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September 2010 - Terra Infirma

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29 September 2010

It's the economy, stupid

Back in the early 1980s, I persuaded my parents to part with the princely sum of £399.00 for a BBC Micro Model B. My initial reaction was to feel a bit let down - all that white-heat-of-technology talk around home computers and the best thing this one could do was putting you in charge of a crudely realised kingdom with a river, fields and mountains (at least until Elite came out, but that's another matter...). At today's prices, that £399.00 could buy you four, yes, four, iPhone 4 handsets, each with about a million times more processing capability and a cornucopia of sci-fi type technology (video, maps, access to vast stores of information) that the 11 year old me would never have dreamed of.

So what has this got to do with green business? Well it demonstrates a number of basic economic principles - new technology starts off expensive until a mixture of economy of scale and innovation makes it accessible to all. But reading some accounts, you would think that renewables, to take an example, were exempt from this rule. "They're too expensive" we keep hearing. Only because they are the exception, rather than the rule. Already, with demand increasing and manufacturing shifting to China and India, prices of solar panels and wind turbines are starting to drop.

By the way, I'm not saying that offshoring manufacturing is a good or bad thing per se, just that once again, in the economic world we live in, that's what happens and we shouldn't be surprised if it does.

Demand also derives technology improvements and recently we have seen breakthroughs in dye-based solar PV technology which could deliver lower costs, higher efficiency and lower carbon footprint. Likewise, electric vehicles are currently expensive, but that's because the extraordinarily lean supply chains that supply conventional vehicle manufacturers have not been built for electric vehicles yet. One manufacturer told me that an extra 1000 vehicles a year would cut his bill of material costs by 40%. 45% of the cost of an electric vehicle is the battery, so, given the innovations in mobile phone battery technology, we will eventually see massive improvements there.

The flip side of this is true too. I once sat through a presentation on a new biodiesel plant for the North East of England. I asked whether it would take waste oils as well as rape seed oil, but the presenter said that to make the economics of the plant would only stack up if they produced pharma-grade glycerol as a by-product so they needed to be very tight on the quality of raw materials. His company later went bust, allegedly because putting that amount of high grade glycerol on the market depressed the price. More supply, same demand = lower prices. Welcome to the real world.

I also have little patience for those who complain that environmental legislation or corporate social responsibility will cost business or the economy money. Hold on, what's a cost? It's an income for someone else in the economy - it's not lost. Environmental legislation protects the world we live in and creates new markets. What's not to like?

Whether or not you like the economy we live in, we live in it and that's a fact. If you run, or want to run, a green business, you'll quickly find you're not exempt.

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27 September 2010

Quick wins

If your organisation is new to the whole idea of going green, then the best thing to do is get started and quickly show some early wins. Every organisation has some easy-to-fix but significant environmental opportunities, so before you get bogged down in analysing, strategy writing and designing systems, get out there and get stuck in.

The benefits of this approach over building a bureaucracy are:

1. You get tangible good news stories to show other stakeholders (senior management, other staff, cynics);

2. You get the big mo' - people can see what's happening and may join in;

3. You learn about your businesses, how it really operates and what the real problems and barriers are;

4. You have freedom to try lots of approaches, make a few mistakes and learn practical lessons.

The carbon footprinting, environmental management systems and strategy can come later or, better still, worked up in parallel, so you can incorporate the lessons learnt from the quick wins. But get some momentum going and sustain it.

If you want to learn more about how to get started, plus dozens of practical hints and tips, I'm running a webinar on Quick Wins in Cutting Carbon tomorrow at 14:00BST - there's a nominal charge of £45+VAT to take part - a bargain for what you will learn!

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24 September 2010

Green Business Confidential Ep3: The Challenge Ahead

Here's the third Green Business Confidential podcast, entitled "The Challenge Ahead", for your listening pleasure:

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:

GBC3 The Challenge Ahead


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22 September 2010

My Top 10 Tweets

I've become a bit addicted to Twitter - I find it very useful for keeping up to date with news and views from a very wide range of sources and it has become the glue that holds my various social networking profiles together.

Just like this blog, I also use Twitter to disseminate the green business message. The 140 character limit is a brilliant anvil against which to beat these ideas down to their fundamental message. The nature of Twitter is ephemeral, so I thought I'd trawl my back catalogue of tweets for my favourite 10.

  1. Going green will help a good business but not save a bad one.
  2. "Go green and save money" is for amateurs.
  3. No business ever went green by ISO14001 alone.
  4. Sustainability needs to be embedded into the DNA of each organisation - need green equivalent of the TQM revolution.
  5. When I find organisations trying and failing to go green, the prognosis is usually lack of leadership.
  6. One of the toughest tests of CSR is to kill off products and activities incompatible with sustainability.
  7. Beware: middle management is where green projects go to die.
  8. Green business leaders must show commitment, not just in what they say, but in what they do... and in what they spend.
  9. Life's too short for Life Cycle Assessment! Avoid paralysis by analysis and learn CSR by doing.
  10. Key question for any green product/service: can it compete on performance, quality and price as well as green?

I try to write one of these every day, so if you want more you can follow me on @GarethKane.

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20 September 2010

The (Wrong?) Road

The other evening I watched The Road, the post-apocalyptic movie based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy. The plot involves the attempt by a father and son to escape an unnamed catastrophe which has killed off every living thing except people. Survivors have either turned cannibal, or, like the father and son, scavenge for tinned food amongst the wreckage of small town America and the dead forests of the surrounding countryside.

Not a bad film, but portraying such utter dystopia leaves me in two minds. The first thought is that it was a powerful reminder that we rely on the eco-system for all our essentials, one which we often forget as we in the West spend most of our time inside and increasingly on-line. If it goes we go. But this is balanced by the nagging thought that this kind of "it'll be our DOOM!" type message is misleading and off putting to the general populace. The earth will recover from climate change, but in its own time. The big question is whether society can continue to thrive in warming world.

You can see this problem in the slight repositioning of many of the climate change denial brigade. They seem to have invented something called 'catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (CAGW)' which the rest of us apparently believe in. I assume the introduction of the word "catastrophic" is to give them wriggle room as the fundamental science of climate change stands up to the huge scrutiny put on it over the last year. We might have melting glaciers, disrupted weather patterns, floods, droughts and heatwaves - but if the result doesn't look like The Road then they'll claim it was all exaggerated (tell that to the people of the flooded Sind province of Pakistan).

It is becoming a cliché, but we really do need a more positive view of sustainability and the low carbon economy. I believe this vision needs to go further than the 'green jobs' that politicians fall back on. What about vibrant cities full of pedestrians, cyclists and urban greenery? What about people working from home, cutting crime in their neighbourhoods simply by being there, revitalising the local economy and getting to know their neighbours? What about holidays on high speed rail bringing back the romance of travel? What about being able to park outside your house because no-one needs a second car?

And for business? The same positive vision needs to be applied both inside and outside the business. Companies need to lead on this agenda and develop those products and services that are not just green in themselves, but that go further and help other people cut their emissions and improve their lives. I saw a TV ad for Hitachi at the weekend that showed the difference that their technologies - from high speed trains to data centres - could make to carbon emissions. It was great, positive stuff and no hand wringing or hair shirts in sight. That's the future I want.

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17 September 2010

Blinded by methodology

This week, with great fanfare, The New Economics Foundation has released its latest ranking of 'clone towns' - all those town high streets that have the same old retail stores from the big chains. And the most clone-like town is... [drum roll]... Cambridge.

Cambridge?! Have they ever been there? I studied there for 3 years and have been back many times since, so I know it pretty well. The city centre is based around a thriving open air market around which mediaeval twisting streets meander off towards the venerable colleges and the river. The winding streets hold a cornocopia of interesting shops from tweedy gentlemen's outfitters to second hand camera stores. It couldn't be further from the average bland high street. Given the historic nature of the centre, what big chains there are are rammed into a couple of uninspiring shopping arcades and a couple of wider streets.

And herein lies the problem it seems. NEF were only considering high streets, so in Cambridge's case they seem to have chosen what looks like the average high street and disregarded the rest - ie the diverse majority. Their methodology, applied to that fraction of the city centre, concluded that it lacked diversity - quelle surprise. I asked them why their report didn't even mention the market and they replied they weren't considering markets. Which is a bit like saying a deaf person doesn't have a disability because you're not considering hearing in your analysis.

Why am I ranting about this? Because again and again I see people with blind faith in their methodology to the point of stupidity. Years ago I was invited to take part in a stakeholder consultation on which of 12 industrial sectors the Government should priorities for reducing hazardous waste. About 40 of us assembled in London and diligently went through the scoring process and came up with a ranking of 1 to 12. At the end they showed us the ranking their internal assessment gave which was almost identical but with no 1 and no 12 transposed. They aggregated the two sets of scores and ended up with a final ranking identical to their initial results. Their no 1 had not even dropped a single place despite us ranking it 12. "It looks as if you agree with us!" the organiser declared smugly. There was an uncomfortable pause, which I broke. I started off politely, but as they waffled on, I declared that the day had been a waste of time as our opinions could never change the result. They refused to accept this because they had developed a methodology and they were sticking to it.

In green business, the biggest risk is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). We are constantly bombarded with studies that "prove" or "disprove" X, Y or Z and if you watch long enough you'll see plenty of proving and disproving of the same thing. My own experience of LCA during my MPhil on the subject is that it is highly dependent on the 'system boundary' you draw around the subject of your analysis and other assumptions you make. I developed an LCA model for very large products and tested using a ship. The model did its own sensitivity analysis and found that most of the input variables that had most effect on the results were highly uncertain assumptions I had made, for example the life span of the ship (which is dependent on scrap metal values as much as anything else) or the trans-atlantic journey I has assumed for it (which depends on world trade patterns). My model couldn't handle these factors, so my methodology (and its limitations) was driving the results, not real world data.

So basically this is a plea not to be blinded by methodology. The results of any analysis should always be put through a common sense filter - and if they don't feel right, check the methodology - paying particular regard to system boundaries. And if at the end of the day your methodology can't handle the real world then don't pretend it can.

And, finally, I don't care how much data is collected, aggregated and analysed, Cambridge is not a clone town. Go and see for yourself.

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15 September 2010

It'll all come out in the wash...

When I speak in public, I like waving tangible objects (aka 'realia') around to break up the dreaded monotony of Powerpoint slides. At the LloydsTSB event last week I used two different clothes washing products to illustrate some points. The thinking behind the two products, Ecover washing liquid (the picture shows fabric conditioner, but humour me) and Ariel Excel Gel, comes from two completely different perspectives, so I thought it would interesting to share.

Ecover is the archetypal 'green product' and is branded as such with all those trees and blue skies. It is made completely from natural, biodegradable materials in a solar powered factory in Belgium. It is branded green and does its job pretty well, but not as good as a mainstream product in my experience. So effectively Ecover is asking the consumer to accept a compromise on performance in return for a lower environmental impact. The caveat is that it contains palm oil so there are question marks over how sustainable the sourcing of the raw materials is in reality.

Procter & Gamble, who own the Ariel brand, tried the Ecover approach in the 1990s, producing a range of branded green products, but they failed in the marketplace. So instead they adopted a 'no-trade offs' rule - their products had to compete on price, performance and sustainability. They also took a life cycle assessment approach, identifying the energy used in the washing process and the extraction of raw materials as the key issues. The result is Ariel Excel Gel, recently named the best clothes washing product Which magazine had ever tested. Its gel nature means it is compact (ie it uses fewer raw materials) and that the user is more likely measure out the correct amount compared to a powder or liquid. But the big breakthrough is that it can work at 15°C, halving the amount of energy used in washing clothes. It is not branded green - just the 15°C on the front and a web URL for more info on the back.

Which is better? That's a difficult question to answer. Apart from the palm oil issue, Ecover is probably more green (being almost solar, cyclic, safe*), but the user takes the hit in performance, meaning that it is unlikely ever to escape its green consumer market niche. The Ariel product takes an eco-efficiency approach* and it gives the user the opportunity to use less material and a lower wash temperature, but its green credentials are dependent on that consumer behaviour (the temperature dial on my washing machine creeps magically upwards over time). Its excellent performance and mainstream branding means that it is a mass market product, so if that shift in consumer behaviour does happen in practice, Ariel will probably have a bigger positive impact.

* If you want to know the difference between solar, cyclic, safe and eco-efficiency, check this video out.

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13 September 2010

Clipboards vs Flipcharts

Tomorrow I'm running a waste workshop for a small manufacturing company (you wouldn't know their name, but you'd know some of the brands they manufacture). The whole structure of the workshop is designed to embed the underlying principles into the thinking of the participants. In fact the reason for having a workshop rather than doing a "clipboard consulting" walkover review is to develop sustainable solutions owned by the company employees, not by me.

There is no Powerpoint (hurrah!) because I want them to come up with the answers rather than me preaching to them. So the technology comes down to the humble flipchart and pen. I will elicit the drivers for going green for them, because I want them to think about them rather than having to sell those drivers to them. We will be developing a model of their company and identifying where opportunities to make improvements lie.

This approach has three benefits:

  • We get to harness their brainpower, experience and knowledge to identify problems and solutions rather than just my expertise;
  • They own the solutions, making it far more likely they will be implemented effectively;
  • The enthusiasm generated by this approach can lead to further spontaneous solutions appearing in the future.

For these reasons, I'm increasingly finding that my consultancy, staff engagement and training projects are converging in an amorphous single beast. Training makes more sense if learning is applied to the organisation concerned and consultancy is much more likely to 'stick' if there is a capacity building/engagement element.

Whether or not you engage an outside provider to help you green your organisation, I thoroughly recommend going down the workshop approach. So put away those clipboards and get out those flipcharts!

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10 September 2010

An Olympian Task

Yesterday I was a guest speaker at a LloydsTSB event about sustainability and the 2012 Olympics. LloydsTSB are the official bank of the games, so they are promoting the business opportunities to their customers. We had 175-ish SMEs from the North East in the room - a real mix of manufacturing, construction and professional services.

I did a variation of my Three Secrets of Green Business presentation with a few elements of The Green Executive and some local case studies drawn from some of my client projects. It went down pretty well and I got some great feedback afterwards - I had to replenish my stock of business cards I was handing out so many.

For those who don't know, the 2012 Olympics is intended to be 'the greenest ever'. Although the scrapping of plans for a large iconic wind turbine has led to some cynicism, there has been a lot of work put into low carbon buildings and a CHP energy system to name but two areas. Suppliers are being required to demonstrate green credentials and rumour has it that one major brand was turned down as a sponsor for having insufficient commitment to the environment.

The last speaker was three times Olympic medalist and breaker of several world records in the javelin, Steve Backley. He did a great turn about success and how big a factor attitude and behaviour are as well as the hard grunt of routine training. It must have been really hard to set a new Olympic record, as Steve did in Sydney in 2000, and see it broken just a few minutes later, but he used it as an analogy of how you've got to keep stretching yourself - as Jan Železný who snatched the gold medal obviously did.

I've seen this in the corporate sustainability world as well - companies who thought of themselves as green pioneers are getting eclipsed all the time. Unlike an athlete whose body must eventually concede to the ravages of time and stress, companies can constantly reinvent themselves with new blood and new thinking. This ability to keep evolving to stay at the front of the pack - I'm thinking of General Electric's Ecomagination programme or Marks & Spencer's Plan A sustainability strategy - truly is an Olympian task.

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8 September 2010

Cut Your Carbon with Terra Infirma and LCBPE

Two 'events' coming up in collaboration with the Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange.

I'm also presenting at a number of 'closed' events for clients and contacts - drop me a line if you are interested in having me at your event.

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6 September 2010

What's the ultimate green product?

I started my professional sustainability career in eco-design - making the world greener from the drawing board. This remains the greatest opportunity for a business to go green as the designer has a huge amount of control over the whole lifecycle of the product from materials extraction right through to disposal.

During my two and a bit year investigation into eco-design techniques, I became fascinated by the Russian Theory of Inventive Problem Solving, or TRIZ to give it its Russian acronym. The concept behind TRIZ is that innovation does not come from sudden flashes of genius, but through the application of a number of fundamental principles. These can either be stumbled upon, or, by following TRIZ, worked through methodically until one generic solution fits the particular case. But what got me really excited about TRIZ was the concept of the ideal final result:

The ideal final result delivers the required function while consuming no resources.

Which would, by definition be the ultimate green product, as the product has been reduced to pure wieghtless function. Obviously this is impossible - even telling a joke requires some resources - but to me it is one of those intellectual concepts that provokes ambition and step changes. It is certainly behind the whole idea of servicisation - delivering the required function (eg travel via public transport and/or a car club) rather than a product (owning a car) and the whole digitisation movement (eg replacing travel with teleconferencing, or replacing CDs with MP3 downloads).

Unfortunately I never did secure the funding to develop a 'Green TRIZ' research project, but it would have been fascinating to either filter or generate a set of fundamental green design principles to be applied to get as close as possible to that ideal final result.

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3 September 2010

Green Business Confidential Ep2: It Ain't Easy Being Green

Here's the second Green Business Confidential podcast, entitled "It Ain't Easy Being Green", for your listening pleasure:

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player:
GBC2: "It Ain't Easy Being Green


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1 September 2010

What Makes Me Mad...

... OK, lots of things make me mad, like the Daily Express, wheel bender cycle stands and and people putting 'off' milk back in the fridge, but what really gets me exasperated in the sustainability field is useless advice, mindlessly pumped out to the masses. Here's a classic I saw on Twitter the other day:

If you reduce the amount of bottled water you consume by 2 litres a day, you’ll save around 10kg of CO2 each year.

Right, let's take a closer look at this:

1. How many people consume more than two litres of bottled water a day? A quick Google shows that the average Brit consumes 34 litres of bottled water a year - less than 0.1 litres per day. The Italians seem to top the list with 200 litres per person per year, just over half a litre a day.

2. 10kg of carbon a year. Back on Google, I get a variety of estimates of the average UK citizen's carbon footprint and if I average those, it seems to come in around 10 tonnes per annum. Now I reckon it is much higher, because few of these footprint measures include overseas emissions 'embedded' in the products we import and consume, but let's go with 10 tonnes. I don't even have to get the calculator out to see that this saving is 0.1% of our annual carbon footprint.

3. If you combine the two factors together - if the average person in the UK cut out all their bottled water consumption, they would save 0.005% of their carbon footprint. Hardly worth typing the tip, was it?

So the advice is effectively "stop doing something you're not doing, and you'll make a negligible difference". Great.

Coincidentally, 0.1% is about the proportion of our carbon footprint taken up with that other eco-pantomime villain, the disposable plastic bag. These two things are drummed into us - bottled water bad, plastic bag bad - that one daren't be seen with either, even though they are relatively insignificant from a carbon point of view. I'm not immune to these memes myself - I recently found myself at a Green Festival choosing a bottle of flavoured water rather than plain water as I didn't want to be seen with the latter, even though the former is almost certainly more carbon intensive.

So why the big rant? Because we get limited chances to communicate the green message and it kills me when that bandwidth is filled with such utter rot. If you want to green your lifestyle, you need to insulate your house, adjust your diet and change your travel patterns. Fairly straightforward, but usually avoided in favour of pointless tips.

And similarly with business, you must deal with the big ticket issues. Measure your footprint - no matter how crudely - and identify the hotspots. For many products, these hotspots occur in materials extraction and production and energy required in the use phase. So get on with tackling these rather than worrying too much whether your paper invoices should be electronic or vice versa.

There. Said it. Feel better now.

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