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January 2008 - Terra Infirma

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30 January 2008

(eco) Small Print

The small print that people put under their e-mail signature has always baffled me. If you did get an e-mail by accident that by some miracle would be juicy enough for you to want to read it, never mind keep it, would you be put off by being told not to by the authoritarian instructions at the bottom?

Well, what's really amusing me at the minute is the dozen or so exhortations I receive daily not to print this e-mail unless it's really necessary. Let's be clear, if it is not important enough to print, I ain't going to print it whether or not the sender asks me not to. What do they take me for, some kind of idiot? And if I WAS dumb enough to print off every message I receive, I don't think a little message at the bottom would make a damn bit of difference.

So why do it? I think it's a "I'm much greener than yeeew!" statement - trying subliminally to get some environmental kudos without actually having to do anything other than type a few words. Well, they'll have to work harder than that to impress me.

And how long before some smart-alec points out that the extra joules required to send those additional bits of information could power a lightbulb for 32 nano-seconds?

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28 January 2008

Legislation Alert! Construction

Most in the construction industry will be aware that Site Waste Management Plans are expected to become compulsory for projects >£250k in April of this year. If you're in this industry, you should be getting yourself in gear NOW for the new regime.

I came across this useful guide to developing SWMPs today. I haven't tried the accompanying quiz, but I'm sure it will give some a shock!

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26 January 2008

Free slot in London, Wed 30 Jan

Once again I have a free hour in London between meetings. If anyone wants a free*, no-strings consultation at about 3:30pm somewhere between Euston and the Strand, please drop me a line asap.

* I'll even buy the coffee!


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25 January 2008

Great thinking, Batman!

Yesterday I was presenting an award to Best Environmental Project as part of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle's Go Green Campaign. It was a v. flash occasion with swirling, strobing lights and pumping music to introduce each finalist.

Which song did the DJ blast out for one of the entrants for Best Company?

Britney Spears' "Toxic".

I bet they loved that!


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Food Climate Research Network

It is a well established fact that food is a huge part of our environmental impact. Well there's a new network looking at the relationship between that food and climate change: the Food Climate Research Network. There are some interesting working papers on the network website, including a breakdown of emissions that shows that, overall, agricultural practice is much more significant than, say, food miles.

Looks like a good resource to keep an eye on.

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23 January 2008

BREW funding to be slashed by 50%

I heard yesterday from good sources that the Government is going to slash the funds distributed through the Business Resource Efficiency and Waste (BREW) programme by 50%.

BREW is hypothecated cash from the landfill tax escalator. For the last three years has been used to fund organisations that help reduce industrial waste going to landfill such as Envirowise (waste minimisation), WRAP - the Waste and Resources Action Programme (recycling and markets for recycled materials), the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (connecting companies who can use each other's 'waste') plus a number of related ventures such as the Carbon Trust (energy efficiency) and a variety of regional bodies. The idea is neat: take money off the biggest producers of waste (providing the 'stick' to reduce that waste) and use it to fund enabling mechanisms to reduce barriers to change (carrots).

As I understand it the national bodies will have their funding cut and there will be nothing for the regions.

Terra Infirma has benefited from the BREW programme: we have a contract to deliver Envirowise work, have obtained subsidies from Midas (the BREW funded North East resource efficiency brokerage) for our clients, and have attended Carbon Trust training, so I admit we do have a vested interest. However it is difficult to understand the logic of diverting landfill tax away from environmental programmes and into the general pot (or the Olympics if you want to be really cynical). It certainly plays into the hands of those who see green taxation merely as another stealth tax. A bad move all round.

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21 January 2008

Greenwashing or Clear Communication?

Terra Choice, a US Green Marketing company has released a 'green paper' entitled the 6 Deadly Sins of Greenwashing. It details the results of a survey of over a thousand products with green claims - only one was regarded by the authors as being robust. The graph below shows how the company categorised the offenders against the six sins they identified:

1. Hidden Trade-off - the claim only covered one item of the product's lifecycle impact;
2. No Proof;
3. Vagueness - eg "non-toxic";
4. Irrelevance - eg being CFC free when CFCs have been banned for over a decade;
5. Lesser of Two Evils - greening a 'bad' product eg "organic cigarettes";
6. Fibbing.

While I am completely against greenwashing, I have a problem with some of these alleged 'sins' and think the company may be guilty of chasing headlines.

For example, the biggest sin, 'Hidden Trade-off' suggests that single-subject eco-labels are taboo. Yet it is these labels that have proved the most popular with the public. The EU energy label (right) on white goods has been responsible for a huge shift in consumer preferences and it is so successful, it is being used for cars, windows and even aircraft. Why is it successful? It is clear, objective and people understand it. Conversely, the more comprehensive EU Eco-label is widely ignored.

One person's 'vagueness' is another person's clearness. More people understand 'non-toxic' than know what BFR or LD50 mean. I'd tend to lump this one in with 'no-proof' myself.

Likewise, I'm not sure about the "lesser of two evils". People laugh when they hear the army is interested in lead-free bullets, but most rounds are fired in training, often in areas of great ecological importance, so it is important not to scatter toxic material around. If someone is going to kill themselves smoking, then I'd rather they did it with tobacco that hasn't been grown using toxic chemicals.

If you cut these elements out of the graph above, then relatively few products fail the tests - and only one percent were actively found to be fibbing. I've been harsh on Terra Choice, but many media commentators do the same thing - poke holes in the genuine efforts of others to do the right thing and communicate it to their customers. Having said that, every time the Advertising Standards Agency rap the knuckles of a genuine Greenwasher, I punch the air and shout "Yes!".

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18 January 2008

Terra Infirma on Tour!

I'll be appearing all round the country in 2008, leading training sessions for the Low Carbon Innovation Network at their Exchange Events.

There is a huge amount going on in each event - a range of training sessions in the morning and discussion groups in the afternoon. My particular session will be on the business opportunities arising from the low carbon economy and how best to exploit them.

If you interested in this agenda, the events are certainly worth a look.

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16 January 2008


DEFRA has released a weighty report breaking down the attitudes and behaviours of the UK public and proposing a framework of how to 'green' those attitudes and behaviours.

They propose 7 population segments (with my slightly less subtle interpretations of what they mean):

1. Positive Greens - 18 % of the population - will do as much as they can.

2. Waste Watchers - 12% - naturally dislike waste but not environmentally motivated.

3. Concerned Consumers 14% - would like to do more, but struggle with lifestyle choices.

4. Sideline supporters - 14% - concerned, but not acting.

5. Cautious Participants - 14% - will follow the crowd.

6. Stalled Starters - 10% - don't know much about the environment.

7. Honestly Disengaged - 18% - Jeremy Clarkson.

The report also sets 12 headline goals running from "install insulation" through to "eat food locally in season". It then plots which of these goals each segment is most likely to be persuaded to achieve and by what method. Interesting stuff, particularly those trying to change behaviour, although I'm sure there will be some debate over the segmentation.

Back in July I mentioned a GreenBiz report on US consumer attitudes. They found that 29% didn't care about the environment. If you count segments 6 and 7 above as not caring (deliberately or through ignorance) then you get 28%. Obviously this is an unscientific comparison - but surprisingly similar given the British perception of our cousins across the pond as uncaring when it comes to the planet.

Given this and the general blame thrown at China, maybe someone should do a study on green xenophobia...

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11 January 2008

London Calling, Monday 14 Jan

I'm down in London on Monday 14 Jan to see a potential client in the morning. The lunchtime/afternoon meeting I was going to move on to has now been cancelled, so I've got some free time.

If anyone based in central London would like to meet up for a no-strings chat about sustainability and their organisation, or potential collaboration, please drop me a line


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9 January 2008

What do we do?

I spent this morning at a Chamber of Commerce networking meeting. Each of the hundred or so attendees had a minute to give a Dragons' Den style pitch at the others. I love DD and wanted to give the whole elevator pitch thing a go, but it is a nightmare trying to sum up Terra Infirma's activities in a few sentences. For example, this week I've been:

  • Indentifying opportunities to use 'waste' heat from a proposed coal fired power station;
  • Developing a plan for a facilitated session for Local Authority waste officers to brainstorm new ideas for waste awareness;
  • Looking for eco-design opportunities in the packaging of eco-friendly shampoos and shower gels.

How do you sum that up in a minute? OK, I said:

Business is coming under massive pressure to improve their environmental performance driven by legislation, increasing energy and waste costs, customer expectations and public pressure.

We've worked with everyone: multinational chemical companies, commercial businesses, construction companies, even an independent hairdressers, to integrate sustainability into their operations, products and services. We take a proactive approach which goes beyond compliance to reduce costs, exploit green market opportunities and improve public relations.

Not bad?

As with all these events, there were too many sellers, not enough buyers, and there wasn't enough time after the pitching to do some proper networking (ie talking to people), but I did make a couple of good contacts which could be useful. After all, networking is a long game.

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7 January 2008

Repeat after me: 'Energy' and 'Electricity' are different things...

One of the things that makes me mad is people who should know better mixing up 'energy' and 'electricity'. Of course electricity is a form of energy, but one that is very carbon intensive, but still doesn't contribute as many carbon emissions as gas and oil used for space heating and transport.

For example, in the Observer on Sunday, environment editor Juliette Jowit wrote:

"...'feed-in tariffs' which allow homeowners to sell spare electricity to the national grid to help repay their costs would ensure that people opted for the best technology, which also includes solar panels and ground source heat pumps."

OK, Juliette (adopts exasperated-teacher tone), a feed in tariff is a mechanism to allow householders to sell electricity to the grid. A ground source heat pump consumes electricity to produce heat. So it can't benefit from a feed in tariff. Have you ever tried heating an electrical wire? Would it light even the most efficient lightbulb? (flings chalk at cringing editor)

I'm jesting (of course), but this is really important when discussing the future of our energy supply. There's a large contingent who shout "We need nuclear!", but to effectively cut emissions this way, we would need to convert all our domestic/commercial heating and transport to run on electricity. Which would of course be extraordinarily expensive in terms of capital costs (new power stations, heaters, vehicles) and running costs.

Currently nuclear produces 20% of our electricity supply and those plants are due for replacement - to deliver say 33% of our total energy supply (as one prominent energy expert suggests), this would require a very large number of new nuclear power stations and we would have to find a very large amount of nuclear fuel which of course is finite like gas, oil and coal.

I didn't mean this to turn into an anti-nuclear rant, but we are risking basing this and other similarly important decisions on opinions that are flung about, deliberately or otherwise, without a true understanding of what we are talking about.

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4 January 2008

Lies, Damn Lies and Life Cycle Assessment...

For some time, I've been vaguely aware of some 'research' that purported to show that a GM Hummer was more eco-friendly than a hybrid Toyota Prius over its entire lifecycle. This puzzled me greatly so I decided to have a look myself.

In March 2007, a market research company called CNWMR published a report called 'Dust To Dust' which appeared to show that, taking into consideration energy over the whole lifecycle, the energy cost of a Prius was $3.25 per mile whereas the Hummer H3 was only $1.949 per mile (dig the precision). This caused jubilation amongst the reactionary press and blogosphere and outrage amongst their progressive counterparts.

While many of the latter produced long lists and reports of what was wrong with the CNWMR analysis, I personally believe there is one big fatal flaw.

CNWMR factored in the different driver behaviour of the two vehicles - an average of 100 000 miles across its lifetime for the Prius and 400 000 ish for the Hummer. The Prius does have a higher energy cost to build (partly due to the battery, partly because it is unique so cannot share facilities with other models), so this skews the analysis heavily against the Prius as the smaller build energy for the Hummer is spread more thinly against all those miles.

To put it in layman's terms the argument is: the Prius is more damaging because its drivers drive less.

Or conversely: if you drive more then your vehicle is more eco-friendly!


This clearly demonstrates the WYGIWYN (what you get is what you need) effect associated with life cycle assessments. If LCA is to be used to make clear judgements between products then standardised methods are required (as with fuel efficiency or energy labelling) to ensure that this sort of idiocy is not given the oxygen of publicity that I've just given it!

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2 January 2008

Happy New Year from Terra Infirma

As the fug of Xmas XS slowly dissipates, it is becoming clear that 2008 is looking like a vintage one for Terra Infirma. We have a series of exciting new projects and clients on the horizon (more details when the ink dries), the long delayed North Tyneside Resource Efficiency Club is looking more likely to go ahead soon and the long promised 'Green Business Bible' is due to be published online in the coming months.

Looking at the business press, there is one clear message - industry is going to get greener this year. Whether pushed by legislation, pulled by customers or self propelled by the desire to do the right thing, if you want to get fit for this new green playing field then drop us a line and we'll see what we can do to help.


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