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October 2010 - Terra Infirma

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29 October 2010

Dilbert on Corporate Social Responsibility

Harsh but, for so many companies, fair!

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27 October 2010

Problem People

You get one in every crowd - the one person who delights in getting in the way and holding things up. Here are three stereotypes that may impede your progress in your sustainability programme.

1. The Misinformed Smart Arse

It's amazing how many people think they are experts on sustainability, whether it is the intricacies of climate science or purveyors of "it can't be done because of X". For example, I heard several people say "you can't cut IT carbon emissions as more powerful processors mean more energy. It's a fact and you can't get around it". It is a fact, but you can get around it - technologies such as server virtualisation, processors that work at higher temperature and passive cooling systems can massively reduce the emissions relating to IT.

Dealing with these people is difficult. Avoid going toe to toe in an argument. Use green jujitsu techniques. Ask questions - "how are other organisations reducing IT emissions?"

2. The Not My Problem, Mate

Some people will never want to take part. In the short term you can usually work around them, in the longer term the can be engaging by asking for their help in a sustainability issue, or simply by waiting for them to go with the flow.

3. The Whydoncha

These guys are more difficult to spot as they are trying to be helpful. You say, "OK, we want to do X" and they immediately respond "Whydoncha do Y?" Y is usually a good-ish idea, but it doesn't help you achieve X. One interesting fact about Whydonchas is that they never volunteer to do anything practical themselves.

To deal with them you've got to find dozens of ways of saying "nice idea, but can we park that until we've done X"!

If you can think of any other problem people, post them in the comments.


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25 October 2010

Corporate Civic Responsibility

So I'm back in the saddle after spending much of last week at the Green Capitals Conference in Stockholm. It was a fantastic event - although in some ways too fantastic, falling into a civic version of the Eurovision Song Contest all too frequently when I was keen to get down to brass tacks and actually learn something. In fact much of the event was hosted by the lovely Lydia Capolicchio who hosted Eurovision in 1992.

Last Monday I coined the phrase Corporate Civic Responsibility (CCR)* - what a business can do to improve the sustainability of the municipality it operates in. All too often businesses expect their local authorities to bend over backwards for them just because they are there and employ local people. I really dislike this attitude - business needs people just as much as people need business and it is the antithesis of corporate philanthropy to believe the municipality owes them. Under CCR, business sees itself as part of the community it operates and can bring its influence to improve the sustainability that community for all.

In my last post on the topic, I listed some examples of CCR - supporting the city centre, promoting telecommuting and providing help for biodiversity. I uncovered another great example in Stockholm when I interrogated their transport experts (as I said I was desperate to learn). Many, if not most, of Stockholm's taxis are hybrid or biofueled (and before anyone gets excited, much of this is biogas from the sewage works). This transformation is down to a number of factors, but was initially driven by the city's big corporations announcing they would only hire green taxis. The general public doesn't have that sort of buying power, but business does. Everyone wins.

* I've just tried Googling it and got nothing, so I'm claiming it!

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22 October 2010

The Human Aspect to Clean Tech

As I write this, I've just finished the first full day of the European Green Capitals conference in Stockholm. The session that stood out was from the three industrial sponsors - Siemens, IBM and Nordic energy company Fortum - talking about what business could bring to sustainable urbanism. As expected they all did quite a bit of PR, but the message that came out is that they are all increasingly focussing on the human factors side of the solutions they deliver. Up to 75% of potential carbon abatement relies on other organisations and the general public to change their behaviour. The low carbon technology bit is easy, went the message, but designing it to be used effectively is quite a different matter.

I believe that the techno-fix vs behavioural change argument is often a false one. The best technologies enable green behaviour, eg iTunes which saves up to 80% of the carbon of buying a CD and a lot of hassle. The tricky bit is finding lots more such synergistic solutions where the consumer wants to take the low carbon option.

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20 October 2010

Flying without wings

So, I'm in Stockholm and I'm remembering why I liked the city so much on my previous visit in 2005. Back then I was attending the International Society for Industrial Ecology biannual meeting, this time it's the European Green Capital Conference. It kicks off this afternoon and I'll blog what I learn, although it might be next week.

Unfortunately the only practical way of getting here was to fly. I now fly less than once a year and it hits me everytime just how any glamour has gone from this form of travel. All those security restrictions - you practically have to disrobe before going through the scanner and I'm all over the place with what bottles go in what type of plastic bags. I had to change at Schipol so I had to go through this all twice and endure 45 minute queues for passport control. The carriers have gone way down market as well - it is practically impossible to predict whether you'll get a decent meal or a bag of pretzels. Most airports are well outside the cities they serve, so 3 hours flying time turned into 9 hours door to door.

Oh for a really fast rail service throughout the UK and Europe - it's coming I know, but I want it and I want it now. You turn up roughly on time, flash your passport, step on the train and you're away. The journey becomes part of the trip rather than an ordeal to book end the good bit in the middle. You can work, you can move about and you can even use your phone. By my calculation, a fast train - say at Eurostar speeds - could cover the distance in just over 6 hours, so given the fact it would go city centre to city centre it would be comparable with flying. Unfortunately the current journey time is about 26 hours using 5 different trains...

OK, I'm indulging in a bit of a personal fantasy here, but if we are to follow a low carbon future it is this sort of service we need. Train companies should be pushing the package of benefits you get from their service - glamour (I'd much rather kill time at St Pancras than Heathrow), convenience, security, comfort and the ability to work or entertain the kids - never mind the carbon savings. Like many greener options, there are multiple benefits over the conventional solutions and these are usually the sizzle that sells the sausage.

I did enjoy the slight irony that the express train from the airport into the centre of Stockholm was announced en route as the most eco-friendly option...


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18 October 2010

Sustainable Cities & Green Business

I'm walking on sunshine today as Newcastle upon Tyne has be rated "most sustainable city in the UK" by Forum for the Future. Not just civic pride in the city I live in, but because, with my councillor hat on, I'm second in command of all things green at the City Council. This is the second year in a row we have topped the rankings; the first city to do it twice.

But my pride is tempered with slight bemusement as we still think we're just getting started. While we are doing a huge amount of exciting stuff, Newcastle doesn't look 'green' per se - we still have gridlock during rush hour, a motorway slashes through the city centre and renewable energy is conspicuous by its absence. Much of this will change as we plan to get a few hundred solar PV panels going up on suitable council houses in the next year or so, and we're desperately trying to unlock the cycling-pit-of-doom which is our city centre.

So, going from the specific to the general, what does sustainable urbanism offer green business and vice versa? As with mobile telecommunications, the population density of a city gives a brilliant test bed for emerging technologies and business services. Electric and hydrogen vehicle infrastructure will appear in city centres long before suburbia and rural. District heating systems depend on large 'anchor tenants' to make the system economically viable. Specialist green retail is also more likely to survive in a big city. The main downside is the density of buildings makes renewable energy difficult.Retrofitting urban buildings is going to be very big business very soon.

And what can businesses offer cities as part of their Corporate Civic Responsibility (to coin a phrase)? Locating in the city centre will help preserve the vitality of the urban core - and improve the quality of life of employees. Conversely, telecommuting will help resurrect local services in residential areas. While this might sound like a contradictory message, the two can be synergistic - smaller central office with hot-desking and employees working from home. Proper green travel planning will cut private car journeys by encouraging public transport, cycling and walking schemes. Even wildlife areas can be built into the city centre - there are bee hives on the roof of Fenwick's department store on Newcastle's Northumberland Street (don't get me started on bee facts).

By chance I'm off to Stockholm tomorrow to the European Green Capitals conference - the host city having won the European accolade. Blogging and tweeting will depend on my access to t'internet, but I hope to share what I learn.

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15 October 2010

You need friends

If you believe the version of business as portrayed by The Apprentice, then it's an every-man-for-himself, dog-eat-dog, devil-take-the-hindmost kind of world. Which is largely nonsense, as all of us in the real world know (well, most of us...). Business is about relationships and successful business is about trusted relationships, partnerships and collaboration. This is as true in the green business world as anywhere else, and there are many examples of where working with others has delivered mutual benefits:

  • Businesses working together, often through trade bodies, to develop voluntary agreements such as the UK's Courthald agreement between supermarkets and the food industry to reduce packaging;
  • Businesses getting together through formal and informal networks to exchange best practice, experience and mutual support;
  • Businesses working together to generate sufficient demand to bring sustainable technologies to market. The PostEurop consortium believe they have brought forward the production of hydrogen vehicles by a decade in this way;
  • Businesses working together to use each other's waste as a raw material such as in the industrial symbiosis cluster in Kalundborg, Denmark;
  • Businesses working with environmental pressure groups to develop solutions to environmental problems such as WWF and Coca-Cola working together on watershed management;
  • Businesses putting together 'dream teams' of trusted advisors who will challenge them to really deliver.

As always the flip side is true too. If associating with the 'right' people is an opportunity, not cutting ties with the 'wrong' people is a liability. When Apple and Pepsi left the US Chamber of Commerce over the latter's stance on climate change legislation, they sent a clear message out to the whole world.

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13 October 2010

Toxic Sludge vs The Oil Spill

I find it quite incredible that the Hungarian 'toxic sludge' disaster has only had a tiny fraction of the press coverage as, say, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A similar number of people have died, there remains an ongoing threat at the site itself, and one of the great rivers of the world, The Danube, is at great risk. The BBC has an incredible series of pictures here and here which brought home to me the scale of the disaster.

But the front pages of the paper have been largely sludge-free and I haven't noticed '#toxicsludge' trending on Twitter the way that the '#oilspill' hashtag took off. There was even a TEDxOilspill event, but no TEDxSludge. Why?

Is it because a big multinational was involved in the oil spill and not the sludge disaster? Do we mistrust big oil more than other primary industries? Or do we in the English speaking world simply care more about the US than Hungary?

In my opinion, the only legitimate factor that distinguishes between the two is that the oil spill was a warning of the challenges of pursuing a high carbon future, whereas the toxic sludge is a relic of Soviet-style indifference to the environment.

The two are representative of two very different but serious risks to business. The deep drilling in the Gulf is a canary in the mine telling us that business as usual is not an option. Sticking to a high carbon strategy will become increasingly expensive and risky. The toxic sludge is a reminder that industry needs to take a look at the legacy of its past, the obvious suspects including contaminated land, old oil storage tanks and waste dumps. But, as we move towards a low carbon economy, other 'assets' - inefficient buildings, plant and vehicles that are the norm now - could become liabilities.

A green business will have cleaned up any legacy, eliminated the storage of hazardous material and reduced its dependency on dwindling oil resources. It makes sense for the business and the environment.

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11 October 2010

Symbolism Matters

I'm very heartened by the news that President Obama is going to re-install solar panels on the White House, a whole quarter of a century since Ronald Reagan removed those put up by Jimmy Carter in 1979. Symbolism, yes, but symbolism matters. Remember PM David Cameron's husky hugging back in 2006? Or his somewhat bumpy attempt to install a domestic wind turbine a year later? I was cynical at the time, but these were core parts of Cameron's ultimately successful attempt to decontaminate the Conservative Party's brand and make it electable again. In fact, he could do with some more symbolism now to back up his claim that his will be the "greenest Government ever" - there is plenty of work going on in the background, but we could do with something more tangible to chew on.

Like politicians, green business leaders have got to be seen to walk the talk. The message must go out to all stakeholders, both within and without the organisation - we mean green business. Some of this effort will undoubtedly be symbolic in nature to represent the wider programme.

There are two types of green symbolism:

1. Positive symbolism: being seen to embrace the new;

2. Negative symbolism: being seen to reject the old.

You can't do 1 without doing 2. Having a Prius in your driveway is worthless as a symbol if it is overshadowed by a colossal SUV. These things matter.

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8 October 2010

7 Signs Your Sustainability Programme Is Working

Here are seven tell-tale signs that you are winning:

1. It gets discussed enthusiastically at board level;

2. You hear people talking about sustainability in the canteen/coffee rooms(s);

3. Staff members approach you with suggestions;

4. Spontaneous projects start springing up that you don't even hear about until they're well underway;

5. You get invited to talk about your experiences at conferences and seminars;

6. Authors of books and reports start using you as an example of good practice;

7. You get accused of greenwash at least once (unfairly of course).

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6 October 2010

Cost or opportunity?

There's a story in the Independent this week that upgrades to the UK's electricity grid will cost £32bn, part of an estimated £200bn that will be required to hit the country's climate change targets for 2020. The £32bn will add £6 per year to the average electricity bill, yet it is being portrayed as an obstacle or some great painful sacrifice.

Just £6 a head a year to make such a huge leap forwards in tackling climate change? Is that all? Given the risks of doing nothing, I'd say that was a bargain.

And just think, that's a £32-200bn clean tech market to deliver the transformation. Just when we need to build a greener, more robust economy to get us out of the current economic pickle.

What's not to like?

On the wider scale, this shows once again we have got to flip our attitudes from seeing the problems to seeing the opportunity. Optimism is a rare commodity in the environmental movement, but whether we are looking at one country's infrastructure or one company's environmental strategy, we have got to get much better at, as sausage manufacturers would say, "selling the sizzle."

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4 October 2010

Brought to Book

Phew! Last Thursday I finally submitted the manuscript for The Green Executive after the most intense week I've had since my final exams at Uni. Every spare minute was taken up checking, changing and tweaking the text. Getting the 220 references into shape took over 17 hours alone. And it's done - but it will be 11 May before it hits the bookshelves, so you'll have to do with a sneak preview of the cover  in the meantime(right).

On Friday I took myself off to Wensleydale for some walking and to attend a friend's wedding in a castle - alcohol, silly helmets and archery make a much better mix than you would think. Hence the lack of Friday blogging - I was busy slogging through a bog in the fog. And now I've got a tonne of slightly delayed end of month admin to do.

Looking forward I will be out and about a lot over the next few months with speaking/facilitating appearances in Newcastle, Southampton, Harrogate, Cambridge and Teesside already in the diary. As these are firmed up I'll be publicising them here and in The Low Carbon Agenda.

Also, I've starting writing pieces on a more regular basis for Management Issues and the Sustainability Forum. The former focuses on Leadership/HR/Organisational issues, on the latter I write about sustainability outside the green business line I stick to on this blog.

So, must go, the to do list awaits...

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