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September 2012 - Terra Infirma

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28 September 2012

Creative Destruction and Sustainability

We're in the midst of party political conference season and one thing you will notice in any discussion about sustainability and climate change is the focus on shiny new technology. You will not of course hear anything about the destruction of the old unsustainable way of doing things. This is for one very good reason - no-one ever got far in politics by emphasising the down side of what they want to do. But, as the cliché goes, you can't make an omlette without breaking eggs.

There is some irony in the title of this post - that to build a sustainable society, we must destroy the old one. But sustainable in the ecological sense does not mean unchanging, merely the concept of operating within natural limits in an equitable way. Like nature itself, a sustainable society will be constantly evolving, not frozen in aspic.

There are two ways to approach the transition. Firstly the politicans' method - build the new and let the old wither on the vine. And to a certain extent this is happening - as Mark Lynas and Chris Goodall point out, the more renewable energy the country produces, the less gas is burnt. Rising renewable capacity will eventually lead to reduced gas capacity as who will build what isn't needed? The upsides are that it is easy to sell and usually produces a robust end product, the downside is speed of change as the system evolves.

The other way is the machismo approach. Companies like InterfaceFLOR appear to relish deleting product ranges which are incompatible with their sustainability targets. They see this as a badge of pride - revolution rather than evolution. This is obviously easier in an organisation than it is in the democratic system as business leaders don't tend to have the Daily Mail breathing down their necks chasing headlines, but it is fast and decisive.

The answer will no doubt be a mishmash of the two - large scale evolution powered and accelerated by many medium scale revolutions in the value chains that provide our material quality of life. But we can't duck the fact that change requires destruction as well as creation.


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26 September 2012

"They only do it to reduce their costs.... Not to save the planet!"

Occasionally I get invited to respond to an on-line query or comment and I always do my best to do so in a open minded and helpful way. I responded to one such request recently from UK Business Labs and the following comment appeared:

"And I have seen so many companies saying they are green but when you look at what they are doing (recycling plastic for example) they only do it to reduce their costs.... Not to save the planet!"

This is an intriguing point of view. My initial response was that this is a false OR - money or planet. There is nothing wrong with improving your environmental performance in a way that benefits your business - money AND planet - in fact it is the best way to do it.

But it betrays a deeper distrust of the motivations of businesses wishing to go green. When I interviewed Richard Gillies of Marks & Spencer about the retail giant's Plan A sustainability programme for The Green Executive, he told me that they were coy about how much in the way of savings they had made from Plan A. They weren't expected to make any return on the initial £200m when the programme was set up and were pleasantly surprised when it paid for itself and provided a surplus.

So the question is, how do you deal with this paradox? The short answer is brutal honesty: "we are doing this because it is the right thing to do AND it is good for our business - we find that one follows the other." Of course hardened cynics will remain cynical, but I learnt a long time ago not to worry about hardened cynics.


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24 September 2012

Ove Arup, Total Architecture and Sustainability

Last night, I was on one of my now regular night-time strolls trying to get squalling baby to sleep. To keep me sane, I often give myself a mission on these walks so I'm not just wandering around in circles waiting for silence to envelope my tiny banshee. And last night I went to find the blue plaque on a nearby house where the legendary civil engineer Ove Arup was born in 1895. We can do quite a bit of an engineering tour around my neighbourhood, if that sort of thing turns you on - William Armstrong was born half a mile a way and educated a couple of hundred yards away, and from my window I can see the site of the first stationary steam engine built by George Stephenson after he went into business for himself, just before he started putting them onto wheels.

Ove Arup is most publicly well known for designing the Sydney Opera House, but known within the construction industry for his development of the idea of 'Total Architecture' where the boundaries between disciplines are broken down and everybody takes responsibility for all aspects of a design.

When engineers and quantity surveyors discuss aesthetics and architects study what cranes do we are on the right road. 

When I interviewed Chris Jofeh of Arup for The Green Executive, he drew a line between the Total Architecture ideas of the firm's founder and the work the company now does on sustainable buildings. One of my very, very few regrets about the book I now have is that I didn't pick up on the 'Total' meme at the time and dub the highest level of corporate sustainability 'Total Sustainability' as this kind of deep integration of sustainability into everybody's responsibilities and mindsets is what I was proposing.

I did draw a parallel between what I called 'Full Integration' of sustainability and Total Quality Management (as does John Elkington in The Zeronaughts), but the more I think about it, Total Architecture may be a more appropriate analogy. Quality control is an internal, managerial issue, architecture is more outward looking, often inspirational and occasionally groundbreaking - what sustainability should be.

More food for thought for my nocturnal meanderings with the noisy boy!



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21 September 2012

The Silent Green Majority

Photo: Critical Mass protest in Budapest 2007, source: becherpig

Just dig these new public perception stats on renewable energy released by UK's Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC):

  • 77% said they supported renewable energy for providing our electricity, fuel and heat, with 26% strongly supporting. Just 4% opposed renewable energy.
  • Perceptions of a range of renewable energy sources were mostly positive. Highest levels of support were found for solar (82%), off shore wind (73%) and wave and tidal (72%). On-shore wind had the highest level of opposition, though still only 12% opposed this, with 4% strongly opposing (compared with 66% supporting).

Also out this week was a survey that said, if someone was unsure whether to buy a house or not, the most popular single 'extra' that could persuade them was installed solar PV.

Jeepers. And all this despite the vast majority of UK newspapers running relentlessly negative stories about renewable energy in particular and the green movement in general. If you ever look at the comments section of any on-line green story, or the foaming and ranting in newspapers' letters pages, you'd be forgiven for believing that the shift to green was incredibly unpopular with the general public. But as Machiavelli said:

"the initiator has the enmity of all who would profit by the preservation of the old institution and merely lukewarm defenders in those who gain by the new ones.”

There is, it appears, rather a sizeable silent green majority and the ranters and ravers are in actual fact a tiny if very vocal minority.

These statistics should give heart to all those in politics and business who want to push green harder. Here in the UK, only one of the three main party leaders, Deputy PM Nick Clegg, has made a major green speech while PM David Cameron and Opposition Leader Ed Miliband have merely paid lip service. This is incredible given that whopping 77:4 ratio of supporters to opponents of renewable energy - a clear vote winner for whoever pushes hardest at that open door.

Business leaders too should feel empowered. This appetite for a low carbon economy from the general public and, by extension, their employees and potential employees is fertile ground for innovation, new products and whole new business ventures. People want it - let's supply it!

Having said that, I would warn against the statistics being seen as a carte blanche (carte verte?). Going green requires creative destruction - losing the high carbon, highly polluting parts of the economy and replacing them with greener equivalents. Such change produces uncertainty and may undermine confidence, eroding that public perception. The key as always is to ensure that the new product/process/system is much better in all respects than the old before phasing out the latter. I suspect that the 77% are asking for a shiny new low carbon economy, not a tatty old hair shirt.



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19 September 2012

Chickens, Eggs and Green Business

Another day, another study that shows that green businesses have more productive/happier employees, this time from UCLA:

"Adopting green practices isn't just good for the environment, it's good for your employees and it's good for your bottom line. Employees in such green firms are more motivated, receive more training, and benefit from better interpersonal relationships. The employees at green companies are therefore more productive than employees in more conventional firms."

This adds to wealth of research that shows greener businesses have better staff retention rates, give shareholders better returns, do better in a recession etc, etc. A green business is a better business.

But this always gets me thinking - what's the cause and what's the effect? Does being green deliver these results, or is it that the kind of progressive, values-led business that does well will be more likely to take environmental issues seriously? It is almost impossible to isolate the two factors in these studies.

I have come to the conclusion that, rather than one "coming first" as in old chicken and egg cliché, the two are part of a virtuous circle - a better business is likely to take green seriously which delivers business benefits which make the business even better and even more convinced of the need to be values led which in turn makes them more committed to environmental improvements. Which "came first" is often lost in the mists of time.

It's actually to solve the old 'chicken and egg' conundrum itself - any student of evolution will tell you the egg came first.


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17 September 2012

Waxing Lyrical about Barbour Jackets

It's fair to say I am not renowned for my fashion sense. I can do 'smart smart', but like many men I'm rubbish at the somewhat dichotomous 'smart casual.' So recently I decided I was going to buy myself a nice smart casual jacket and started looking around and found nothing. Then I happened upon an interview with the dashing actor David Harewood of Homeland fame, illustrated by a picture of him sporting a really cool Barbour jacket. Now I associated Barbour with the landed gentry, but hadn't come across their funkier International range. And they're made locally - just down the road from me at South Shields - a rare British clothing manufacturer. So, reader, I bought one.

And it has been like a love affair - my jacket is very cool looking and incredibly practical - I've worn it in some very testing conditions and it passed with flying colours. And in terms of sustainable consumption, here's Ian Bergin, Head of Menswear at Barbour, speaking to The Journal (our local paper):

“The big trend in the last five years is values-led consumption and it seems that the feeling is going to last. You have never had people throwing their Barbour away. Jackets come in and they’re 50 years old. They are re-waxed. It’s a lovely part of the business."

This is my kind of materialism - building a relationship between customer and product and maximising the life of that product, while continuing to extract value through the repair process. So often we hear or read people sneering at expensive, branded products as the antithesis of sustainability, but I believe in buying quality, not quantity and that comes at a price (and not too excessive on the grand scale of things when it comes to Barbour). If you pay for something, you look after it. To me, the antithesis of sustainability is actually the 'pile'em high, sell'em cheap, throw'em away, buy another' products of the budget chains - and let's face it, if you can buy T-shirts at £2.00, whoever made them didn't get paid very well, did they?



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14 September 2012

Green Business Still Has Some Growing Up To Do

I found this article on organic food production in the Guardian both interesting and disturbing. Interesting in its discussion of the whys and wherefores of organic food production. Disturbing in that I hadn't realised that Soil Association Standards promote homeopathy as a means to animal welfare.

Let's be blunt - homeopathy is bunk. No-one who believes in homeopathy can criticise climate change deniers for twisting scientific evidence. Diluting a substance to one part in a trillion? Water has memory? Give me a break.

Over the last decade or two, green business has been throwing off the shackles of the weird, wacky and snake oil salesmen and positioning itself in the mainstream. After all, if we want to achieve ecological sustainability our efforts have to be embedded into the mainstream, not mired in a freak zone of yurts, whale music and healing crystals. So it pains me to find one of the best established eco-labels in the world actively promoting the steaming pile of New Age-y horse manure that is homeopathy.

Clearly we still have some distance left to go.


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12 September 2012

New Arrival at Terra Infirma Towers

I'd like to introduce the new member of the Terra Infirma team who joined us at half past midnight yesterday morning. His name is Charlie Kane and he'll be Vice President for Noise Pollution and Organic Waste. It may take a bit of time for us to get him up to speed, so there may be service disruptions for the next two weeks. But we're very proud of him and think he'll make a great addition to our burgeoning team.



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10 September 2012

Lashing yourself to the mast

"We haven't a hope in hell in meeting this target, but we're going to try anyway."

"The management redefined our target to one which we were going to meet anyway."

These are two real, if slightly paraphrased, quotes I have heard recently which show two polar opposite attitudes to sustainability targets in major corporations. Guess which one is doing better environmentally - and financially?

Odysseus famously lashed himself to the mast of his ship so he could hear the voices of the sirens whose song would seduce him onto the rocks, but wouldn't be able to give into them and change from his true course. Sustainability is difficult, I make no bones about it. But, as the Green Executive concluded, persistence is key. There is always the temptation to go easy on yourself and fall for the those siren voices and try and cheat the system - this usually fails as everyone can see such cheats a mile off.

Are you prepared to lash yourself to the mast and tough out the tough times? It's called leadership.

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7 September 2012

Are your employees letting you down?

Every morning this week I've walked past a parked car belonging to a meter reading company. The back of the car is plastered in stickers telling us how eco-friendly it is, but every morning the driver has been sat inside reading the paper with the motor running. Tut, tut.

This illustrates two things:

  • From an environmental point of view, you can invest in all the green technology you like, but if your employees aren't engaged in the process, and changing their behaviour, it won't matter a fig;
  • From a public relations point of view, if you're going to talk the talk, you'd better make sure that everybody is walking the walk or you'll get egg on your face.

Most importantly, it demonstrates the need to get everybody signed up to your sustainability programme. The ideal is for every employee to be a sustainability ambassador - if that sounds pie in the sky, try speaking to any employee of InterfaceFLOR and you'll get a pleasant surprise at the zeal for all things green.

My 'green jujitsu' approach is designed to achieve this by working to employee's strengths, interests and habits to make them part of the solution rather than seeing them as part of the problem. So how might it help bring this errant driver back into line? Assuming the culture of a meter reading company has a big focus on data, a first step could be to provide some statistical feedback on fuel consumption. Further steps could include challenging all drivers to develop plans to reduce their consumption, and running a competition between teams to deliver the biggest reduction - inject some fun and peer pressure into the equation. And then they might see some real progress - even when no-one is looking.


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5 September 2012

Sustainability Drivers Template

Here's a simple graphical template I developed for brainstorming sustainability drivers and internal factors - effectively a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis. Despite the crudeness of my artwork (despite a little help from clip art), I find the graphical approach gets people into a more creative mood. The analogy of the organisation as a yacht (inspired by Dame Ellen MacArthur) has a nice sustainability theme - limited resources, renewable energy powered, working with nature etc.

The four factors are:

  • Winds: external forces blowing you in the right direction (opportunities, threats of 'do nothing')
  • Choppy waters: external factors holding you back (threats)
  • Sails: internal ability to catch those winds (strengths, internal opportunities)
  • Anchor: internal factors holding you back (weaknesses, internal threats)

Typically, I will print this onto an A0 sheet and pin it to the wall. I ask participants to write their ideas individually on Post-Its then take it in turns to put them up, debating them as we go along. It helps to use different colour Post-Its for each of the four areas and have a fifth colour ready to record the other ideas and insights that inevitably tumble out as you go along.



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3 September 2012

What the Paralympics can teach us about Sustainability

"Don't focus on the disability. Focus on the ability."

Oscar Pistorius
Paralympic Gold Medalist

Photo: Erik van Leeuwen (bron: Wikipedia), Creative Commons Licence

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