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6 July 2018

In Sustainability, there's always an excuse to do nothing...

Terra Infirma's most powerful competitor is almost certainly "do nothing". Given where we work – near the cutting edge, we like to think – we provide our clients with a choice: spend some money and get some great benefits, or, spend nothing and trundle along as usual with your fingers crossed. Unfortunately in these days of economic uncertainty, clinging to business as usual is often more tempting than taking a small risk to make the organisation sustainable in both senses of the word.

So I read with a wry smile that Royal Dutch Shell CEO Ben van Beurden saying that the company wasn't going to set carbon reduction targets because it could lead to litigation from shareholders. “This is not a practical way to run the company.”  he added.

Where to start?

First up: a stretch carbon target sets the direction and ambition of the company. Set a bold target and every stakeholder from NGOs through shareholders to the receptionist at head office knows the company is serious about where it is going and how quickly. In a fossil fuel company, the energy transition is going to require a huge number of people making different decisions to those they would make otherwise. No target = drift at best.

Second: I thought the whole purpose of a publicly trading corporation was to meet the needs of its shareholders, not hide from them?

Third: what better driver for progress than the 'threat' that the people who actually own the company will hold the executive to account on the biggest issue of our time?

Sorry, Mr van Beurden, your logic is risible.


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4 July 2018

Are Sustainability accreditations worth the bother?

I spoke on the phone yesterday to the Sustainability Director of a major worldwide brand. She was exasperated as she was in the middle of a four month annual slog to complete the returns for a number of Sustainability accreditations to which the corporation has committed. We mused on the fact that every year was split into 8 months of delivering Sustainability projects and 4 months justifying what they had done. This is clearly an unhealthy ratio of action:bureaucracy.

So why bother?

This topic came up in passing at Monday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. The consensus of opinion was that standards and accreditations cannot drive Sustainability, but they provide a backstop against backsliding. After all, which board member wants to see a certificate removed from the head office atrium, leaving behind the bright rectangle of shame?

However that breaks both ways – once you are in, you're in, so choose which accreditations to pursue carefully as you don't want the tail wagging the dog for evermore.


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2 July 2018

The missing pieces in many Sustainability Strategies

I see lots of Sustainability Strategies which consist of a baseline (e.g. a carbon footprint and waste arisings data), targets and a series of nice case studies of what already has been done.

But this is wishful thinking – how you are going to meet those targets, by when and by who are the crucial parts of jigsaw. If your targets are worthwhile, the kind of work you have done to date are very unlikely to be adequate to deliver the required outcomes.

This is why we always put backcasting at the heart of our strategy development. Create a vision of the organisation where the targets have been met on time, then work backwards to the present day to work out what you need to start doing now to get on the right trajectory. It's a very simple but powerful tool – and if you pick the right people to participate, you get great buy-in too.



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29 June 2018

Sustainability, Consistency & Leadership

I've long preached that big 'L' Leadership is the difference between those at the cutting edge of Sustainability and the rest. And one of the biggest elements of leadership is consistency and/or constancy – that people can see you sticking to your guns through thick and thin.

Listening to Prime Minister's Questions this week, UK premier Theresa May clearly didn't see the contradiction between bigging up the opportunities for zero emission vehicles and lambasting those who voted against Heathrow Airport expansion. Her Government's 'no' to the Swansea tidal barrage project didn't come up at PMQs, but that was another contradictory decision in recent days.

The UK is doing very well at decarbonising its power sector, but as this week's Climate Change Committee (CCC) report pointed out, on other important issues such as transport, thermal efficiency of buildings and land use, it is lagging behind.

The problem with the country's current political leadership is all too common: one success gets run up the flagpole every time Sustainability comes up,  distracting from everything else where progress is pedestrian at best. Given the fantastic decarbonisation of the power sector, the term 'greenwash' may be a wee bit harsh, but it's not far off the way power is quoted over and over again.

As the CCC notes, the framework is there, but the policy detail is missing – and the impact of that vacuum is evident in the big opportunities that have just been missed. We desperately need that true leadership.




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26 June 2018

Making people think about Sustainability is true engagement

Yesterday, I ran a Green Jujitsu training workshop at the Northern Sustainability Innovations Conference, hosted by (our client) Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals Foundation Trust as part of the Great Exhibition of the North. I had an enthusiastic audience from organisations large and small, so it was a lot of fun.

I started by getting the audience to tell me why engagement was important, followed by what makes it so tricky. To illustrate why preaching green doesn't work, I made an audience member with no interest in pro-cycling mildly uncomfortable by asking her views on the details of this year's Giro d'Italia. I then explained how I first got into pro-cycling –when the Tour de France visited the part of Yorkshire I holiday in, i.e. when the pro-cycling world overlapped with mine. This got across my key message that if Sustainability is leaving your audience cold, then you need to find the sweetspot between Sustainability and their interests.

To apply Green Jujitsu, I tasked each delegate with thinking about what gets their colleagues out of bed in the morning and what turns them off. Using these positive and negative drivers, they then sketched out how to apply them across a range of engagement elements (language, images, activities etc).

My final flurry was to ask the delegates why I started by asking them why the topic was important. Of course I could have put a Powerpoint slide up and read out the bullet points in 30 seconds, but they would have forgotten the contents by the time I flicked on to the next slide (my workshop was Powerpoint-free). By asking the question, shutting up and waiting for the responses, I got the audience to sell that importance to themselves. OK, I was preaching to the choir with this group, but this cross cutting Green Jujitsu principle applies to all audiences: ask questions and make 'em think.

For more on Green Jujitsu, download our free white paper.


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21 June 2018

People taking to Sustainability like a duck to water...

On Tuesday I ran a workshop for Sustainability Champions at one of my clients – introducing them to the Sustainability Strategy targets and giving them an insight into Green Jujitsu to engage their colleagues. One Champion, however, had already stumbled on a winning formula at her site: ducks.

A collaboration with a local conservation charity had led to a duck pond being built adjacent to the site. Seeing an opportunity to get people out into the fresh air at lunchtime, she set up a 'duck board' in the atrium with information on the ducks and other wildlife, but, crucially it turned out, bags of bird seed to feed the ducks.

It turns out, people love feeding the ducks, so they keep coming back to the duck board. The board has now become a legend and our Champion has used it to promote a wide range of issues from single use plastic pollution to mental health and stress management. One thing, however, remains constant: the duck food – she's been told in no uncertain terms by her colleagues that the seed must stay. So it does.

I love this as it is making Sustainability accessible and interesting, linking the hyper-local with the global, and giving something to the audience that they really appreciate. Ruddy brilliant, you could say!

For more on using Green Jujitsu to engage people in Sustainability, check out our white paper. 


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18 June 2018

Football, Tribes & Sustainability

So In-ger-land kick off their World Cup campaign tonight. As a Northern Irishman who has lived in England for almost 30 years, I'm not terribly excited. I'm not churlish, I'd like them to do well, but, hey, they're just not my tribe.

Tribalism was the topic of discussion at our terribly middle-class dinner party on Saturday night. I read Amy Chua's Political Tribes on our recent holiday and it hit its target – Liberals like me and my guests who can't get their head around why Brexit happened, or how Trump got elected, or how ISIS manages to recruit people to do terrible things – and the answer, according to Chua, is tribal identity.

Sport is the ultimate in tribalism – while I can watch Portugal vs Spain as a fascinated objective neutral, if Northern Ireland are playing, I go off at the deep end – shouting, cheering, crying. Likewise when Ulster or Ireland play rugby. In fact I could fill pages here on the bizarre contortions of Irish tribalism and rugby – how even the most trenchant Northern Irish Unionist will support the (united) Ireland team over any of the mainland UK teams. There is no logic to supporting a particular team, just tribal identity.

Tribalism explains quite a lot in the Sustainability debate. UK climate change deniers tend to belong to a right-wing nationalist tribe defined by Euroscepticism, traditional values and "that's political correctness-gone mad!" tendencies. There is a much smaller (very) left-wing tribe of deniers – the kind of people who think Margaret Thatcher dreamt up climate change to destroy the coal industry. The green activist tribe is far too often exclusionary, raising barriers to entry (often through competitive self-sacrifice), rather than making Sustainability open to all (which it must be by definition to succeed).

My Sustainability tribe is the Mangoes – green on the outside and (liberal) orange in the middle. But I'm always very interested in how other tribes interpret Sustainability whether it's the watermelons (red on the inside) using Sustainability to argue against capitalism, or when right-wingers make the economic case for Sustainability. To me, the latter is actually the most important, just as some US Republican mayors are enacting climate friendly policies under the radar to avoid the opprobrium of their tribe, removing barriers to progress is critical to Sustainability.

So let's not support Sustainability like we would a football team. We need tribes to work towards that common goal, even if they all insist on taking different paths.


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14 June 2018

Beware pushing people out of their depth on Sustainability

Regular readers will know that my big personal challenge this year is to do a triathlon. Cycle: easy-peasy, run: OK, swim... argh! So I've been been busy working up my endurance and technique 2/3 times a week in the pool and I can now swim the requisite 750m front crawl reasonably comfortably if a bit slowly. But the triathlon swim leg isn't in a pool, it's in a lake, so I thought I'd better take some open water swimming lessons to help with sighting etc.

The first lesson was like an hour of repeated mini-panic attacks, even though we were doing 150-200m laps. Deprived of the reassuring constraints of the pool ends, I became frantic to make it to each buoy, my technique dissolving away as I zig-zagged around blindly exhausting myself.

Second lesson was an improvement, I've been practising sighting in the pool, and I was reassured by the sight of professionals in the World Triathlon Series event in Leeds at the weekend reverting to breast stroke to get through a pinch point at the first buoy – just like me! I'm getting there, but I found my irrationality rather depressing after the hours of pool training.

We often talk about getting people out of their comfort zone as if this is always a good thing. Yes, we want to get people into the stretch zone where change happens, but beyond the stretch zone is the panic zone (see below). If you push people in there, you don't know what will happen, but it's unlikely to be what you want. I've seen many Sustainability practitioners push others too far, too fast, and find those people panic and shut down (and even rid themselves of the source of their discomfort...).

One of the benefits of my Green Jujitsu approach to engaging people is that, by translating Sustainability into words, images and actions which are familiar to them, the panic zone is pushed further away from the comfort zone. This gives you much more room to play with i.e. much more scope to make meaningful change happen.

Meanwhile, I'm actually looking forward to my third swimming lesson tonight to try out my technique again (Storm Hector permitting). I've got myself back into the stretch zone!

Big thanks to Barry Jameson from Tri4U for his great support and patience during the lessons.






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11 June 2018

Sustainability - for the many?


Sometime last Tuesday, a hashtag #PlasticFreeDay appeared on my Twitter feed. I was vaguely aware that it was World Environment Day, but, like so many eco-days, this new one had passed me by entirely (as I read the eco-press daily, this says more about the ineffectiveness of the plethora of awareness days, hours and weeks than my ignorance). So I did a bit of googling and found that the organisers wanted 250 million people would go 'plastic-free' for a day.

My immediate reactions were 1. how on earth could anyone do this?, and 2. why would you want to?

My kids love my bacon and pea pasta, so let's say I've promised them that on Plastic Free Day. Of the four major ingredients, I could use chopped tomatoes from a tin rather than a carton, ditto peas (although they taste awful compared to frozen peas from a bag), but bacon and pasta? I can't think of anybody who sells pasta in anything other than a plastic wrapping, so I'd have to make it myself. Even if I went to a traditional butcher, they'd wrap sliced bacon in a piece of plastic, otherwise bacon juice would ooze into the rest of my shopping. Sorry boys, treat's off, because, y'know, a hashtag.

Read the rest of this entry »

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6 June 2018

The prevailing winds are blowing towards Sustainability...

The steady stream of Sustainability good news stories continues to flow – 50 nations taking action on plastic consumption, consumer spending on fashion is on a falling trend, and a growing 'carbon bubble' means that $1-4 trillion could be wiped off the value of global fossil fuel assets by 2035. As with the recent digital revolution, real change is starting to snowball in the economy. At a time of change there will be winners and losers: huge opportunities and huge risks for those who cling to what they know.

The knack of thriving in such a period of flux is knowing when to let go of the old and when to invest in the new. I always preach that the rules of business still apply. In particular product or service that no-one wants (or can afford) will flop, no matter how Sustainable. The 3 Ps – performance, price & planet – is a good starting point.

But probably the biggest challenge is 'creative destruction'. Persuading colleagues to ditch unsustainable products/services is never easy. Having serious Sustainability targets is essential – when Interface defined one of the seven targets of their Mission Zero sustainability programme as 'eliminate problem emissions: eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities', then the days of their products with brominated flame retardants were numbered. Leaving Sustainability to case-by-case decisions will get you nowhere.



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4 June 2018

Back from a Bloody Past

I'm just back from 5 glorious days of half term camping with the Kane clan in Wooler, in the north of Northumberland. We did the usual things – climbing Humbleton Hill (above), wandering around Wooler common and eating loads of food (also see above). I'm always pleased the way the kids switch from touchscreen-addicts to outdoor enthusiasts (and back again...) so easily. I meanwhile assumed my position at the camping stove and/or BBQ, glass of beer in my hand, cooking al fresco.

All around us were battlefields from the days of war between England and Scotland, in fact the land is soaked in blood with the Battle of Flodden Field claiming somewhere between 5,000 and 17,000 lives, including that of King James IV of Scotland, in just one day. What surprises me in reading about this carnage is the pretence at the code of chivalry – the time and place of battle was arranged beforehand (although there was some bickering over the details), yet thousands were being sent to the slaughter. "Yes, we did the honourable thing before spearing each other with pikestaffs."

It kind of reminds me of all these ethical 'codes of conduct' that organisations and individuals sign up to beforehand. Tick the box and all's well, no matter what actually transpires in practice!


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29 May 2018

Jung, Greenwash and Sustainability

Gotta love Twitter some times, and last night I saw this wonderful quote attributed to Carl Jung:*

"You are what you do, not what you say you'll do."

This is extremely important in Sustainability, particularly amongst leaders, as talk without action is greenwash. It will breed cynicism and destroy trust. 'Doing' sets apart the real Sustainability leaders from those who just preach.

But I'd like to paraphrase it slightly:

"You are what you stop doing, not what you say you'll stop doing."

We will never get to Sustainability (or remotely close) if we don't stop doing the unsustainable stuff. Business as usual plus some sustainable pet projects is not sustainable. Creative destruction is an essential part of the the equation and shows true leadership.


*as always I've tried to verify this quote, but couldn't find either a source, or for that matter a take down.

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25 May 2018

On Demand: Business & the SDGs

We had a great webinar on Business and the SDGs on Wednesday, involving delegates from three continents! If you missed it, fear not, we can send you a link to the recording and the workbook, so you can go through it in your own time.

  • A (very) brief history of Sustainable Development
  • What are the SDGs?
  • The secret to making the SDGs work for your business
  • The 17 Goals and how to blow them out of the water

The cost for this is just £20.00 + VAT – the same as attending the live session.

Click here to make a Paypal/card payment.

Please note that viewing the session requires the Webex viewer download.


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24 May 2018

Book Review: Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth

I haven't reviewed many Sustainability books on here of late, mainly because the few I have read recently have been terrible, some to the point of being unreadable. Frankly I didn't want to bore you with diatribes against poor authors (in both senses of the word 'poor'). However, a couple of weeks ago I took a duplicate present back to Waterstones and, on a whim, picked up Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth as a replacement. Talk about serendipity.

The titular doughnut is Raworth's analogy for a sustainable economy which is strong enough to pull people above the inner limit of the poverty line (the social foundation), yet stays within natural limits (the ecological ceiling). Within these two thresholds we should be 'agnostic' about growth. I love a simple, resonant analogy and this is one of the best Sustainability models I've come across for a long time.

Read the rest of this entry »

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21 May 2018

Why behavioural change for Sustainability is difficult (and how to make it easier)

Last week I was locking my bike outside one of my regular refuelling points when two Mobike employees appeared and started rounding up some of their dockless bikes which had been left there. "We play 'how many are in the River Tyne today?'" one of them joked to me. But there was a serious point behind the jest – Mobikes are undoubtedly getting people cycling, but the dockless nature does mean they are left in all kinds of places, good and bad. And people are starting to complain.

A number of wags on Twitter (another good and bad thing) have created the 'dockless car' meme – pointing out that while people complain about the bikes, the anti-social behaviour of many drivers doesn't raise the same hackles.

Why? Familiarity. We don't see the badly parked cars because we're used to them, but the bikes are novel so they stand out – the same way that you notice all kinds of architectural detail in a foreign city while ignoring similar beauty in your home town.

We need to understand the psychology of change if we are to make Sustainability happen. People will look past plantation forests, grain silos and radar domes to complain about wind turbines 'blighting' the countryside. They will get upset if you remove their waste baskets in favour of paper recycling bins or ban single-use takeaway coffee cups from the cafeteria. You are upsetting their routine and they will hate you for it.

Here's my five top tips to help you bring change to your organisation:

  1. Ditch the green-speak in favour of Green Jujitsu (adopting the language, imagery and tone of your audience)
  2. Involve people in designing the new system/product/process/procedure;
  3. Make the Sustainable option easier to use than the old one (making people jump through hoops to prove their commitment to Sustainability is one of the stupidest ideas of all stupid ideas);
  4. Make sure all people in positions of responsibility – including you – are seen to be doing the new thing.
  5. Buy a tin hat and keep it close to hand.


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16 May 2018

Why Supply Chain Sustainability is so difficult (and why it doesn't need to be...)

Here's three reasons why Supply Chain Sustainability is such a challenge:

  1. For the vast majority of organisations, the impacts and risks in the supply chain dwarfs that 'within the factory fence';
  2. You usually have poor visibility of those impacts and risks – many of which may be deliberately hidden from outside eyes;
  3. For those risks you are aware of, you only have indirect control over.

And how do we tackle these challenges? With questionnaires, audits and tick boxes on tender forms. I don't think there is any element of Sustainability where the standard tools are so woefully inadequate compared to the scale of the challenge. And if that's one arm tied behind your back, many organisations bind the other one by stating they would never drop a supplier on Sustainability grounds.

The solution is a complete change in your mindset. Instead of trying to fix your suppliers' problems, you should be challenging them to fix yours. That change in attitude costs nothing and will deliver huge change. Secondly, the ultimate threat – 'Sustainability or Goodbye' – needs to be hanging over all discussions. If not, you're not serious about Sustainability.

We'll be discussing the tools to make this happen on our Green Academy webinar on 6 June 2018: Building A Sustainable Supply Chain – click here for more.



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14 May 2018

Stop frightening people about climate change

One of the basic principles of psychology is that, despite millions of years of evolution, we are still instinctive animals at heart. We fear fire, which we have lived with and used for at least 300,000 years, but we don't, as a species, fear climate change which poses an existential threat. Yes, we do some logical analysis, but when the chips are down, logic gets bumped by emotions.

Many Sustainability practitioners and activists have made it their life's mission to make other people fear climate change. But the problem with fear is its very power. It can make us freeze and watch the threat bearing down on us like an out of control articulated lorry. Or it can make us run to the (apparent) safety of what we know. The last thing fear does is encourage us to sit down and objectively assess the options available before making a rational choice.

My preferred method of engaging people in Sustainability is to involve them in the process of delivering it. When I'm helping a client develop a Sustainability Strategy, I involve key decision makers in creating it. When implementing a Sustainability Strategy, I challenge each group of individuals to develop the plan to do so for their team/division. That creative activity evaporates the fear of change and gets people excited about a Sustainable future, as they've designed a little bit of it.

'Feel the fear and do it anyway' is a great title for a self-help book, but in practice 'Just do it' is a much more useful cliché.


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11 May 2018

Reasons to be Cheerful part 514

Well, the good news just keeps coming. Zero carbon aluminium smelting, coal-free-energy days, too much solar energy in the summer (so how do we store it?), plastic-eating enzymes, a reduction in plastic bags littering beaches, more proposed bans on single-use plastic items... What's really interesting here in the UK is that we have near-universal political backing for these moves, and in plastic litter even the notoriously reactionary Daily Mail has found an eco-cause to champion.

As Sustainability practitioners we need to capitalise on this enthusiasm and momentum, not play the doom-monger. Yes, it's not enough, but it is accelerating faster than anyone expected. We need to press harder on the pedal, not reach for the handbrake of helplessness.


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7 May 2018

Sustainability Lessons from 14 years in Local Government

Regular readers may have noticed that my output here and on social media has been somewhat patchy over the last few weeks, That's because I was engaged in a tough Council re-election battle, one which I ultimately lost by 12 votes out of 2000 or so cast.

Obviously I'm disappointed, but I'm very proud of my 14 years' stint on Newcastle City Council, particularly on the Sustainability front – I spent 7 years as deputy Cabinet member for Environment & Sustainability when my party ran the Council, then 7 years as opposition spokesperson. Not to put too fine a point on it, and modesty aside, during the first seven years, Sustainability performance improved rapidly peaking with being designated the UK's Most Sustainable City two years running by Forum for the Future (2009 & 2010). When we lost control in 2011, things went into marked decline.

So here's a quick reflection on the lessons that I learnt over those years (many have appeared here before, often lightly disguised!):

  • Leadership is everything – when we took control in 2004, we set two big aspirational targets: zero waste and carbon neutral. Cllr Wendy Taylor, the Cabinet member 2004-2011, showed immense grit and determination to get a massive bureaucracy to take those goals seriously. The incoming administration in 2011 dropped those goals and deleted the cabinet member post, spreading responsibility around a variety of roles and claiming a 'green thread' ran through everything. The weakness of the latter approach has been proven by falling recycling rates and stalled carbon reduction programmes.
  • Commitment = stretch targets. Those two goals drove everything we did and made it clear to the whole organisation, whether officers or councillors, that we were serious about doing things differently. Hitting the targets is not the point: we didn't get close to zero waste, but driving recycling rates from 8% to 43% wouldn't have happened with an incremental approach – as demonstrated by recycling declining to 38% once the target was removed.
  • You've got to make Sustainability easy: one of the controversial things we did was to replace a segregated recycling collection involving a open crate, to a semi-co-mingled system involving a wheelie bin. Green activists screamed sell-out, but the recycling rate went up from 25% to 38% overnight. We made it easy and convenient for busy individuals to recycle and they did so.
  • Experience works: One area our administration was slow on was promoting cycling. So I challenged a group of senior officers and councillors to cycle from the Civic Centre to Newcastle Central Station at the far side of our compact city centre. I can still hear the cry of alarm from one of my colleagues as we ventured across 4 lanes of heavy traffic. From this traumatic experience, a revamped, ambitious cycle strategy was born (our party drafted it, but it came into force under the current administration who to their credit are implementing it).
  • People love winning: when I was first told we had won the Most Sustainable City accolade, my first thought was "how bad are all the rest?" and the second was "oh no, everybody will think we've finished when we've only just got started" but I was wrong – winning first time galvanised officers, fellow Councillors and partners (success has many parents etc) and drove us further and faster (our lead in the Forum for the Future ratings increased over the following year).
  • Activism is doing, not protesting: I've had a few wins in Opposition, however I've learnt you can protest all you like, but if those in power won't listen, you can rarely achieve anything. This is why I eschew protest for action no matter how small, grind my teeth when activist-journalists get lauded more than people at the coalface, and why I recommend my clients (and everybody else) work to align responsibility with authority.

So now I have just the one job, I will be able to focus full time on implementing these lessons in Terra Infirma's clients!


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30 April 2018

How to measure true commitment to Sustainability

Here's a great quote to guide our answer to this crucial question:

Commitment is an act, not a word ~ Jean-Paul Sartre

Here are some of those acts that demonstrate true commitment to Sustainability:

  • Setting a generous Sustainability budget;
  • Setting stretch targets and working out what is required to meet them;
  • Delegation of those targets down through the reporting structure, aligning responsibility with authority;
  • Creating/installing products, services or processes which makes a step change in Sustainability;

And, drum roll,  the litmus test:

  • Axing products, services or processes on Sustainability grounds.

How does your organisation measure up?


For more on setting Sustainability targets and developing a strategy, check out Seven Steps to a Successful Sustainability Strategy.


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