Just over four years ago, I needed a catchy name for my new environmental/sustainability consultancy, so I, ahem, 'borrowed' the name from one session in a children's international conference I spoke at (I wasn't getting paid so, being a mercenary git, I had to steal something!). It's not a bad company name, but it does have a number of disadvatanges:
1. It is difficult to read out over the phone.
2. Just after I registered it and bought the stationery, the VC firm Terra Firma suddenly hit the headlines by buying out EMI - cue confusion at my end (I doubt they got many calls looking for an environmental review).
but more importantly,
3. It's a bit doom and gloom.
If you see any of my talks, I very rarely mention environmental damage - no pictures of melting glaciers or oil encrusted birds (a rare exception here). I am resolutely upbeat about green business and sustainability. I genuinely find it exciting to see an organisation making the right moves, rejecting business as usual, learning and innovating.
And this is the key rule of environmental communications, whether internal or external - make it fun. No-one wants to be beaten over the head with guilt or be lectured on how they're destroying the planet. And being human, if we don't want to hear something, we just switch off.
In practice, how do we do this? Well, for a start, get rid of all those annoying posters, all the pious 'hands cupping a sapling' pictures and any hint of sanctimony. This is a challenge, we're all in it together, so we might as well have some fun while we're doing it. Run competitions, use humour and make people feel that they can contribute.
I love the fact that Tesla's first electric car is a sports car. That's way cooler than a Prius. And cool will beat piety any day of the week - even a Bank Holiday Monday!
For my forthcoming second book, The Green Executive, I interviewed 18 senior managers and executives with green business responsibilities. The one key theme that shone through the interviews was perseverance. Don't give up, don't despair, keep on at it, they said.
That might seem a really stupid question. Green business is challenging, so you have to persevere to succeed. Obvious, innit?
Yes, but there's more to it than that. If you are a green business champion of any ilk, your job is to bring other people with you. If you are seen to give up, or needlessly compromise, you will send out the wrong message to all the other stakeholders in the process, be they colleagues, potential new recruits, cynical observers, customers, investors, suppliers, partners, other businesses and pressure groups. If you give up, your believers will too and your detractors will grow in strength.
So zero pressure then, you only have the future of the planet on your shoulders. But seriously, no matter how hard it gets, just keep going!
Most organisations still see 'environment' as an internal affair - all about walking around their factory with clipboards sorting out a little energy efficiency here and some waste minimisation there. There's nothing wrong with this, but to really grasp the nettle and become a green business, you have got to look up and down your supply chain.
You are part of others' carbon footprint and other organisations are part of yours. Take Apple as an example: 38% of their average product's carbon footprint is in the supply chain and 59% is from retail, use and disposal. Apple directly control just 3% of all the carbon directly - you get similar results for almost any other sector.
This makes the process of going green much more difficult that most realise. Supply chains have evolved to deliver the nuts and bolts for mainstream products, not green alternatives and as a result green materials and components are often expensive and of poor quality in comparison. Likewise, it is increasingly difficult to predict consumer behaviour - who would have seen the success of Twitter five years ago and the demand it has created to constantly be in touch?
The answer is to be both smart and proactive. Supply chains can be transformed by creating demand - usually through working with others to create that demand - or by buying up potential green suppliers and transforming them. Consumer behaviour can be influenced by making green behaviour easier and more desirable than non-green behaviour.
None of this is easy - and that challenge is attracting many very clever people. The green economy is just the same as the mainstream economy - the smart guys thrive.
I'm producing a series of podcasts called The Green Business Confidential. These will complement the series of YouTube videos on the Terra Infirma channel. The videos are intended to be more detailed, the podcasts more opinionated.
Here's the first podcast in the series, entitled "Go Green Save Money Is For Amateurs":
I love my compost heap. I should say 'heaps' as I effectively have five - a two bay main heap, a plastic drum for food waste, a wormery and a dumpy bag for leaf mould. And three more at the allotment... but anyway, I turned the first full bay in the main heap the other week and marvelled as the hedge-clippings, grass cuttings, weeds and, ahem, 'nitrogen rich liquid' I had put in over the last year had been transformed to lovely, sweet smelling brown humus.
Of course this doesn't happen by magic - a whole eco-system of microfauna eats the different components and the compost I am so proud of is basically their waste. So they're using our waste, we're using their waste and the cycle continues.
So, from a philosophical point of view, which of these two processes is "recycling"? Both ecologists and economists like to construct rigid hierarchies where material and energy move from "primary" producers/industries up to top consumers. But in ecology these "top consumers" produce food for other organisms through their dung and eventually become food themselves. So in reality we end up with a messy 'food web' where there is no concept of 'waste'.
I believe that if we want to move to a sustainable society - ie one which mimics the natural cycles of nature - we have to get away from the concept of "recycling materials" as opposed to "cycling resources". We would then have a 'resource web' just like the 'food web' in nature (check out Kalundborg in Denmark). We hear endless calls to treat waste as a resource, but to really do that we have to stop thinking of it as waste in the first place, hence my aphorism "waste is a verb, not a noun.". If resources are no longer deemed waste then why do we want the "re-" in recycle or reuse?
So maybe it is time to say goodbye to "recycling".
Russia is burning (and choking), Pakistan is drowning - major humanitarian disasters which are likely to be in part due to climate change as Pakistan is effectively getting the rain that the Russian plains should have had. A similar thing happened in the UK this winter - we got Arctic weather stuck over us for weeks, while the Arctic had abnormally high temperatures. While the usual caveat must be rolled out - we can't attribute any one event to climate change - the frequency of such events is increasing as the science would suggest.
Climate change mitigation (cutting carbon emissions) is a medium term measure, but it must be backed up by adaptation measures for the short (and medium) term impacts which are already in the system. Adaptation is normally considered at the regional/national scale, but what about individual organisations? Are you prepared for climate change? Would you be resilient to extreme heat or cold? Are your data servers in your basement and vulnerable to flooding? Are your raw materials grown in a climate sensitive area? After all, Russia has announced restrictions on grain exports.
Of course we can flip this around to the positive. Have you a design, a product or a service to help make organisations, regions or whole countries resilient to climate change? Can you spot a gap in the market? Will climate change produce gaps in global markets for, say, food stuffs? This may sound mercenary, but a robust response to climate change will involve the markets as much as it does disaster relief organisations.
So whether climate change is an opportunity or a threat to your business, you should be factoring it into your business planning.
In military parlance, a "blue on blue" is when units on the same side mistake each other for the enemy and open fire. The same thing happens with irritatingly high frequency in the environmental sector, the most recent case being the attacks on the proposals for a green motorway service station in the Cotswolds. The credentials of the facility are impressive - green buildings, alternative fuels and local foods, the problem seems to be the 'motorway' bit - a green motorway service station is seen as an oxymoron.
Poppycock. That's the only phrase I can use without breaching my own no swearing rule here on the virtual Terra Infirma Towers (the air in the real Towers is often blue). Nowhere in any scenario of a sustainable future will people not travel or eat, meaning they will want to refuel themselves and their vehicles (public or private) while they are travelling. So its not an oxymoron to provide those services on a low carbon basis, on the contrary, it is essential.
But this is just one example of 'commentators' who paint themselves so fundamentally green that no progress will ever be good enough (as it would mean they would have nothing to moan about). Criticising others is the easiest thing in the word and, while often necessary, has minimal virtue compared to actually doing something positive. As Ross Perot once said 'the activist doesn't say "the river is dirty", the activist cleans up the river.'
So should businesses like the developer of this motorway services just give up if nothing they do is good enough? In a word, no. In The Three Secrets of Green Business, I identified a number of "green hyenas" who look for weaknesses in green efforts to feed on - one of which was the fundamentalist green who will never approve of anything done by business. While hyenas are generally unpleasant animals (I've seen one take a wildebeest down by the, ahem, family jewels), they perform a very important role in the eco-system by weeding out the weak and clearing up waste. Same in business and sustainability - we do need the self-righteous critics to sniff out the greenwash even if they sometimes/frequently miss the target. Use them to spur you to greater efforts, greater transparency and greater honesty. The best way to beat them is to be impeccable.
It's been about 4 months since I signed up to Twitter, but it's only been the last two that I've really got my head around it. I find it fantastic for keeping up with a range of news sources, thought leaders and my broader network of clients and associates. On the broadcast side, most if not all of my blog posts now go out on Twitter, along with one line pieces of advice and comments on news stories.
Some things I've learnt:
1. For every two followers who follow me, one is genuine but the other is trying to get an automatic follow back from me - and will evaporate in a couple of days. I find this annoying, pointless and cynical, so I don't play that game.
2. Some people are obsessive retweeters. If I look at my Twitter feed and there's two dozen retweets from the same person, they get unfollowed. Flagging up interesting tweets is one thing, creating noise is quite another.
3. Overall, it's all very well mannered and there's a huge amount of good value information, despite old media's lazy stereotyping of it as a swirl of self-obsessed introspection.
We often find our clients and potential clients stuck in a quandary. They tell us "we want to do something on sustainability/csr but we're not sure what and we'll call you when we've worked it out." It is hard work persuading them that "we can help you with that."
The fear is that they would be putting their future in someone else's hands and who knows what that might mean. Here's some reasons to master that fear:
1. The biggest value a consultant can bring to an organisation is strategic direction in unfamiliar territory. Sustainability is a great case in point - it is uncharted territory for most organisations, so why not get someone experienced in to advise on the big picture, rather than try and work it out from scratch?
2. Any consultant worth their salt will work with the client to identify the overall aims, objectives and approach, rather than try to apply a "one size fits all" template to everyone. This means you get the solutions that work for you.
3. Consultants are much more effectively utilised as "expert advisors" than "hired hands". If you don't know where you are going, that's when you need advice. If you know what you want, and how you want it done, you should implement it internally - employing a consultant to do it makes no sense unless there is a particular skill or process required (and usually then you can fish at the 'commodity' end of the market - eg for ISO14001 implementation).
Want advice on employing a consultant? We can help you with that!
As of 1st of August, Terra Infirma is four years old!
The last year has been an exciting ride - the publication of The Three Secrets of Green Business, the rebranding, the launch of our YouTube channel, our first venture onto Twitter and getting praised by a Government Minister. That's not to mention working with some great new clients like Aker Solutions, the National Health Service and East Coast Main Line, and some old friends like NISP North East, Business to Business Ltd and the Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange. It hasn't always been easy, given the recession, but it is clear that sustainability isn't going away.
So what's the next year got in store? We're already limbering up for some events including some webinars in August and the Low Carbon Best Practice exchange in Harrogate in November, the first draft manuscript of the Green Executive has gone to the publishers - estimated publication date April 2011, and we've got some new product developments going on in the background. Of course you'll get all the usual support from this blog, The Low Carbon Agenda, YouTube and Twitter.