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May 2012 - Terra Infirma

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30 May 2012

Is not doing bad good enough?

I got a piece of spam last week that made me chuckle - it was for "ethical" search engine optimisation (SEO).

Ethical? How can SEO be ethical or unethical?

Even a relative luddite like myself knows that in the lingo of the SEO there are 'white hat' techniques - ie those which make a page easy for Google to rank, and 'black hat' techniques which are devious techniques to try to fool Google.

But the use of "ethical" I found amusing. Not just because of the low stakes context, but the assumption that ethical = not doing bad as opposed to ethical = doing good.

On environmental issues, boasting about 'not doing bad' is branded 'greenwash.' It is taken as read that to be seen to be green, a company has to go beyond legal compliance, and indeed 'standard practice', and start aggressively addressing major environmental issues.

But there doesn't seem to be the equivalent language for ethical issues - or no polite language anyway. When I asked Twitter what was the phrase for making 'normal' sound 'ethical', the best (and only) response I got was "I call it bullshit." Well, yes, but...

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28 May 2012

Make it easy to go green

A couple of years ago I was staying in a very nice boutique hotel in the East Midlands which obviously took its environmental performance very seriously. They had PIR sensors in the en-suite which meant you couldn't leave the light on. Only problem was, if you sat too long on the toilet (and too long wasn't very long I hasten to add...) the lights would go out and you had to do an undignified seated arm-waving dance to trigger the sensor so you could see the loo roll. Nice idea, but a pain in the proverbial in practice.

A few years ago, with my councillor hat on, I was instrumental in getting a new kerbside recycling system implemented across the city of Newcastle. The old system an open plastic crate into which residents had to sort their rubbish into separate plastic bags. It had to be stored inside and on windy days, paper and plastic bottles would get blown around the streets. The new system is a wheelie bin with a caddy for glass and batteries - paper, card, plastic and metals all go together in the bottom (as modelled by yours truly). The green lobby screamed blue murder at us for the environmental sacrilege of mixing materials and predicted catastrophic failure. What happened? Recycling rates jumped by 50% because ordinary people found it easier to recycle.

As regular readers will know, I am also excited by the shift from physical media like books, CDs and DVDs to digital products like ebooks, MP3s and movies on demand. The closure of Woolworths, Zavvi and Borders and the problems that HMV/Waterstones are facing are (an unfortunate) testimony to the power of this trend. It is not environmentalism that is driving this, but fashion and technology. In particular the iPod started a revolution in making accessing digital media simple - no hair shirt product that (although one delegate at the Grayling event week before last thought that digital media was idea for the age of austerity where smaller housing and frequent job moves might be normal.)

What all of these examples illustrate is you have to make it easy to follow green behaviour - and sell that ease of use. I was on site with one of my clients last week and they had a lovely poster shaped like a road sign with the 'straight ahead' route labelled "train journey 3 hours, flight 2 hours, drive 90 minutes" and the 'right turn' labelled "teleconference 5 minutes". Nice.


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25 May 2012

Nuggets from the Sustainability Mastermind Group

On Wednesday this week I launched my sustainability mastermind group with an inaugural meeting at the Baltic Art Gallery. We booked a third floor meeting room with stupendous views along the Tyne (see above) and worked through to lunch which we took in the sixth floor restaurant - this was delicious and accompanied by even better views!

The concept behind the mastermind group is to bring together a small group of sustainability practitioners from some of the country's largest organisations to explore sustainability in depth and share experiences and insights. We were operating under Chatham House rules so I'm not going to reveal who exactly was at the event, but here are a few of the key 'take homes' which arose from our discussions:

  • Need to reframe the argument from "environment or profit" to "environment and profit".
  • There is a need to focus on intent rather than process. The intention of, say, implementing ISO14001 is to improve environmental performance, not simply to achieve and maintain certification.
  • Likewise with targets, you need to focus on the purpose of the target, not simply meeting it.
  • If your business and sustainability targets are intertwined, why bother trying to separate them?
  • The political policy framework will always be uncertain, so you need to accept that fact and work with it. After all, we accept and manage the inherent uncertainty in markets.
  • If you have stretch target and you think you are never going to meet it, don't dilute it, redouble your efforts - that's where innovation can kick in.
  • On the other hand if you are meeting a target easily you should raise the bar, not sit on your laurels.
  • It is important to nurture personal passion for sustainability and not frustrate it.
  • Middle management is where green projects go to die. The answer is to work with HR to embed sustainability into job descriptions, personal targets, appraisals and personal development.

When delivering workshops, I normally adhere strictly to my timetable, but this time I took a "while the discussion is generating more nuggets of value, I'm not going to curtail it" approach. There were so many of those nuggets, we only got through half of the exercises I had planned out. For once I saw this as a sign of success.

I'm really looking forward to the next one!


If you are interested in the mastermind group and you are a senior practitioner within a large and/or asset-intensive business, then please drop me a line for more details. Places are limited.

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23 May 2012

Why rational argument will only take you so far...

Every so often (more often than I'd like to admit) I check the Amazon pages for my two books for new reviews, sales figures etc. Earlier this week I was shocked to see The Three Secrets of Green Business had got a one star review when all the others have been 4 or 5. But my surprise turned into a resigned sinking feeling when I saw the review consisted of the usual old climate denial nonsense:

"So we all now agree that CO2 emissions must be reduced to save the planet? Not really, most of the world disagrees with the theory [...wrong...] The earth has been cooling for the last decade for example, contrary to the IPCC conclusions [...wrong...] Much of the book is thus based on false assumptions, and the rest is simply managerial mumbo-jumbo. Don't buy this work, and save your hard earned cash for a better book."

Even worse, it is out of date denial nonsense - the denialosphere has quietly dropped the "global cooling" meme as long term temperature trends continued to rise and now talks about "slow warming" instead. Looking at other reviews by the Truth Hound (as he dubs himself), he appears to be on a mission to give 'green' books one star reviews with lengthy but scientifically illiterate rants about climate change science. Intrigued, I googled his name and he's certainly not stupid. He's got a PhD in engineering and lectures for the Open University, so you would think that, in his dogged search for truth, he would respect academic evidence over tired myths he's found on the internet or reactionary newspaper columns. But no.

Immediately I thought of the cartoon above I recently saw online - we all have issues where our beliefs are based on voodoo rather than rationale analysis of the evidence. This goes for the green movement as well, factions of which are just as guilty of denying the scientific evidence on, say, GM or nuclear safety as the libertarian right is in denying the evidence on climate change or passive smoking.

This is why I use the elephant-rider-path model of culture change for sustainability. We like to think we are rational (the rider), but it is our emotional subconscious (the elephant) which tends to make the final decision. Getting the elephant on board is the key to successful culture change and that takes a lot more guile.

Image © reproduced under "fair use"

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21 May 2012

CSR and the "myth of the poor SME"

When I was down in London last Wednesday night, I had a light, but delicious dinner in the bar of the rather swish hotel I was staying in and then, over an overpriced beer, took part in the #CSRChat Twitter event hosted by Susan McPherson of Fenton in New York (hence the hour). The keynote tweeter/victim was David Connor of Coethica (from this side of the pond) answering questions on CSR in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) - usually defined as independent companies with less than 250 employees.

It was a superb and fun session and I was very impressed with how David managed to keep multiple threads of conversation going simultaneously with so many participants and still make such insightful points. I picked up a lot on issues I don't have much experience of like social enterprise and cause marketing - all to a live tinkling piano accompaniment (at my end only!).

However, I did go off on a bit of a mini rant in the middle of the session when I felt there was an implicit acceptance in the debate of what I call "the myth of the poor SME". I first came across this in my last job which largely involved running European funded projects to support SMEs take up greener business practices. Inevitably I got sucked into a number of wider attempts to improve the uptake of such business support - all based on the assumption that the region's SMEs were desperate for the help they were being offered but were stumbling about cluelessly trying to find it. I heard the phrase "the poor SME" bandied about by bureaucrats on a regular basis. If these people had actually spoken to a small/medium sized business owner they would have been a lot less patronising - those guys/gals are largely astute, informed and focussed, and perfectly capable of finding the help they need if and when they need it. They run their own business after all.

I hold the same opinion when it comes to SMEs and the corporate social responsibility/sustainability agenda. While SMEs face challenges such as low buying power, they hold a lot of advantages over their larger corporate cousins:

  • They are compact - an environmental audit can be done in hours rather than weeks, a plan can almost literally be written on the back of the proverbial fag packet;
  • They are agile - change can be implemented very quickly due to the size of the organisation, its smaller asset lists and short reporting chains;
  • They are responsive - if the boss decides something needs doing, there is little argument - it gets done.

It is no coincidence that my favourite case studies in The Green Executive are those of the SMEs such as Muckle LLP, EAE Ltd and Boss Paints. These companies have shown how the innovation, focus and agility of the best SMEs has enabled them to tackle problems in really creative ways. These guys can show you how to do CSR/sustainability properly.

This is because the key success factor for any organisation is not access to finance or knowledge, but the attitude of the business leader. In an SME if the owner decides to aggressively pursue environmental and/or ethical goals, it will get done. If they're not really interested, it won't. It's as simple as that.

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18 May 2012

Chasing the Green Pound in London

Yesterday I was a panelist at the "Chasing the Green Pound" event hosted by Grayling's Future Planet team. It was a strong line-up with Ramon Arratia from Interface, Per Bogstad of Rainforest Alliance, Esther Maughan McLachlan of Sony Europe and yours truly, all chaired by Jo Cofino who heads up Guardian Sustainable Business.

Here are some of the points I took away with me:

  • The archetypal green consumer  who will compromise on price and/or performance to 'save the planet' remains in a minority;
  • Retailers are doing the heavy lifting on behalf of the consumer by demanding good quality greener mainstream products from suppliers;
  • They do this for overall brand enhancement rather than to target green consumers per se;
  • Green product producers love legislation that penalises their less enlightened competition;
  • Product labels like the EU energy label can drive consumer buying patterns, but they need rapid updating to keep ahead of technology;
  • Long life products require new business models - Sony are actively investigating the concept of a 'multi-functional digital device for life' and what business model might support it;
  • In terms of changing how consumers use products, we have limited bandwidth to communicate with them and should use it wisely;
  • Nudge techniques may help - making greener behaviour the easier path eg a washing machine that defaults to a cooler wash cycle rather than sticking with the temperature of the previous wash;
  • Consumer resistance may provide business opportunities - the example was given of a company that empties lofts for free (and makes cash out of selling the contents) - this is one of the barriers to improving domestic insulation.

At the end, Jo asked us to look forward and predict future trends in consumer behaviour. I suggested that the shift from owning huge amounts of media (books, CDs, DVDs) to accessing the data directly (ebooks, MP3s, movies on demand) was eroding the 'status of stuff' - our bizarre pride in the wall of books/CDs/DVDs in the living room - and this may open all sorts of opportunities for mainstreaming lightweight and/or collaborative consumption such as Spotify, ZipCar, Airbnb etc. On a grand scale, this would free us to enjoy the experiences we are used to with a fraction of the ecological footprint of the physical product-based economy.

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16 May 2012

Who owns solar energy?

I saw this cartoon on Facebook last week and it made me giggle. Then it made me think.

While it is primarily a pop at the conservative instincts of the traditional energy sector, the more I thought about it, the more it resonated with deeper issues such as:

1. Renewable energy is completely different from other forms of energy as it is intrinsically democratic - supply of fuel cannot be exclusively auctioned off to the highest bidder by Governments - which means anyone can take part.

2. This is a massive threat to the traditional sector as their strengths in economies of scale and economic/political heft do not confer the advantages they used to.

3. It also means the barrier to entry is much lower - hence as all those individual householders claiming Feed In Tariff on their solar energy elbowing their way into the energy business. Move over EDF, Mrs Miggins of Acacia Avenue is selling these electrons.

4. Without their aces, can Big Energy compete in the unfolding new energy world? Or will they become the fossilised energy industry as I have predicted?

5. This is very exciting. This is Energy 2.0 which opens up masses of possibilities just as Web 2.0 did.

6. But, without that economic firepower, who is going to invest in the infrastructure such as the smart grid and storage facilities required to manage a new democratic system? How will they earn a return on that investment? Who will police it?



Cartoon © Mike Peters - reproduced under "fair use"

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14 May 2012

What timeframe should a sustainability strategy cover?

Last night we got back from a long weekend in Belfast to a glorious sight. OK, it may not look like much to you, but these are our first flowers we have ever seen on the wisteria we planted at the front of our house almost 10 years ago. In an age of weekend garden makeovers, some things just can't be rushed - and it feels like much more of an achievement for it.

It's the same sustainability strategy - some things take time to bloom and must be planned for well in advance. The optimum timescale depends on the type of business - asset intensive businesses such as chemical producers will take longer to transform than, say, a software company. In general, in my experience, a timeframe of less than three years tends to make people focus too much on current pressures and trends, whereas a longer timeframe gives more freedom to think freely. However if you go over 10 years, I find people won't take ownership of initiatives as many will assume they will have moved on after that - there is also a tendency to believe that technology will come to the rescue. So 3-10 years is a sensible range to pick from.

Of course this doesn't mean you shouldn't be pursuing shorter term goals in the meantime - a bit like planting annuals while plants like our wisteria comes to maturity. And if you are really clever, like Woking Council, you can structure your programme so the economic returns from quick wins are used to finance the longer term investments which will deliver broader business benefits.

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10 May 2012

Does the 'Shareholder Spring' herald a new era for CSR?

Since the Arab Spring last year, it seems that appending 'Spring' to any popular movement has already become a cliche - the "-gate" of the modern day. But my ears pricked up at the mention of the 'Shareholder Spring' this year where a number of big businesses are being given a firm clip around the ear by the people that own them - their shareholders.

When Business Secretary Vince Cable announced last year that one of his efforts to contain excessive executive pay was to give more power to shareholders, I must admit I was sceptical. Yes a few individual shareholders may protest, but the big institutional shareholders who have to find enough money to pay our pensions tend not to rock the boat. But now there have been shareholder revolts at Aviva, Barclays, AstraZeneca, Trinity Mirror and several others - and chief executive heads have rolled. Cable is keen to legislate for more power to the shareholder elbow and is being urged on by his opposite number Chuka Umunna, suggesting momentum will continue.

The big focus of the Shareholder Spring is excessive executive pay - in particular rewards for poor or mediocre performance. The fast expanding ratio of executive to average pay is one of the scandals of recent times - and it clearly contributes to inequalities in society. But with wider corporate social responsibility (CSR) becoming a key source of competitive advantage, when will shareholders start looking at the whole range of green and ethical risks?

And will those investors start seeing their investments as opportunities to demonstrate their own CSR? Currently you can invest in green and ethical funds (which often outperform the mainstream), but in the same way as 'green' is being integrated into mainstream consumer products like P&G's Ariel Excel Gel, will CSR be integrated into mainstream investment policies? The environmental pressure groups certainly think this is a key arm to twist - for example targeting the part nationalised RBS last year for its investments in tar sands. The leverage of shareholders is massive - probably bigger than any other stakeholder including customers - so this is a huge opportunity to drive positive change.

For me, it looks like I may have to update the business model in The Green Executive to include shareholders. I did consider including them at the time, but as none of my corporate clients, or indeed the executives I interviewed for the book listed them as a driver, I left them out. The way things are going, I might have to insert them in the second edition. Things move fast in this business!

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8 May 2012

Lessons on Green Communications from the World of Politics

Last Thursday was the most important day of the political year for me - polling day in the local elections. I wasn't up for re-election this year, but we managed to secure a decent majority for my ward colleague after a hard fought campaign in very difficult electoral times for our party.

Politics is essentially a battle of ideas, but ideas are useless unless you communicate them. There is a myth that political communications is just about catchy slogans - the slogans only gain traction when there is some evidence to back them up. In our case, the slogan was our candidate "works hard all year round, not just at election time" - which we repeated ad nauseum - but we had plenty of evidence, much of it photographic, that this was indeed true, not just empty words.

One of the most interesting cases in green politics was when now Prime Minister David Cameron was 'decontaminating the brand' of his Conservative Party by embracing the green agenda. Not only was the catchy slogan "Vote Blue, Go Green" coined along with a new 'tree' logo for the party, but Cameron famously flew out to the arctic to see the effects of climate change for himself and pose for photos hugging huskies. This effort was extremely successful at first, but his green credibility then eroded over time as he failed to return to the subject with such vigour.

There are three clear lessons here for green communications:

  1. A catchy slogan is very helpful - such as Marks & Spencer's "Plan A: because there is no Plan B". This should be repeated until you are fed up hearing it, and beyond, as that's generally when it is starting to get through.
  2. The slogan needs backing up with substance - 'show, don't tell' is the key success factor here - actions, pictures and video speak much louder than words. The stories must also resonate with the audience (the huskies in Cameron's case got more coverage than melting ice).
  3. You can't expect the message to be self-sustaining. The programme and its communications must be maintained, refreshed and if anything expanded over time.

What you end up with is a slogan that runs like a thread through a whole series of stories demonstrating that slogan in practice. And, as I rest my sore feet from weeks of pounding the pavements, I can assure you it works.

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2 May 2012

Green Technology: It's the S-Curve, Stupid

When I were a lad in the late 1970s, I dreamed of having my own computer. In my room. I would lie awake at night making mental lists of all the things I would get it to do - like getting a map of the area and plot all my friends houses on it, all our dens and all our secret routes - you can tell I was never one of the cool kids. Then, sometime in 1982 I got my hands on a BBC Micro. Hands shaking, I typed "Hello" and hit Enter. "Syntax Error" was the stark monochrome response. What a load of rubbish, I thought (I did grow to love my Beeb, however.)

30 years later, I have beside me a little black rectangle of glass with an apple on the back that will do pretty much anything the 10 year old me could have dreamed of and much, much more. And guess what, it costs less than that BBC computer cost all that time ago, when a packet of crisps was less than 10 pence.

Technology evolves. Sometimes slowly, sometimes incredibly rapidly, but the first version of anything - computers, cameras, cars, aircraft, whatever - is always a bit rubbish. But you need to get it past the rubbish stage and into a reasonable functional form before market forces will start driving break-through innovations and costs start plummeting. This is well known, universally accepted and is usually represented as a series of S-curves of maturing versions of any technology. Every time one technology matures, someone will be working on the version that supersedes it - but the rubbish stage (pre yellow burst) is soon left far behind.

Given this understanding, it really annoys me when a report comes out of some 'free-market' think tank which claims that renewables will always be too expensive, will never deliver energy security and/or will require fossil fuel back-up (which they often bizarrely assume will have to run full time.) By the way, I put 'free market' in inverted commas as the authors inevitably ignore how markets work and assume technologies will not evolve, their costs will stay constant, and synergetic developments will not take place. They are the equivalent of the Cambridge professor who in 1951 declared no one would ever need a computer of their own, or be able to afford one.

Recent history shows us how short-sighted these analyses are - the whole furore over the cut to UK solar feed-in tariffs was triggered by increased demand leading to plummeting panel costs which in turn boosted demand - the natural market cycle. Now the first iteration of silicon based panels is maturing, the next generation of dye-based technology - which is twice as efficient - is starting to emerge. When that hits the maturity level, we'll see a lot, lot more and cheaper solar power which will in turn drive the next generation.

Synergy is another factor in those S-curves. To exist, my iPhone has required a huge number of innovations in processor size, power and cost, mobile communication technology and the modern internet to name but three things that weren't freely available back in the days of my BBC Micro. When you start to put together very efficient solar panels and innovations like BAE System's 'structural battery' where energy can be stored in the structure of a vehicle, which in turn cuts the need for heavy batteries, cutting energy requirements - you can start to see all sorts of potential for solar powered vehicles.

Thirty plus years on, the 10 year old me is still excited by technology and the potential for human ingenuity. So we've got to ignore the calls of those with a bizarre compulsion to cling to the past and put human ingenuity into the epic challenge that is living within the natural limits of our planet. Let's dream our dreams and ignore those who can only sit at the sidelines and sneer.

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