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February 2012 - Terra Infirma


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29 February 2012

Anger, Activism, and Corporate Social Responsibility

As the Occupy tents get carted away from St Pauls Cathedral, my mind went back to the discussion we had at Tipping Point Newcastle last week about the role of pressure groups in the corporate sustainability movement. Although my politics are rather mainstream compared to the archetypal dreadlocked, anti-capitalist Occupier, I always respected them for holding attention on the swamp turbo-capitalism had got itself into, and expressing anger at what happened: the greed/idiocy of the financial sector in allowing a debt bubble to grow and burst, the failure of those in power to prevent it and where the burden of digging ourselves out of the resulting hole has fallen. But can activism make a difference? Is anger enough?

I’ve never been a natural activist in the Occupy sense. Having had my Damascene conversion to a green life mission after witnessing acid rain damage in the Russian Arctic, I checked out the local Friends of the Earth group when I got back to the UK as I thought that might be a good place to start. The activists at the meeting I went to agreed to go to the station and give train users sweets to thank them on behalf of the planet. I couldn’t think of anything more patronising and pointless so I went and planted several hundred trees with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers instead. Ross Perot famously said “The activist is not the person who says the stream is polluted, the activist is the one who cleans up the stream.” That has been my attitude ever since.

So where is the role of pressure groups in Corporate Social Responsibility? Well, Greenpeace’s rating of electronic manufacturers, and targeting of Apple as a laggard using a brilliant spoof website in 2006, was a genius piece of campaigning that reaped rewards – creating competition between businesses and penalising those in last place. Forum for the Future did the same for whole cities with their sustainable cities index, now sadly defunct. Campaigns against rainforest destruction, acid rain and, more recently, fracking have been very effective at making decision makers and, often, corporates stop and think.

But activists can undermine their self-appointed position by cherry-picking or twisting scientific evidence, being against everything and/or failing to understand the hopes and fears of ordinary people.  Dogmatism has undoubted held up progress in many areas - the nature of many environmental problems mean a less than ideal solution now can be much more effective than holding out for an ideal solution in a decade (or never as the case may be). At the risk of writing the shortest possible tautology: pragmatism works.

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27 February 2012

From Dickens to the Green Executive: Storytelling for Sustainability

At Tipping Point Newcastle last week there was a lot of talk about how "angry" we should be about the state of the world and how we could "sustain that anger." After an initial, but clearly unsustainable, blast from the angry young men and women in the room, a more sober reflection on the intersection between art and sustainability took over. At one breakout session, someone raised the awareness of poverty that Charles Dickens brought to the middle and ruling classes of Victorian England by writing extremely good stories about it.

I ventured that a modern equivalent might be Ian McEwan's Solar which avoids the preaching and presents a venal, very human protagonist in the battle for sustainability, rather than the virtuous and boring green heroes that some portray. But most importantly, McEwan wrote a cracking good story that made you want to read it. I think Alan Davey of The Arts Council summed it up well when he said "don't preach" and "bad climate art is worse than no climate art."

The last session I took part in was about communicating with executives of big business. Having pledged to myself to talk a little less and listen a little more in this session, I was bullied (it took at least 2 seconds to persuade me) to talk about what I had done in The Green Executive - tell the stories of the people who had succeeded in changing their organisation for the better.  When I started the book, I decided to interview some leading green executives to generate case studies, but the results were so compelling that I included them almost verbatim between chapters. Some of them were very personal - such as Jim Hagan of GlaxoSmithKline touching on the death of his father. These stories gave a compelling, human edge to book that I couldn't have created any other way.

So if you want to change your organisation, or the whole world, don't get angry, tell stories about where you are and where you should be.

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24 February 2012

Tipping Point Thoughts

I've spent the last 2 days at Tipping Point Newcastle - tagline "the creative response to climate change". I must admit I signed up thinking of 'creative' in the broadest sense rather than 'creative industries' which was the focus. This left me a little worried whether my rather robust views on sustainability and practitioners of interpretative dance would mix. But there were plenty of other non-arts people - scientists, engineers and public servants - amongst the 200+ attendees, a good balance for sparking off debate.

The event got off to a pleasingly rambunctious start with a rather feisty debate between Tyndall Centre boss Prof Kevin Anderson and author of The Rational Optimist, Matt Ridley. Anderson gave a rather terrifying view of our chances of meeting either a 2°C limit on temperatures (snowball/hell) and 4°C (outside bet) which exceed that portrayed by, say, the IPCC. Ridley told us climate change was slow and mild, not fast and dangerous. I was really disappointed in Ridley - he's meant to be at the intelligent end of the climate sceptic spectrum, but he indulged in all the sleights of hand and extreme cherrypicking of the lunatic fringe. As I couldn't critique his entire presentation within the timeframe, I pulled him up on just one trick to prove my point. He had plotted temperature data from the non-polar regions (HADCRUT) against the IPPC whole earth models (GISS) and concluded the world is warming slower than predicted. I pointed out the fraud here - the models are spot on if you compare like with like (see here). He retorted it wouldn't make any difference, I countered if that was so, why didn't he use the correct data and prove it ('cos he couldn't).

However one of the benefits of hearing Mr Ridley's individualist libertarianism was it balanced out a tendency towards dogmatic anti-capitalist rhetoric from some attendees. I was heartened by the number of people willing to challenge those green myths which are often based on just as flimsy evidence as those of the climate change deniers.

After the verbal sparring, Thursday was much more collegiate affair using Open Space to allow participants to propose their own topics for discussion and form break out meetings. I have read much about Open Space, but have never taken part - indeed one of the reasons for me being at the event was to try it out. Basically, those who want to discuss a topic write it down on a piece of paper and read it out. The pieces of paper get stuck to the wall below a letter - if you fancy a topic you find the group with that letter and if it doesn't live up to expectations you can drift off and find something that does. The results are summarised and pinned up on the wall so you can drift past with a coffee and get a flavour of the whole session very quickly. I loved it - no-one can complain the agenda was any good if they get to set it.

Overall there was a great cross fertilisation of thinking between the 'geeks' and the 'arty-types'. Many of the artists said they found the 'experts' brought clarity and a grounding to their thinking and the 'experts' got a better grasp of some of the cultural and emotional angles to what we are trying to communicate or implement. I even got interviewed as to my views on the book Solar by Ian McEwan for a PhD thesis.

A great event, very well organised (except for the coffee arrangements, grrr) leaving everyone I came across with a real buzz of enthusiasm. I'll explore some of the resulting issues I've got swirling around my head at more length next week when I've had a chance to chew them over.

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22 February 2012

Use your buying power for good!

I was recently asked to comment on O2's sustainability programme for TheEcologist.com - it hasn't appeared yet, so maybe I didn't say anything newsworthy enough you can read it here. What I did say said was O2 had hit two of the three big sustainability buttons bang on - internal performance and providing low carbon services to their customer base. But on the third, the supply chain, I felt they were saying all the right words, but not making the same big, concrete, ambitious commitments. This is a big opportunity missed - there are a raft of sustainability issues in their supply chain from carbon emissions to conflict minerals (as O2 acknowledges to its credit).

The buying power of the big brands is immense. If they say "jump", their suppliers say "how high?". You can see this in the food and fast-moving consumer goods and food sectors where the much maligned big shed supermarkets are now driving sustainability through their suppliers. Hands up who wants to get de-listed by WalMart or Tesco?

And new Apple boss Tim Cook is currently lancing the boil of working conditions in Chinese manufacturers. Apple was targeted by campaigners as it was the sexiest brand with most to lose, despite being just one of a plethora of brands to use such companies. But with Apple's brand profile comes plenty of buying power - if Cook asks, he will probably get. If the other brands put their head above the parapet and ask for the same thing, the suppliers will have no alternative but to comply.

For smaller companies, with less oomph in their wallet, reforming suppliers is not really an option - but you usually have a choice with which you can add your weight to the big picture move to greener supply chains.

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20 February 2012

Learning The Sustainability Ropes


Well it's first day back in the saddle after a great half term doing dad things with my eldest, Harry - the break coincided with his 5th birthday, so there's been a lot of fun going on. One of the things I've really noticed over the last year is how far his confidence has come on when it comes to climbing frames, adventure playgrounds and the like. This time last year he was rather timid compared to his peers, now he's at the top of everything, showing off.

While some of this change could be natural development, I put a lot of it down to my own attitude holding him back. For years I did what many modern parents do and stand over (or under) him, shouting encouragement, advice and warnings. Often he would just give up, so eventually I gave up too, and let him do his own thing while I checked Twitter from a park bench. The change was incredible - every time I looked up from my iPhone, he'd be trying something new. And over time I noticed he would be even more adventurous when the climbing frame was crawling with other kids - I thought they'd make him nervous, but I was wrong - it drove him (literally) to new heights.

I've noticed the same thing with the thousands of people I have trained in sustainability over the years. If they're into sustainability then, yes, you can play the expert role and give lectures. But for people who less convinced, I've found it is better to put my ego in check and let them explore sustainability, and what it means to them, with their peers. So more and more of my work is about asking the right question, rather than providing the 'right' answer. Getting a group of people who work together to develop their own sustainability solutions moves an organisation much further forwards than, say, giving individuals an understanding of the concept of 'Factor 10'. And you often get some corking new ideas to boot.

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16 February 2012

The Impact of "Deniergate" on Corporate Reputations

If you haven't heard the news, a leak from the US libertarian think tank the Heartland Institute has spelt out both a number of corporate funders and, allegedly, its tactics to undermine public trust in mainstream climate change science. The documents, if genuine*, haven't really revealed much that many of us haven't guessed was going on, but it is instructive to see written down such humdingers as:

"This influential audience [the readership of Forbes magazine] has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out."

"providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain - two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science." 

[my emphases]

This is what I said in my book The Green Executive about the need to dissociate from such groups:

Deliberate disassociation 

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

For example, the industry-backed and disingenuously named Global Climate Coalition spent 13 years feeding exaggerated accounts of the uncertainties in climate change science to the press, despite their own scientific advisors protesting to the contrary. The Coalition eventually withered and died in 2002 as members such as Shell, BP and GM decided to disassociate themselves.

Associating with any such organizations will backfire on green efforts. The hyenas mentioned in Chapter 4 are particularly hard on any organization perceived to have be saying one thing while doing another.

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

Realistically, though, I'm not sure this issue will make the headlines the way the 'climategate' e-mails from climate scientists did - after all, we expect lobby groups to lobby for their own interests, and the Institute doesn't receive public funds, so there isn't much of a 'scandal'. The story certainly hasn't made the printed media here in the UK, just on-line articles and the Twittersphere.

So what about the reputations of those - including some companies featured in my book - who have donated to the Institute albeit not to the climate programme? I believe that the damage will be limited this time around, compared, say, to more newspaper-friendly stories like working conditions in Apple's supply chain. But these kinds of revelations can accumulate into a bigger story if left to fester. I stick by the advice I gave in The Green Executive - anyone who wants to protect their CSR reputation should steer well clear of such organisations.

* The Heartland Institute claims one document on climate change is fake, although it appears to replicate the content of the other documents which the Institute admits are genuine.

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14 February 2012

Facilitating Sustainability Strategy Sessions

The biggest change in our consulting approach since Terra Infirma was founded in 2006 is the move away from a traditional 'clipboard consulting' - gather evidence, analyse data, formulate recommendations, write report - to a facilitation-based approach - gather stakeholders, agree goals, generate ideas, come to mutually agreed conclusions. The reasons for this shift are numerous:

  • You unlock the intellectual capital of the organisation;
  • You lessen the risk of proposing conclusions which are incompatible with company culture or other strategies;
  • You lessen the risk of missing important factors;
  • You get buy-in from the stakeholders - the results are much less likely to sit on the shelf if key people have been directly involved in generating them;
  • The kinaesthetic experience of arranging Post-Its, sticky dots etc brings out the creative in us all;
  • It's a lot of fun.

Read the rest of this entry »

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10 February 2012

Can you sell austerity? And should you even try?

I love getting away from it all. Leaving all the pressures of modern living behind and getting out on the hills, travelling under my own steam, sleeping under the stars and carrying everything I need - ergonomically designed rucksack, super-lightweight tent, Polartac fleece and hat, Goretex jacket and trousers, vibram-soled boots, laminated maps, LED headlamp torch, iPhone with GPS etc.

Hardly back to nature is it, with all those hi-tech fabrics and gizmos? Of course I could choose to go wearing 'traditional' outdoor clothing (tweed, animal skins?), take nothing with a battery, and try and hunt and gather my own food, but frankly I'd rather be comfortable.

When people ask why environmental concerns are not taken more seriously by the general public, at least part of the answer is that many environmental 'solutions' presented to them are in the form of pious hairshirt austerity, or are presented as such. And the vast majority of people simply don't want to give up the comforts of modern life - can you blame them? Have you ever seen an advert that says "buy our shoes, they're less comfortable, uglier and more expensive than our competitors!"? For good reason...

Unfortunately many of the spokespeople for the 'green movement' doesn't understand this - they simply rant about how people "don't get it". The spiritual benefits of austerity may appeal to a minority, but asking people to give up on the joys of modern living is never going to get traction with the masses.

That's not to say certain 'austerity' measures can't be sold in a positive way:

  • Insulate your house: lower bills, fewer draughts, more comfort!
  • Cycle to work: get your exercise en route, save on parking, gym membership and time!
  • Low energy lightbulbs: lower bills, longer lasting than incandescent!
  • Second hand books/music/clothes: indulge in the pleasure of hunting for an obscure gem!

But what really works is products and services which are eco-friendly AND highly desirable. Buying MP3 music, ebooks and using movies on demand are all much greener than their physical equivalents - and much more convenient.  When I interviewed Peter White, Global Sustainability Director of Procter & Gamble, for The Green Executive, he told me that P&G weren't interested in the green niche, they wanted to sell green to the mainstream consumer - so they had to compete on performance, price AND planet - no compromises. Wise words.

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8 February 2012

Is it time to learn to love carbon offsetting?

From a green point of view, one of the 'controversial' issues in The God Species is author Mark Lynas' call for a revival in carbon offsetting. A decade ago, carbon offsetting was going to be the big climate saviour. Ordinary people and whole organisations could effectively neutralise their carbon emissions by buying into projects which would prevent a similar amount of carbon being emitted or, in the case of tree-planting, remove that amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

And then offsetting became a pariah. The God Species and my own The Green Executive give a remarkably similar* account of some of the bile that was levelled at offsetting from the green lobby - the most over-the-top simile was that it is like noblemen buying 'indulgences' to get themselves forgiven crimes such as rape or incest in the middle ages.

Lets get one thing straight - the problems with offsetting are not moral, but practical. Carbon emissions are a huge threat to the welfare of the inhabitants of this planet and we must use all practical means to address the problem. We already trade carbon in the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme and the UK's Carbon Reduction Commitment, and the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) programme is effectively offsetting on a grand scale, so why shouldn't others be allowed to do it voluntarily? And, as Lynas points out, all that the greens have achieved is turning people from buying flights and offsets to just buying the flights - same emissions, no offsetting project. So where's the environmental benefit of the demonisation, apart from an ego trip for the eco-righteous?

Read the rest of this entry »

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6 February 2012

Book Reviews: Hot, Flat & Crowded and The God Species

I don't tend to read many "green" books these days - not because I think I know it all, but because I'm topping up my knowledge everyday simply by doing my job, so sitting down in the evening and opening a weighty tome at p1 is less than appealing. However, I had heard a lot about these two titles so I read them back to back. On the face of it the two cover similar ground - charting the scale of the environmental challenge and what we need to do to fix it, but they go about their jobs in quite different ways.

Hot, Flat & Crowded by Thomas Friedman is a few years old now (I picked up my copy in a second hand book stall at my son's school), but I had somehow managed to avoid the works of this pillar of US green thinking. The book is very well researched and covers a huge amount of ground including some concepts I was unfamiliar with such as "Dutch Disease" - the negative impact of sudden discoveries of natural resources - and the link between human rights in OPEC countries and the price of oil. Friedman's main thesis is that while the US is addicted to oil it will never free itself from the threat from militant Islam and will end up getting crushed by the Chinese economic juggernaut. Maybe it was Friedman's assumption of a US readership, or the reliance on lengthy quotes from the good and the great from around the world, but frankly I found reading Hot, Flat & Crowded a bit of a trudge.

You can't say the same about Mark Lynas' zippy new book The God Species. The thesis here is that as we are wreaking biblical levels of destruction on the planet, we'd better use our 'god-like' technologies, such as genetic engineering and nuclear power, to stop the damage before it is too late. Lynas uses the Planetary Boundaries Group's set of 10 9 global environmental pressures to assess the threat from everything from climate change to loss of freshwater before proposing the most effective way of dealing with each problem. While doing so he lays into right-wing anti-environmental libertarians and left-wing greenies with equal abandon, arguing that the former ignore the science on the problems, but the latter similarly ignore the evidence on the most promising solutions. Not content with lauding the green bogeymen nuclear and GM, he delights in proposing water privatisation, carbon offsetting and geoengineering techniques - all anathema to the green movement.

Overall I found The God Species refreshing, entertaining and informative - certainly enhancing my knowledge of the nitrogen cycle and ocean acidification to name but two. Lynas (and indeed Friedman) is one of an emerging breed of what I call 'rational environmentalists' who say "forget the politics and the sacred cows, look at the facts, find the solutions that work". I too have long believed that while the political green movement may have done great work flagging up problems, they are hamstrung by their own dogma when it comes to solutions - nothing is ever good enough for them. That's not to say I'm swallowing Lynas' conclusions wholesale just yet - there is a faint whiff of wilful contrarianism about the book that makes me want to seek out second opinions - but he has certainly made me challenge some of my own shibboleths, and that's never a bad thing.

Verdicts:

The God Species: a must read.

Hot, Flat & Crowded: ideal for American students of geopolitics.

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Posted by Gareth Kane 2 responses

3 February 2012

Are smart phones now driving dematerialisation?

I have always been sceptical of the argument that multi-function devices like smart phones are eco-friendly by avoiding the need for a stack of equivalent individual devices (in this case MP3 players, digital cameras, wrist watches etc). I have an iPhone which did stop me purchasing a voice recorder for the interviews for The Green Executive (there was an app for that), but I already had an iPod, a digital compact camera, a watch etc, etc so the phone hasn't offset the purchases of those devices (although I am less likely to upgrade them in future).

But, for the younger generations at least, this now seems to be changing. They are increasingly living their lives around a single device. To take one example of the commercial impact of this, sales of point and click cameras were down a staggering 30% last year - a fall attributed to the use of camera phones, and no wonder - you take the picture, edit it and upload it to Facebook with just a few taps on that slick touchscreen. Even my dad has started reading the morning news on his phone, and  smart phones are said to be the guitar tuner of choice amongst the younger bands.

It is probably just old fogeys like me who have spent long enough in the analogue age to have accumulated so much electronic baggage. The younger generations do not need to have as much physical stuff as we did - whether cameras, magazines or stacks of CDs - and that can only be a good thing. It is also a trend which business needs to take cognisance of - or they could end up in the same dire straits as Kodak.

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1 February 2012

Adam Smith's Invisible Brain

I was watching BBC's Daily Politics on Monday to catch the latest on the RBS bonus affair that I had just blogged on, and, lo, there was an item on responsible capitalism. They focussed on B&Q, an excellent example of responsible business, but fell into the old trap of thinking the scope of corporate social responsibility begins and ends with supporting the local community. But then, in the interests of balance, up popped a chap from the Adam Smith Institute to declare that CSR was "a tax on the consumer."

Deep breath.

Count to ten.

This is the economics of Milton Friedman - that the only responsibility of an business is to maximise profits for shareholders. Well, we're still living with the consequences of that sort of thinking - the sub prime bubble, Ponzi-style financial "products", bank crashes, debt crises, the age of austerity etc, etc. Throughout history, unrestrained markets - in this case financial markets - have bubbled and burst with painful consequences - not least to the shareholders that Friedman claims should be put first, second and last. Left to itself, Adam Smith's famous invisible hand sometimes punches us in the face.

Let's face facts. Business operates in society, society exists in the environment. To state the bleedin' obvious, businesses - and therefore the supply side of the economy - are made up of people. The demand side of the economy is made up of people. Business is a social issue, people delivering value to people in return for financial reward. You can't get away from that.

And even from a narrowly financial point of view, CSR is good business. Marks & Spencer has made a tidy profit on Plan A, doing the "heavy lifting" on environmental and social issues on behalf of their customers who clearly see that as added value rather than an added cost. B&Q is the fourth largest home improvement chain in the world, so their environmental and social projects have hardly held them back. Procter & Gamble is the highest ranked consumer goods company on the Forbes Global 2000 list, yet they give away their water purification product for free to people in developing countries.

As a consumer I buy from all three because of that added value. And would you rather have shares in a responsible, successful business like these as opposed to worthless shares in an irresponsibly crashed bank?

The title of this post is tongue-in-cheek, by the way. I'm not saying the guys at the Adam Smith Institute are stupid, in fact they are possibly a little too clever to fully understand the real world around them. A little less IQ and a little more EQ (emotional intelligence) might set them in better stead.

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