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April 2012 - Terra Infirma

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30 April 2012

Greenest Government Ever and The Vision Thing

In my post last Friday on David Cameron's little green speech, I mentioned in passing that I thought his vision to lead "the greenest Government ever" was superficially compelling but in reality rather insubstantial. I've been mulling on this over the weekend and thought it was worth expanding on - as I explain in The Green Executive, a vision is an important element of an effective sustainability strategy.

Having a compelling vision gives you a touchstone around which you can develop your strategy, lead your troops and fall back on when difficult decisions loom. However, it is also a big stick for others to beat you with when you either fall short or, more importantly, are perceived to fall short. So when, say, the solar industry gets upset about the cut to the Feed In Tariff, the cry immediately goes up "how can you call yourselves the greenest Government ever?"

The problem for the politicians is that different people have different views on what "greenest" means. For some, steady progress over what has gone before is quite sufficient, for others whatever is achieved will never be enough. If your vision is vague, the threshold will be set by the observer - and of course the press will define the way that suits the particular article they are writing.

Flooring giant Interface got around this by having "Mission Zero" as their vision - a zero impact on the environment by 2020. This is brilliant as it is both compelling and absolute - it can be measured against. Below the overall vision are seven objectives - the 'seven faces of Mount Sustainability' as the company calls them - which allow more precise measurement. These thresholds also provide some backside cover if an unexpected issue arises.

So the ideal vision has a compelling big picture AND some precise objectives to define the bottom line - what you really mean by that big picture. Set the thresholds or others will set them for you. OK, Dave?

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27 April 2012

It's about Leadership, Mr Cameron

All green eyes were on UK Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday as he made the first environmental speech of his tenure at the Clean Energy Ministerial summit. Would he be bold and visionary, committing the UK to a clean energy future?

Cameron famously used a 'husky hugging' trip to the arctic in 2006 to 'decontaminate' his Conservative party which had been drifting to the right since the late 90s, ceding the centre ground to Tony Blair's New Labour Government. After becoming Prime Minister of a coalition Government in 2010, Cameron boldly declared that his would be 'the greenest Government ever'.

Since then, Cameron gone quiet on the environment. It has been left to Lib Dem Ministers Chris Huhne and Ed Davey and Conservatives Greg Barker and Zac Goldsmith to fly the green flag, joined more recently by very robust pro-green growth decalarations from Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Foreign Secretary William Hague. So yesterday's speech was a great opportunity to reset the compass on the green economy, rise to the level of commitment shown by many of his ministers and show some leadership. This is vitally important as everyone from civil servants to potential cleantech investors will be looking to the PM to see how the future is likely to unfold and will act accordingly.

Did he do it? Well, um, sort of. He said all the right things but, on my reading of the speech, failed to set the world on fire. Certainly his speech paled compared to William Hague's recent comments in the Huffington Post on the crushing effect of fossil fuel prices on economic recovery and the opportunities for 'green growth.'

As I argue in my book, The Green Executive, Leadership is the difference between the best and the rest when it comes to making sustainability happen. "If you don't have your Chief Executive on board, you'll get nowhere" as one of my clients remarked this week. This is as true for a country as it is for an organisation.

You can break Leadership into three interrelated parts: setting a vision, delivering on that vision and bringing people with you. With "the greenest Government ever", Cameron set a superficially compelling vision, but one which was vague and, arguably, not that ambitious given the slow progress under previous administrations. On delivery the coalition has achieved quite a bit, but is far too quick to retreat in the face of dissenting voices in the press and from the backbenches, and got itself ensnared in the Feed In Tariff mess. But it is probably the third of these factors which is weakest - no-one knows where the Prime Minister really stands.

From a business point of view, it's an interesting case study in the perils of lukewarm leadership. The breakthrough companies on sustainability (Interface, Marks & Spencer, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Patagonia etc) have nailed their colours to the mast, made big bold changes and prospered as a result. Those who prevaricate get stuck in the boggy no-man's land of incremental improvements, mediocre business returns and disillusioned stakeholders.

Going back to politics, in the same way the most sustainable companies have benefited from going green, there's a big opportunity for Cameron here. He has struggled to define his Government beyond deficit reduction and the hazy 'Big Society' concept which has never coalesced into a tangible policy agenda (a worrying precedent). Cameron could make going green exciting, visionary and a path out of our economic predicament. He could face down his backbenchers (it never did Tony Blair any harm) and plant his flag clearly in the centre ground.

Show some leadership in other words.


Full disclosure: While this blog is avowedly non-partisan in its politics and I am writing in my role as MD of Terra Infirma Ltd, I am also a member of the Liberal Democrat party and a city councillor.

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25 April 2012

Make the Leap

Interesting article in the Guardian this morning from Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the International Energy Agency saying clean energy is both feasible and necessary. This statement is ahead of today's Clean Energy Ministerial, a meeting of ministers and representatives of nations that account for 80% of world energy demand. She says:

The world's energy system is being pushed to breaking point, and our addiction to fossil fuels grows stronger each year. Many clean energy technologies are available, but they are not being deployed quickly enough to avert potentially disastrous consequences.

The ministers meeting this week have an incredible opportunity before them. It is my hope that they heed our warning of slow progress and act to seize the security, economic and environmental benefits clean energy transition can bring.

As I've said quite a lot recently, we have got to get across three basic properties of a sustainable future: that it is necessary, feasible and desirable. Necessary because climate change and resource depletion are eroding our quality of life, feasible in that we have the technologies and the policy instruments required and desirable in that we can have clean, secure energy for ever. If only we can let go of the past and embrace the future.

This applies to individual businesses as well as the globe - you either compete in the race to sustainability or get left forlornly at the starting line. Management gurus talk about the 'burning platform' - the analogy of survivors of the Piper Alpha oil platform disaster who disobeyed orders and jumped into the freezing water far below them. Their choice was definite death or probable death and they took the latter option. The move to sustainability is nowhere near as stark a choice as that faced by those poor men - people often use the also grim 'boiling a frog' metaphor of getting caught out by creeping change. But I have it on good authority that frogs don't actually get caught out by the rising temperature - when it gets too hot, they hop off. We need to show similar judgement - let go of the past and make the leap before it's too late.


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23 April 2012

Taxi for Addison Lee!

Do the words "Gerald Ratner" not mean anything to boss of London taxi boss John Griffin? Jeweller Ratner famously described his own products as "crap", implying that consumers were fools to buy them and make him rich. Griffin recently made a sub-Clarksonesque joke about it not really mattering if motorists wiped out a few grannies on bicycles. And guess what, surprise, surprise, the cycling lobbing and a whole bunch of other people took offence. #boycottaddisonlee trended on Twitter, Addison Lee's iphone App suddenly won over 250 negative reviews, high profile individuals have publicly announced they're cancelling their accounts, and of course it's all over the media.

What gets me about Griffin's blunder is not just the ham-fisted offensiveness of what he said, but his lack of awareness of where his company is in the low carbon economy. Taxis are an important part of a flexible public transport system and Griffin is currently locked in an argument over access to cycle and bus lanes which the traditional London black cabs are allowed to use, but from which private taxis are barred. This is a legitimate argument - other cities allow private taxis and vans into "no car lanes" - but London has a tradition of favouring black cabs and their drivers' famous "knowledge". Instead of making common ground with other public and low carbon transport users, Griffin simply instructed his drivers to use the lanes illegally, making headlines and causing much embarrassment to the Prime Minister - Griffin is a major Conservative party donor. Talk about making friends and influencing people.

We live in an age of brands and it is interesting to see how brand reputations have risen and fallen over the years. Some which were regarded as evil a few years ago like Nike and Microsoft have largely recovered on the back of the former's supply chain improvements and Bill Gates's philanthropy. Google and Apple were once 'saints' but have been tainted by censorship in China and working conditions in the supply chain respectively and have since tried to claw back some credibility. Ratner's as a business never recovered from the boss's wee joke and we'll only see in time how badly the Addison Lee brand is damaged by Griffin's Neanderthal attitude. But the lesson we can take from these examples is how vital CSR is to the brand. Chief Executives are the ultimate guardian of the brand and to do their job properly they need to respect their customers, their suppliers and wider society - and keep the off-colour jokes for the pub.

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20 April 2012

There's always a reason to do nothing...

I met the news that a national group has been set up to oppose wind turbines with an incredulous "why?!" Do they not understand the challenge of climate change? Do they not see the consistently high cost of fossil fuels? Do they not want energy security? Do they not want clean air? Why waste all this time and money holding back progress?

But then again, while I like to think I like change (new shiny gadget!), often I hate it. If a favourite cafe closes or even changes its menu, I get really disappointed, even though this is just part of life. Things change, things evolve, but we do like to cling to certainties.

I often say the biggest barrier to sustainability is just six inches wide - the space between our ears. When we get together, this barrier increases exponentially to get what I call institutional inertia and that can kill your sustainability programme. There's always a reason to do nothing - it'll cost money, too risky, we need more data, we have other priorities this year, we've already done one green project this year... I've heard them all!

To address this inertia takes guile and determination. Green jujitsu helps - don't argue and battle, get people thinking and involved in the process instead. Ask them for help and solutions. Get teams involved in the challenge. And don't give up.

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18 April 2012

Book Review: The Third Industrial Revolution by Jeremy Rifkin

International energy adivsor Jeremy Rifkin's newish book The Third Industrial Revolution has been getting quite a lot of attention in the press, so I thought I'd better give it a read. Rifkin's central thesis is that the second industrial revolution - the rise of the oil & gas economy which superseded the original, coal-fired industrial revolution - has entered its endgame and a new, distributed energy strategy is required to get the world out of its current economic and environmental fix. While we cling to the oil economy, Rifkin argues, climate change will become dangerous and rising prices will smother any economic recovery.

Rifkin calls his vision for a new approach to energy 'lateral power' - a kind of Energy 2.0 (to coin a phrase) which will adopt the distributed and participative economic model we see in the digital economy. There are five pillars to his vision:

1. A big shift to renewable energy

2. Transforming building stock to micro-power

3. Hydrogen economy and other energy storage systems

4. An 'internet of energy' to allow trading between individuals, companies and countries (ie a smart grid)

5. A shift in transport to electric and fuel cell vehicles

A subtext of the book is that the US should become more like Europe in its approach to the economy (probably more like Germany to be specific), which may raise eyebrows across the pond given the current political discourse. Rifkin clearly enjoys his access to top international politicians such as Angela Merkel. In fact his name dropping can get a tad wearing at times - although it is leavened with his rather blunt assessments of those who 'don't get it' - President Obama, David Miliband and Ed Miliband are on the list - and those who do, some of whom may surprise some readers, such as UK Premier David Cameron. Those on the 'don't get it' list are criticised not so much for a lack of interest, but for their inability to grasp the need for a distributed system - trying to build a renewable energy system on the centralised fossil fuel template just won't work.

This is a very interesting and thought provoking book. It has to be said that there is nothing particularly new in it from a conceptual point of view, in fact much of the 'lateral power' approach was sketched out by the late German MP (and father of the feed in tariff) Herman Scheer in his book The Solar Economy which was published more than a decade ago. But what Rifkin does very successfully is make a convincing case that the time for change has come given the economic and environmental challenges we currently face. And, let's face it, that's the vital message to get across to policy makers across the globe.

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16 April 2012

When is an environmental policy not a policy?

Something that really bothers me is how many organisations have bland, lookalike environmental policies. Take Boots' policy above (click to enlarge) - put your hand over the Boots logo and play "guess what business this belongs to" - you'd struggle to identify the company as a retailer never mind in the heathcare/beauty business or Boots itself.

The other game you can play is "nonsensical negatives" - if you invert each sentence, does it make any sense? If not then the original was simply stating the bleedin' obvious - and can hardly be described as a "policy". For example, inverting Boots' resources commitment gives you "we'll make worst use of resources", which simply shows how nondescript the original is.

I'm being a bit unfair singling out Boots - similar identikit policies of the <insert company name here> variety clutter the walls of businesses up and down the land. These are so bland as to be meaningless, so what's the point? What do you learn from reading them? Why not include some long term, concrete commitments from your strategy that your stakeholders can hold you to?

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13 April 2012

Tackling the Sustainability Elephants in the Room

My dad often tells a story about a senior manager he used to work with who had three trays on his desk "In", "Out" and "Too Difficult". I am always reminded of this when I see sustainability staff dance around issues that they know they should really be addressing, but seem too difficult. There's always an excuse for ignoring these elephants in the room - outside our control, something for the next iteration of the strategy, we're too small to influence that etc, etc. At least my dad's colleague was being honest (if tongue in cheek).

The guys who get do sustainability properly - say InterfaceFLOR, P&G or Marks & Spencer - do it properly. They deliberately identify what the big issues are and attack them head on - no excuses. Washing powder's biggest impact is the heating of water in washing machines, so P&G formulated a product, Ariel Excel Gel, which washes in virtually cold water. InterfaceFLOR have started to build a circular economy around carpets as this is the only way they can make their supply chain sustainable, and M&S have built a supply chain for recovered polyester fibre because there wasn't one before.

If there's an elephant in the room, these guys reach for their elephant guns.

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10 April 2012

Making the case for sustainability in the boardroom

I'm a big fan of The Apprentice - both for entertainment and, controversially, the business angle. I know it is fashionable to say that two teams of preening egotists rushing around backstabbing each other and making bad snap decisions has nothing to do with business, but I think the tasks are genuinely difficult - I wouldn't like to try to formulate, market and sell a new product from scratch in two days. Anyway, as fellow fans will know, the climax of each episode is the showdown in the boardroom, where barrow boy made business mogul Lord Sugar and his two sidekicks take apart the teams' efforts, cut through the flannel and make them face up to brutal reality.

Selling sustainability in the boardroom can be an equally daunting experience - and that comes from someone who has sat on both sides of the big table. You need to have your facts straight, your business case worked out and the risks of inaction and action thoroughly assessed. But unlike the bull in a china shop approach the Apprentice candidates tend to take, I have found that a more subtle approach can pay dividends. The first time I ever engaged a client at boardroom level, I put the Sustainability Maturity Model (below) up on a screen and asked the board members where they thought they were on it. The result was extraordinary - they all assumed they should be as far to the right of the model without me trying to persuade them that they should be there.

This more subtle approach is part of what I call "Green Jujitsu" which is all about bringing people with you rather than trying to bulldoze past them. Another tool in the Green Jujitsu box is the killer question, such as "what risk do rising oil prices pose?". Using such engaging techniques and avoiding bluster might have saved a few Apprentice candidates from the chop over the years and they certainly work in read boardrooms too.


On Tuesday 17th April 2012 I'm giving a webinar on behalf of 2degrees on Making the Case for Sustainability in the Boardroom. It's free and you can sign up here.

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5 April 2012

Greetings from (occasionally) sunny Northumberland

I'm away with family in Budle Bay in Northumberland - just south of Lindisfarne or Holy Island. Budle Bay is part of the Lindisfarne nature area and the estuary is a delight for birders - even my mediocre skills identified curlew, black headed gulls, greater black backed gulls, common gulls, red breatsed merganser, shelduck, mallard, widgeon, redshank, oyster catcher, pochard, kestrel, wheatear along with gazillions of plover-sized waders which are beyond my ken. We had some glorious, if windy and cold weather on Wednesday, but on Tuesday we had a blizzard - so we headed to the worlds best second hand bookstore, Barter Books at Alnwick, then to a soft play facility to let the kids work off their adrenaline.

We're staying in a rebuilt mill cottage at Waren Mill at the head of the bay, which, as the name suggests, had a number of mills dating from the 12th Century onwards. At the back of our garden the old mill race that fed water into the mills has been converted into a water feature which periodically kicks into life, creating a small waterfall. The bigger, more recent mill has been converted into holiday apartments too.

As I mentioned last week, I'm currently reading Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution which about the democratization and distribution of energy systems for a modern low carbon economy. It struck me that in the days of water power, this was very much how the economy worked - industry went where the energy was rather than the other way around. Of course Rifkin's vision is for a 21st Century version of distributed energy generation - creating a hi-tech internet of low carbon energy to get us out of the fossil fuel doom loop. But one interesting part of such a system is the potential for micro-hydro in locations such as this - tapping the same sources of clean energy that our forefathers did. So maybe, just maybe, places like Waren Mill will be going back to the future.

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3 April 2012

The Sins of Your Suppliers

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "The Sins of Your Suppliers" - why you must take active responsibility for the environmental and ethical performance of your suppliers.

Audio MP3

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

GBC14 The Sins of Your Suppliers

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


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