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February 2011 - Terra Infirma

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28 February 2011

Keeping Good Company

Here's a short excerpt from my next book, The Green Executive, available for pre-order now:

Deliberate disassociation

The flip side of joining positive organizations is true – if you want to appear environmentally enlightened, you need to distance yourself from bad company. Ever since Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking book Silent Spring catalogued the effect of pesticides and herbicides on eco-systems, there has been a co-ordinated attack on the green movement by certain sections of industry. Whether the issue is persistent organic pollutants, the health effects of passive smoking or, more recently, climate change, there have always been elements who would prefer to invest in dubious tactics to maintain the status quo rather than change their ways.

For example, the industry-backed and disingenuously named Global Climate Coalition spent 13 years feeding exaggerated accounts of the uncertainties in climate change science to the press, despite their own scientific advisors protesting to the contrary. The group eventually withered and died in 2002 as members such as Shell, BP and GM decided to disassociate themselves. Associating with any such organizations will backfire on green efforts. The hyenas mentioned in Chapter 4 are particularly hard on any organization perceived to have be saying one thing while doing another.

Having a zero tolerance to industrial resistance to sustainability can be used to demonstrate commitment. In 2009 a number of high profile companies including Nike and Apple left the US Chamber of Commerce in protest at the Chamber’s stance on President Obama’s climate change bill. By doing so they sent out a clear message to their customers, their peers and the government that they were taking the green agenda seriously.

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25 February 2011

Climate Change & the World of Finance

This video from The Telegraph gives an insight into the financial sector's views on low carbon technology. Unsurprisingly they're taking a very hard nosed approach (the suit being interviewed dismisses ethical funds as 'fun' investments), and they are seeing climate change as a financial driver which will make green tech stocks grow - and that those stocks are a 'hedge' against inflation.

Some may find such calculated profiteering on the back of climate change vaguely distasteful, but I always argue that if we are to tackle climate change fast, then the solutions must be integrated into the way the world economy works now.

What this video also demonstrates is that if you want investment in your planet saving technology, these guys are no dupes - you're going to have to have a technology which delivers what it claims it can, at a realistic cost and a decent financial return. And beat the competition.

The low carbon economy - no place for wimps!

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23 February 2011

Are you prepared for an oil shock?

Yesterday I was writing a piece on major problems in the oil industry for The Sustainability Forum (it should go up today or tomorrow it's here). I was listing the various problems - the price hitting $108 a barrel, oil companies fleeing Libya, the IEA saying the price of oil was hitting global recovery etc, etc. This on top of the wikileaks revelation that Saudi oil reserves had been overstated by 40%, the BP oil spill, continuing debate about the onset of peak oil and suggestions that coal may stay so cheap for long.

What is pertinent for this blog is how should individual companies respond?

The first questions to ask concern your exposure. Are you dependent on logistics, business travel or commodities from overseas? Do you use oil based raw materials? Are you an energy intensive business? If oil prices stay above $100 a barrel, how does that affect the your long term viability? What about $150?

Once you have an idea of the risk, you can look for solutions: eg avoiding travel through teleworking, sourcing local or bio-based raw materials, alternatively fuelled vehicles, more efficient vehicles, smarter distribution and route planning, backloading of freight vehicles, eco-driving lessons for drivers, swapping to sea and/or train and electronic distribution (eg MP3s).

Don't stick your head in the sand here - even if a huge new source of cheap oil is found, most of the measures above will still cut your cost base, making you more competitive. You really can't lose.

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21 February 2011

Carbon Nation - classic green jujitsu

There's a new eco-doc out called Carbon Nation aimed at US climate sceptics - tag line "the climate change solutions movie... that doesn't even care if you believe in climate change". I've only seen the trailer, but it looks like a classic piece of green jujitsu.

For those unfamiliar with my green jujitsu concept, the idea is to avoid getting bogged down stat-trading deadlocked arguments over, say, climate sensitivity. Instead make arguments that appeal to your opponent's outlook on life - in the same way that the martial art of jujitsu eschews the boxing approach of trying to bludgeon the opponent into submission, in favour of using their strength against them. So to US Tea Party types, the appeal of the new movie is to values like patriotism, quality of life, national security and energy security rather than 'save the polar bear'-type egalitarianism.

The same approach can be used to appeal to the sceptics, cynics and not-interesteds in individual organisations. You have to rein in your ego and think about what appeals to them - cost savings, new business, brand protection, recruitment and retention or risk reduction? Press those buttons instead. Life will be easier for all parties!

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18 February 2011

Current Trends in Green Business

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16 February 2011

Traceability rules...

We have seen countless examples where a company has been hung out to dry due to malpractice deep in their supply chain (Apple, BP and Nike spring to mind). This is leading inevitably to tighter and tighter traceability systems - yesterday I met with a tissue paper manufacturer who can boast that, for certain products, if you gave them the barcode, they could tell you down to the acre of forest/plantation where that wood came from.

The driver for this comes, of course, from the brand concerned rather than from the manufacturer. Brand protection is the goalkeeper to green marketing's £50million striker - the less glamourous, but equally important part of the team (I hope someone can add an appropriate soccer-free analogy for our US readers!).

For big corporations, such traceability is essential and can be demanded as a condition of their custom. But what about smaller companies with less buying power? The best answer is to use third party accreditation such as the Forestry Stewardship Council label for wood/paper products, Marine Stewardship Council labels for fish, or the FairTrade labels for food and other products (including gold!) These all have their limitations, and indeed their detractors, but they give some reassurance over and beyond crossing your fingers.

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14 February 2011

The value of stuff

"We want to treat waste as a resource." is a constant refrain from the great and the good, but how do we make that happen?

The obvious approach is to try and create robust markets in secondary (recycled, recovered, pre-loved?) materials. The problem is that all commodity prices vary massively and extremely rapidly in the modern global economy. My cousins are farmers and they have to buy their seed and fertiliser long before they have a clue what wheat prices will be like at harvest - this year they did OK because of the terrible problems that Russian farmers had, but next year - who knows?

Recyclate prices can vary even more as they can go from positive to negative. You can see this very visually with scrap metal - if the value drops too low, scrap yards put on a gate fee and you will start to see abandoned old cars dumped on the road. When the price soars, anything metal starts to go missing - a couple of months ago a van was stopped by police in a neighbouring street to mine - with a cargo of half-inched manhole covers in the back.

So how can we deal with this uncertainty?

1. Penalise the alternatives: taxes on the extraction of raw materials or the landfilling of waste level the playing field by internalising the costs to society of those activities.

2. Expand and broaden markets: a steady demand from a wide range of potential markets will even out the peaks and troughs. Organisations both public and private can use their buying power to boost these markets.

3. A realistic view of risk: I've seen far too many start ups build their business plans around unrealistic assumptions on material value/costs and then struggle when the real prices don't comply with their wishful thinking.

4. Use of trusted standards for the quality of materials - the UK Government and its WRAP quango have been working on a set of standards called PAS for some time - eg PAS 100 is the standard for soil conditioner/compost.

5. Use of trusted labels/certification schemes for recycled material - so the customer can make informed purchasing decisions without fear of greenwash.

Overall, though, we need a general change in attitude to 'waste'. As my own little aphorism has it, "Waste is a verb, not a noun".

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11 February 2011

Stop Shouting At Me! Why Your Staff Engagement Isn't Working

Here's the fiftth Green Business Confidential podcast, entitled "Stop Shouting At Me", which discusses why your staff engagement isn't working and what you might want to do about it:

Audio MP3

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

GBC5 Stop Shouting At Me

You can get the whole podcast series here.

We'll be covering staff engagement and culture change during the April Green Business Webinar.


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9 February 2011

Is the peak oil cat out of the bag?

Interesting article buried in the Guardian this morning - one of the Wikileaks cables concerned a 'reliable source' at Aramco, the Saudi national oil company, who reportedly said that Saudi Arabia would struggle to maintain current levels of oil production.

I was surprised that this was in the business pages as it is a potentially explosive political and economic issue - after all, oil is the lifeblood of our modern economy. The current situation is:

  • Oil production outside the Middle East has 'peaked';
  • The Middle East countries claim they can maintain production, but the transparency of their reporting leaves much to be desired.

So, if the cable's source is correct, and Saudi Arabia has 40% less reserves than it claims it has, then we really could be at the end of the age of oil as a dominant energy source. If global production has peaked - as many believe - or will peak in 2012 - as the cables suggest - then oil prices will surge. Recent research has suggested that coal won't remain a cheap alternative for long either.

The risk of peak oil/coal is fast becoming another compelling reason for organisations and individuals to aggressively cut their dependence on fossil fuels.

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7 February 2011

Heat from dead people? Why not?

Here is a topic that is getting me fired up. Redditch Council will decide tonight whether to approve a scheme to capture waste heat from its crematorium to heat its swimming pool. The Unison union is dead against the scheme, saying it is "insulting and insensitive".

What's their problem?

People die, get cremated, heat is generated, why not use it?

We lose loads of heat to the atmosphere that could be put to good use else - in fact the amount of waste heat from our power stations is roughly enough to heat every home in the country. Every refrigeration unit, chiller and air compressor pumps hot air out into the atmosphere - this can easily be captured and turned into hot water, saving loads of energy. So why not a crematorium? And, the swimming pool is a great use for the heat, too, with a big, year round heat requirement.

I heard the Unison guy on the radio a couple of weeks ago, unable to convince anyone that there was a problem. What a bunch of deadbeats - the scheme has cross party support in the council and approval of 85% of the locals. So why try to kill it off?

I hope Redditch Council will put this squeamish nonsense to rest and vote for this superb idea.

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4 February 2011

What would you do?

... if you were a paper company and, due to your clearing of rainforest, you suddenly lose a roster of clients including Tesco, Staples, Office Depot, Unilever, Carrefour, Gucci, H&M, Hugo Boss, Volkswagen, Fuji Xerox, Ricoh, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer, or,

...if you were a producer of leather in Amazonia and clients like Wal-Mart, Nike, and Timberland threaten to ditch you for the same reason.

What would you do?

The response of the two has been remarkably different - APP, the paper company concerned, is trying a mixture of greenwash and subterfuge to save its skin without stopping the destruction. On the other hand the Amazonian leather producers along with the Brazilian Govt have changed their ways, including a moratorium on forest clearing and introducing transparent certification systems, to keep their clients happy.

Which do you think will be more successful in the long term?

(main source:

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3 February 2011

Green Business Webinar #2: Making It Happen

The second of our Green Business Webinars will be held on 2 March at 14:00 GMT. The hour long session will cover the Sustainability Maturity Model, strategies, management systems, target setting and action planning. It aims to give you the tools you need to create a compelling green vision for your business and put the systems in place to deliver that vision. Importantly, we'll cover the pitfalls you will want to avoid along the way.

The webinar costs £45.00 + VAT per person - use the button below to pay by card or Paypal. Contact us to make a BACS payment.

This is just one in our series of 10 webinars - you can see the full list and terms and conditions here. All ten cost £330 + VAT - reserve your seat using the button below:

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2 February 2011

Going green is even more important in a recession

I delivered the second set of three environmental policy/action planning workshops yesterday for Compete North East - the aim being to help small and medium size companies get in shape to respond to the environmental aspects of tenders and requests for proposals. The workshops went really well again, but one of the introductory speakers - from a public sector buying organisation - made a statement I thought was a. misleading and b. dangerous advice for the attendees. He said that environment and sustainability had dropped off the radar somewhat due to the recession, but were coming back.

I didn't get a chance to ask him exactly what he meant, but I couldn't disagree more with the statement as it came out. Here are the facts:

  • Public sector bodies are typically awarding 10-15% of potential assessment scores to environment and sustainability;
  • The public sector is buying much less due to the Government's austerity drive, so competition for contracts is fierce.

The only conclusion you can draw from that is that securing as much of that 10-15% is vital to give a supplier a chance of beating competitors. If you're up against Usain Bolt in the 100m, the last thing you want to do is give him a 10m head start. So don't give greener competitors a similar advantage - make the commitment, take action, stay ahead of the pack.

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