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July 2012 - Terra Infirma


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30 July 2012

Green must not mean shoddy

Last Friday I popped into a high street stationers to pick up some printer paper. They only had two packs of recycled paper and both had split crumpling some of the paper inside. None of the non-recycled paper had suffered the same, being in waxier wrapping. I asked an assistant whether they had any other packs and she said no, but that the packing on these was completely inadequate. She offered me a discount, which I took.

But this really annoys me. Green must not mean being offered inferior goods or services - especially from a big brand such as Xerox. There is no point whatsoever in lightweighting packaging if it doesn't protect the contents properly. A complete waste of time, effort and resources.

 

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27 July 2012

Get Down Off Your High Horse

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Get Down Off Your High Horse" and it's about how to (and how not to) go about engaging people in sustainability.

Audio MP3

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

GBC16 Get Down Off Your High Horse

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

 

Play

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25 July 2012

Osborne vs Davey: The Big Fight!


So in the big green battle in the UK's Coalition Government, it looks like round 1 to Energy and Climate Change Secretary (and my political colleague) Ed Davey (right), who announced today that cuts to onshore wind subsidy would be limited to 10%, not the 25% called for by backbench Conservative MPs who were given a sympathetic ear by Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (left).

However Davey might have taken a couple of telling body blows during the opening exchanges, according to details leaked to the Financial Times. It is not clear what deal was done, but the concession may have been an open door to cheap unabated gas, which could compromise progress to hit climate change targets at a later date.

This is a fascinating battle - and one which Davey was predicted to lose. But I know Ed and, while he is less combative than his predecessor Chris Huhne, he does have a reputation for being quietly effective. But this is also an interesting case study for those trying to implement radical changes to deliver sustainability in their own organisation.

Traditionally Governements haven taken a very incremental approach to environmental protection. This changed with the previous Labour Government's Climate Change Act in 2008 which committed the Government to deliver a 'legally binding' 80% cut in greenhouse gases by 2050. Despite this bold stretch target, with the notable exception of Ed Miliband's Feed In Tariff, the administration did not make much progress in terms of practical policy measures to meet it.

So the Coalition inherited a stretch target, but there are clear differences in how (or even whether) to meet it. There are those, mainly on the Conservative backbenches, who would simply scrap it. At the other end of the spectrum there's a cross-party group keen to tackle the challenge head-on - Lib Dems Huhne, Davey and Conservatives such as Tim Yeo and Greg Barker. In between are those who see their role to moderate the debate such as Osborne (who I am reliably informed is not quite as anti-green as portrayed in the media). The problem with this latter position is it takes us back to the incremental tit-for-tat pre-Climate Change Act approach.

So how would I tackle the problem? First, as Davey has done, dig the heels in for the short term at least - 'wins' secured now will have a much bigger impact than 'losses' in the future. Secondly, use some green jujitsu to play to Osborne's interests, reframing the argument from "low carbon or growth" to "low carbon growth or business as usual stagnation." The green sector grew 5% last year - growth Osborne would kill for in the rest of the economy. So play down climate change in the internal debates and make arguments along this line - eg jobs, exports, growth, energy security, innovation, technology etc - all things to attract the attention of a Chancellor of the Exchequer. Thirdly, back this up with evidence from the respected International Energy Agency to keep the Treasury geeks happy.

I'm sure this battle will run and run, but the key will be to fight smart and fight hard.

 

Photos reproduced under the Open Government Licence

 

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23 July 2012

Innovation, Failure & Sustainability

It is one of the most repeated clichés in business:

The man who never made a mistake never made anything.

Sustainability requires innovation, innovation implies risk, risk inevitably means a degree of failure, right?

Yes. But...

The problem with sustainability, unlike, say, social networking or wireless payments, is the huge number of people waiting gleefully for those failures. Otherwise how would the plethora of idiot-reactionary newspaper columnists, bloggers and on-line comment trolls sustain their life's "work"?

I get particularly worried when sustainability projects with a large degree of public funding start getting hyped up. This conflates the two obsessions of those one-eyed smart-alecs and knuckle-draggers - the environmental movement and public expenditure. If the project goes down, it's like Christmas and their birthday rolled into one. And unfortunately the resulting sneer-fest permeates out into the general public.

I know of at least three publicly backed projects which have been heavily sold by charismatic figures, appearing weekly in the local press, whose progress has suddenly gone uncharacteristically quiet. And it worries me that if they fail the fallout will make those with hands on the levers of power fear more bad publicity and stick to the same old same old.

So, while we must try new things, must allow ourselves room to fail and learn from our mistakes, some prudent modesty is in order until the approach/technology/whatever is proven in practice. Then we'll show 'em...

 

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20 July 2012

Are Investors Bothered About Sustainability?

I was sat in the foyer cafe of one of the most impressive corporate headquarters I have ever visited, formalising a business relationship with the company's Head of Sustainability. In the cavernous main foyer space groups of surprisingly young sharp suited men and women were being politely ushered between presentations on different aspects of the company's operations given by its top executives.

"It's investor day." explained my companion looking over at the suits, "This is one of the reasons we need to up our game - to keep these guys happy."

When I was writing The Green Executive two years ago, I considered including investor pressure in the business case for sustainability, but ultimately omitted it as none of the executives I interviewed for the book cited it as a driver. When I asked the question, I got equivocal answers. But times change, so is investor pressure now a compelling reason to take sustainability seriously?

Well, according to consultants PwC, increasingly so. In a report released earlier this year, they identified seven pieces of evidence pointing in this direction:

1. Sustainability shareholder resolutions gaining traction - more people are voting for them.

2. Steady growth in sustainable investment in the last 15 years.

3. Studies suggest positive relationships between sustainability and financial performance.

4. Financial institutions are forming sustainability research departments.

5. Entry of well-funded financial information providers into the sustainability information provision business.

6. New research shows that investors are keen to access sustainability data.

7. Growing interest among institutional investors.

So the conclusion seems to be investor interest is increasing rapidly and will soon start telling - suggesting that this is indeed one more reason to stay ahead of the curve on sustainability.

 

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18 July 2012

Playing To Your Employees' Strengths and Interests

The standard attitude to raising awareness of sustainability with employees can be parodied as:

"OK, these people are pig ignorant and uninterested in sustainability issues. We've got to jolt them out of their complacency and keep badgering them until they get it. Then they'll be as virtuous as we are and join the revolution!"

And the standard reaction from those employees is:

"Go away and stop bothering me. I'm trying to do my job!"

This is why most culture change efforts fail - they play to perceived weaknesses rather than strengths, and nobody likes that. If you want to interest people in something, you've got to make it interesting to them, not to you. Want to engage with engineers? Ask them to help with technological solutions. Want to engage with production staff? Ask them how you can minimise waste at source. Want to engage with product designers? Challenge them to design a breakthrough product with superb operational and environmental performance.

It's not about you, and what turns you on, it's about them.

If you do it right, you'll uncover more secret green superheroes than you'd expect!

 

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16 July 2012

Any colour you like as long as it's green...

On a visit to friends of our who have two small boys, a squabble broke out over colouring pencils.

“Josh, you’ve got loads of pencils, give Jack one” said his Mum sternly

“No!” was the answer.

Mum bristled and was about to go into punishment mode. Jack was on my knee, so I tried a different tack.

“Which pencil can Jack use?”

Josh scanned the pencils in front of him, then held one up and said “This one.”

Our friends dubbed me 'Supernanny' - tongues firmly in cheek - but actually I was just trying out some of my green jujitsu style thinking. People like having a choice – if you give people a single option, they will automatically add an alternative – “no!”. If you give them more options then they tend to pick from those options, rather than considering others. So you simply make sure the options on offer are all environmentally preferable.

And better still you stack the choice towards the greenest option - making that choice the default or most convenient and your least green option the most difficult.

 

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13 July 2012

Zeroing in or losing focus?

I'm reading John Elkington's new book The Zeronaughts, which I'll review in whole in due course, but there's one thing about it which is really annoying me from the start. Elkington has adopted the Long Now Foundation's date format of adding a zero to the front of the traditional format, so 2012 becomes 02012. The argument is that this forces us to think long term.

I hate this and here's why:

  • It's plain annoying - After 41 years of indoctrination, I can't see a five figure number as a year, so I have to double take every time one turns up;
  • It is creating an artificial barrier between the reader and the important content - we should be making sustainability more accessible, not less;
  • It is self indulgent - we need to focus on practical solutions, not esoteric, clever-clever concepts;
  • We don't actually have the luxury of thinking 10,000+ years in the future - we need to concentrate on acting swiftly and decisively NOW and in the next decade to making society sustainable for the next century or so. If we do that, it will be sustainable for longer.

Grrr!

Rant over - but the principles of accessibility, simplicity and urgency should permeate all our sustainability communications.

 

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11 July 2012

Circular Economy or Web of Life?

As a nature lover, I thoroughly enjoyed Chris Packham's BBC series The Secrets of the Living Planet. Having been on our screens in my youth, Packham has suddenly burst back from the wilderness to become the putative successor to the legend that is David Attenborough. But being a scientist, Packham has brought his on flavour to his shows and the theme behind 'Secrets' is the interconnectiveness of life on earth. The last episode focussed on wetlands and seas and showed how the lowly Apple Snail is key to the extraordinary wildlife of the Brazilian Pantanal and how lowly crabs create the correct conditions in the mangroves of the Ganges delta to allow trees, deer and, in turn, the mighty tiger to survive.

This got me thinking about one of the key concepts of sustainability - the circular economy. Traditionally humans have adoped a linear 'take, make, use, waste' approach to our natural resources and this was fine while consumption was low and those natural resources were such that nature could do our reprocessing for us - ie we fitted into existing eco-systems. Modern society however consumes so much material - and of so many 'unnatural' types - that our eco-systems cannot cope with the linear economy, so we need to look at our economy as an eco-system in itself and make sure resources are recovered and reused in a circular manner.

While circular economy is a nice, simple, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin description, we should bear in mind that, as with nature, the reality will be much more complex than simple product recycling at the end of life. By-products and waste heat are created at every stage of product lifecycles and all of these should be seen, and used, as resources as well. This creates a complex set of interrelations - more of a web of life than simple loops. And, as with nature, that is a good thing - a diverse eco-systems of product flows will make the whole much more robust and allow it to evolve with society.

When watching Chris Packham's boyish enthusiasm at the complexities of natural eco-systems, it reminds me of my own enthusiasm when working for years on industrial symbiosis projects - matchmaking between producers of 'waste' and those who can put that material to good use. Not much gets me more excited than a clever zero waste cluster - I should get out more!

 

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9 July 2012

Taking The Extremes Out of Sustainability

Last week, political broadcaster Andrew Neil (right) hosted a debate on climate science. He invited libertarian polemicist James Delingpole and Friends of the Earth campaigner Andrew Pendleton to give their views. Presumably the choice of participants was to give the debate 'balance', but Delingpole and Pendleton have one very important thing in common which should disqualify both - neither is a climate scientist. If Neil really wanted light rather than heat, why didn't he simply ask someone who actually knows what they are talking about?

If I want to understand a bit more about, say, the Higgs Boson, like everyone else I listen to Prof Brian Cox, because he does know his stuff and is great at explaining it in context: "It's 99.999% sure [we've found the Higgs Boson], which actually, in particle physics, is only just sure enough." Brilliant.

The two worst nightmares I come across in the culture change programmes I run are:

  • Someone who has loaded themselves up on nonsense spouted by Delingpole, Christopher Booker or the rest of the denialosphere and sits there regurgitating it to show off in front of others;
  • Someone who has loaded themselves up on self-righteous drivel about how we all just don't get it and need to and live in yurts. One woman at an event I attended asked "How can we just sit here and talk about climate when people are dying in Syria?" I had to restrain myself from shouting "Well if that's what you think, why are you just sitting here yourself?"

Fortunately both are quite rare, but to avoid getting bogged down in lengthy, pointless debates, I try to avoid talking about "problems" and focus instead on solutions. You can't debate climate science properly in a short session, just as you can't debate the Higgs Boson - you can only talk in broad terms. Climate solutions, however, focus the mind much more productively. If you do get one of my stereotypes holding forth, you can set the solutions exercise going and invite the show off to discuss their pet subject with you in the sidelines. But never let yourself or your sessions get hijacked by such people - life is way too short.

Photo © FT Creative Commons Licence

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6 July 2012

Reframing the environment vs economy argument

In my keynote speech at the Energy & Environment North East 2012 conference, I argued that the question was not low carbon or growth, but low carbon or stagnation. Now the CBI has released a report arguing exactly the same thing:

With a technical double-dip recession now a reality and private sector growth at the top of the agenda, some are questioning whether there is still room for ‘going green’. The business response is definitive and emphatic: green is not just complementary to growth, but a vital driver of it [my emphasis].

In trying economic times, the UK’s green business has continued to grow in real terms, carving out a £122 billion share of a global market worth £3.3 trillion and employing close to a million people. And in 2014/15, it is expected to roughly halve the UK’s trade deficit.

Stirring stuff. But also a vital reminder of the importance of framing arguments when it comes to making the case for sustainability. Too many politicians, media commentators and business leaders have a default view that 'green' is a luxury, expensive and/or a communist plot at the best of times, never mind during "the current economic situation." The statistics are showing us is that green growth is the only way forward, but many choose to ignore them.

This arises because we all perceive the rest of the world through a 'frame' which blocks out most of the picture and allows us to isolate the things or issues we perceive to be important. We have to do this or we would simply be overwhelmed with information, but the downside is that what we see through the frame may not represent the bigger picture. Before coming to an important decision, it is always worth questioning our default frame and maybe trying a different frame to see if it makes a difference - testing our assumptions in other words.

The 'reframing' process is extremely important at an organisational level too. "If it's a choice between profit or the environment, my boss always chooses profit." someone complained to me recently. That's an argument they are very unlikely to win unless they can reframe the argument to "environment and profit." Getting someone to change their default frame is not straightforward, but there are a number of options:

  • The opinions of someone the person trusts - the CBI report is very powerful because that group is anything but a group of lefty beardy tree huggers. I often quote the International Energy Agency for exactly the same reason;
  • Use questions - questions are disarming and get people thinking. I start my workshops by asking "Why should we take sustainability seriously?" which encourages delegates to make the case to themselves;
  • Frame presentations and arguments carefully - if I started my workshops with "Should we take sustainability seriously?" then that is quite a different frame and puts the onus on me to argue 'yes'.

Chesterton said "Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame." It is also the most important part of any argument, so choose your frame carefully.

 

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4 July 2012

Is the team key to creating a culture of sustainability?

What can a single designer do to change the life cycle environmental performance of a complex product, say, a car? If they're really clever (or very lucky) that individual might come up with some revolutionary new aerodynamic tweak which leads to a huge improvement in fuel efficiency, but that's very unlikely. On the other hand, if the whole product development team is tasked with greening the vehicle, that's a different matter - they can determine the overall design concept, optimise every component and subsystems and exploit synergies between innovations.

Why then do we tend to target culture change for sustainability programmes at either the individual, or the whole organisation. Using the team as the stepping stone between the two has many advantages:

  • Empowerment: working together, the team has the power to actually change things;
  • Purpose: at the team level, the relevance of sustainability to the job role is very clear;
  • Camaraderie: the team has a common mission and will help each other achieve it;
  • Peer pressure: loyalty to fellow team members is often stronger than loyalty to the organisation overall.

While these are advantages, they can initially be barriers - sometimes it is hard to gain the trust of a tight knit team and individual members can sometimes hide behind older heads to avoid having to change. The best approach here is green jujitsu - working to strengths rather than weaknesses, for example:

  • Tailor all sustainability communications to the team's role;
  • Illustrate awareness material with case studies of team effort;
  • Challenge the team to come up with sustainability solutions for their role;
  • Give the team leader personal responsibility to deliver sustainability goals;
  • Aim incentives and rewards at the team as a whole.

So make teams work for you!

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2 July 2012

Diamond's in the Rough: Bankers' Values and CSR

So just when we thought the banking industry couldn't get embroiled in another ethical scandal, Barclays gets a £300 million fine for artificially manipulating the Libor - the interest rate for inter-bank loans - to maximise profits. This asks all sorts of questions, not least was this not a criminal act, but I want to pick up on something Barclays Chief Executive Bob Diamond said about it:

"I am sorry that some people acted in a manner not consistent with our culture and values."

This is a very interesting statement. Culture and values manifest themselves in behaviour, not carefully crafted mission statements. If 14 people at Barclays have been caught fiddling the system (who knows how many more were complicit) and others have been fired from other banks  for doing the same, it suggests that such ducking and diving is very much part of the culture and the true values of the banking sector. The most shocking story in the press at the weekend was that Allied Irish Bank had sacked or marginalised three successive Chief Internal Auditors for reporting corrupt practices to the board - an astonishing disregard from the top of the organisation for even staying within the law.

If Diamond really does want to create a new culture and values in Barclays, he's clearly got a huge challenge on his hands. He has already given up his bonus to try to demonstrate leadership responsibility, but with politicians and press lining up to call for his head, it might not be him who takes it on. As I write, it has been announced that Marcus Agius, the Chairman of Barclays, has stepped down but this may not be enough blood on the boardroom floor yet to satisfy the public.

The lesson from the banking mire for the rest of us is clear - leaders can believe the culture and values of the organisation to be those in their glossy corporate brochures, but it is actual behaviour, not words, which is the real test of corporate social responsibility.

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