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September 2011 - Terra Infirma

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30 September 2011

Staff Engagement for Sustainability

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Posted by Gareth Kane one response

28 September 2011

Pay: The Final Frontier of CSR?

I'm reading last year's ethical must-read, The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. The central thesis of the book, if you're even further behind the curve than I am, is that virtually every social ill (poor health, imprisonment, low life expectancy etc, but weirdly not suicide) is worse in unequal societies like the USA and UK than in equal societies like Japan or Sweden. The book caused a minor political fuss as free-marketeers denounced it as a left wing tract, however the authors point out that equal societies can be either big-state like Sweden or small-state like Japan, so the left/right distinction is irrelevant. Whatever the authors' politics, it is hard to argue with the numbers - and it is a book full of data.

So what has this got to do with business? Well, as Business Secretary Vince Cable pointed out recently, in 1998 the average FTSE 100 Chief Executive's pay was 45 times the UK average salary, but in 2010 that factor had risen to 120. So certainly in the UK, the corporate pay structure is increasing inequality and thus, if you accept The Spirit Level's thesis, contributing to a whole raft of social problems.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to debate what our political leaders could and/or should do to address this issue, but given CSR stands for corporate social responsibility, business leaders cannot idly waive responsibility either. Unfortunately, best practice on executive pay seems to start and end with transparency.

Many third-sector organisations set a maximum ratio between best and worst paid in the organisation - should the for-profit sector follow suit? Wouldn't that set a "responsible" business out from the crowd?

Any volunteers?

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Posted by Gareth Kane 2 responses

26 September 2011

Does Commerce Trump Charity?

I spent a very pleasant evening on Friday listening to Chris Packham at a Northumberland Wildlife Trust fundraiser (he's vice-president of the Wildlife Trusts). He may be 50 now, Packham retains all the enthusiasm, charisma and rebelliousness of the days when I watched him present The Really Wild Show back in the late 80s - and he isn't afraid to mince his words.

He started his talk with photos he had taken of Siberian tigers in the snow. This took him to the conservation of these beautiful animals and the shocking figures that a tiger is worth $100,000 to the poacher that shoots it, and $300,000 to the guy illegally selling its parts for medicine in China.

He went on to berate what he called "the tiger conservation industry" for hoovering up huge amounts of money, but failing to even slow the decline of the tiger. "The only thing I've seen that works is eco-tourism", he said "You've got to make the tiger worth more alive than dead to local people."

This is something I passionately believe in. In my opinion, much 'charity' is at best ineffectual and often makes serious problems worse - in effect when we sign a cheque we are buying a feeling of "having done something". If you look at international development, the third world countries which are breaking through like India are doing it by entrepreneurialism, not by accepting charitable handouts which can undermine local markets, trapping people in poverty. (If you are interested in this way of thinking, you must read "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid" by JK Prahalad - and before anybody gets angry, I'm not including disaster relief in this critique).

Bringing it closer to home, when I started in this career, a surprising number of businesses expected to be given environmental advice for "free" - paid for by the taxpayer in other words. For many years this was what I did - delivering projects where the beneficiary wasn't writing the cheque. Something I noticed early on was that the "free" advice I gave was rarely if ever acted upon, not because it wasn't any good, but because it was seen as free and wasn't valued. Thankfully we have largely thrown off the shackles of publicly funded business support and the bulk of Terra Infirma's turnover is now earned from those who are directly benefiting from our skills, experience and knowledge. We charge them quite a lot of money for this and guess what? Our clients value what we do.

Another great example is the explosion of solar energy in countries which enact feed-in tariffs, creating a market for small generators and undermining the monopolies of the big generators. Those markets are doing more  to ramp up renewable energy than virtually any other attempt I can think of.

The free market is by no means perfect, but I believe in working with what we've got. The challenge is can you harness markets for good? Can you make 'good' financially worthwhile and 'bad' expensive?

Photo © BBC

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Posted by Gareth Kane 3 responses

23 September 2011

Fear of a Green Planet

Despite the fact I've been working "in the environment" for over a decade, I still get surprised at how fearful people are of sustainable solutions.

To take an example, I subscribe to a mailing list of professional engineering consultants. A debate sprung up about wind power and intermittency - a valid and serious concern. I posted that we needed smart grids to balance supply and demand. The immediate response from one poster was that he'd never let an electricity company cut his house off from the grid. I had to quickly respond that no-one to my knowledge had ever considered this, but I was very surprised that an educated person would jump to the conclusion that this kind of intrusion would be the result.

There is a human tendency to fear change. And our media has a terrible tendency to play on those fears - witness the repeated exaggeration of the cost of Chris Huhne's energy reforms: free market "think tank" says £500 per house per year, regulator Ofgem says £90 - which figure do you think gets repeated again and again? Is it a surprise that people fear the worst?

I think this fear is simply a desire to stick with what we know. And while it is a good idea to keep promoting the positives of tackling, say, climate change - energy security, cleaner local air, cheaper bills (in time) - experience suggests that a significant chunk of the public will still find something to fear.

Instead I think we have to look at societal revolutions that have happened - for example the internet. No-one ever argued for the internet becoming so prevalent in our lives. It happened because people liked it. They liked having all that information at their fingertips, they liked being able to download books and music, they liked being able to keep in touch with their relatives around the world without the dreaded Xmas letter.

So how do we do this with sustainability? The internet is providing some - music, movies and books shifted by electrons rather than atoms - people like the convenience. Feed In Tariffs make householders want to install renewables to generate some cash - people like that. The congestion charge and differentiated road tax encourage people to buy low emission vehicles - people like the access and the lower costs.

It is solutions like these where we offer people options, which are not obligatory but desirable, that will tip the balance in the sustainability direction. People have to want to do it - if you bear that in mind then much more effective solutions will follow.

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Posted by Gareth Kane 4 responses

22 September 2011

Green Academy October Sessions

As usual, we will be holding two Green Academy on-line sessions on 5 Oct 2011. Each session lasts for one hour. You need access to a computer with sound or a computer and a telephone. You will receive a workbook to apply the learning to your organisation prior to the start of the session.

This month's sessions are:

11am BST: Basic level: Environmental Policy


  • The importance of having a compelling policy;
  • Developing an effective policy;
  • Building on the policy to develop a strategy and action plans;

Cost: £45+VAT. To register for the basic level session click here (Paypal)


2pm BST: Advanced level: Advanced Sustainability Mindsets


  • 12 breakthrough paradigm shifts for green business;
  • Learn the cutting edge tricks of the pros;
  • All replete with case studies and risk assessments.

Cost: £45 + VAT. To register for the advanced level session click here (Paypal)


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21 September 2011

Green Business Confidential: It's The Law!

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "It's the Law" and it is all about our attitude to legislation.

Audio MP3

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

GBC9 It's The Law

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


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19 September 2011

Promises don't count

Yesterday I opened my Sunday supplement to find a double page ad featuring these two quite incredible looking BMW electric cars. "Wow!" I thought, until I noticed they were both concept cars. Digging a bit deeper, I found that BMW hope to have a production version ready by 2013.

Hmmm. Is this greenwash I asked myself (and Twitter)? Is it within the rules of green marketing to show a work in progress in such a prominent way? After all, the project could be quietly shelved before it comes to fruition, but the reader would be left with the impression that BMW is "doing something green".

But the bigger issue is the difference is whether promises count, as opposed to results. As I explain in The Green Executive, the green business battle line has moved past promises, commitments and speeches to delivery, results and installations. It is no surprise that Toyota has topped Interbrand's Top 50 Green Brands 2011 - they've had the iconic Prius hybrid on the road since 1997, not floating around in concept land.

As that battle line inches forward, what used to be regarded as good green performance is now seen as old hat. And it is not what you intend to do that matters, but what you have done.

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Posted by Gareth Kane 3 responses

15 September 2011

Closing the Loop - from Outputs to Inputs

Traditionally we have worried about what comes out of our economy - solid wastes, persistent toxins, greenhouse gases, acid rain, ozone  and so on. But increasingly focus is shifting to the sustainability of inputs - energy, water and raw materials - as these factors have a much bigger and immediate impact on business viability. Let's face it, no water = no business, no energy = no business, no raw materials = no business.

You may not have noticed as there was a wedding on TV that weekend, but back in June, Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency - the go to guy for the lowdown on energy for Governments - said that oil production may have peaked back in 2006. If you have filled up your car recently, the resulting bill was probably bad for your health - and energy prices are impacting on food and clothing prices - not good news in the current financial turmoil. Then we have China buying up rare earth metal supplies and various NGOs flagging up water stresses across the world.

So what's the answer? Well, in nature, if a leaf falls off a tree it is recycled by worms, fungi and/or bacteria into nutrients for that tree or another plant, creating a cycle of nutrients. Same with water, carbon, nitrogen and other key materials - they all move in cycles. This is how nature's processes have evolved over billions of years to be sustainable in a world of finite resources.

Carpet tile giants and green business pioneers InterfaceFLOR realised this some time ago. To become sustainable - their goal is zero impact on the environment - they obviously have to source sustainable raw materials. While they are using some natural materials to replace the traditional oil-based fibres, this would not cover all inputs. So they decided to use waste carpet as a raw material. While their 'Evergreen' carpet leasing service has failed to set the market alight (apparently accountants can't handle carpet as a revenue cost rather than a capital cost - photocopiers and vehicles yes, but carpets no...), their 'Re-entry 2.0' carpet recycling facility has been a roaring success.

There are countless other opportunities for this kind of thinking. I am reliably informed that road sweepings have a higher concentration of platinum than that in naturally occuring ores due to all those catalytic converters in our cars releasing lots of tiny amounts. So people are working on the technology to 'mine' those materials from our streets and return them to the economy. Likewise there is great interest in 'mining' obsolete mobile phones for the precious metals within.

This requires a big shift in thinking away from outputs and towards inputs. Recovery and recycling are traditionally seen as waste management options rather than as sources of high quality raw materials - so quality suffers. The current prevalence of virgin raw materials means that such 'secondary' materials also tend to suffer from low volumes, high prices and lack of competition. Forward-thinking companies like Marks & Spencer are actively working to strengthen these new supply chains by increasing volumes, demanding higher quality of materials and encouraging a diversity of suppliers. The recycled polyester brolly pictured is a result of these efforts.

When stuff we rely on starts running out, we'll thank these pioneers for their foresight.

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Posted by Gareth Kane 3 responses

14 September 2011

Are You Suffering from Institutional Inertia?

Why is culture change such a big issue when dealing with sustainability?

After all, personal change can be quite easy. Some people claim it takes just 30 days for an individual to form a new habit (see this interesting TED talk). So why not simply run a 30 day programme to beat sustainable behaviour into your colleagues?

Because it's not that simple.

Amory Lovins says that, whereas animals like ants have communities which exhibit intelligence way beyond that of the sum of the individuals, the more humans you group together, the more stupid the combined behaviour (or words to that effect). As an optimist, I like to think of this phenomenon as "institutional inertia" rather than group stupidity. The definition of institutional inertia is:

The more people you get together, the harder it is to effect change.

You can see this if you go on holiday with a group of friends and try to decide which restaurant to eat at one evening. The length of time it takes to make the decision and act increases exponentially with the number of people involved. If you are a couple, you'll probably be onto your coffee before a group of eight have finally chosen an eatery.

When you scale this up to the organisational level a huge number of factors kick in: internal politics, factionalism, fear of failure, fear to speak up, fear of standing out, the desire to belong, tradition (aka "the way it's done round here"), formal and informal hierarchies etc, etc - they all add up to considerable inertia.

The challenge of overcoming this inertia - "turning the supertanker around" - is immense. In my experience, the most important factors are strong, consistent leadership and a somewhat counter-intuitive combination of bone headed determination and nimble culture change techniques. I can teach you the latter, but the others have to come from within.

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Posted by Gareth Kane 2 responses

12 September 2011

Greening the bean counters

I usually start off my seminars by asking delegates why their company should go green (try it - much more effective than you telling them why they should go green). The first answer is almost always "Save money" and, after compiling a list of other reasons, this is identified as the most important.

I always challenge that answer. The delegates have explained how customer pressure is a factor, yet they then discount this in favour of short term cost cutting - maybe it's the current economic climate to blame. I usually point out that, without customers, the bottom line is an irrelevance.

There is always more scope for increasing sales than cutting costs. This is an essential truth to get across to anyone doing investment appraisals of green projects - they need to factor the scope for raising the top line into their calculations, rather than just a simple return on investment (ROI) assessment.

Interestingly those who seek to raise the top line will cut costs into the bargain - Marks & Spencer's Plan A programme was never intended to save money - but it has. But if you take a penny pinching attitude and expect a direct ROI on projects, you will never back the ambitious ideas that will set you apart from the pack in the market - missing out on the big rewards of green business.

So, don't forget to get the bean counters greened up and aware of their importance in the Sustainability performance of the organisation.


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Posted by Gareth Kane no responses

9 September 2011

Is this the worst green marketing slogan ever?

I spotted this billboard for a Hi-tec walking boot a few months ago and I used it on Wednesday's Green Marketing webinar as an example of how not to do green marketing. I am both a green consumer and a keen rambler, so I am a prime target for this product and its marketing message, yet it left me cold.

The obvious flaws are the uninspired imagery and the lack of any justification for the claim that this boot is in anyway greener than normal boots - and with rivals as ambitious on sustainability as Timberland, they'd need have to have a good story to tell.

But the real damage is done by that incredible strap-line:

"The environmentally considered walking boot".

Urgh! Apart from the dodgy grammar, and its sheer clunkiness, it means nothing. Where's the wit, where's the insight, where's the passion? Did someone actually get paid to produce this?

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Posted by Gareth Kane no responses

7 September 2011

The problem with CSR standards

The mining giant Glencore has just released a corporate responsibility report as it promised when it listed on the London Stock Exchange earlier this year. I'm not going to comment on the company's performance as this has been done at length by many others, but I noticed this telling passage in the Guardian:

The company said it also collected statistics on "permanent damage injuries", and had other figures for health and safety, but that it only publicly disclosed what was required by the Global Reporting Initiative [GRI] standards.

This last statement bothers me. It used to be that industries did just enough on corporate responsibility issues to stay within the law - compliance, no more, no less. Then everyone started talking about the benefits of going "beyond compliance" and from that a number of standards emerged to guide companies, including the GRI mentioned above. But instead of embracing the spirit of transparency that the GRI is intended to spread, Glencore have simply treated the GRI like a regulation of old - compliance, no more, no less.

While having standards is both useful and important, to really benefit from CSR the "beyond compliance" ethos must continue - each standard must be seen as a minimum baseline, not a rigid framework.

In this particular case, greater transparency will drive better performance, and will avoid the kind of negative publicity Glencore have generated by sitting on these stats. If you have a skeleton in your cupboard, kick it out!


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5 September 2011

Have you got what it takes?

The Green Executive was conceived and written as a manual for the new breed of senior businesspeople who want to guide their organisation to an environmentally sustainable future. So here's a handy checklist of behaviours, knowledge and skills required of green business leaders to give you an idea of whether you've got what it takes.

  • Do you understand the business case for sustainability as it applies to your business?
  • Do you understand the risks of inaction and the risks of action?
  • Do you have a vision ie do you know what you are trying to achieve and by when?
  • Can you communicate that vision in environmental, economic and practical terms?
  • Can you frame that vision in a form which inspires your colleagues, customers, suppliers and other stakeholders?
  • Are you smart enough to see how to align sustainability goals with business opportunities and vice versa?
  • Are all your personal actions and decisions compatible with delivering that vision?
  • Do people trust you to do what you say you will do?
  • Are you hard headed enough to push ahead with sustainability even when it gets difficult?
  • Simultaneously, are you smart enough to circumvent problems rather than run headlong into them?
  • Are you prepared to make mistakes and learn by doing?
  • Are you committed enough to kill off profitable products, projects and activities which are incompatible with your vision?
  • Can you hold colleagues' feet to the fire, even when it hurts?
  • Are you crafty enough to know which buttons to press and with whom?
  • Are you a creative problem solver, able to see the bigger picture?
  • Are you big enough to be honest about what you have achieved and what you haven't?

OK, out of 16, how many did you get? If it's less than 16, then maybe you should read the book!

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1 September 2011

Why is it so difficult?

I had lunch on Monday with a cousin of mine who runs a medium size farm. For a long time he has been interested in improving its sustainability. Recently he's been putting a lot of effort into the feasibility of getting an anaerobic digester to turn farm waste into green electricity - going so far to visit working projects in Germany to get his head around the various systems available. A perfect project you would think: reliable and predictable green energy production, waste reduction, farm diversification etc, etc.

But, he complains, the local electricity company wants to charge a fortune for a grid connection (and even for an upgrade to their cables), the planning system is onerous and the 'experts' he has working on the project are treating it like a hobby. You'd think nobody wanted the project to happen.

When I interviewed Glen Bennett of EAE Ltd for The Green Executive two years ago, he told a similar tale about getting his wind turbine installed - crushing bureaucracy, obstructive jobsworths and amateurish suppliers. It was only his bullheadedness that saw the project through.

I can't help thinking it is about time everyone started taking this seriously. The existing distribution industry and the planning authorities have got to hunt down and destroy the structural and attitudinal barriers to small scale generation. And the renewable energy industry has to pull its finger out,too. Suppliers and advisers have to realise they are running a business and impacting on other people's businesses - and stop messing around.

If we really want green energy then it can't go on this way.

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Posted by Gareth Kane one response

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