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January 2009 - Terra Infirma


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28 January 2009

Two free seminars

I'm giving two free seminars at Business Link's North East Business Fair 25/26th Feb at Gosforth Racecourse in Newcastle.

Both my sessions are on the 26th - they are:

1030 - 1100: Low carbon business strategy

1145 - 1230: 10 reasons why you must improve the environmental performance of your business

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26 January 2009

Weekly Tip #41: Avoid the cliches

This is the latest of a series of tips extracted from the Green Business Bible e-book:

Eco-clichés turn people off - particularly cynics. Personally I never want to see a picture of hands cupping a sapling ever again. Find a stronger brand for your green communications - and one with a spark of originality.

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21 January 2009

Will BRIC Beat the West in the Clean Tech Race?

Two interesting articles in the latest edition of Green Futures. One asks, given that everyone agrees that there is a great opportunity in the current economic climate to have a clean tech revolution and have a green economy emerge from the wreckage of the old one, why is it not happening? The second details the burgeoning clean tech sector in India with references to a similar tale in China*. 

This sets up an interesting scenario. Will the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) economies leapfrog the West to win in the clean tech revolution? Will their economies emerge more robust and self sufficient than ours? Is it about time we got our collective fingers out?
It's food for thought.

* Despite the "new power station every nanosecond" finger pointing scare stories about the world's most populous country, I personally saw more solar hot water systems in one train journey in China five years ago than I have before or since.

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19 January 2009

Weekly Tip #40: Parking

This is the latest of a series of tips extracted from the Green Business Bible e-book:

Manage on-site parking to encourage greener forms of commuting - ideas include:

  • Putting covered cycle racks near the front door.
  • Limiting parking permits: a fair and transparent method of allocating permits based on need rather than seniority is required to avoid staff insurrection;
  • Paying extra to those who do not take a permit;
  • Charging daily parking charges can give staff more flexibility than permits. For example an employee may use the bus most days, but needs to use a car one day a week for the school run.

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14 January 2009

Breaking bad habits in the workplace.

Last Friday I reviewed John Ehrenfeld's brilliant book Sustainability by Design - its central thesis is that we have to disrupt society's addiction to consumption. At the same time I have been inundated with requests for staff engagement sessions. My response tends to be, yes you could pay me to browbeat people over their lunch break, but they'll just go back to their desks and their same old habits.

The same principle of breaking bad habits applies to staff as it does to society at large:

1. Disruption - stop people and make them think about their actions

2. Realignment - change the system to make good habits easier than old habits

3. Reinforcement - providing consistent leadership to ensure the good behaviour becomes a habit

This isn't easy and it'll take more than a lunch hour to achieve.

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12 January 2009

Weekly Tip #39: Watch your tone

This is the latest of a series of tips extracted from the Green Business Bible e-book:

Match the tone of your internal and external green communications to the culture of your business. If your's is a funky place to work, be fun and 'more stilettos than sandals', but if you are a traditional manufacturer in an engineering supply chain, be practical and technical. You'll find it easier to get others on board if you speak their language.

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9 January 2009

Book Review: Sustainability By Design

Warning: don't be fooled by the cute sunflower on the cover, or the modest page count, John Ehrenfeld's Sustainability by Designis the most intellectually rigorous treatment of sustainability that I have ever come across.

Ehrenfeld's diagnosis of the earth's problems is that we have become addicted to Having. The addiction analogy is a great one - we want more and more stuff even though we know that getting any of it will not satisfy us for long and only make us crave more. He then uses systems theory to argue that eco-efficiency, corporate social responsibility and (the standard view* of) sustainable development won't get us out of this addiction.

Instead he proffers and deconstructs a new definition of sustainability as "the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever". In particular the word 'flourish' is included to force home the idea that sustainability is not just a lack of unsustainability, but much more ambitious and positive than that. Drawing on the work of thinkers such as Heidegger, Fromm and Maturana, he argues we must move from our addiction to Having to a state of Being. To this we need to disrupt our current patterns of behaviour and he gives a range of examples of how that might be achieved.

The simplest of these is the two button toilet flush. By providing a decision point (high volume or low volume flush?) this product makes us stop and question why would we want to use more or less water and therefore links us (however briefly) to the natural world and the pressures upon it. He calls this disruption of our habits and routine by products 'presencing'. The disruption principle is also applied to the design of organisations and governance structures. Of course Ehrenfeld cannot provide all the answers within a 215 page book, but this work provides a context and springboard for the next generation of sustainable solutions.

Despite the approachable and open writing style, this a challenging read as it covers a lot of ground very quickly and the philosophical and linguistic concepts behind the arguments can be hard to grasp if you are coming to them for the first time as I was. It certainly disrupted my thinking on sustainability and has given me a deeper understanding of the principles - particularly on the consumption side of the coin.

In short: quite brilliant, but be prepared for an intensive intellectual workout!

* I define sustainable development as the process of achieving sustainability (so this work would be part of that process), but Ehrenfeld uses the standard definitions (eg meeting today's needs without compromising the needs of future generations).

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7 January 2009

Waste or food?

Over the holidays I've been reading David Archer's excellent book Tyne and Tide: A Celebration of the River Tyne about the legendary river which flows about a mile south of where I'm sitting.

However the following statement on river pollution made me stop and think:

"The generation of waste products is an attribute of all living creatures, and human beings are no exception. Most of the products decompose naturally in the environment and do not cause detriment to other organisms sharing their living space."

This encapsulates our short-sighted attitude to 'waste'. Contrary to popular opinion, organic wastes do not decompose in the environment, rather they are eaten. Horse manure is manna from heaven if you are a dung fly or one of many species of fungi or bacteria. That is their food source just as a shiny apple on a tree is food for humans. We're not immune from eating 'waste' products either, there are over 700 species of bacteria in our gut which metabolise various food elements, including some essential vitamins. Metabolise = eat and excrete! So rather than natural 'waste' materials not causing "detriment to other organisms", they are actually nourishing many of those organisms and form part of a continual cycle of nutrients.

So why am I being this pedantic so early in the New Year? Well we've got to start thinking about the materials in our economy in the same way. McDonogh and Braungart call these 'technical nutrients' to draw a comparison with 'biological nutrients'. If we start to think of a continual cycle of materials in the economy, and design materials and processes so the by-products of one process are always nourishing other processes in the system, then we are a long way towards sustainability.

Sound fanciful? Then check out the industrial symbiosis at Kalundborg.

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5 January 2009

A Happy New Year to all!

But here's a challenge for you. What are you going to do to make your or your clients' business more sustainable in 2009?

Innovate new green products and services?

Cut waste? By how much?

Cut energy use? By how much?

Cut water use? By how much?

Greener procurement? What will you avoid this year?

Staff engagement? And will they listen?

Cut fuel costs through smarter working? By how much?

Offset your emissions?

Post your pledges in the comments...

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