Yesterday I was at the North East Recycling Forum in Darlington. NERF is one of the very few green events I attend as a punter as they have great agendas and I get to catch up with a lot of familiar faces.
The speaker I most wanted to hear was Andrew Dickson from Zero Waste Scotland. During the Q&A, there was a debate over the circular economy. I said while I was pleased that Andrew had said encouraging things about the need for a circular economy, most of Zero Waste Scotland's efforts seem to be focussed on pushing decent quality recyclate into the loop, and that it wouldn't be sustainable without industrial demand for the material.
Andrew reiterated his position that quality standards were necessary to unlock demand, but a representative from a major waste company waded in on my side, saying "We could produce much higher quality material than current standards – if somebody wanted to buy it."
Interestingly, the next speaker, Jenny Robinson from WRAP, put up a graph showing the decline in recycling of newsprint due to falling newspaper readership, which she said would cause problems for hitting UK recycling targets.
"Do the recyclers in the room want more newsprint?" asked the Chair.
"No." came a firm voice from the back "Supply and demand."
And that, to me, sums up the challenge for the circular economy. We can set all the targets, action plans and quality standards we want, but the basic economic principle of supply and demand will make or break it. Demand will increase volumes, drive efficiencies, improve quality, cut costs and spur innovation – as it does in every other industrial supply chain. Focussing solely on the supply side – the default approach of most public servants and quangocrats – is doomed to failure.
In the circular economy we cannot ignore basic economics.
This tweet flashed across my feed on Monday – retweeted by the Guardian Environment no less – and it immediately made me bridle.
For a start, it smacks of a straw man argument. Who is 'blaming' individuals solely for climate change? Who isn't 'blaming' companies at all for climate change? I have never heard either view expressed by any sensible commentator.
Secondly, I don't like anybody absolving or blaming anyone else 100% for climate change (or obesity for that matter). Our consumer society is a cycle between production and consumption – you can't have one without the other.
I can choose to cycle to the shops or work rather than drive. I can decide to spend money insulating my loft. I can buy fresh food rather than processed food. I can buy healthy food or fat/sugar/salt infused crap. I can decide where I go on holiday. I can choose when to upgrade my phone. I have choice over a huge chunk of my carbon footprint. I take the idea that I am a hapless cog in a machine built by evil capitalists as a personal insult.
We also need business and Governments to step up and provide sustainable products and services. After all, the scope of my freedoms above are determined by the choice on offer – and my ability to choose is limited by the visibility I have of the cradle-to-grave impacts of those choices. They have a moral obligation to sort out as many of these problems as they can. We need a virtuous cycle of consumer/voter choices and sustainable options to choose from.
Thirdly, the tweet is dangerous as it encourages people to point the finger and do nothing. As Ross Perot put it "The activist is not the person who says the river is dirty. The activist is the guy who cleans up the river."
So let's stop this kind of silliness and get on with the job in hand.
To make a real change in, say, our carbon footprint, we have to tackle the big issues – space heating, transport, the extraction of raw materials etc. This is the essence of my book 'Accelerating Sustainability Using the 80:20 Rule' – we should stop sweating the little stuff and focus on what really matters.
The general public sees (or has been taught to see) environmental issues in terms of relatively trivial issues: single use plastic bags, leaving phone chargers plugged in, drinking bottled water etc. So if a sustainability practitioner breaks one of these populist 'green rules', they will be seen as hypocritical.
The more I think about it, we just have to accept this reality. To make a real difference we should be focussing our efforts on the 20% of 'levers' which will deliver 80% of potential improvements.
However we need to be mindful that our audience may not see our efforts through that prism; we must also make sure we are seen to do the right thing through their eyes. You should see these simple measures as an introduction to sustainability for non-experts – the first steps on the way to understanding the bigger picture.
A couple of weeks ago, I was at one of those parties where you kind of know a lot of people, but don't know anybody really well. I wandered over to the group I knew the best, where I found a woman holding forth on politics. At the end of her lengthy and self-assured monologue, she declared "And that's what we all want, isn't it?"
There was a frosty pause. Everybody looked at their feet. She stared at each person in turn – I'm not sure whether she was waiting for affirmation or daring anybody to disagree. Somebody changed the subject. The chill passed.
Another example. I follow an academic on Twitter who is making increasingly catastrophic predictions of the impacts of climate change. There's a passive-aggressive slant to his pronouncements, one saying "I've been telling the public this for years, but nobody is listening." Funny that.
The worse thing you can do in any attempt to persuade people is to assume you are right, they are wrong and a stern lecture will put them right. People will change the subject. Unfortunately far too much green communications and engagement starts from this position.
My Green Jujitsu approach flips this through 180°. It says 'put yourself in your audience's shoes. Understand their hopes, fears, aspirations and habits. Find the overlap between that and sustainability and start there.
So it's the week after the week before. The Conservative Party defied all electoral lore and increased its control over Westminster, the first Tory majority since 1992. Their erstwhile coalition partners the Liberal Democrats (my party, sniff) lay shattered on the floor and the opposition Labour Party slumped on the ropes battered and bruised.
I will leave the whys and wherefores to other places, but what are the implications for the UK's green economy?
It is well known that for the last five years it was up to the Lib Dems to fight for sustainability. Despite PM David Cameron's (pic) pledge to lead "The Greenest Government Ever", Lib Dems Chris Huhne and latterly Ed Davey had to fight for every inch against the Treasury and the green-sceptic Chancellor George Osborne. While Tory Greg Barker was an early ally for the green cause, he was later unceremoniously ditched as his party leadership "scraped the barnacles off the boat" in the lead-up to the election. Cameron continued to blow hot and cold, and another climate hawk, William Hague, has hung up his hat.
So all eyes are on who, if anyone, will get the pivotal job of running the Department of Energy and Climate Change?
It is possible that to placate the right wingers in his party, the role will be split and folded back into the Business and Environment Departments. This would relegate the topic back down the agenda, as suggested by the Tories election manifesto. The 'muddle-forward' option would see the competent but hardly cheerleading Amber Rudd promoted into the role which would fit with Cameron's stated aim to see more women in the Cabinet. The radical action would be to pitch the charismatic and feisty Zac Goldsmith into the role, but he may be seen to ruffle too many feathers, particularly amongst the noisy right of the party.
My money is on Amber Rudd. Instead of seeing Government support for the green economy collapse, we'll see it decline slowly to a lower priority issue as attention turns to the Tories' traditional internal battleground, Europe. I believe the surge in the green economy has enough momentum now to carry it along regardless, but we have to accept that the days of looking for Government to lead are over for the time being.
Let's make the future the one we want to see; let the Government claim credit afterwards.
Update: As soon as I hit "Publish" on that post, Cameron tweeted that I was right...
Amber Rudd is to be Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.
...to align your business growth to sustainability.
Unilever has just announced that half its growth last year came from its Sustainable Living Plan and its sustainable brands are growing twice as fast as others. They join GE, Interface, Johnson Matthey and many others in aligning the future of their business to sustainability.
To me, this blows the idea that sustainability is somehow incompatible with growth out of the water. That meme comes from people who see a win-win as some kind of sell-out. Frankly, that clique would rather lose-lose and keep their sense of self-righteousness.
So don't be put off by the naysayers or feel guilty about success. If we want to make sustainability 'the new normal', then we must do just that. And for a business, that means the business strategy and sustainability strategy converging into one.
I was interviewed about attitudes to climate change by my friend, colleague and fellow Belfast-born Anna-Lisa Mills yesterday. We got into a lengthy debate about the balance between risk and opportunity - I like to favour the opportunity, Anna-Lisa feels that we need to communicate the urgency to act now.
To that end she has produced this rather wonderful video likening our attitude to the scientific evidence with the ill-fated journey of our home city's most famous export, the Titanic. If you are going to communicate risks, this is the way to do it.
I haven't been watching much scheduled TV recently, but I wasn't going to miss the Wastemen documentary on the BBC last night. Not just because it was an insight into the sharp end of sustainability, or that it was set in my town; rather it's because (with my political hat on) I was part of the team who set up Newcastle's two bin waste collections, opened the Sita Materials Recycling Facility at Byker which featured and gave the mixed recyclables contract to O'Brien's. I have skin in this game!
It was a very entertaining programme with the various crews and operatives clearly enjoying having the cameras on them. Of course I was grumbling a bit about some of the impressions it gave, particularly about the level of public recycling (sampling has shown that 64% of recyclable material is recovered in Newcastle – good but with room for improvement.) Green pressure groups berated us when we introduced the semi-mixed recyclate bin, but participation shot up afterwards because we made recycling easy – which was a big lesson for me.
But the overall impression was the incredulity of the bin crews of how much decent resource goes to waste. Unlike us individuals chucking a bin bag in the wheelie bin every day or two, these guys see the big picture – both in sheer quantity of waste and also what does get chucked – day in day out. Unused electrical items, bikes with one flat tyre, wide screen TVs left the waste men scratching their heads.
You can get told these statistics and examples time after time, but to understand it properly, you have to experience it. I don't have the depth of experience of the bin crews, but I've been around enough recycling/incineration and disposal sites to get a real feel for what we do throw away.
If you want to engage people in sustainability, giving them first hand experience is often the best way to drive the message home. That could be a visit to a landfill, or it could be a drive in an electric car. But experience always trumps advice.
There's a tendency in indie music geeks to seek out obscure bands, just in case they hit the big time, and then you can claim you saw them bottom of the bill at Reading in 1994 or whatever, declare them passé and move onto the next. I often think this about Sustainability – us practitioners like to constantly champion the next big concept and then move on as soon as it starts emerging blinking into the sunlight.
While this is fun, it neglects the real job – the unglamorous, difficult task of converting that high falutin' concept into something which will work in the mundane, everyday mainstream. Something which is affordable, scaleable, practical, effective, reliable and, often, unnoticeable.
So, while you may find it depressing seeing your old heroes' early indie classics reduced to wedding reception fare, in sustainability that's actually where we want to be!
It was EarthDay on Wednesday – I'm not going to start another of my rants about the pointlessness of awareness hours/days/weeks, but how did it go for you?
One Earth Day headline that caught my eye was the BBC's report that the Paris climate change talks in December were "THE LAST CHANCE" to save the planet from catastrophe, according to the Earth League. Now, I know why it's tempting to hype up such a gathering in order to try and put pressure on politicians to make an historic deal, but there's a huge chance of this tactic back-firing.
There was similar hype around Copenhagen 6 years ago but only incremental progress was made on a deal. Guess what? The world didn't end there and then. Individual countries and organisations kept beavering away and last year the rise in carbon emissions stalled, while investment in green technology soared.
A comprehensive international deal would undoubtedly help, but I think NGOs and green leaning journos put too much faith on it (and my friend the green journalist Fiona Harvey blamed the Copenhagen failure squarely on NGOs for asking for the impossible). Action is what is required rather than pieces of paper. The paper may lead to action, or it may not, or the action may continue regardless - the two aren't inextricably linked as we have seen.
My wider point is that predictions of doom are counterproductive. The green movement has been predicting catastrophe for decades – mostly correctly, but sometimes hyperbole gets the better of them. If doom switches people off, then inaccurate predictions of doom destroys any trust people have in what they have been told. And if the Paris talks fail, are we simply to give up and burn that fossil fuel while we still can?
Let's present the world with a scintillating image of a low carbon future – and deliver on it!
I'm a sucker for chocolate cake. You put a piece in my view and I want it. What's more, I'll probably eat it. I'm one of those Dads who will hide behind a cupboard door to stop the kids seeing me snarfle a chocolate biscuit. The temptation is always too strong. I am weak.
Many 'greens' act like food fascists, sneering at the contents of the shopping baskets of those ahead of them in the supermarket queues. It might make them feel better, but it won't do anything to stop obesity.
You can blame politicians, but frankly, it takes a brave soul to stand up and say to the country we must sacrifice short-term gain for the sake of our grandchildren. Actually, it's very easy to say, many do now say it, and many will support the words. The brave bit comes from putting words into action – and we must support them when they do, not the usual fusillades of 'nowhere near good enough' from those who have never had to make a big public decision in their lives.
The answer? I find I can drop the sugar hit if I get it out of my routine. Likewise we've got to get fossil fuels out of the routine of Joe and Josephine Public. We've got to make sustainability the new normal: easy, intuitive, reflexive, unthinking, desirable. Only then will we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
The philosophical side is about whether any action we take is truly altruistic. This is a matter of much debate in the philosophical sphere – when I pick up a piece of litter in the street, or help the old lady across the road replace a recessed lightbulb, I get a little dose of endorphin that sets up my day. Does that good feeling undermine the altruism of my act?
And every major religion teaches that those who are faithful/do good works will be rewarded after death – does that mean that every good deed by a religious person is done out of pure selfishness? Likewise I don't think any financial reward from CSR undermines the satisfaction from having done the right thing.
On the practical side, I'm not sure that any sensible CSR action will have a negative benefit to the company. Marks & Spencer's Living Wall won't save them any money, but it is a fantastic advert for the company's Plan A sustainability programme – whether to consumers or the next generation of recruits. Study after study has shown that businesses with good sustainability programmes outperform those that don't in financial terms.
Lastly, the sustainability of sustainability. If CSR is shown to add value to the business, then it won't get squeezed out if the going gets rough. If the business purpose is aligned to sustainability then we get a win-win. What's the problem?
In summary 'doing well by doing good' is a strong driver. 'Doing badly by doing good' isn't going to inspire many. I'd rather win-win than lose-lose.
So, the UK election rumbles on and this week we had the Party manifestos. So what do the parties offer on sustainability? Trying to be as objective as I can*, here's my quick and dirty review of the five national parties, in order of current number of seats in Parliament:
Big Headlines (ie mentions in key pledges):
Reaffirmation to meet international commitments on climate change.
Investment in renewables but with an emphasis on 'cost effectiveness'. Halting 'spread of onshore wind farms'.
Every vehicle to be zero emissions by 2050, double cycling, investment in railways.
'Blue Belt' of marine reserves.
My verdict: Token effort – and a mixed bag at that.
I'm down in our capital city with the family for a short break. The two bigger boys were very keen to come because of various school projects, and the little one – well as usual he just has to lump it!
As usual, on holiday, I have my eyes peeled for anything sustainability-related.
I remember musing on my way back from Bruges back to Newcastle by train in 2009 that in Belgium you saw at least one solar array in every village or suburb, but virtually nothing on the English side of the Channel. Oh, how that has changed. Not only is there a huge amount of roof-mounted solar along the East Coast Mainline, but we passed at least 3 field-sized solar farms and plenty of wind turbines dotted here and there. It is no surprise to me now that UK solar installed capacity doubled in 2014 – you can see it.
We're staying at a genuine Airbnb house – a real family home as opposed to a regular rental – and our first proper use of the new sharing economy. The house is lovely, but you do have to put up with your host's tastes – there is no cafetiere, garlic press or, believe it or not, wine glasses. We can improvise on the former two, but bought them 4 cheap wine glasses (I hope that isn't taken as an insult as we can't take them with us). The other problem is trying to stop 3 rather excited and rambunctious boys from trashing the place...
Another thing I've noticed is you can now use a contactless debit/credit card in lieu of an Oyster card for London transport. This opens up the flexibility of London public transport for the casual visitor. Anything to remove barriers to the greener option wins in my book and, when my Oyster card runs out/gets lost again, I think I might give up on it.
As well as the tourist traps, yesterday we went to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust London in Barnes, not that far from the heart of the City - amazing to see what you can achieve if you leave a little space for nature in our urban sprawl.
I know I'm an irrepressible optimist, but going on a holiday allows you to see things afresh in a way you don't on a business trip. I am utterly convinced that, no matter what the doomsters claim, we are moving in the right direction.
Last week we had another fantastic turnout for our annual Green Academy on employee engagement for sustainability. There were some really big names taking part – including some who are seen as sustainability exemplars.
The two points I really try to hammer home on these sessions are:
People's feelings are a much stronger driver for their behaviour rather than rational thought;
You can't bludgeon people into changing their feelings.
You can see this in the climate debate where a significant chunk of the population still 'feels' that climate change can't be real despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that it is and manmade. It just doesn't feel right to them. Instead they cling to some very flimsy straws which appear, superficially, to reassure this position – an extreme form of 'confirmation bias'.
My response, Green Jujitsu, is to start at any point where the sustainability agenda and the feelings of the audience overlap. So if you are talking to a climate sceptic, it may be that energy security, local air quality or job creation through the low carbon economy are better starting points than statistical analysis. For engineers, getting them to solve sustainability problems will produce positive feelings about the agenda as they love to solve problems. For health care professionals, finding solutions which save carbon and improve patient care will hit the right button.
So the first principle of employee engagement must be to respect people's feelings. Not just because it is right to do so in a moral sense, but also because it's right to do so in a practical sense.
It made me think, though, about the process of people becoming eco-aware.
For most people, it is a gradual process of ramping awareness until one event tips them over the edge. My own 'Road to Damascus' moment – seeing massive ecological damage from a nickel smelter in arctic Russia – was less about awareness of the problem and more about the realisation that, as an engineer, I could and should do something practical about such damage. But it often requires an immersive experience to do this – reading a plaintive article in the press is rarely enough.
In my experience, true Damascene conversions should be treated with care. I have met too many snake oil salesmen and obnoxious self-righteous gits who claim to have undergone such a zero to 100% overnight. And just imagine being preached at by Jeremy Clarkson. Shiver.
It was my forty-mmmth birthday yesterday and I had a lovely day – breakfast in bed, pub lunch, birdwatching (yellow hammer, willow tit, water rail the highlights), a beer in the sun and dinner. But an completely unexpected treat on the way home was seeing the newly installed 'living wall' at Marks & Spencer lit up in all its glory.
The wall is 167 square metres, constructed from nearly 16,000 individual plants, and is designed to bring birds and insects into the centre of Newcastle. I'm sure the bees in the hives on the roof of Fenwicks just down Northumberland Street will be highly appreciative.
And if you think this is just green bling, the store is getting a massive sustainable energy makeover with intelligent door sensors and a system to use waste heat from refrigeration internally.
Great to see M&S continuing to forge the path on these issues – and even better that its on my doorstep!
A very interesting point was raised by a Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group member at last week's meeting:
The easiest ethical choices are often not very ethical, for example it is easiest to avoid buying conflict minerals by avoiding buying from the Democratic Republic of Congo altogether, but you’re actually hurting a country which desperately needs a stronger economy. You should be supporting the 'good' mineral sector.
Wow! That triggers a whole load of questions in my mind:
Where does the boundary of ethical responsibility lie?
How do you assess the ethical implications of what good things you could do, but aren't doing?
Is it ethically OK to wash your hands of an issue like this, or should you dive in and try and solve it?
Is there a responsibility for corporations to use their buying power for good?
The press and NGOs have a tendency to take a very simplistic black and white view of business ethics issues – ironically given their own ethical missteps – what's their responsibility to be objective and not chase a headline?