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July 2011 - Terra Infirma

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29 July 2011

Make it easy for your staff to be green!

At the minute I am spending the bulk of my project time engaging clients' staff members in sustainability with the aim of changing their attitudes and behaviour. I've talked about some of the techniques I use elsewhere, but one issue that keeps coming up is non-green behaviour is often easier than green. It stands to reason that if you expect your staff to act green, you've got to make it easy for them - if you want someone to use a recycling bin, then don't stick it at the end of the corridor, put it by their desk.

A great recent example was a session where someone complained that no-one was using the company's teleconferencing system. When we explored why not, we discovered that in order to calculate the financial benefits of the system the company made it a condition of booking that a calculation of avoided staff travel time and travel costs had to be included. So you'd have to sit down and work out where everyone was coming from, how they were travelling, how long it would take them, what each person's hourly cost was and what fares/hire car charges/mileage they would incur. And then add it all up and then you could use the system.

Most people are unfamiliar with teleconferencing, so by putting this extra burden on "good" behaviour, staff were just sticking to the same old "bad" behaviour they were used to - booking a conference room and letting everyone make their own travel arrangements. You can hardly blame them.

This is known in the trade as a "perverse incentive". If you want your staff to act in a certain way, you have to make sure that the architecture of choices (to borrow from the book Nudge which is all about this type of thinking) always makes it easy to take the green choice and harder to take the non-green choice.

A positive example of this I came across recently with another client was they had changed their travel booking so that booking a train fare was done in house for you, but if you wanted a short haul flight, you had to book and pay for it yourself and claim back the cost. So while you still had the choice, it was much more of a hassle to fly.

One option I always offer to my clients is to capture these issues because they are often below the radar issues that only emerge when I challenge attendees to think of solutions. Not only does the client get an extremely useful "to fix" list, the attendees feel empowered and much more likely to engage properly both inside the session and afterwards.

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27 July 2011

Avoiding Greenwash: How Green is Green?

Greenwash is widely regarded as the greatest sin in the green business world. The term was coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in response to those "hang up your towels and we won't wash them everyday" cards you find in hotel bathrooms. It's a portmanteau of 'green' and 'whitewash', meaning covering up lots of non-green activity with a token green gesture.

So, the question is, if greenwash is so evil, how green do you have to be before you can say you are green? This is a tricky one as it is a subjective judgement and the bar is constantly rising. Here are your options:

1. Be extremely ambitious: make sure your performance is so far ahead your peers that your reputation is unassailable.

2. Meet a third party standard, for example one of the many eco-labels available.

3. Get a third party respected judgement - for example Marks & Spencer use Jonathan Porritt as an independent assessor of their Plan A sustainability programme. But you must take their criticism as well as their praise.

4. Avoid the self-justification and let the observer decide: simply present your achievements and shortcomings without declaring yourself the saviour of the planet. This is dangerous as it can lead to greenwash by default, unless you are extremely honest.

Whichever approach you take, honesty, openness and transparency are the key guiding principles.

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25 July 2011

What matters to us

It just seems to be unrelenting bad going-on-horrific news at the minute: the famine in Somalia, the massacre in Norway and Amy Winehouse's tragic, if inevitable, demise. Anyone looking at the three stories objectively would rank them in that order of importance, yet this morning's UK newspapers had it in reverse, with La Winehouse making most of the headlines and Somalia barely getting a mention.

You'll see a lot of people getting very angry about this inversion of priorities on the Twittersphere. While I have sympathy with them, I'm afraid it has always been this way.

Human nature is driven not by logic, but by gut instinct. We are more interested in news stories that affect people we feel familiar with, at a level we can comprehend, those that are sudden, and those that are geographically close. The Somalis who are suffering are pastoralists, a lifestyle most Westerners have never experienced, so we can't imagine this happening to us, and the tragedy has been unfolding for many weeks. The Norwegians live closer to us and have much the same lifestyle, so we can emphasise with the loss of relatives in such a shocking single event. And Amy Winehouse had touched millions with that extraordinary voice - so much so, that many of us felt we somehow knew her.

You will see the same factors in environmental issues. Last year's Gulf oil spill got a lot of coverage, because it was a single dramatic event, it was easy to see the scale of the problem on TV and the people who were most affected had Western lifestyles. Climate change if a much, much bigger problem yet it rarely if ever gets the same coverage as it is incremental, its impacts are geographically dispersed and there are no pictures of people like us being affected.

So how do we account for this when formulating green communications? If you look at TV coverage of African famines, the presenter will usually do two things - first interview a Western (read: white) aid worker about the scale of the problem (someone like us) and then tell the story of the suffering of one family (get down to the human interest level). I used to get angry about this as I felt it continued a myth of "Western benevolence in terrible Africa" and then intruded in one family's grief when I felt they had suffered enough. But now, while I still don't particularly like it, I understand they are trying to make the story comprehensible to the audience back home.

Likewise, I always advise clients when they are trying to communicate green issues to copy the media and make the story relevant to the audience and, preferably, recount it through the eyes of someone just like them (the audience). For most people, talking about polar bears just won't cut the ice.

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22 July 2011

Green Business Is Just A Fad

I'm taking a day off today, so I've handed over the reins of Green Business Confidential to special guest Hugh Jim Pakt, CEO of DirtyCorp plc who wants to give his views on Green Business.

Audio MP3

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

GBC8 Green Business Is Just A Fad

You can get the whole podcast series here or subscribe on iTunes.

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20 July 2011

When the going gets tough...

Regular readers will know that three days a week I go for a run along the Ouseburn river valley up into Jesmond Dene and back before sitting down and writing this blog. I do this rain or shine - and today it was just rain, no shine (for proof see pic right).

What surprised me was that I was the only idiot out there running - in fact the only people I passed were a twitcher and a school age couple enjoying a quick snog before classes (a bit of rain won't dampen young love).

Where was everyone else? I thought of the clichés my VIII would shout at each other with tongue firmly in cheek back in my rowing days - "If it's not raining, it's not training!" and "no pain, no gain!".

One of my favourite business/sporting analogies is "The Tour De France is won on the climbs, not the descents." This is particularly apt for green business in the current economic situation - there is a huge temptation to batten down the hatches and hope it all blows over, telling yourself you'll make progress on this "when things get better".

While it's tempting, it is also incredibly shortsighted. If your competitors decided to go for it on this uphill, they'll be whizzing down the other side long before you puff to the top. They'll be cutting costs through energy, waste, raw material and water savings and competing more strongly in the market place with their green credentials. In other words they'll be winning more business and making a better margin on it.

You may say "but we don't have any cash!", but that's not an insurmountable problem - most businesses can make significant cost savings at little or no cost in terms of investment. This can then be reinvested in other environmental improvements to improve competitiveness. It's more a question of attitude and inventiveness than pounds/dollars/euros.

So don't forget one last well worn training cliché: When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

And for good measure I'll add one of my own: Green Business - no place for wimps!

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18 July 2011


I was delighted at the weekend to be sent this amazing picture by Melvin Redeker of him reading The Green Executive while on a kayaking trip around the North Sea island of Noss. Melvin is a business speaker and photographer who has mission to reconnect business with the natural world - you should check out his website here for the wonderful pictures if nothing else.

Well this got me thinking, what makes someone pick up a business book like The Green Executive after a hard day's paddling in the open sea? Well the simple answer is that I packed the book full of stories.

When I started the book I didn't want to regurgitate the same old case studies over again, so I interviewed 18 senior managers/directors charged with transforming their business. These interviews took on a life of their own, so I included a transcript at the end of each chapter as a short intermission called "The View from the Front Line". I found the stories were inspirational - somehow we managed to duck their PR machines' blue pencil of death and got some really personal insights and anecdotes. Virtually all the feedback on the book - reviews and on Amazon - has lauded the interviews.

None of this is surprising - humankind has always revered the story. Very few of us would willingly wade through a book of stats, equations and mathematical proofs, but whole industries depend on stories, from the Take A Break style magazine through to blockbuster movies.

So how can you use storytelling in your green communications? In exactly the same way I used it in the book - sprinkle anecdotes and personal stories through your reports, websites and other publications. One of the interviewees from the book, Julie Parr of lawyers Muckle LLP, used a story of how one partner was taking waste paper away to use as horse bedding in their in house magazine. OK, it's not the most exciting thing they are doing if you are a sustainability geek like me, but for the rest of the world (the people we need to communicate with) it the story is far more engaging than a bar chart or a picture of hands cupping a sapling.

So go on, what's your story?

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15 July 2011

Living in the Real World...

When I first got started in this business I used to get patronised a lot. "It would be nice to [be greener]," these grey haired pillars of business used to tell me, "but we've got to live in the real world..." I don't get this so much - maybe those greyhairs have moved on, maybe my own emerging crop of grey gives me a bit more gravitas, or maybe attitudes have changed, but I still find it incredible how many people are stuck in the Milton Friedman/Chicago School of Economics mindset that the only purpose of a business is to make profit.

Look at some of big business/economic stories of recent years:

  • 2011 News International and the News of the World hacking scandal: serious ethical/legal failings have led to a 168 year old paper closing, share prices falling and a huge business deal put on the back burner indefinitely. [Oh, and literally as I type this, the Chief Executive Rebekah Brooks has stepped down].
  • 2010 BP oil spill: causing a huge environmental disaster then failing to appreciate the scale of the impact either on the ecology or local communities. What were they doing drilling so deep? Is oil getting harder to find?
  • 2007/8 Banking crisis: unethical lending and dubious unregulated "financial products" lead to a bubble which, as bubbles do, burst, causing huge economic and societal hardship. Governments have had to bail out the banks as the societal impact of letting them fail would have been devastating.

What's in common? The one-eyed pursuit of profit with no cognisance of societal or environmental realities leading to crises for the businesses themselves, never mind everyone else.

Let's wake up and smell the coffee. Business is a function of the economy which is a function of society which exists in the ecological world. And that, my friends, is the real world.

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13 July 2011

Green Business Confidential: Stretch Yourself

Here's the latest Green Business Confidential podcast, entitled "Stretch Yourself" - it's about how incremental targets are a false friend.

Audio MP3

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

GBC7 Stretch Yourself

You can get the whole podcast series here.


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11 July 2011

Leadership vs Management

The central theme of my latest book, The Green Executive, is that 'green' has been elevated from environmental management to business leadership. But what does this mean in practice?

The father of modern corporate leadership Warren Bennis famously said that leadership is 'doing the right thing' and management is 'doing things right'. So leadership is about policy, direction and ambition, management is about delivery, systems and monitoring progress. The two are both essential - there's no point doing efficiently what shouldn't be done at all (to paraphrase another management guru Peter Drucker) and equally, there's no point point in having a sustainability strategy if its execution flops.

When Bennis talked about "doing the right thing" he was talking from a business point of view rather than from a societal/environmental point of view, but his maxim applies perfectly. True corporate leaders understand that their business exists within society and the environment and not in an economic bubble. Here in the UK we have seen a 168 year old newspaper close because its leadership allowed deeply unethical practices to flourish. Tony Hayward of BP took his company to the brink because he didn't understand he was responsible for the aftermath of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, treating it as an internal problem to be managed.

But those are the stand out cases - many if not most businesses still think they can survive by doing business as usual with a bit of environmental management to keep the wolves from the door. But this is false security - these companies will fall victim to tightening legislation, rising utility costs, more pressure from customers, the bar being raised by competitors and losing out on recruiting the best staff.

On the other hand we have business leaders like Ray Anderson of Interface, Richard Branson of Virgin and Sir Stuart Rose (now ex-) of Marks & Spencer who want to lead huge businesses AND be one of the good guys. This takes leadership both inside and outside the business. When Anderson deletes profitable product lines because they aren't compatible with Interface's Mission Zero strategy, that's leadership. When Nike and Apple left the US Chamber of Commerce over the latter's stance on carbon legislation, they were showing clear leadership.

So that's the question The Green Executive poses: are you going to lead on the environment or simply try and manage the consequences of not doing so?

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8 July 2011

Don't Print This E-mail...

Why do people still include "Think of the environment, Don't print this e-mail unless you really have to." in the thicket of information in their signature block?

I hate it, hate it, hate it!


Because you are communicating one, two or all of the following messages:

1. I think you are so stupid that you would print e-mails if I didn't tell you not to.

2. I'm a green paragon, and you couldn't possibly be as virtuous as me, so let me share my wisdom.

3. Look, this green thing is so easy, all you have to do is add this message to your signature and voilà! Job done.

No self respecting green business would want to patronise and insult their contacts in this way.  So if you are doing it, please stop.

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6 July 2011

News of the Screws and CSR

It's hard not to feel a bit of schadenfreude over the plight of the News of the World ex-editor now News International bigwig Rebekah Brooks after the latest round of allegations regarding phone hacking. When the story was about invading the privacy of the rich and famous, only a few people cared. Now it seems it was routine to hack into the phones of the victims of terrible crimes and their families - the very people the sanctimonious NOTW claimed to stand up for - and the public have rightly been outraged.

While I usually restrict my posts here to the environmental rather than the ethical elements of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), there are many elements of the story you can read across:

1. Hypocrisy kills trust. NOTW's invasion of privacy of those they claimed to represent is the killer story here. Likewise when BP claimed to be going "Beyond Petroleum" then didn't, they were held up to ridicule.

2. The buck stops at the top. Brooks' claim that it was "inconceivable" that she knew that this was going on holds little water. If she didn't know, she should have - implicated or incompetent? Tony Hayward of BP showed a similar lack of personal accountability during last year's oil spill and became a international figure of ridicule  - "I want my life back!" before he was shown the door.

3. Brand protection is everything. While the NOTW can no doubt take a short term hit in terms of sales, the real damage will come from advertisers taking their trade elsewhere. Ford have announced they will do so and a number of others are considering their position, urged on by a social media campaign. NOTW is contaminated - the others don't want cross contamination of their brand. This is similar to how a huge number of top brands have blacklisted Asia Pulp & Paper over rainforest destruction.

4. These things don't go away - the phone hacking occurred 6-9 years ago. Likewise the Indian courts are still pursuing those responsible for the 1984 Bhopal disaster, jailing several people last year. "Getting away with it" is a long term job.

My advice to News International? Eat humble pie and Brooks at least should fall on her sword. That might give them a chance to claw back some trust.

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4 July 2011

Integrating sustainability into the DNA of your organisation

How do you actually embed sustainability into the DNA of your organisation? Well according to my Sustainability Maturity Model (above - click to enlarge), you need the following five elements:

  • Clear commitment and leadership: the shift from environmental management to integrated sustainability is no mean feat and not one that can happen by osmosis. Change of this level requires true leadership.
  • A sustainability strategy: this is the framework which guides an organisation towards sustainability. It must either be integrated into, or at least be convergent with, the overall business strategy. If it sits out on its own, it is toast.
  • Long term goals: sustainability can't be delivered overnight, so that strategy must have long term goals (long term = 5+ years). Having a series of interim targets (eg cutting carbon by 20% by 2015 to hit a goal of a 40% cut by 2020) gives a stronger focus to current activity within the context of the longer term goal.
  • Alignment of systems and operations to sustainability: your supply chain, internal operations, product/service plus all the supporting processes like HR, Finance and Contracts must be shaped to deliver sustainability.
  • Total (or near total buy-in): stakeholders inside and outside the organisation must buy into what is going on - this includes employees, customers, suppliers and regulators. This doesn't necessarily mean that they have to change - it may be that your strategy is designed to, say, delight your customers as your new sustainable product is so good in terms of performance and price.

Easy? In a word, no. Sustainability is widely regarded as one of the key boardroom challenges of the 21st Century, but senior executives feel ill-equipped to deliver on it. This is why I wrote my latest book, The Green Executive, and the maturity model is at the heart of the book as you can see if you download this sample chapter.

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1 July 2011

Think like a 4 year old. Why? Read on...

My eldest, Harry, is four and a bit years old and like most kids of his age, he's the king of the cheeky killer question, the hardest ever being:

Do the neurons in your head speak in proper language?

How do you answer that without getting metaphysical on his ass? But the classic pre-schooler question is the most powerful - "why?". Other parents will know the score:

Daddy what are you doing?

Pruning the tree.

Why are you pruning the tree?

Because it grew too big.

Why did it grow too big?

And so on...

At this age kids are trying to sort out fundamental principles in their heads so they are never afraid to challenge what they see, hear or feel, whereas we adults make most of our decisions based on experience, habit, social pressures and gut instinct and we rarely sit back and question why we do things.

Given the scale of the sustainability challenge we need to radically rethink why we do things and why we do them in a particular way. Inside organisations sustainability efforts often come up against "That's the way we do it here" - a blind assumption that the status quo is the status quo for good reason. Using the toddler test - asking "why?" until you can't any more - is a powerful weapon in your armoury as a change agent. "Why?" makes people stop and think, and it can get the conversation back to to fundamentals which can lead to greater innovation.

But the power of why? should also be brought to bear on the field of sustainability itself where many myths prevail over common sense. People assume the waste hierarchy is carved in stone, biofuels and offsetting are dismissed offhand as evil and many just follow the well-trodden path without asking what they are trying to achieve.

So, sometimes it pays to think like a child - after all it was a kid who saw through the Emporer's New Clothes.

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