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November 2011 - Terra Infirma

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30 November 2011

Is our obsession with the cuts blinding us to the oil shock?

The BBC's Evan Davis made a very interesting point when interviewing Labour's Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls this morning on Radio 4. Trying to wrongfoot Balls, the economically astute Davis stated that the 1% impact on consumer spending from Chancellor George Osbourne's cuts was much smaller than the 1.5% impact from what he called the 'oil shock'.

I was, ironically, driving to a client's site at the time and nearly swerved off the road. I have always believed that oil prices were hurting the recovery, but I didn't realise just how much an effect they were having.

We have pages and pages of newsprint and hour after hour of broadcast on the political battle between Osbourne and Balls over public spending, but almost nothing on oil prices. If Davis is right, and he most probably is, we are barking up the wrong tree. If we want to get the economy running again, weaning ourselves off our addiction to oil should must be much higher up the agenda.

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Just A Little Breathing, Surely

One of my favourite moments of many in the comedy classic Fawlty Towers is when Basil Fawlty is cornered by the two gushing old ladies who live in the hotel just before he heads off for a weekend away with his wife Sybil.

Miss Gatsby: And don't do anything we wouldn't do!

Basil (through gritted teeth): Oh, just a little breathing, surely.

I'm always reminded of this exchange during events when someone complains about 'superfluous' use of resources for fun or recreational purposes. Take a seasonal example like Christmas lights - yes, they are strictly speaking 'unnecessary', but so are TV, music, theatre, presents, cards and holidays. If you kill off your organisation's traditional Christmas decorations in the name of the planet, you will put normal people off the whole sustainability message. Sustainability has to be sexy and fun, not dull and worthy.

But there's a tricky balancing act here. You can't go to the other extreme and put up Christmas lights that resemble the Las Vegas strip in full swing and then scream "But it's Christmas!!!" at any one who has the temerity to suggest it just might be a little over the top.

The answer, as is often the case, is to replace "or" with "and" - green and fun rather than green or fun. Such as energy efficient lights, preferably powered by a sustainable source of energy, lit only between dusk and 'bed time'. If you can deliver a wonderful display that is also a demonstration of low energy technology, you'll get an extra gift for the sustainability Santa this Christmas!

PS: I'm breaking my iron rule never to mention the C word before 1st Dec!

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28 November 2011

RBS, Fossil Fuels, Campaigns & Greenwash

Interesting story in the news this morning that Royal Bank of Scotland has pulled out of sponsoring Climate Week after pressure from NGOs angry at the bank's $13bn investments in fossil fuel industries.

To me, this is an interesting case that throws up all sorts of questions - the trickiest of which is "can no-one with a financial stake in fossil fuels campaign against climate change?" I've got half a tank of diesel in the car outside, yet I'm heading off (by fossil fuelled public transport) in 90 minutes to give a lecture on climate change to engineering students. Am I a hypocrite?

A hard line on this would surely rule out most corporate sponsors, which then begs the question - who will sponsor 'Climate Week'. Actually, I'm getting a bit cynical about all these special 'weeks' and 'days', anyway, so I'm not so bothered.

The lesson here for businesses in general is more clean cut. You won't get much credit for 'doing good' if you are still 'doing bad'. Stopping doing 'bad' things is the litmus test between a true green business and the rest. And that takes real leadership.

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25 November 2011

Are you ready for a resource crunch?

I had a very interesting day at the North East Recycling Forum annual conference yesterday. I don't attend a lot of events I'm not speaking at these days, but I wanted to catch up with the network members. To my delight the emerging theme from the speakers was one of my current hot topics - a possible 'resource crunch'. The killer question is are we focussing too much on outputs (waste, pollution, carbon emissions) at the exclusion of inputs (raw material, energy, water etc)?

The idea of a 'resource war' was mentioned more than once, meaning either commercial battles between companies for ever decreasing pools of virgin material, or indeed actual shooting-at-each-other battles between nations trying to protect their economic interests. Global extraction of resources are projected to hit double 1980 rates by 2020. Mineral ores are the fastest riser - predicted to rise by 200% over this period compared to an 81% increase in oil consumption. As a result, many resources are starting to become hard to get hold of: oil, rare earth metals, platinum group metals etc.

This issue is starting to go from jaw-jaw to war-war on the ground (at least in the commercial sense) - a number of manufacturing giants are starting to invest in the recycling industry to ensure a flow of materials into the future. Renault have bought into metal reprocessors. David Palmer-Jones, CEO of waste company  SITA, told us that they themselves were investing in plastic-to-diesel plants to hedge against the risk of rising oil prices to their own operations.

There's a big challenge for the recycling industry here - to shift mindset from waste diversion to raw material production There's a threat too as, if they don't make the shift, they could get left behind those who do either from within the industry or manufacturers setting up their own functions (eg InterfaceFLOR's carpet recycling).  I asked the question how far along this path the waste industry had gone - the CEO of the Chartered Institute of Waste Managers, Steve Lee, said he believes they are "in the early stages of a quiet revolution."

Lastly there's the much bigger risk to the manufacturers themselves. Many modern technologies, from high performance steels to the ubiquitous iPhone, rely on elements whose whose traditional sources are dwindling. There are three choices: find a substitute material, start sourcing recovered material, or stick your head in the sand and hope for a miracle. I don't recommend the last one.

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23 November 2011

Need Sustainability Inspiration? Don't Operate in a Vacuum.

When James Dyson invented the bagless vacuum cleaner, the idea didn't come out of thin air. Famously he saw a vortex system for capturing dust at a sawmill and realised it could revolutionise the vacuum cleaner market. From wood cutting to domestic cleaning - the same basic principle could be applied to both.

Most innovation is like this - very few ideas are 'new', but are 'borrowed' from other applications. Sustainability is no exception - ideas cross sectoral boundaries and there is the whole fascinating field of biomimicry which borrows from nature (why use poisonous ship anti-fouling if you can copy how shark skin does it?).

This is one reason why I don't specialise in a particular market - my clients cover transport, chemicals, defence, broadcasting, construction, engineering, health, waste, nature conservation and local government to name a few - because much of the value I bring to those clients is cross-pollinating ideas.

So, if you're looking for inspiration, don't just look inside your company, or what your competitors are doing, but be curious and look further afield. You never know where the next idea might come from.


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21 November 2011

Are You Hunting or Farming Sustainability?

One of the most frustrating responses to a potential sustainability solution is "I wish you'd suggested that six months ago when we were replacing that equipment/redesigning that product/moving buildings/launching that new marketing campaign." It is always six months too late.

This is why you must have incredible anticipation of what the organisation is doing and get in there before new projects start to shape up. Predators like to take their prey before the latter has seen the danger - once they're trying to escape, catching them gets a lot more difficult and the hunt is more about luck than skill. In the same way, as soon as a new venture starts building momentum, it is very hard to deflect it the way you want it to go. You have to go in for the kill before they have a chance to get moving.

Of course this is another argument for integrating sustainability into the DNA of the organisation. It is very hard for the typical sustainability manager in their green silo to influence big decisions in the rest of their organisation - even the best predators are only successful in a minority of attempts. In the 'Full Integration' level of the Sustainability Maturity Model, everyone understands the importance of sustainability to the company so by default the product will be designed for sustainability, the building will be an eco-building and the new equipment will have been chosen to deliver part of the sustainability strategy.

Going back to my predator/prey analogy, this is about farming sustainability rather than hunting it. Farming is a much more successful way of achieving the goal of food production than hunting/gathering, but it involves more preparation, more investment and more patience. In the same way sustainability requires resources, commitment, and investment to do it properly.

You may still have to do the odd bit of hunting, but farming should become your ultimate goal.

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18 November 2011

Creativity and Sustainability

In my book The Green Executive, I concluded that three personal qualities were required of green business leaders: resilience, a bias to action and enthusiasm. Since the book was published back in May, I've interacted with several hundred employees of different clients from widely different roles and backgrounds and I'm starting to see an important fourth quality emerge: creativity.

Why have I spotted it now and not earlier? Well, firstly I am doing more workshops than ever and secondly my workshops have evolved to become less and less about me talking and more and more about the delegates thinking. And you can clearly tell the creative types in the room: some people struggle to break away from the realities of their day to day activities, but others relish the opportunity to step back and be curious, letting their mind take them on a journey of discovery.

Watching a truly creative person at work can be quite extraordinary. I've seen two people who have no background in sustainability propose the rather advanced concept of product-service systems as a sustainability solution within a 20 minute exercise - working it out from first principles. I've found a simple discussion on sustainability touch on the second law of thermodynamics (I usually avoid the thermodynamic argument as too philosophical in an hour's workshop). And I've seen people bring in ideas from completely different fields of endeavour and apply them inventively to sustainability.

Breaking free from the 'tyranny of the present' is a prerequisite of sustainability - we're not going to achieve sustainability by doing the same thing, but a little bit greener. We need innovative, lateral thinking type solutions and those will inevitably come from creative minds. The challenge for organisations is how to identify, harness and nurture these creatives. The 'champion' route is one way, but make sure you make the role meaningful. Task groups are better when you have a particular issue to address as there is a clear objective and purpose.

Part of me is really jealous of these people, but more than that I love working with them. They challenge me, they stimulate me and they astound me. They certainly make my job a lot more interesting.

So let's hear it for the creatives!

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16 November 2011

Standing Still or Going Backwards?

You read it and you hear it again and again, the same old mantra "we/you/they can't afford to go green in the current economic climate". It gets repeated so many times it becomes reality and it rarely gets challenged.

The evidence explodes this lazy myth - the latest of many studies to show green businesses out perform the rest was released by Harvard and London Business Schools shows that $1 invested in "high sustainability" companies in 1993 would earn you 47% more than if you invested it in "low sustainability" companies.

The threat from the myth is serious. Companies are losing business as contracts are awarded to greener competitors. Laggards are more susceptible to price rises in utilities and raw materials, will lose out on the best recruits and be at higher risk from legislation and green taxes. In the current economy you have to make modest progress on environmental performance just to stand still commercially, and you really have to go for it to get competitive advantage.

Some people clearly get it - my business is booming!

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15 November 2011

Green Academy: CSR and Stakeholder Webinars

We will be holding two Green Academy on-line sessions on 7 December 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 GMT: Introductory level: Stakeholder Engagement


  • Why engage stakeholders;
  • Effective stakeholder engagement;
  • Motivating your staff;
  • Communicating your successes.

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


2pm GMT: Advanced level: Corporate Social Responsibility - The Ethical Angle


  • The case for responsible business;
  • Business and ethics - the big issues;
  • Fostering trust;
  • Corporate Civic Responsibility;
  • Classic moral dilemmas in business.

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


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14 November 2011

Shock Tactics Can Backfire

During one of my recent sessions on culture change for sustainability, a very earnest young lady asked me about the use of shock tactics to make people take the environment more seriously. My short answer was "no, it doesn't work" but with my usual esprit de l'escalier, I thought of a great analogy on the way home.

I was using the elephant model of culture change in the session. In this model the elephant's rider is our conscious mind, the elephant itself is our subconscious and the path is the environment we operate in. So to change people's behaviour we have to instruct the rider, inspire the elephant and shape the path in a way that the elephant & rider go the way we want them to.

If you try shock tactics, it is the the equivalent of throwing a firecracker under the elephant. A number of things can happen:

  • The firecracker is too small, so the elephant ignores it and does what it was doing;
  • The firecracker scares the elephant so it retreats back down the path and refuses to move;
  • The firecracker panics the elephant and it charges off in a random direction.

None of these are desirable outcomes.

The most famous example of such tactics were the UK Government's "nightmare fairytale" climate change adverts on TV back in early 2010 which were criticised by the Advertising Standards Agency, which had no discernible positive impact, but caused a backlash from many elements of the media and jubilation in the climate change denial movement. These adverts blundered on many levels: people don't like being preached at by politicians, the scare tactics were aimed at making you fear for your children and there was no clear call to action. You'll notice they haven't been repeated - for good reason.

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11 November 2011

I Need YOUR Pearls of Wisdom

The last two Christmases I have published "Pearls of Wisdom" - short compendia of wise words on CSR/green business/corporate responsibility compiled from contributors to The Green Executive. I intend to do the same this year but, in lieu of the book interviews, would like to crowd source some contributions.

What I need are 1 or 2, maximum 3 sentences giving a real insight for readers - no platitudes or clichés, please. Feel free to submit extracts from your wisdom published elsewhere as long as you own the copyright. Contributors who make the cut will see their wise words in a pdf document similar to previous years (see 2009 and 2010 as examples), along with their name, organisation and URL. Editor's decision is final (power goes to my head).

So, clever people, get your thinking caps on and e-mail your entries here before 30 November.

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9 November 2011

Going Loopy: Mindsets for a Sustainable Economy

One of the things that really impressed me with Dame Ellen MacArthur last Friday (other than the solo around the world sailing stuff) was, despite coming to the topic of sustainability relatively recently, she grasped the fact that the circular, closed loop economy is a much better sustainability model than eco-efficiency. Many so-called experts don't get this.

Nature is inefficient by our standards – how many sycamore seeds are released for every new sycamore tree? – yet it is sustainable. Materials and nutrients travel in solar powered loops and nothing gets poisoned on a grand scale. Efficiency, at best, slows the unsustainability problem down, but doesn't solve it.

In chapters 6 and 7 of The Green Executive, I describe what I call the eco-system model of sustainability and how it can be applied to industry at a macro level. The eco-system model requires all energy to be from renewable sources, all materials to be recovered for re-use in continuous loops and nothing gets poisoned. This model needs to permeate all operations, the supply chain and products/services.

Impossible, you cry, you can't recycle 'X'! Well don't use 'X' then. Or find a different way of doing using 'X' where it can be recovered and reused. Likewise, toxic materials should simply be designed out.

Taking the eco-system model a step further, we can look to nature to inspire design solutions - aka biomimcry. Some of my favourite examples in the Green Executive are from the world of biomimcry:

  • InterfaceFLOR use adhesive pads which emulate the feet of geckos to stick without glue;
  • The US Navy has developed an anti-fouling paint which emulates sharkskin - you don't see limpits on a shark - rather than trying to poison such unwanted passengers;
  • Industrial symbiosis where all waste becomes 'food' for another company.

These examples show the need for a change in mindset. The anti-fouling example required a radical rethink of the problem. If you take the eco-efficiency mindset, you will try to trade off the loss in efficiency in moving the ship from the fouling against the impact of toxic anti-fouling paint and will inevitably end up with a messy compromise. The eco-system model says "you can't use poisons at all", so you have to find another way of tackling the problem - hence the innovation. Similarly the eco-efficiency mindset says "recycle only if it saves energy/resources" whereas the eco-system mindset says "close the loop - make it work".

I've said it before and I'll say it again - sustainability is all in the mind. And, as Einstein is said to have said:

"The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them."

The eco-system model requires a different mindset. So are you going to go loopy?

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7 November 2011

Is this greenwash? You decide...

A week or so ago my other half proudly presented me with a new kettle. "Look!" she said "It's an eco-friendly one!" And sure enough it was slathered in claims it would save 66% energy.

"Mmm", I thought, putting on my electrical engineer's hat (which is admittedly a bit dusty), "A heating element is 100% efficient, the heat capacity of water is constant, the heating time is so quick you won't get significant losses through the sides, so what could possibly be 66% more efficient?"

The answer is, with a flat element and a gauge that lets you see if you have a single cup of water inside, you can save energy by only boiling the amount if water you need. When I explained this to her, she felt she had been conned. We ended up having a long conversation about greenwash.

Here's the evidence as I see it:

For the prosecution:

  • An intelligent, but busy person (she has a PhD and two small kids) assumed that the kettle itself was 66% more efficient, because she's not enough of a green geek to pore over the details;
  • The savings are almost entirely dependent on the user (and the user frequently making single cups of tea/coffee);
  • The kettle hasn't changed much - probably the most significant thing was the sticker on it about energy - now gone;
  • As flat element kettles are getting more common, anyone could measure out a cup of water. Even with a traditional element kettle, you can use less water with a bit of care.

For the defence:

  • The labels clearly said that the savings would be down to you being able to use less water;
  • The nature of a kettle is such that the amount of water is the key factor in energy consumption;
  • Philips are bringing the water factor to the attention of the user;
  • The 66% figure came from a DEFRA study, so has third party validation.

So, you, the jury, what verdict would you give? Guilty, or not guilty?

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4 November 2011

Sustainability in Broadcasting @ the BBC

I spent yesterday at the BBC's Productions That Don't Cost the Earth seminar. My role was to run a workshop to train the Beeb's sustainability reps in culture change techniques. The session went very well - it generated about a hundred ideas in a 25 minute exercise (out of a 60 minute workshop), driven by the impressive knowledge and enthusiasm of the attendees.

But, as well as the 'work' element, I thoroughly enjoyed the plenary sessions which were open to production staff from across the industry. This is a sector in which I have little previous experience, so I learnt a great deal. The BBC has done a lot of work on behalf of the whole industry, most notably developing "Albert", a carbon footprinting tool for broadcasters which is now hosted by BAFTA. The reason why it is called Albert is the source of much debate and conjecture...

The keynote speech was given by yachtswoman/sustainability campaigner Dame Ellen MacArthur. My sailing experience is limited to the occasional jaunt around Strangford Lough as a boy, so the tales of derring do in her various solo around the world triumphs had me on the edge of my seat. One thing I could relate to was her evoking the glorious feeling when the wind first catches the sails and tugs, then you are off, skimming along the surface, working with nature.

Dame Ellen has now given up professional sailing to run the Ellen MacArthur Foundation which promotes the design of products for a circular economy. As you can imagine for someone who has spent a huge chunk of her life racing solo around the world for months without catching a glimpse of her competitors, when she sets her mind to something, she really goes for it. I was extremely impressed by both her passion and her depth of understanding.

Here are a few things I picked up from the rest of the plenary sessions:

  • In TV, 20% of the carbon footprint is in production, 80% is from the rest of us watching at home with all our widescreen TVs and set top boxes (remarkably similar to the manufacture/use ratio of, say, a car);
  • The production itself (cameras, set lighting etc) is a small part of that 20% - the bulk of the BBC's carbon footprint is in office accommodation and travel;
  • Albert means the industry has a standard footprinting methodology, so different broadcasters can compare their performance directly (some other sectors such as fast moving consumer goods are also working to do this);
  • The BBC is striving to rationalise overseas filming, so when Liz Bonnin went to Hawaii to present from the observatories there for Stargazing Live, she hung on to do a piece on volcanos for Bang Goes the Theory, rather than flying two different presenters and crews to the same location;
  • Not to be outdone, Sky has just moved into the most energy efficient broadcasting building in Europe (25% less energy than before), they're recycling 66% of their waste (with the aim of zero waste next year) and they're working to reduce the energy consumption of their set top boxes;
  • One of the challenges for the industry is that a huge number of production staff are now freelancers which means it is more difficult to embed a culture of sustainability;
  • On the other hand, the nature of the industry is that people are fiercely driven, intelligent and creative, which makes communicating sustainability easier.

And that last point concisely sums up my feelings about the day - the delegates and speakers had that blend of passion, intelligence and creativity that finding and delivering sustainability solutions requires. Inspiring.

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2 November 2011

'Aving a FiT - Subsidies and Business Risk

And lo, it came to pass. On Monday the UK Government announced a consultation on cutting the solar PV Feed-in Tariff by 50% ostensibly to reflect the fall in the price of solar panels which had led to a gold rush. The sensible majority of the renewables trade pointed out that the new rate of return on solar PV, 4.5%, was less than the target minimum of 5% and argued coherently that this could stifle uptake and threaten the progress the sector had made. A less sensible minority went ballistic, threatening legal action and marches on Downing Street, all the time using highly unprofessional language. You may remember similar histronics last time the Govt changed the FiT formula, yet the boom went on.

In my first book, The Three Secrets of Green Business, I made the rather blunt statement "A green business is not a charity". I illustrated my point with a couple of examples where "businesses" expected public sector bodies to buy their unreliable and expensive technology because it was "green". They got a rude awakening when those bodies went for an alternative that may have been less green, but actually worked. The idea that public servants had a duty to deliver value for money to the taxpayer passed them buy.

My own experience of working in subsidised environmental business support has made me suspicious of generous subsidies. I've found they create unseemly feeding frenzies, terrible back-biting and dependency - not to mention frequent hissy fits. Many organisations built their business model on servicing those subsidies and simply collapsed when a particular tap was switched off. And in much the same way as untargeted food aid to developing countries can destroy local food production, it was difficult, sometimes nigh on impossible, to operate outside the system as the market was so distorted. Frankly, Terra Infirma is doing much better since the subsidies evaporated - and, more importantly, delivering much more value to our clients.

In the FiT case, the Government's main mistake was to have a system that didn't track capital costs automatically, so it requires 'manual' adjustment (and if they had kept with the 5% limit there would have been no legitimate complaint). The mistake the sector made was to assume that something that seemed too good to be true would last forever. Every businesses has to assess risk month by month and even day to day - anyone betting the farm on a non-guaranteed subsidy such as the FiT was taking a massive risk.

The lesson from all this is the caveat in the first secret of green business:

“Treat the environmental agenda as an opportunity, not a threat. Grasp it with both hands but, whatever you do, don’t forget you are still running a business.”

So, if you are operating in a subsidised industry, you should have a short term contingency plan to cover the sudden loss of the subsidy, and a long term plan for how to wean the business off it and onto a mature, sustainable footing.

And let's hope that the Government listens to the voices of reason and sets the FiT on the right side of the 5% target.

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