museum has a full complement of Dyson Air Blade hand dryers in the loos, and each one had a big sign above it claiming the dryer was responsible for 72% less carbon per hand-drying.

What was really impressive was the small print. It pointed out that the study had been commissioned by Dyson, citing the title and authors, that it had been accredited by the Carbon Trust and even that it used the US energy mix in its calculations.

That's incredibly detailed for a hand dryer in a museum! Good effort.


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30 January 2015

On Demand: 80/20 Rule for Sustainability webinar

webinar screenshotIf you missed my webinar on my new book, Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule, on Wednesday then you can catch the recording on demand by clicking here. The session went really well and we got some great feedback - most tangibly in the form of bulk book sales!

Note: A viewer download is required to watch the sessions.


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28 January 2015

I'll get myself expelled from the league of pragmatic environmentalists...

snake oil... as I seem to be undergoing alternative medicine by mistake (kind of).

I've had a problem with my back. Nothing serious, no pain as such, just bloody annoying as it was waking me up at exactly 02:10 EVERY NIGHT, which was starting to drive me up the walls. So I thought I go to one of 'those back people' and googled 'chiropractor'. Maybe it was the repeated sleep deprivation, but I didn't really check out what a chiropractor was.

I got a real shock when I turned up to the centre on Monday and found 'homeopathy' listed amongst the treatments. Now, regular readers will know that I'm allergic to the mystical end of life, and I almost turned on my heel and left. But I am really fed up with seizing up in the early hours and gave it a go. 20 minutes of a nice French lady putting me into odd positions and wrenching me into even odder ones, and I felt much, much better.

I still have the nagging feeling that I should have consulted the mainstream medical system before going off-piste. And I am still completely intolerant of those who preach that modern life is killing us - life expectancy and physical well-being are better than never before - worrying about being gluten intolerant when you are not will do you more harm than good. And I detest those snake oil salesmen who try to hitch dubious health and environmental 'solutions' to the environmental agenda (I'm looking at you homeopaths and magnets-for-efficiency hawkers)...

...but I'm going back to the chiropractor on Monday. Maybe I'm mellowing a little.



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26 January 2015

3 Ways to Use the 80/20 Rule for Sustainability


My new book, Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule, draws heavily on The 80/20 Rule by Richard Koch. Koch takes the general idea of the 80/20 Rule – that 80% of outcomes are usually determined by just 20% of outcomes (and vice versa) – and illustrates it across a very wide range of applications, from investments to our personal lives. He proposes two different ways of using the rule, both of which can be applied to sustainability:

  • 80/20 Analysis: where you carefully collect and analyse data to find the 'vital 20%' of inputs to focus on. An example of this would be when Procter & Gamble carried out a life cycle analysis of washing powder and discovered that 75% of energy use from cradle to grave was down to a single factor – heating the water in your washing machine. They then made this their number one priority.
  • 80/20 Thinking: this is much more intuitive and based on experience. If you think about it, it is logical that the best place to start minimising waste is at the Goods Out end of a factory - this is where the product has maximum value and maximum environmental impact embedded in it. Likewise, it is perfectly clear that lengthy supplier questionnaires will absorb a huge amount of time and effort by both parties, but are unlikely to change much in practice - a more proactive approach is required.

To this, I would add a third - a combination of the two.

For example, on my intro video for the book (below), I use the case study of a company whose plans for employee engagement would have taken a huge effort to engage a very large number of people who have very little influence on the carbon footprint of the company. It took a combination of my intuition and their data to come to the conclusion that a different audience should be prioritised. By using 80/20 Thinking, the act of 80/20 Analysis can be streamlined, avoiding 'paralysis by analysis'.

For most, I think this combined approach will deliver best results.


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23 January 2015

Watch On Demand: 15 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2015

15 for 2015

If you missed our fab 15 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2015 on Wednesday, you can catch it by clicking here (viewer download required).

The webinar was a taster for our Green Academy training series. To get full benefit from the session you should download the workbook here and complete it as you watch.


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21 January 2015

Why the 80/20 Rule will get us to sustainability faster

Before Christmas, my fifth book, Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule, was published. I'm really excited about it as it sets out a manifesto for sustainability practitioners to cast off the chains of unimportant detail that hold us back and really start to make leaps forward.

The 80/20 Rule says that 20% of our efforts deliver 80% of results, so we should focus on that vital 20% and relegate the other 80% - the trivial many - to the 'nice to have' tray. Here's why using the 80/20 rule can help you get to sustainability faster:

  • You declutter, getting rid of all the trivial stuff which clogs your to do list - whether to have paper or plastic coffee cups, how to keep your green champions happy, where to source recycled pencils - and focusses your thinking on the actions which will really make a difference.
  • You focus your limited resources - personal energy, time, goodwill and cash - on the issues and people which will really make a difference (the video intro above gives a great example of how this works in employee engagement).
  • It prevents you implementing dubious 'solutions' such as green champions just because everybody else is doing the same, and forces you to justify your efforts to yourself.
  • You avoid paralysis by analysis: 80/20 thinking says when you have enough information to act, then act.
  • You avoid paralysis by perfection: because 80/20 thinking only targets 80% of the problem, you tend to implement the kind of pragmatic, effective solutions which work but which perfectionists hate.

The 80/20 Rule can feel brutal, even Darwinian, but given the pressing need to address these issues, we need to be a lot more pragmatic and a lot less idealist and get things moving!

Join our webinar on 28 January 2015 to learn more about how the 80/20 Rule can revolutionise your sustainability programme. Click here for more.

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19 January 2015

The Rules of the Game - but whose rules?

secret raceAt the weekend I finished reading The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton - the coruscating inside story of the doping scandal that rocked the cycling world and eventually led to the downfall of its golden child, Lance Armstrong. Hamilton was telling the story from the point of view of a cheat, a liar and a fraud, but he asked the killer question: if you had fought to the very top of your field and then found that the only way to compete was to cheat, what would YOU do?

As I'm sure most people would reply, I'd like to think I'd blow the whistle. But would I?

Back in my early twenties, I was given a work placement in a small electronics company working in a very competitive field, with the axe always hanging over the workforce. As well as the QA work I was there to do, I was asked by one of the salesmen to help him out. He'd had a query from a potential client about the specs of their product compared to competitors. He asked me to put together the figures.

When I proudly presented them to him, he said "Right, go back and anywhere where our spec is below the others, bump ours up until it is even." I stared at him, gobsmacked. He gave me an avuncular look, "Look son, this is how you play the game, everybody does it, we wouldn't be able to compete if we didn't." I looked around at the other guys in the room. No-one spoke, but my boss nodded.

Of course I should have said "Do your own dirty work." but I didn't. I felt the peer pressure and caved. I went and changed the figures and passed them back to him.

It turned out that the dodgy figures were never used, so I never became an accessory to an actual deception. But that was just luck. Peer pressure from the prevailing culture had made me compromise my values. OK, it was a long, long way from cheating your way to 7 Tour de France yellow jerseys, but the underlying principle was the same, just (radically) different circumstances.

In banking, politics and the media, to name just a few, the culture has been so corrupted that cheating has become the norm. And the question is, are those people morally weaker than average, or are they just being human? Hamilton argues the latter.

Of course, the same cultural pressures can be used for good. In the same way that 'dopers' are now ostracised in pro-cycling, a positive ethical culture makes 'doing the right thing' seen as a virtue rather than as priggishness. If you want to have an ethical culture, you've got to show ethical leadership. When someone stands up and says "this isn't right" they need to be embraced, not ostracised.

And if you are interested in ethics, Hamilton's book's definitely worth a read!


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