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January 2013 - Terra Infirma

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30 January 2013

Cut the Bull**** - Straight Talking & Sustainability

Sustainability Plain LanguageI spent yesterday contributing to an draft of a client's sustainability strategy. What was most impressive was the Herculean attempts to keep the usual corporate PR drivel out of the text. Typically, somebody would say:

"How about 'we will endeavour to fulfil our moral obliga...' oh that's a steaming pile of meaningless management crap! How about 'we will [do X]'?"

This plain speaking was so refreshing compared to my experience in one of my Green Executive interviews. The interviewee (I won't say which one) gave a brilliantly candid interview, full of all sorts of perspectives which percolated through to the rest of the text.

Understandably, he did ask that I run the resulting text past the company's corporate communications team to check he hadn't dropped any clangers. Unfortunately they took it upon themselves to rewrite the piece into an incredibly bland, glossy press release, taking out all the good, meaty bits - in fact you could have changed the company name to any other and you wouldn't have noticed any dissonance.

After some polite to-ing and fro-ing, I told them bluntly that, unless they pointed out anything in the original that was either factually incorrect or commercially sensitive, I would publish it as it was. They refused to co-operate, so I went ahead.

Here's why we need to talk straight when it comes to sustainability:

  • It starts us off in an honest frame of mind;
  • It forces us to be absolutely clear about what we are trying to do;
  • It makes our commitments and efforts more credible - stripping away any whiff of greenwash;
  • It encourages transparency and openness;
  • It helps colleagues, suppliers and customers buy into the sustainability and understand what the organisation is really trying to do;
  • It allows all stakeholders to understand the commitments - and hold us to them.

So, I suppose this post is a bit of a plea. Let's drop the all-too-prevalent tone of the professional copywriter and tell it how it is!


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28 January 2013

Let's Work Together - Partnership and Sustainability

'Partnership' is one of those funny words which far too many people spout with their brains disengaged - particularly when it comes to sustainability. It is automatically assumed to be the right thing to do in all circumstances, when in reality a bad partnership, like a bad personal relationship, can be very harmful to both parties.

I've learnt from sometimes bitter experience that it is only worth getting into a partnership with people you trust and, even then, in circumstances when the benefits outweigh the effort required to form and sustain that partnership - which can be substantial. In particular I keep an eye out for 'partnership junkies' who seem to want to be involved in everything without bringing anything to the table - especially when there's some cash around.

Here are some examples when partnership between companies and organisations can deliver benefits that working alone can never do:

  • Industrial Symbiosis - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - by definition requires partnership and openness and it can deliver immense benefits. In the IS projects I used to run, we diverted 100,000s tonnes of 'waste' per annum from landfill into other uses by bringing organisations together and getting them to think the 'right' way.
  • Collective purchasing can create and strengthen non-existent or weak supply chains for green technology and greener materials/energy by creating massive and stable demand. As I recounted in The Green Executive, the Royal Mail got together with the other European postal services to sign a Memorandum of Understanding on purchasing hydrogen vehicles which they believe accelerated the development of the technology by a decade.
  • Standard setting - various sector organisations have worked together to create voluntary standards for everything from supply chain impacts to reporting standards. Other groups have lobbied for higher environmental legislation to penalise those perceived to be not pulling their weight.
  • Critical friends - some corporates have gone into partnership with NGOs to give themselves someone who can give them a poke with a sharp stick if they drop their standards. The WWF and Coca-Cola's partnership on watershed management in developing countries is a great example.
  • Mutual learning - my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group brings together some really big companies to learn from each other through structured discussions. This is particularly effective when there is a big diversity in participants as ideas which are commonplace in one sector might be novel in another. One high street chain was reluctant to join the group because there were no other retailers, but my reaction was "that's the whole point!"

Like all aspects of corporate sustainability, partnership is highly beneficial when it is done properly for the right reasons, just don't fall for those who see it as a reason to do nothing. It must lead to clear, mutual benefits for all involved, or you are wasting your time.


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25 January 2013

Do you 'get' Green Jujitsu?

When I explain the concept of Green Jujitsu to people, their first response is all too often not "Oh! That's where we're going wrong!", but "Yeah, that's what we do already, but it still doesn't work!"

Inevitably when they go on to show me their environmental policy, employee engagement material, sustainability/CSR reports and so on, it is  drenched in clichéd 'green' imagery and jargon and bears little or no relation to the organisation, its activities, its marketplace or its culture.

That's 180° out. Wrong, wrong, wrong...

The idea of Green Jujitsu is to work with the prevailing culture in the organisation, not against it. So, unless you're trying to engage the employees of Greenpeace, you need to roll back on all the green clichés, language and hand-wringing. You've got to align the frame through which you present sustainability to the day-to-day experience of your employees:

  • If you're a creative business, frame sustainability in creative terms.
  • If you're an engineering business, frame sustainability in engineering terms.
  • If you're a R&D business, frame sustainability in terms of innovation opportunities.
  • If you're a hotel business, frame sustainability as part of the excellent service you are providing to guests.
  • If you're an architectural practice, frame sustainability as the epitome of good building design.
  • If you're a recycling business, frame sustainability as "that's what we're here for!"

You are NOT doing Green Jujitsu if:

  • Your material includes images of hands cupping a sapling or some other drippy nonsense.
  • You present sustainability as some sort of guilt trip for the industry (you're effectively insulting your employees for being in their jobs).
  • Your environmental policy could be applied to any other business simply by changing the name at the top.
  • You are trying to explain climate science to employees.
  • Your main delivery mechanism is voluntary environmental champions.
  • You don't have sustainability objectives embedded throughout your reporting structure.

It has struck me that I should develop a meta-concept - Green Jujitsu Jujitsu? - to use the same Jujitsu techniques to get Green Jujitsu better understood by practitioners!

For more, check out my ebook, Green Jujitsu, published by Do Sustainability.


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23 January 2013

The ONE thing you MUST do to secure commitment for sustainability

If you're like me, you're always bemused by all those snake-oil-selling blog posts which claim to have the ONE, single secret to health, wealth, happiness etc. And you usually have to read through pages and pages of build up guff until they give that 'secret' away. And when you read it, you go "huh."

But here's one cure all for commitment that's genuine. And I'll get straight to the point - no salesman's spiel.

If you want to get commitment for sustainability from anyone - employees, customers, suppliers, members of the public, board members, anyone, then you need this one magical ingredient:


Yep, it's that simple, get 'em involved. Get them to roll their sleeves up and take part. Challenge them to work out what sustainability means to their day job for themselves.

You will find cynicism and apathy fall away and people get enthused, get a deeper understanding of the issues and work out what it means to them. I've been making a good career out of 'secret' for the last few years, so believe me it works.

Case study: I ran a sustainability workshop for directors of a major UK company before Christmas - I still have the post-it covered templates on the floor behind me as I write this. When I rang my main contact the following week for some feedback and he said "You know that guy who was a bit stand-offish in the session? He's never been convinced about the whole sustainability agenda. Well, he rang me the day after the workshop and asked what he needed to do to move this forward in his section - I couldn't believe it!"

Trust me, this magic elixir works!


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21 January 2013

Taking Green Into The Mainstream

Years and years ago I was doing some consultancy work for the producer of a really good green product - one which managed to substitute benign natural materials for a highly aggressive and dangerous chemical. Our project was largely technical, but my main contact, the Business Development Manager, was constantly complaining about his difficulty in selling the product beyond 'The Green Niche'.

The product was sold in bog standard white plastic bottles adorned with a black and white label which looked as if it had just come out of a cheap inkjet printer, because it just had. Across the label were the words "ENVIRONMENTALLY FRIENDLY" in crude bold lettering with the actual function of the product in a smaller font underneath.

I ruminated on this for a while and put together a presentation for him (for free = mistake) based on some academic work about the development of green markets and the barriers to the mainstream. The conclusion was that mainstream customers saw 'green' as the third or fourth 'button' when making buying decisions, usually after performance and price. I recommended they promote the health & safety benefits of the product above the 'environmentally friendly' tagline as their target customers take their employees' safety very seriously - and get them printed properly.

The BDM nodded his way through my talk and said "I couldn't agree more. That's what we've been doing for years."

In my naiveté, I didn't yell "No it isn't! That's your problem! Your product might be great, but it looks like complete crap!"

It would have cost peanuts to get the labels redesigned and professionally printed, but the BDM preferred to keep blaming the buyers at his prospective customers for 'not getting it'. Nothing changed and the product failed to break into the mainstream.

The lesson here is the same one I preach about using Green Jujitsu to engage with employees - you MUST take the blinkers off and put yourself in the other guy's shoes. You may be massively proud of your green product or service, but outside the green niche, 'green' is seen as one of a number of attributes rather than the prime one.

If you want to break into the mainstream, you've got to compete on performance, price AND planet. If you find yourself blaming the people you expect to buy the product, you're on a hiding to nothing.


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18 January 2013

Horse burgers, traceability and protecting the brand

As I write, the UK Government is debating the latest food scandal - that horse meat has been found in cheap burgers sold by some of the biggest UK retailers under their own brand. Leaving aside the avalanche of Twitter jokes, this illustrates once again the importance of having a tight control of the supply chain when it comes to corporate social responsibility.

First up, blame. Clearly Tesco et al did not plan to serve contaminated beef to their customers, but the sins of suppliers usually impact on the brand, not the supplier - and usually the biggest brand gets the biggest beating. It is Tesco that is getting it in the neck, not so much Aldi, Lidl et al. There are direct parallels with the Foxconn affair where Apple took 99% of the flak, with lesser brands like HP managing to stay in the shadows.

Secondly, traceability. Consumers rightly expect brands to do the heavy lifting on making sure a product is what it should be and comes from where it should come from. A couple of years ago, I visited a contract tissue paper manufacturer who, as part of their service to the brands they work for, could trace any pack of toilet roll back to the hectare of forest from whence it came.

Thirdly, honesty. Tesco got quickly out of the blocks, taking out adverts in major newspapers saying:

"We and our supplier have let you down and we apologise. So here's our promise. We will find out exactly what happened and, when we do, we'll come back and tell you. And we will work harder than ever with all our suppliers to make sure this never happens again."

That's miles away from the ducking, diving and excuse making we saw from BP after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Strangely, rather than putting me off, this whole saga is making me fancy a burger for lunch.


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16 January 2013

Looking for the Holy Grail of Sustainability? Don't...

Many of us sustainability professionals are idealists - on a mission to save the planet and all the people on it. We genuinely care about doing the right thing and doing right by everyone. There's one main problem with idealism - and that's the real world. The real world is messy and is full of people with maddeningly diverse, and sometimes illogical, viewpoints driven by different pressures, experiences and beliefs.

I was inspired to write this piece after taking part in a discussion on whether business driving Corporate Social Responsibility down through global supply chains was usurping local democracy. My view is that proactive supply chain management has nothing to do with democracy unless it weakens local standards, it takes industry around the world beyond compliance, and it is for the greater good - what's not to like? But my big problem with arguments like these is that all too often they are simply throwing abstract intellectual spanners in the gears of real progress.

It is always easy to find fault with something that works. Veteran green commentator George Monbiot regularly attacks the incredibly successful Feed-In Tariff (FiT) system for funding renewables. His argument is that the many pay the (richer) few for generating clean energy. While that is indeed true, it is normal in today's market economy - our combined grocery shopping makes a few supermarket bosses very rich, but our diet is better than it has ever been, so we rarely complain. Likewise, FiTs have created a solar revolution, driving record investment in clean energy for the benefit for the many, so is it really a problem if those who invest get a reward?

A third example comes from my experience of being second in command politically of green issues at Newcastle City Council. We proposed bringing in a semi-mixed collection of recyclates on the kerbside using lidded wheelie bins to replace the existing open crates which needed to be stored inside. The local green groups screamed blue murder, accusing us of reneging on our environmental commitments by mixing up materials. However the public loved the simplicity and convenience of the new system and the recycling rate jumped by 50% to an impressive 46% of all household waste. The screams faded to a recalcitrant grumble.

Sustainability, like politics, is the art of the possible. Let's not get distracted by the indulgence of nothing ever being good enough for us and get on with the job in hand.


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14 January 2013

"Go Green, Save Money" is (still) for amateurs

Whether I'm working with the board members of a FTSE100 company or be-overalled shop floor operatives, I usually start my workshops by asking why the business should be interested in sustainability? I then shut up and wait, flip chart marker in hand, for the first answer.

'Saving money' is usually up first, followed by 'legislation', 'customer demand' and 'keeping employees happy' in roughly that order. But my killer question is then "which is the most important?"

Getting the answer to that one right is essential to building a sustainability strategy. And the correct answer for most companies is 'customer demand' (or brand enhancement or marketplace differentiation) as companies who follow this approach tend to benefit from being more competitive and keeping employees happy and saving costs and avoiding compliance problems. Exclusively pursuing cost savings won't do much for the brand which in turn won't win you any new business or give your employees a warm feeling.

It is extremely important to get a crystal clear understanding of your specific business case for sustainability communicated to all your influential executives. If it is not nailed down, then, particularly in these straightened times, the cost cutting imperative will rise and the strategy will be degraded to a tactical plan that won't deliver the real benefits of being a more sustainable business. Vagueness is lethal to your strategy.

I made the short presentation on the business case for sustainability above two and half years ago and it is the most popular on the Terra Infirma YouTube channel by a country mile. If I was recording it now I would sneak a few more nuances in, but the core message remains the same - "Go Green Save Money is for Amateurs."

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11 January 2013

Drucker nailed CSR 38 years ago

I'm increasingly educating myself more about organisational development than sustainability per se because I believe very strongly that implementation is much more important than theorising.

So one of my New Year's Resolutions this year is to read more of the late Peter Drucker as he is regarded as the management gurus' guru and there was a Drucker-sized gap on my bookshelf. So I bought 'The Essential Drucker' as a jumping off point as this is a Greatest Hits selection of chapters from his other books from 1942 to 1999.

You would have thought that a 1974 chapter on Purpose and Objectives of a Business would have little relevance to a sustainability change agent in 2013, but Drucker puts social responsibility on a par with marketing, innovation and resources:

Lessons we have learned from the rise of consumerism, or from the attacks on industry for the destruction of the environment, are expensive ways for us to realize that business needs to think through its impacts and its responsibilities for both.

He goes on:

That [social responsibility] objectives need to be built into the strategy of a business, rather than merely be statements of good intentions, needs to stressed here. These are objectives that are needed not because the manager has a responsibility to society. They are needed because the manager has a responsibility to the enterprise.

[my emphasis]

This 38 year old statement, given Drucker's influence, begs the question why on earth are mainstream companies only now starting to embed social and environmental objectives into their core business strategy? When I wrote The Green Executive, I thought this was cutting edge thinking, but it appears that it's almost 40 years old!


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9 January 2013

Sustainability - No Place for Wimps!

We are too nice.

Yes, us, people who are passionate about sustainability, in our spotless fleeces, our well scrubbed faces and neatly trimmed beards. All those good intentions, warm inclusiveness and incredible politeness.

But, frankly, do we have the cojones to do sustainability properly?

I get frustrated when I get involved in debates with fellow practitioners and they say things like "we don't want sustainability to be seen as a dictat from above..."

What?! Why on earth would you not want sustainability to be seen as a priority of senior management? There's almost a fear of rocking the boat when, for 99.99% of organisations, the boat needs some serious rocking.

So, are you prepared to face up to the following necessities:

  • Getting rid of managers who resist the sustainability programme?
  • Summarily dropping suppliers who are not doing sustainability properly as a clear message to the rest of the supply chain?
  • Killing off profitable product lines which are incompatible with sustainability targets?
  • Setting seriously ambitious stretch targets to jolt the organisation out of business as usual?
  • Holding people in positions of power to account for the sustainability performance of their empire?

These may be uncomfortable positions to take, but they are the things that set the leading organisations apart from the rest - and let's face it, they're standard behaviour for organisations trying to improve their economic performance, and is sustainability not just as important?

So, let's not kid ourselves, this is not a hold-hands-around-the-campfire love in. Sustainability is serious business.


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7 January 2013

Once upon a time there was a problem with the climate...

There was a very interesting article in the Guardian last week by Oliver Burkeman where he lamented the lack of widespread public interest in the whole US "fiscal cliff" farrago and in climate change. The problem, Burkeman argues,

"is that they're not stories about the sufferings or triumphs of individual, knowable humans.They're failures of complex systems: millions of individuals are affected, but in incremental, widely dispersed ways; in the case of global warming, most of those millions aren't even born yet."

He goes on to say:

"The economist Tyler Cowen rightly warns that our addiction to stories is dangerous. Stories strip facts away, dragging attention to what's most narratively satisfying, not what's most important. One of the least appetising tasks of the journalist, I can say from experience, is the struggle to combat this by injecting "the human element" into news that doesn't naturally possess it. The results are often painful."

While I agree with the analysis, I disagree completely with the prognosis. If human beings are so obsessed with stories - and I spend a huge amount of time reading them to my kids (see pic) - then lets embrace that to communicate climate change and sustainability, as resistance is futile.

You see time and time again organisations trying to communicate sustainability by bombarding the reader with facts, occasionally leavened with classroom comparisons - "that's the equivalent of taking 20,000 cars off the road" etc. Trying to convert everybody into fully educated climate scientists, energy economists and environmental toxicologists is an impossible and pointless task. You don't need to understand the albedo effect to choose the most energy efficient equipment for your company.

My green jujitsu approach says "if they like stories, give 'em stories!" Turn sustainability challenges and solutions into stories of individuals' challenges, endeavours and resolutions. Add humour for extra zing. Leave the detailed stats and analysis for Burkeman and the rest of us geeks - unless of course you are dealing with geeks, then fact away!

And they'll all live happily ever after. The End.


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3 January 2013

A Baker's Dozen: 13 Sustainability Ideas for 2013

Well Happy New Year everyone! We had what every refers to as a 'quiet' Christmas and New Year, but I'm sure fellow parents will agree with me there is nothing quiet about a household with three kids aged 3 months to 5 years. Anyway, as the decorations come down and the cake starts to run out, it is time to focus our thoughts on the year ahead. Here are my 13 recommendations for your sustainability New Year's Resolutions:

1. Make sure the board is on board and fully signed up - preferably making personal and specific commitments to drive sustainability forward within their own sphere of influence;

2. Review the relationship between authority and responsibility for sustainability in the rest of your management structure and make the necessary changes to improve alignment;

3. Review the commitments and approaches of your sectoral rivals and work out what you will need to do to leapfrog/stay well ahead of them;

4. Review and refresh all your sustainability communications to make sure they are fresh, fun and relevant to the day-to-day experience of your employees;

5. Review and refresh your employee engagement to adopt Green Jujitsu principles - working to employees' strengths rather than trying to correct weaknesses;

6. Put together a workshop of a cross section of employees to identify physical and bureaucratic barriers to sustainability - and then terminate them with extreme prejudice (the barriers, not the employees);

7. Give up on any venture which has either never worked, or has done as much as it can - eg voluntary environmental champions - thank those involved for their efforts and refocus your energy where it will make a difference;

8. Do some backcasting - create scenarios of how your sustainability goals could be implemented in, say, 2018 or 2023, and work backwards to see what you need to do and stop doing now;

9. Give your supply chain a shake up - sack a few suppliers who aren't taking sustainability seriously, particularly any who are a liability to your brand reputation;

10. Train your buyers in sustainability and task them, along with design/engineering staff if appropriate, to develop a significantly more sustainable supply chain;

11. Engage with HR, not only to ensure the alignment in point 2, but to ensure sustainability is embedded into recruitment, induction and personal development functions;

12. Give up on all those generic dull powerpoint-heavy conferences and find those fora where you actually interact with your peers and learn from each other through facilitated discussion;

13. Sharpen your own saw: get some training or coaching which will stretch your thinking and push you to new levels of success.

So pick a few of these (no 13 is mandatory, by the way) and drive them through to make 2013 your most successful and rewarding year yet!



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