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March 2011 - Terra Infirma

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31 March 2011

Why you need a Sustainability Strategy

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28 March 2011

A Postcard from Gaucin

I woke up early yesterday morning and got out onto the veranda of our holiday apartment before the rest of the family. A vulture wheeled high in the sky and a low bank of bright white cloud obscured the horizon. Suddenly what looked like the black blades of scissors snipped their way through the cloud, which then fell back to reveal a wind farm (constituting itself in its white form), the Rock of Gibraltar, murky mountains in Africa beyond and ships plying their way in between. Martins and swallows circled in front of the veranda, feeding and getting nest materials. This is my kind of place - natural beauty, wildlife, chilled atmosphere, sunshine and lots of renewables.

Gaucin is a pueblo blanco - a white village - that once formed part of the frontier between Christianity and Islam in this part of Spain. You can certainly see the Islamic influence in the winding streets and the architecture. The old hill fort is open tomorrow, so we're hoping for an historical insight then - the village is so sleepy that the guidebooks hardly mention it, preferring to concentrate on Ronda half an hour away with its Hemingway connections. We spent about 36 hours and six different trains to get from Newcastle to Seville and then two hours driving here - we've found out the hard way that kids don't appreciate slow travel as much as adults...

En route I devoured Solar by Ian McEwan - a novel about a Nobel prize-winning, but washed up academic hoping to jump on the climate change/renewable energy bandwagon to revitalise his career. The themes include what happens when science hits the real world, originality/plagiarism, and chickens coming home to roost. The scientific and technical issues are pleasingly well handled, and it avoids the obvious controversies to concentrate on the human failings that can undermine technological progress. Highly recommended.

I'm now onto The New Rules of Green Marketing by Jacquelyn Ottman - should be able to post a review next week. In the meantime, plenty of laziness is on the agenda, punctured by the odd outbreak of gluttony.

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25 March 2011

A little R&R...

By the time you read this, I'll be on one of four trains to Seville in Spain before heading by car to Ronda in Andalucia. So Terra Infirma Towers will be closing for a couple of weeks while the family and I get used to the fact I'm four decades young over many bottles of Rioja.

Blogging here will be on holiday frequency - once or twice a week depending on whether the villa's wi-fi works. Full service will re-commence on 11 April.

Hasta luego, amigos!

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23 March 2011

Both Sides of the Treasury's Coin

I've been at Leeds Royal Armouries today at an event run by the Major Energy Users Council. I hate being at a venue like this one and not be able to have a look around, but I am reliably informed that one of the exhibits allows you to mow down Johnny Foreigner with a WWI Vickers machine gun. Tasteless, but fun - according to my source.

Anyway, the great battle today has been the UK budget - the first full budget of the coalition Government. It has been very interesting to get the response from two quite different sides - the green lobby on Twitter and industry/commerce from the stage. Neither likes the budget - the former doesn't think it goes far enough, the latter far too far. I grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles and we used to say that if both sides hate a proposal, it's probably a fair one.

Part of the dislike is politics, part perception. Left-leaning greenies are waiting for the Government to fail to live up to its aim of being "the greenest ever" (hardly a high bar to clear IMHO), whereas industry instinctively dislikes interference in its markets. So a small reduction in fuel tax to soften the blow of oil prices is leapt on by the greens (when the price at the pumps is still way above where it was 5 years ago), but industry is having a heart attack over the floor price of carbon. This boosting of the price of fossil fuel energy will favour investment in low carbon energy  and energy efficiency - or drive energy intensive industry overseas (aka carbon leakage), depending on your viewpoint. And I was hearing a lot of the latter today.

This latter argument is a real conundrum. Unless we can get global agreement on carbon reduction, there will be an incentive for poor countries to try to attract investment by lowering standards - the same 'race to the bottom' we have seen in labour standards and local taxation. On the other hand, that global agreement appears as elusive as ever. Personally I think we have to show leadership and cajole industry to follow the decarbonisation route, making the argument that it is good for their business to wean themselves off volatile fossil fuels.

The budget also illustrates the old problem of significance versus newsworthiness. The carbon floor price will have much more effect on the country's carbon emissions than tweaking fuel tax, but the latter will dominate the media channels, formal and social. This constant need to keep those channels happy can make politicians reluctant to act. Given that industry can face up to four different taxes on the same kWh of energy, there is a good argument for simplification, but simplification means scrapping current schemes and that always attracts negative headlines, so we trundle on with a hodge-podge.

The same problem exists with corporate programmes - scrap a high profile programme which has run out of steam and the hyenas will pounce, no matter how good the reason why. No wonder we live in a world of spin, PR and brand protection - it's a battle of messages as much as a battle of ideas. Dig those trenches and get the machine guns ready!

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21 March 2011

Don't believe the hype!

It was the big fuss in the Corporate Social Responsibility field last year. Your flashy iPad had the blood of Chinese workers on it. The factory where they were made was a suicide hotspot because of the terrible working conditions and you should feel guilty, Apple should feel guilty, the whole world should hang its collective head in remorse. I know people who chose not to buy Apple as a result.

At the time, I felt that Apple were hard done by as the company concerned, Foxconn, produced goods for many other household names, including Sony, Dell and Motorola. Now it appears, according to Wired magazine, the whole scandal was a non-event. Yes, sadly, 17 workers took their own lives, but out of a workforce of 1 million. That puts the Foxconn suicide rate lower than the average for all of China, and four times less than that of US college students. Working conditions at Foxconn still seem severe by Western standards, but if you work there, you're at a lower risk of killing yourself than your peers. Apple does appear to have been the victim of journos hungry for a negative story about the iPad.

Here's some things we can learn from the story:

  • The old political/journalism trope "never let the facts get in the way of a good story" still applies;
  • Bad news travels much, much quicker than good news (and nobody's interested in debunking a 'good story');
  • Never believe the scandals that rip across Twitter, blogs or the media - check the facts;
  • Tall poppies like Apple are always at risk of negative stories, fair or foul.
  • Damage limitation is just that.

The only way to balance this kind of lazy journalism/bloggareah is to strive for the highest standards, have the facts ready to defend the brand and have a steady stream of positive CSR news hitting the ether. In the meantime, I can use my Apple gear with renewed smugness.

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18 March 2011

What I've learnt in the last fortnight...

It's been a busy, busy couple of weeks here at Terra Infirma Towers and around the country as we've delivered four half day workshops as well as the usual round of desk work, workshop prep, tendering and responding to potential clients - I even just sat in the audience and listened at an event last night, a rare role for me these days.

As regular readers will know, I periodically feedback on what I have picked up during these sessions as there are always useful perspectives. So here are the key points:

  • Don’t get too fascinated by shiny technology – culture change is more important;
  • Participation reaps rewards - if it is done right;
  • Visual stimulus is very powerful - mind maps, realia (aka physical objects) and drawings trump Powerpoint for impact;
  • Celebrate each success, then strive for more - the job is never done;
  • Competitive advantage for green business is now sourced from "we have done x" rather than "we will do x";
  • The construction industry is the latest to start really tackling its supply chain - joining the public sector and big retailers;
  • The rise in the 'floor carbon price' is likely to revolutionise the energy market;
  • There is a lot of enthusiasm from all types of organisation for "rent a roof" deals on Solar PV;
  • The cutting edge companies have set the pace, now the pursuing pack is trying hard to catch up.

I also drove an electric vehicle on the public highway for the first time yesterday. I wasn't very good at it - I kept instinctively reaching for the clutch and hitting the brake instead - regenerative braking is not the most sympathetic system in the world, so my ride was a tad jerky. Anyone used to an automatic gearbox would handle it much better, but I've got some practising to do.


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16 March 2011

Forestry, waste wood and business

Yesterday I ran a workshop on waste wood business opportunities for the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme's North East team. Industrial symbiosis is the concept of 'waste' from companies becoming the raw material feeds for other industrial process as a rule rather than as an exception.

Despite thick fog and a difficult to reach, if plush, location - Slaley Hall on the edge of the North Penines - we had a great turnout and a real buzz. Business cards were being exchanged left, right and centre as we went through the brainstorming process. When I say brainstorming, we did it properly - no Powerpoint at all. We used the mind map above, printed onto huge A0 sheets, colour coded Post-Its, and a simple system of ID codes to track who was offering or wanted what. I've included the map above as the recycling PESTLE analysis I created for an event last summer has been very popular with readers and Googlers. Click on it for a bigger version.

The wider wood project has been very interesting. We were originally inspired to look at wood by some examples of industrial symbiosis in the Finnish forest industry, but to be honest, when we compared those examples and what's going on in North East England carefully, there wasn't much of a difference. What difference there is is shrinking fast as economics is closing the loops of waste from the virgin wood industry - bark, sawdust, offcuts etc - so we've shifted emphasis to post-user wood. This situation was confirmed visually during the workshop as there were lots of Post-Its on the right of the mindmap, and precious few on the left.

Big issues on the right hand side are persuading waste producers not to landfill waste, the tension between waste wood as fuel and waste wood as a raw material (and Govt subsidies for the former) and sometimes contradictory legislation. Having said that, the sector seems to be booming - and the local players certainly have more to go on after the workshop.

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14 March 2011

Japan's Double Jeopardy

I can't think of a worse situation than the one Japan finds itself in. They have suffered a terrible natural catastrophe, killing thousands and wiping out local infrastructure. Then, with the country already reeling, a nuclear meltdown is ticking away - a race against time to avert another disaster.

I've never been a big fan of nuclear energy. While for some it is an issue of political identity or moral certainties, for me it is the practicalities - cost, the long term sustainability of a finite and rare fuel, the safe storage of waste for millenia, the risk of theft of radioactive material by malignant tendencies, and, most of all, the risk that it all goes horribly wrong. We can do all the risk assessments we like, but every so often a series of circumstances coincides and we witness a major accident, whether we're talking about Chernobyl, Hurricane Katrina or the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

The whole point of being 'benign by design' is to remove potential hazards at the drawing board. If you don't have hazardous material in the system in the first place, then little or nothing can go wrong. This applies at the organisational level as well as international incidents. If you don't have hazardous material on site, then it doesn't matter how unlucky you are, the impacts of any incident are much diminished.

In the meantime, like everyone, my thoughts are with the people of Japan, hoping that the brave engineers can quickly shut down the at-risk nuclear reactors, leaving the country free to concentrate on rescuing the dispossessed, rebuilding what it has lost and taking time to mourn those who perished.

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11 March 2011

Musings on the Carbon Plan

I leafed through the UK Government's new Carbon Plan on the train to Birmingham on Wednesday. The plan brings together a whole raft of initiatives either underway or promised and doles out responsibility to different Whitehall departments to deliver them by set deadlines. The plan seems to have been well received - if a green pressure group says "we welcome this, but it needs to go further", they actually mean "this is pretty damn good, but we wouldn't be doing our job if we didn't find something to criticise.".

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Overall the plan is remarkably concise and comprehensive, covering everything from the electricity market to agriculture. The pinning of particular actions on particular departments is very welcome in terms of spreading the responsibility;
  • The amount of Parliamentary bureaucracy is quite staggering - white papers and consultations are legion in the document - no wonder it takes a long time to change the way we do things;
  • It is great to see some of the more challenging programmes (Green Investment Bank & Green New Deal) in the plan with targets. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to structure both so they are effective and don't bring the Treasury out in a rash - failing that, just the former would do.
  • Some areas that I am evangelical about eg cycling, telecommuting and teleconferencing, are mentioned, but the kind of incentives being thrown at, say, electric vehicles are missing. Arguably the former three would do more for carbon emissions at a fraction of the cost - so why no investment, incentive or even high level support? Sometimes I suspect it comes down to politicians preferring to be photographed at the wheel of a fancy new electric car than using teleconferencing.
  • Likewise the much heralded 'smart grid' is mentioned only in terms of the Govt 'paving the way' towards it, rather than having an action in the plan. I would like to have seen some mention of pilot projects at the very least.

It will be interesting to see how the plan pans out in practice. With the exception of nuclear energy being frowned upon by the Lib Dems, there are no ideological differences between the big three parties, so criticism from Labour is likely to be limited to the quality of implementation and the speed of progress. However, there are high stakes for the coalition Government in terms of public perception. David Cameron needs to deliver on his promise to run The Greenest Government Ever (in reality not that difficult) to show he's not a Thatcherite with a warm handshake, and the Lib Dems need to be able to demonstrate progress on a key part of their ethos to show a return on their involvement in the coalition. It will be interesting, for sure.

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9 March 2011

Fiat's Green Marketing

I saw this ad for a new eco-friendly Fiat 500 on my way through Newcastle early this morning – I’m on my way to facilitate sessions at the Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange in Birmingham.

I like their approach – simple, bold and positive. The slogan “Less emissions, more fun” makes the case that low carbon does not mean sackcloth and ashes and there isn’t an eco-cliché to be seen. Looks as if advertisers are starting to get a hang of green marketing.



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7 March 2011

The Politics of Oil

This weekend the global oil situation finally made its way onto the front pages of the UK press with, for example, The Guardian's report on Energy Secretary Chris Huhne calling for the UK to wean itself off oil and fast. By chance I've been reading Andrew Marr's excellent 'A History of Modern Britain' and came across this apposite paragraph:

One could write a useful political history which did not move beyond the dilemmas of energy supply. We can follow it from the winter of 1947 when the frozen coal stocks blew Attlee off course, through the oil-related shock of Suez and the destruction of Eden, to Heath's double confrontation with the miners, ending in his defeat in 1974, the rise of Scottish nationalism fuelled by North Sea oil, and then the epic coalfield confrontation between Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill taking the story up to today's arguments about global warming and gas dependency on Russia. The simple fact of a small and crowded island energy dependent in an uncertain world has toppled prime ministers and brought violent confrontation to the streets.

Marr could have added many more in here - the rise of Al-Qaeda out of the murky world of the Saudi oil world, Saddam Hussein's original invasion of Kuwait - and many would say the US war on Iraq in 2003, the near bankruptcy of Russia by the oligarchs and a whole host of grubby, bloody little conflicts and kleptocracies all around the world.

Back here in the UK, being Energy Secretary used to be an extremely important role in Government, but it seemed to be relegated to the lower tiers during the North Sea oil and gas boom in the 1980s. Given the way oil prices and unrest are going, this could suddenly be reversed. Knowing Chris Huhne - a very shrewd operator - he's fully aware of the political risks and opportunities. In my opinion he's singing the right tune, but he's got the Herculean task of getting the Treasury to listen if he's going to succeed.

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4 March 2011

The Power of Good Design

It has been said that design is the engine room of good environmental practice and I couldn't agree more.

  • Got an inefficient building? Design a new one, or design a brilliant retrofit.
  • Got a problem with a toxic material in your manufacturing process? Design the need for it out of your product.
  • Got a problem in your supply chain? Either design that part of your supply chain out of your product, or re-design the supply chain itself.

When I say 'design' here, it doesn't just mean a expensively bespectacled 'creative' staring at a blank sheet of paper on a drawing board. What you might be redesigning is the way you approach problems, the tactics you use and the business environment you work in. Anyone can redesign, and the best person to ask is... everyone. Get creative juices running throughout your organisation and its stakeholders and you might just be surprised what new designs you end up with.

What are you going to redesign next?

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3 March 2011

Webinar: Staff Engagement & Culture Change

The third of our Green Business Webinars will be held on 13 April at 14:00 GMT. The hour long session will cover the critical issues of staff engagement and culture change. It aims to give you the tools you need to transform your the culture of your organisation - we'll be looking at why 'switch it off' campaigns fail, how to emotionally engage with people, and how to deal with environmental cynics and other difficult people.

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:

Here's what participants say:

"Gareth's webinars are smart, punchy and thought provoking. His approach shows how sustainability is about achieving commercial advantage and not simply an altruistic gesture. Highly recommended." Graeme Mills, GPM Network Ltd.

"[The webinars] are great value and I would recommend them to both CSR professionals and SME owners." Louise Bateman, GreenWise

"I consider this a must for organisations looking for practical help in improving their sustainability performance." Ted Shann, Wipro

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2 March 2011

Plenty more fish in the sea?

Great news in the Guardian this morning that the EU is to end the incredibly wasteful practice of fish discards. This is the situation where fishermen could catch however many fish they want, but can only land a certain number, so the rest are thrown back - usually dead. This is worse than landing them where at least they would be put to good use - and would offset other food production.

The story illustrates a number of important points:

  • The power of perverse incentives - fisherman are currently encouraged to be wasteful;
  • The risk of unintended consequences - the landing quota was introduced to try and protect fish stocks but has arguably made the situation worse;
  • The stultifying effect of institutional inertia - everybody has known discarding fish is a problem, yet it has taken decades to actually do anything.

These are three potential pitfalls that all of us in the sustainability world come up against some time or other, whether in communities, organisations or in international policy. Watch out for them!

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