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March 2012 - Terra Infirma

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30 March 2012

Are we stuck in an oil price doom loop?

I'm reading The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin - I'll post a review here in the next few weeks - but in the first section he makes a persuasive argument that everytime the global economy tries to rally, the demand for oil pushes its price up, smothering the green shoots.

The graph below shows Brent and West Texas Intermediate oil prices. You can see how they shot up to a peak in 2008 before crashing as the global financial markets went into meltdown. But the prices have rallied again staying above the $100 mark which seemed so impossible pre 2008. This has lead to periodic warnings from the International Energy Agency amongst others that we will never get out of the mire if prices are that high. The big question is: how much is oil price a symptom and how much is it a cause of financial woes? This is rarely part of the current political discourse in the UK which has recently been focussing on tax on snacks. Are we hiding from the truth and squandering opportunities to break out of this loop?

The loop poses a real challenge. Money is tight, oil prices are stifling growth, so where are we going to find the investment to break free? Clearly it would have been better to be investing in the boom years, but we are where we are. I think the answer can be seen in Southampton - where a distributed energy system has developed over 21 years, expanding organically - and in Woking - where an innovative energy services company financing system has allowed enormous investment in local energy generation - and more recently in Birmingham.

These example show it can be done and for the time being we might just have to start small and grow. But we could have lots of entrepreneurs and forward looking companies initiating lots of these small projects. Innovation is key - not just in technology, but in finance and, dare I say it, public/private partnerships. But more than anything else, we're going to have to face up to the fact we have a problem.

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28 March 2012

Getting the message right, first time, everytime

In one of my client workshops, a manufacturing operative, straight off the factory floor and still wearing his dirty overalls, put it bluntly:

“We’ve got these stickers on the machines telling us to switch them off. But there’s nothing in the standard operating procedures about it. It is hammered into us from day one to follow the SOPs, so, if we’re not sure, we ignore the stickers. If you want it to happen, it should be in the SOPs.”

You can take several lessons from this one statement:

  • Your sustainability programme must be integrated into core business processes, not seen as an added extra.
  • If you want to test this integration, ask your target audience for anomalies. If there's a problem, they'll soon tell you about it.
  • Consistency of the message is essential - cognitive dissonance in this case led operatives to retreat to their comfort zone.
  • You should be trying to tap into the culture that is already there - in this case the fact SOPs are seen as gospel.

In a different project, I have been helping a major plc develop sustainability training packages for recent newcomers. Again a key success factor we have identified is to ensure the message in the training is reflected back at the workplace - eg awareness posters should be in the same format and give the same message as the training so inductees see consistency between what they have been taught and their working environment.

I like Marks & Spencer's approach for their famed Plan A sustainability programme where they use the same celebrity models to promote Plan A as they use for their general marketing and advertising. This gives two strong messages - sustainability is mainstream, and that it is glamorous and fun.

Like the proverbial stick of rock, your message must be integrated and consistent all the way through.

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26 March 2012

Will your sustainability programme outlive you?

Looking at many of the big sustainability leaders like InterfaceFLOR, Marks & Spencer and Body Shop, it is clear that their success, initially at least, was down to the passion of their leaders - Ray Anderson, Sir Stuart Rose and Anita Roddick. But impressively, those values have outlasted their founders - literally in the case of Anderson and Roddick who are sadly no longer with us.

On the other hand I have seen numerous organisations where a change in leadership, either at the very top or at the top of the sustainability function, has lead to efforts withering on the vine. Passion becomes lip service, as projects are completed ambitious replacements fail to appear, and the organisation seems content to rest on the laurels of past victories.

The ultimate aim of any sustainability leader should be for their programme to outlast their tenure. Interface's Mission Zero, Marks & Spencer's Plan A and Body Shop's founding values are all so deeply embedded into the organisation that they are no longer about those charismatic leaders, but are embedded deeply into the culture and structure of each organisation. Damaging that reputation would be seen as an act of vandalism.

Delivering such an embedded culture for sustainability is no easy task. Most importantly, it requires a lack of ego from the leader - letting go of the programme, so everyone can take ownership and designing it so it can flourish without that individual involved. Aligning responsibility with authority reinforces culture with reporting structure, adding resilience. And of course it is imperative that the succession strategy ensures that the next generation of leaders understand and appreciate the importance of sustainability to the brand.

Would your programme survive without you?

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23 March 2012

Sustainability Takes Teamwork

One of the frequent criticisms of climate change communications is the dissonance between the scale of the problem and the ability of individuals to make a difference. We are given catastrophic warnings, for example, by the US Department of Defense:

"Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world."

But then, we are told that the solution is to switch off our phone chargers, recycle our tin cans and reuse our plastic bags. You'd have to be really gullible to believe that such an enormous problem could be solved by tweaking a few things in your life, so you downgrade the size of the challenge.

I come up against the same problem when helping my clients change the culture in their organisation. There is a tendency towards the message "Here are our ambitious corporate sustainability goals, what are you, sat in your lonely cubicle in a massive open plan office full of others, going to do to contribute?" "Er, switch off my PC at night? But what difference will that really make?"

While individual buy-in is essential to culture change, many people actually feel disempowered by the chasm between what the organisation is trying to do and what they as an individual can actually influence. The answer, I have found, is to provide stepping stones between the individual and the whole organisation.

  • What will you as an individual do differently? This might be quite small;
  • What will your immediate team do differently? For some teams, eg design, this could be significant;
  • What will your department or division do differently? All those people working towards a common goal should be able to make major changes;
  • What will the company do differently?

This scaling up of the impact of behavioural change shows individuals that they really can make a difference, but they'll have to work with the rest of their team to do so. This is both empowering, comforting and realistic.

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21 March 2012

The Wisdom of Craig Sams, Green & Blacks

Yesterday I was delivering workshops at the Get It Sussed event in Gateshead. While for some the highlight was hanging around in the foyer with a rather sullen looking Little Mix showing no X Factor whatsoever during a fire alarm (their dark lord, Simon Cowell, was said to have been spotted as well), I was rather more starstruck by the keynote speech from Craig Sams, founder of Whole Earth Foods and Green & Black.

Sams tells a great story - from his parents growing up in the dust bowl in the 30s (flour companies started producing prettily decorated sacks as a form of marketing as it was standard practice for desperately poor farmers to upcycle them into clothes for their children) through the hippy entrepreneur days at Whole Earth to his more recent work on Green & Blacks and biochar. I took the following points away:

  • We are (or should be) all pioneers in this game. This takes resilience, guile and, above all, unrelenting optimism;
  • The product is paramount - Whole Earth peanut butter is very popular because it has a great taste, Green & Blacks because it is very rich chocolate AND they are both very sustainable;
  • Branding should be bold - they chose the name Green & Blacks because it was strong, easy to remember and had the hint of environment (green) and dark chocolate (black). Names with "eco" or the like in them were considered but quickly ditched;
  • Storytelling is a very powerful form of communication - and Sams is a master;
  • If you are not failing, you are not trying hard enough - he told us how at one point he had bailiffs evaluating how much his bakery was worth, but he managed to pay his tax bill just in time.

It was great stuff and very inspiring - I've heard him tell most of this story before but it was still worth sitting through again.

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19 March 2012

Are you ready for a drought?

Living in Britain is supposedly synonymous with owning an umbrella. And a cagoule. And wellies. But something strange is happening - or not happening - rain. It has been very dry - and it is thought we might be heading for the worst drought in 30 years. We can pontificate on the reasons - the old 'can or cannot it be attributed to climate change' dingdong - but it is more fruitful to consider the potential impacts.

According to the Telegraph's Geoffrey Lean, we might be about to move from the second level of measures (possible hosepipe bans) into the third level which could include bans on washing vehicles and swimming pools closed. If it goes beyond that, level 4, we could be into strict rationing - and business will get hit first.

Water is a regional resource. Here in the North East we have a huge reservoir at Kielder which was built for an expansion of the Teesside chemical industry that never happened. So we're probably OK at Terra Infirma Towers, but if you are based in the South East, it is a quite different matter.

Do you know how would this impact on your business? Do you use water in production or operations? Do you have alternative sources? And how should a responsible business respond? Clamouring for a bigger share of a dwindling resource isn't going to look good.

Broadly there are two approaches: use less and use better water.

1. Less water:

  • Draw up a water balance to understand your water use and identify leaks and other uncontrolled losses;
  • Track down and fix any leaks - use ultrasonic detectors to find any underground;
  • Cascade water from uses where it has to be very clean down to uses where contamination can be tolerated;
  • Find internal recycling opportunities - eg use last wash water for first rinse or treat and reuse waste water on site;
  • Maintain land in a water friendly way to minimise the need for irrigation;
  • Invest in low water technology from hose nozzles through waterless urinals to advanced process plant;
  • Educate your staff on the important of good water management - you wouldn't believe the number of hoses left running for no good reason that I have seen on industrial sites.

2. 'Better' water

  • Capture and store rainwater to even out peaks and troughs in precipitation;
  • Source suitable waste water from other users - the world famous industrial symbiosis cluster at Kalundborg started with a cascade of water from one site to another.

If you haven't already thought about the impact of water shortages, you'd better get moving. "Do a rain dance" is not a substantial risk management plan.

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16 March 2012

Just Do It!

If you follow the green press, you may have noticed another spat between pro-nuclear (Monbiot, Lynas) and anti-nuclear (Friends of the Earth) greens. At the same time, the OECD's Environmental Outlook has spelt out just how badly things are going in the global environment (see BusinessGreen's summary here). This makes me immediately switch into Dad mode and shout "We don't have time for this! Stop squabbling and get on with it!" Then I'll go back to wandering around the house switching off lights and grumbling how I'm not made of money - 'cos that's what I spend much of my free time doing these days.

Inaction frustrates me. So much can be done so quickly if people put their mind to it. Even the Government managed to meet the 10:10 commitment to cut energy by 10% in the central Government estate when the boss said it was a priority. If they can do it, heaven help us, the rest of us can.

Instead we get caught up in bureaucracy, paralysis by analysis and procrastination. Permissions come slowly, relatively small investments take forever to get approved and responsibility gets ducked. Much of this is displacement activity, putting off the inevitable.

When I was writing The Green Executive, I had to research leadership theory to find a proven framework to hang green leadership skills on. I quickly came across Warren Bennis' work as he is the godfather of leadership theory. Two of his four leadership qualities stood out: resilience and a bias to action. The successful green executives I interviewed for the book definitely showed those characteristics. Another quality I picked up off them was a willingness to 'learn by doing' - try stuff, make mistakes, learn, keep what works.

Or to borrow the famous marketing strapline "Just Do It!"

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14 March 2012

Yes, No or Maybe?

I've often said that the litmus test for a green business is not so much what good things they do as what bad things they stop doing. InterfaceFLOR has killed off product lines requiring highly toxic materials, B&Q refused to stock patio heaters etc. This is where the businesses have decided to say a clear 'no'?

But what about activities like short haul flying? Clearly something you'd like to eradicate, but what happens if a dogmatic 'no!' would mean causing more emissions? It might be that not flying means a larger  low carbon project cannot proceed without swift intervention. You are cutting off your nose to spite your face if you take a hardline, but equally you don't want to find yourself slipping into bad habits.

There are clearly three levels here:

  • Things which should be encouraged;
  • Things which must never be done;
  • Things which should be discouraged.

Volvo deals with the distinction on the last two for chemicals by using black and grey lists to ban certain chemicals (black) and insist designers/buyers investigate alternatives first (grey). Other companies augment this with white lists of preferred chemicals.

This designation can be applied to any other aspect of business - you can create black, grey and white lists of transport options, suppliers, technologies, energy sources etc, etc. The designation between the three depends on your business, your sector and your priorities. Banning black listed items is relatively easy, the key is to ensure that white list items are always much easier to choose than their grey list equivalents.

But the bottom line is if you don't have a system you can't expect these things to happen by magic.

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12 March 2012

Have you got a Plan B?

Phew! I'm back on line. Last Wednesday morning Sod's Law kicked in big time - the one day of the month I need uninterrupted internet access for the two Green Academy webinars, it won't respond. Dead.

I spent an hour panicking calmly working my way through pages of geekorrhea before giving up and using my fall back system - my 3G laptop dongle. Apart from one glitch, it worked fine, although I found out afterwards that it ran perilously close to my monthly limit.

Virgin Media were great - they immediately tested my system remotely, found my ancient modem had transmitted its last, and put another one in the post for me immediately. I plugged it in, rang a number to authenticate it and bingo, here I am!

This all got me thinking about business resilience. The 50 year lag between a molecule of carbon dioxide leaving a power station chimney or a car exhaust means that no matter what we do to cut carbon now, there is a truckload of global warming already locked into the system - unless of course a geoengineering technology comes good and finds a way of stopping.

The problem with planning adaption to climate change is unpredictability. Thomas Friedman coined the apposite phrase 'global weirding' to describe what we get locally when the world warms as a whole. In the UK we got savage winters at the end of 2009 and 2010 as weather patterns got locked in a configuration which sucked arctic air down over the country for months. Local authorities who had assumed that harsh winters were a thing of the past soon ran out of road grit. In 2011, the same thing happened but the configuration was a mirror image so we got mild air from the south - the grit piles went unused. The physical difference between the two was minimal, yet the results couldn't have been more different.

I would recommend that any organisation has a Plan B for operations under different scenarios to cover data security, electronic communications, extreme weather, physical logistics and energy security. But those scenarios must be cognisant of the unpredictability of what a global trend will turn out like locally.

Be prepared!

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9 March 2012

Sustainable Business In A Leadership Vacuum

I hosted two Green Academy webinars on Wednesday, the first on Getting Off to a Flying Start, aimed at beginners, and Making It Happen: From Strategy to Action, aimed at those wanting to move from bog standard environmental management to the cutting edge. Despite the disparity in subject matter, the issue of leadership arose in both. Some delegates were benefiting from very strong leadership, others thought their leadership was lacking.

The central thesis of my book The Green Executive is that you cannot manage your way to sustainability, it takes leadership. You just have to look at the sustainability programmes in InterfaceFLOR, Marks & Spencer and Wal-Mart to see that they were driven by determined charismatic leaders. The scale of change required cannot be delivered without high-level buy-in.

So what happens if you don't have that leadership buy-in?

Well, first up it has to said that this is a massive challenge, but not insurmountable. But you can't just roll up your sleeves, pick up your sense of injustice and start a war of attrition. Like a lone calvaryman charging a rank of cannons, your chances of success are minimal.

Instead you need to be smarter and use some green jujitsu - using your opponents strength against them.

First, put yourself in their shoes - what makes them tick - brand protection, cost savings, winning tenders, self image or something else?

Then work out the link between your putative sustainability programme and that priority. You may have to put some of your favourite ideas on the back burner for a while until you have made your case.

Then work out how to communicate that link effectively. Questions are one powerful tool eg what will energy price rises do to our competitiveness in the medium and long term? Another approach is tapping into the desire to keep up with the Joneses - did you hear that competitor X has invested in clean technology with is cutting their energy bills? A third is to get some momentum going without management buy in and then demonstrate how the results are profiting the business.

This may not deliver immediate results, so persistence, resilience and tact are required.

Be determined, play smart.

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7 March 2012

7 Pathetic Excuses for Doing Nothing On Corporate Responsibility

1. We're too small.

No you are not. You are never too small. Solo practitioners may be able to duck many of the pressures that bigger organisations come under, but even they will find the need to have an environmental policy if they want to compete for certain contracts. And why would you pass up the chance to improve your image? And even the smallest businesses have to comply with certain legislation.

2. We don't have enough money.

You don't need to invest in lots of shiny new technology to get started. Behavioural change and low and no cost interventions can make a heck of a difference and if you are really smart you will use the savings from these to fund more capital intensive measures.

3. Our sector doesn't have a big impact on the environment.

Sustainability is no longer just an issue for big dirty industries, the drivers are starting to impact on all sectors including services and the knowledge based economy. I know a law firm which had to provide their carbon footprint to buyers just to compete in a tender.

4. There is no pull from our customers.

Are you sure?

B2B? Large public organisations, big brands and retailers are driving sustainability down through their supply chains.

B2C? While only a significant minority of the  public may be overtly demanding greener products, lack of responsibility can impact on your broader brand and responsibility.

And, even if your customers aren't asking for sustainability now, doesn't mean they won't next month.

5. Milton Friedman said the only social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.

And look where that sort of thinking got us. If the banks had taken a bit more responsibility above and beyond profit making, we may not have had the financial crash. The economy operates as a part of society which exists in the environment - you can't compartmentalise any of them. Oh, and legislators, customers, shareholders and employees may not be as big fans of Friedman as you.

6. There's a recession on.

Why would you want to ditch a way of winning more business AND cutting costs if you are in financial difficulty? There is a tonne of evidence that sustainability/CSR has been a boon in the recession, not a burden.

7. It's just a fad.

It's been called a fad for the last 40 years. In that time, pressure to go green has intensified, not diminished. So get your head out of the sand and do something!

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5 March 2012

What Twitter Can Teach Us About Green Communications

Keep green communications simple.Mon Mar 05 09:57:29 via web

Late last year I was doing a couple of day's worth of workshops at a client's site. As I waited in the foyer waiting to be shown to the seminar room on the first morning, I did what I normally did and read the various policies and statements of commitment on the walls. The sustainability policy said all the right things, but when I say all, I mean all - this A3 poster must have had a couple of thousand words on it.

As an experiment, I asked delegates in each session if they knew the policy, or had even seen the poster. Nobody had, except for a receptionist, who said she knew it was there because she sat looking at it every day and she thought she'd better before coming to the workshop.

It is well understood that presentations shouldn't cause 'death by bulletpoint', but green communications doesn't seem to have got past 'death by poster'. I'm not a communications or marketing expert, but I believe very strongly that messages can and should be boiled down to a very simple message. The 140 character limit imposed by Twitter is a challenge, but perfectly achievable. And as us Twitter addicts do with shortened URLs, you can always append directions to a source of more information if the reader wants or needs it. But the headline needs to be sparky enough to attract attention.

So, keep it short and sweet - ideally less than 140 characters (like this).

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2 March 2012

Go Green Or Go Bust

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Go Green or Go Bust" which is self explanatory.

Audio MP3

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

GBC13 Go Green or Go Bust

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


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