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January 2011 - Terra Infirma

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31 January 2011

Rags & Riches - the Ethics of Charity

There's a wonderful ethics case study in the press today - a rag trade dealer has made £10m since 2008 from running the Salvation Army's clothing donations 'business'. The Guardian ran the story on its front page, contrasting the dealer's £1m mansion with pictures of virtuous souls pushing bin bags of old clothes into recycling banks.

What you have to read on to discover is that the charity made £16m out of the deal - more than 60% of the turnover. Just to put that in perspective, the best charity Christmas cards donate about 20% of the retail price to charity (and the worst a miserly 4%). So in a sane world, the headline should be "recycling clothing is three times more cost effective for charities than selling Christmas cards".

So why the fuss?

In a word, trust. The charity sector has a long record of misleading the public. In my youth I once "sponsored" a child with a major charity only to find afterwards that the money went to projects in "the surrounding area", rather than to the welfare of the child herself. In the meantime the charity would send me a monthly letter full of pictures of other starving children with pleas for more money. The child was just being exploited as bait and I felt cheated. A few years ago, a charity executive defended this sort of sharp practice in the press saying the public was not so naive to think that a small donation could make a difference. That's not only disingenuous but illogical - if the public isn't fooled, then why are they letting themselves be fooled?

Compared to this, I think the Salvation Army are angels. I am in no doubt that they are getting a good deal in keeping 60+% of the proceeds of the clothing collections. No one could argue that a process of this size shouldn't involve for-profit organisations - there isn't a vast web of not-for-profit logistics companies out there. Their problem is transparency - to maintain trust and protect their brand, they need to be much more open. If every recycling bank had a statement that 40% of proceeds get absorbed by commercial partners, then no one has the right to complain, not even the media on a slow news day.

Skeletons in cupboards are hostages to fortunes. It is always better to throw them out than wait for the press to start sniffing around for a story.

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28 January 2011

Green White Elephants

I read in our local paper yesterday that a neighbouring council had just unveiled plans for a Green Business Incubator using £2.4million of European funding (and goodness knows how much match funding). I immediately put my head in my hands and started whimpering. Why my negative reaction, you may ask? Surely I support green business?

Of course I do, but these green business parks are usually vanity projects, driven by the desire to be seen to do something tangible to promote green business. When I'm feeling really cynical I suggest that the sponsor of the idea is too busy dreaming of the 'handshake in front of the billboard' photo in the press to ask the really hard questions.

My evidence? About 8 years ago my then team were commissioned to investigate green business parks of various types to determine what did and didn't work. A colleague trawled the web for examples across the world and sent out dozens of e-mails with a survey attached. We got worse than a poor result - a sizeable proportion of the e-mails simply bounced. Not a good sign. When he chased the others for replies he found that the parks had either died a death or had evolved into bog standard business parks (and they didn't really want to talk about the green thing...). We came to the conclusion that what didn't work was the whole concept - an inconvenient truth as our conclusions were dismissed by the sponsors of the work*.

Ever since, I have challenged anyone proposing such a park to name one successful working example**. No-one has ever managed to do so.

The broader point are that green businesses are simply businesses like any other. We don't need special business parks, or any other cotton wool. In most instances it doesn't matter if the company next door is a web company or a pizza delivery service. There are some cases where businesses may chose to co-locate, but it is rarely critical to their success.

Green business needs are the same as other businesses - demand, a suitably skilled workforce, a robust supply chain - and the bigger green businesses can help create some of those conditions. If the public sector wants to help, the best levers are to increase demand through green procurement, to level the playing field through the removal of perverse incentives and to accelerate the development of technology though targeted R&D support.

But at the end of the day, a green business is still a business - and doesn't need white elephants.


* The sponsor seems to have attracted two potential tenants in the intervening 8 years but construction of those plants still hasn't started as of late 2010. The original estimate for the cost of the project was £25m of public money, but I have read that the overall project is about £135m. According to press reports the project still needs £2.2m of public money for access improvements.

** There are some great examples of business parks that have gone green by engaging their existing tenants, but that's a completely different, and much cheaper, proposal. "Evolution, not revolution" is the key principle for success.

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26 January 2011

Getting used to new ways of working

Our green business webinar series is proving extremely popular - we've had to close the session to all but full paying customers. But one issue that has struck me is that many inquirers are nervous about the technology. Frankly, that's my job! But it is interesting that this way of working is not better known and trusted in our supposedly knowledge based economy.

It demonstrates once again that culture change is imperative to delivering sustainability in organisations. Virtual working techniques - remote working, teleconferencing, webinars etc - are key tools in the sustainability toolbox, cutting the need for both travel and carbon intensive office space. However, you can invest in all the technology you want, but it'll be a waste of money if people don't use it. The reasons are legion: old habits die hard, fear of the new, not wanting to be first, the time investment to learn the ropes.

If you are in senior position in a large organisation, you can overcome some of this reticence by simply insisting on, say, a teleconference rather than bringing staff from around the country to a monthly meeting, or encouraging working from home by instigating hot desking at the office. If you are a lesser mortal, it will take some more subtle techniques, but using the technology yourself and taking the time to hand hold others will help.

Webinars are very low carbon - we have registrants from around the world who can participate from the comfort of their sofa (see pic...). I like to think that, as well as training people in the theory of green business, we'll be giving them some practical experience too!

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24 January 2011

Lessons from Andy Gray & Richard Keys' own goal

In these days of Twitter, Facebook and 24hour news, reputations can be blasted out of the water in a second. Sky TV presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys' sexist rant against female football officials and executives spread like wildfire across the web, the print and the broadcast media in a couple of hours. As myriad politicians, celebrities and businesses can attest, it only takes one little aside to ruin a career.

Likewise, there is no doubt that brand protection is a key driver for corporate social responsibility (CSR). Apple, BP and Hewlett Packard have all been caught up in scandals of quite different types in the last year, and the swiftest reparative action can never quite remove the whiff of wrongdoing. The key is preventative action - creating the culture and systems that prevent casual sexism, racism, supply chain worker  exploitation, pollution incident or habitat destruction raising their ugly heads. Because as Gray and Keys (and their employer) now know, it doesn't matter how safe you think you are, chances are someone will find you out.

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21 January 2011

Armstrong & Miller on Climate Change

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19 January 2011

"Switch" and Sustainability

I've just finished reading the wonderful book Switch: How to change things when change is hard by Chip & Dan Heath. It's one of those books that takes a topic which, for most people, is something of an amorphous soup of ideas, refines it down to the essentials, adds in a couple of fresh perspectives, and packages the lot in a simple framework that makes it much easier to apply. In sustainability, change management is the difference between success and failure. As an engineer I hate to say it, but technology is the easy bit.

The Heath brothers use a great analogy for people and/or organisations - a rider guiding an elephant along a path. The rider is the rational, data crunching part of our brains, the elephant is the emotional parts of our brains (which we don't like admitting is stronger than the rider), and the path is our situation/environment. The book gives the following menu of options for effective change:

Direct the rider:

  • Follow the bright spots - see what's working and copy it (more effective than focussing on problems);
  • Script the critical moves - make very specific instructions where necessary;
  • Point to the destination - define the desired endpoint.

Motivate the elephant:

  • Find the feeling - make people connect emotionally with the topic (knowing isn't enough);
  • Shrink the change - break it into easily digestible chunks;
  • Grow your people - instil a 'growth mindset' where people always want to do better.

Shape the Path:

  • Tweak the environment - make it easy to do the right thing, harder to do the wrong thing;
  • Build habits - habitual behaviour is 'free';
  • Rally the herd - behaviour is contagious.

The Heaths illustrate their points with a huge number of case studies, but none of the in depth examples include sustainability (apart from a comment that climate change campaigners shouldn't talk in terms of parts per million carbon dioxide if they want to succeed). So I thought I would look at some of the change management tools I have found successful and see how they map against this framework.

1. Strategies, management systems, action plans etc

These are all 'rider' type solutions, ignoring the elephant, which is why organisations find it hard to embed them into the organisational culture. Systems and technologies may be installed, but are unused and people tend to follow their old habits. At best, some of the 'shape the path' principles may be included in the action plans and sheer force of will from management might just make them habitual over time. Don't get me wrong, these elements are essential for the rider and the path, but for them to succeed the elephant needs attention.

2. Switch it off campaigns

Such simplistic instructions are for the rider - scripting the moves - and you simply have to hope they feed through to the elephant. The best example I have seen, Northern Foods' colour labelling of machines (red = leave on, green = switch off if left on, amber = ask supervisor), tweaks the situation to encourage and facilitate good behaviour and to a certain extent 'shrinks the change'. If you get the message right, then the instruction can touch a deeper nerve - my friends at GPM Network developed a staff campaign for a charity which revolved around messages like "Switching off this PC every night is the equivalent to an £XX donation to our projects".

3. Involving staff in generating solutions

This is where the elephant gets some serious attention. People love being part of something exciting (the feeling) and encourages people to grow and the problem to shrink as it is better understood. Pride in a solution will mean it is more likely to be used properly. Done properly in groups this approach will rally the herd as teams see their ideas take fruit and put pressure on peers to make them succeed.

4. Staff competitions

Again an elephant type solution. People love competing - or we wouldn't pay footballers gazillions a day to run up and down a piece of grass after a ball - so competition taps into our emotional elephant. Dividing staff into teams and awarding a notional prize to the team that, say, cuts its carbon most, is a very effective method of staff engagement. The herd instinct is there too - if someone is letting the side down, their peers will soon let them know.

5. Training

Very much a mixture of scripting the moves and growing your people, but it needs to be part of wider methods to have an effect. Otherwise the elephant goes back to its old habits with the occasional guilty reminder from its rider. In my training courses I try to bring elephant-centric elements into the sessions by including elements of section 3 above.

In conclusion, I whole-heartedly recommend the book if you are serious about any form of change management in your organisation. Sustainability fits very well with the model - as you can see from the above. Organisations tend to provide their staff with information, but find, as the Switch authors repeat, knowing isn't enough - you've got to tap into that emotional feeling (some examples here) and create the right situation.

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17 January 2011

The most depressing day of the year?

Today is the day that social scientists with too much time on their hands say is the most depressing day of the year - Xmas is over, the weather is poor, the days are short and it's a Monday - presumably 'most depressing' only applies to certain latitudes - if you're spending today kicking back on a beach in Costa Rica (apparently the happiest country in the world), this won't apply to you.

OK, this morning I have a touch of manflu and I slept badly last night for the same reason but I still wouldn't rate today as 'depressing'. I love Monday mornings as I love my job - the joy of being able to bring my personal values to work, the lack of commuting and the freedom of being self employed win over the mythical Monday morning feeling. I quite like this time of year, too, as it is quite a fertile time for doing business - people are desperate to get help with their new year's resolutions.

Passion matters in this business. One thing I noticed about all the people that I interviewed for The Green Executive had a real passion for what they did. There wasn't a single jobsworth amongst them and they seemed liberated by the same feeling I have - being allowed to follow your values and getting paid for it. That's not to say they were unrealistically idealistic - they all understood the need to find solutions good for the planet and good for the business - and embraced that tough challenge with relish.

If you want to get somebody to head up your CSR/green business efforts at any level in your business, you need to find someone with that combination of drive, passion and business nous. You also need to provide them with the authority to act and the accountability to deliver. These people aren't easy to find, but if you spot someone humming happily to themselves this morning, they might be worth considering.

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14 January 2011

Video: The Business Case for Going Green

A short clip of yours truly talking about why business should go green. There's plenty more video on the Terra Infirma YouTube channel.

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12 January 2011

Why doesn't energy efficiency happen?

Today's blog is inspired by two tweets last night from Mel Starrs who writes the Elemental blog on green building issues:

Energy efficiency *should* be no-brainer. Businesses acting in self interest (cheaper bills) are also acting in interest of society (co2)

So why doesn't it happen? Are the incentives not great enough? Would carbon taxing incentivise or create regulations to be circumvented?

So why doesn't it happen? Here are some reasons:

  • For many organisations, energy/carbon costs are still low relative to, say, the pay roll. This is changing as costs increase;
  • A misalignment of responsibility and authority - most environmental managers have lots of responsibility and precious little authority. If it is operations/site managers who have the authority to change things then it is they who must be given responsibility;
  • Wishful thinking - "We've appointed energy champions. Job done." An extreme form of the the above;
  • A lack of accountability - if you want to draw someone's attention to something, give them a target to hit and hold them to it;
  • Many organisations have no control over the management of their buildings - particularly offices. They pay the bills, but the management company operates the boiler;
  • Sloppy company culture - machines left on, vehicles used for the supermarket run, unnecessary business travel;
  • A lack of empowerment - "It's more than my job's worth to turn that off."
  • Ignorance - "If I whack up the thermostat, the office will warm more quickly."
  • Inertia - "we've always done it like that", "That sound? That's always there. No, we don't check our compressed air system for leaks. Should we?" etc

Very rarely is the real reason money. Northern Foods have saved several million a year in energy and waste costs and they say 60-70% of it was achieved through behavioural change. I always say the true barrier to sustainability is about 6 inches wide - the space between our ears. Most of the problems and solutions can be found there.

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10 January 2011

Show, don't tell

There was an interesting story in the Daily Mail (yes, really) over the summer. Its science editor, a climate change sceptic, visited Greenland, saw the scale of the ice melt for himself, and there and then converted to a climate change "believer". To me, the interesting thing about this was that the conversion was just as irrational as his rejection of the scientific evidence in the first place. This part of Greenland could simply be experienced a localised bout of warmer weather, or it could be the result of a single warm year, yet it clearly left a deep and emotional impression on him.

My own change in attitude from armchair environmentalist to highly motivated man-on-a-mission came from a similar damascene moment - massive destruction in Arctic Russia by acid rain from a nickel smelter. I'd read all the stats, but it took the emotional experience of being there to tip the scales.

To change attitudes in an organisation, data will never be enough - you need to tap these emotions.

If you want to make a point about recycling waste, say, try demonstrating it instead of saying it - tip the bins or skips out in front of people and divide the contents into recyclables and residuals. If you want to improve the energy efficiency of a process, take people to a (safe) place where you can feel the heat losses on your faces. Run human interest stories in your green communications, persuade people to try cycling to work just one day a year, lead people on a river clean up. These experiences will last longer in people's memories and subconscious than any powerpoint slide.

As a million attendees of creative writing evening classes will tell you, the key rule is "show, don't tell."

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6 January 2011

New! Green Business Webinar Series

I am delighted to announce our brand spanking new series of ten dynamic hour long webinars covering the whole range of green business issues.

What you will get:

  • The essential skills, knowledge and understanding you need on the critical business issue for the 21st Century;
  • A practical action plan to apply your learning immediately to your business or organisation;
  • Invaluable insights and experiences from other participants.

Every webinar will include brand new content that I haven't be delivered anywhere else. All this in a cost-effective, time-effective and low carbon package.

The programme for 2011 is as follows:

  • 2 February: Sustainability and Your Business
  • 2 March: Strategy, Management Systems & Targets
  • 13 April: Staff Engagement & Culture Change
  • 4 May: Good Housekeeping: Waste, Energy & Water
  • 1 June: Greening the Supply Chain
  • 6 July: Green Products and Services
  • 7 September: Green Communications & Marketing
  • 5 October: Corporate Social Responsibility – the Ethical Angle
  • 2 November: Green Business Leadership
  • 7 December: Advanced Sustainability Techniques

All webinars will run from 2-3pm UK time. The cycle will continue into future years so you can join at any point and get all 10 seminars.

Each webinar costs just £45.00 + VAT and there is a whopping 25% discount if you purchase the whole series at once. If you try a single session and want to upgrade to the whole series, we will discount a further 10%. If you sign up for all ten, I'll throw a free copy of my book The Three Secrets of Green Business into the bargain.

Sign up for the February webinar at £45.00 + VAT

The 10 webinar series costs just £330.00 + VAT

Other payment methods:

Cheques should be made payable to Terra Infirma and sent to Terra Infirma Ltd, 157 Stratford Road, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE6 5AS. We need your e-mail address to register you for the seminar.

For BACS payment, please e-mail us here and we will send you details.

All payments must be received by close of play the day before the session. For full details including terms and conditions see here.

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5 January 2011

Rubbish packaging claims?

The UK's packaging regulations certainly seem to be starting to bite with even my cat food bragging about a 10% cut in cardboard. I like the way they're 'bundling' the (rather modest) environmental improvement with the benefit of less space taken up in your shopping bag, but bemused by the fact that they feel they have to remind the consumer that it hasn't changed the "great taste" of the product...

Rather underwhelming is this claim on a Sainsbury's juice carton that a minor change has cut 65 tonnes by redesigning their ringpulls. Sainsbury's are a bit coy about how much packaging goes through their stores, but extrapolating figures from their last CR report suggests it is in the region of 182,000 tonnes a year. So the 65 tonnes represents just 0.036% of their total - hardly anything to brag about.

If I were Sainsbury's I would put this in the context of their wider achievements - something like "It is innovations like this that have helped us cut 8,000 tonnes of packaging per year from our products." It has to be said that the 8,000 tonnes still only represents 4.4% of the total - making even the catfood look good!

All in all, these green claims are a bit weak, mainly because the underlying achievements are rather modest. They need to do something worth boasting about first or their efforts will simply disappear into the fug of similar claims.

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3 January 2011

Happy 2011!

So the Christmas decorations are coming down, the cards heading for the recycling bins and life starts returning to normal. I hope you all had a great festive holiday and that Santa Claus brought you what you wanted. For the first year ever, I really did want, and got, new socks. I also managed to be fast asleep by 23:55 on New Year's Eve - what a lightweight I have become!

But I'm extremely excited about 2011. Last year was challenging for me personally with the new baby and two elections (local and general) requiring a lot of my energy, but it was all a lot of fun and the business did pretty well regardless.

Here are some of the reasons why I'm looking forward to 2011:

  • My second book, The Green Executive, will be out on 20 May (part of the reason I'm working today - a bank holiday in the UK - is to review and approve the copy editor's work). The book covers the strategic and leadership requirements of a green business and features 18 interviews with leading corporate sustainability experts.
  • We're launching our Green Business Webinar series on 2 Feb. These 10 sessions will provide a cost-effective, time-efficient and low carbon way to develop your skills. More details next week.
  • We're developing a diagnostic tool for medium/large businesses and expect to be trialling it in Feb/Mar for launch thereafter.
  • There is a whole raft of client projects in the offing including developing industrial ecology/symbiosis links in the forestry/wood/pulp industries and lots of training courses.

So, I hope you will come with us into this thrilling period - by subscribing to these blog posts (hit the big orange button) and/or The Low Carbon Agenda. By the way, the first edition of the latter will feature a planning process for 2011 and the answers to the fiendishly difficult low carbon quiz (nobody got all six questions right). Keep it green!

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