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March 2013 - Terra Infirma

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29 March 2013

I Want My Presents!!!

birthday candlesToday is my 40-somethingth birthday.

Thank you.

My long suffering partner has decided she'd rent me The Killing as that would be much more environmentally friendly than buying me a set of DVDs which would only be watched once or twice.

Great - a good example of how businesses can provide us with the service we want (Sarah Lund) rather than the stuff (polycarbonate etc). The stuff can be sent off to entertain someone else rather than cluttering up our living room.


Deep in my brain, the voice of my inner spoiled child is shouting "Where's my presents?! I want my presents!"

This is the problem facing the collaborative/sharing economy - many of us, even those of us who think we 'get it', have been programmed from birth to relish stuff over experience. Even those 'experience' presents you can buy your loved ones come in a big box to satisfy some psychological need to give people stuff.

Funny, then, when reminiscing, it's the memories of experiences we cherish, not stuff.

I live in hope that the younger generation is shedding the stuff-hoarding habit - experiencing their lives and likes digitally as MP3s, JPGs, eBooks, Apps and streamed movies rather than the shelves groaning with once-watched DVDs that seem to be the badge of honour of my generation.

In the meantime I will put my inner child on the naughty step and tell it firmly "I want, never gets" but I fear it will mutter under its breath for a while longer.


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27 March 2013

Heat, risk, business, politics and sustainability

heating pipesI spent a remarkable amount of time yesterday talking about district heating and combined heat and power (CHP) - with students in the morning and the Council in the afternoon (with my political hat on).

This is one issue that I am very passionate about but very frustrated about. Why on earth do we in the UK burn fossil fuels to make electricity but then chuck away the majority of the thermal energy produced - and then burn more gas to heat buildings? It is madness - and the fact that many of our European cousins do it as a matter of course suggest that it is a attitude problem rather than being a technical or economic one.

A number of times in my career I have tried to push such heating schemes but I have consistently come up against people in positions of power who pay a bit of lip service to the idea and then skilfully back heel the ball into the long grass. I have seen others suffer the same fate, so it's not just my lack of persuasion skills.

The one new UK system which bucks the trend is in Birmingham. The owner, Utilicom, asked the Council to sign up to a long term electricity and heat contract pegged below market rates. That was it.

Utilicom de-risked and incentivised the project for the local authority (traditionally risk averse) and gave itself the financial confidence to get on with it, installing the distribution pipes and signing up customers. Everybody seems very happy about it and carbon emissions fall - a nice example of what Umair Haque calls 'thick value', economic value with net social and environmental benefits.

Coincidentally, DECC published a raft of analysis on district heating yesterday. This confirms that, as in the Birmingham example, the private sector sees less risk in district heating than the public sector. This throws the traditional green shibboleth of "business = bad" on its head. Change means risk and risk simply isn't rewarded in the public sector the way it is in business, so projects wither on the vine.

I am one of a growing number of people who believe that only business can embrace that risk and deliver sustainability for us. The state's most powerful contribution in many situations is to incentivise 'good' behaviour, penalise 'bad' behaviour and let the market deliver it in the most efficient way. That will be heresy for many, but it is about time we gave up on politics and embraced pragmatism.


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25 March 2013

Did Earth Hour do it for you?

earth hour

Did you switch your lights off for Earth Hour on Saturday night?

Did sitting in the dark for an hour make you feel better?

Or did you do it reluctantly because you felt you really should?

What message do you think it communicated?

Do you think it engaged anybody who wasn't already engaged?

Do you think it made a difference?


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22 March 2013

Book Review: The New Capitalist Manifesto by Umair Haque

The-New-Capitalist-Manifesto-Haque-Umair-9781422158586The New Capitalist Manifesto by HBR blogger Umair Haque is the third tract I've read recently on how to make capitalism work for everyone, the others being Conscious Capitalism by Whole Foods Markets boss John Mackey and Creating Shared Value by Michael Porter and Gary Kramer.

All three have the same underlying prognosis - that capitalism as it is now, while bringing many societal benefits, has been allowed to exploit nature and society for selfish ends, diminishing opportunities for all - The Tragedy of the Commons, in effect. And the solution put forward by all three is fundamentally the same - that the successful business of the 21st Century must nurture its societal, natural and economic underpinnings rather than depleting them.

Haque's concept of 'Constructive Capitalism' is certainly the most meaningful of the three, acknowledging that capitalism has been destructive in its pursuit of what Haque calls 'thin value' - economic benefits that are outweighed by the societal and environmental costs that those benefits incurred. Thus a $3 hamburger may lead to $30 of wider costs.

Haque calls for a refocus onto 'thick value' - economic benefits which deliver net societal and environmental benefits too - in other words, Constructive Capitalism. He identifies 15 'insurgent' companies who are pursuing thick value and throughout the rest of the book compares them to more traditionally-minded 'incumbents', so Apple gets compared to Sony, Nike to Adidas, Whole Foods to Safeway etc.

The book explores the five cornerstones of constructive capitalism, of which the insurgents have adopted at least one:

  • Moving from value chains to value cycles to utilise resources by renewing instead of exploiting;
  • Moving from value propositions to value conversations to respond to demand;
  • Moving from strategies to philosophies to become more competitive in the long term;
  • Moving from protecting markets to 'completing' them - ie expanding the markets;
  • Moving from goods to 'betters' which enhance rather than deplete society.

Obviously points 1 and 5 have most relevance to the environmental arm of sustainability, looking up and down the value chain cycle. It was great to see 'green' so deeply embedded into the concept rather than the lip service it so often gets.

Each of these cornerstones has its own 'step' to make the shift - in order they are:

  • Loss advantage (as opposed to cost advantage);
  • Responsiveness;
  • Resilience;
  • Creativity;
  • Difference.

And this leads to my sole criticism of the book. While all of this is described vibrantly and clearly, there are a few too many nested lists of five bullet points of principles/neologisms which meant a bit too much riffling back to remind the reader of where exactly they are at any point - and the definition of that neologism. Some of these, like 'loss advantage', aren't entirely intuitive. This is a minor point, but it did dilute the message.

Having said that, of the three rebooting capitalism manifestos mentioned above, I found The New Capitalist Manifesto the most comprehensive, forward thinking and inspiring. My main take-away was the need to pursue thick value over thin value, and there is another whole debate about how Governments can encourage the former and penalise the latter to accelerate the transition. If you are interested in the big picture of where business should be going in the 21st Century, read this book.



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20 March 2013

It's Time to Forget the Three Pillars of Sustainability...

three pillars of sustainabilityWe are often told that there are three pillars of sustainability: environment, society and economy, but I say it is time to stop thinking that.

Sustainability is an abstract noun. Who really cares about abstract nouns? Let's be honest - we get passionate about real things - our families, our careers, our friends, our leisure activities, the natural world and, yes, our possessions - but not abstract nouns. And certainly not one that has over 100 definitions.

The organisation we work for is a real thing. It has employees, assets, suppliers, and customers. It gives us a social structure, identity, status, a sense of purpose, job satisfaction (hopefully) and material well being. It is real, not abstract, something that means something to us.

And those same three pillars form the bedrock upon which our businesses are built:

  • Environment: all the raw materials, food, energy, water we need to function and the eco-system services (climate stability, flood defence, land, fresh air) we depend on to exist.
  • Society: our colleagues, customers, local communities, along with the civil structures we rely on.
  • The economy: our suppliers, customers, partners, and the tax and regulatory framework we operate in.

So those three pillars are much, much more fundamental to our business than some airy-fairy out-there concept like 'sustainability.'

And given that vital importance, shouldn't every business be striving to nurture and strengthen those three pillars, rather than trying to bleed them dry?


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18 March 2013

What does "Re-shoring" do for the Circular Economy and CSR?

shipping containers

"Re-shoring" is a growing business trend - bringing offshore manufacturing and services back from low wage "developing countries" to so-called "developed countries". According to the Guardian, businesses as disparate as Aston Martin, Pot Noodle and kiddy-suitcase maker Trunki are re-relocating their manufacturing back in Blighty driven by rising wages in the Far East and rocketing shipping costs (presumably a result of stubbornly high oil prices).

This is clearly a good thing for the Circular Economy as goods will be consumed and 'disposed of' closer to the site of their manufacture, shrinking material loops. Quality of materials can also be better managed if the purchaser of the materials can intervene easily in the supply chain. Circular business models including leasing, remanufacturing and industrial symbiosis (one person's waste = another's raw material) all work better when manufacturers are located closer together.

There are clear CSR benefits too - we have seen in the recent horse meat scandal how difficult it is to manage complex international supply chains. Shorter supply chains mean more transparency, less opportunity for criminality and, for the EU at least, better working conditions.

And there are economic benefits to boot - an opportunity for unbalanced economies like the UK to rebalance away from the debt-driven financial and construction sectors that gave us the colossal boom and bust that we still haven't escaped.

Reshoring - a boring sounding word that I'm growing rather fond of!



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15 March 2013

Green is Cool.

Jimi HendrixHome cleaning products company Method has announced new packaging made from recycled plastic. So what? Well the plastic comes from the ocean, not only saving resources but protecting wildlife and the ocean ecosystem to boot. That's cool.

Waste company Veolia processes road sweepings to recover precious metals like platinum, palladium and rhodium - mining the urban environment rather than the earth's core. That's pretty cool too.

A project at my old group CLEMANCE found that it was technically possible to recover iron oxide pollution from streams and convert it into rewritable CDs and DVDs. How cool would that be?

And another CLEMANCE project led to 300,000 tomato plants growing under glass using waste heat and carbon dioxide from a chemical plant to accelerate growth. I think that's pretty damn cool.

The solar hot water panel on my roof pre-heats the water going into my combo-boiler so we get low carbon hot water without losing the on-demand convenience. Again, cool.

If I cycle rather than taking the car then I get my exercise as well as transport. If I work from home, I get to see my young family grow up and avoid the nightmare of commuting. If I use local services, I see much more of my friends and neighbours. All of this is very cool.

Smart grid technology creates the possibility of opening up the energy production and storage system to everybody buying and selling to the grid and breaking the economic and political grip of Big Oil. To me, my friend, that would be very cool indeed.

Green is cool.

So why do we persist in presenting it as hairshirt, pious asceticism - and wonder why people won't embrace it?

Let's chill out, man. Be cool.


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13 March 2013

Who's better at sustainability - MegaCorps or SMEs?

Great Dane HARLEQUIN and a chihuahua

A recent survey has suggested that while 96% of FTSE100 companies see sustainability as essential to their business, the number drops to 56% when it comes to Small & Medium Sized Enterprises. Both figures came of something of a shock to me - impressed with the FTSE100 results and depressed by the SMEs.

In my experience many SMEs compete for work in a B2B environment where the big corporations and the public sector are pushing sustainability down into their supply chains. So the SMEs have more to lose as the buyers generally have a choice.

Mulling on this lead me to another question: who is better placed to embrace sustainability? Here's a simple comparison:


  • Capital investment is easier come by;
  • Resources can be brought to bear on issues with little impact on the rest of the organisation.
  • Buying power gives corporations the opportunity to build the supply chain and/or technology they want/need.
  • Lobbying power can help get things done in the wider business/political eco-system.


  • Visibility - assessments can be done very quickly and large impacts are usually obvious.
  • Agility - change can be implemented very quickly due to the size of the organisation, its smaller asset lists and short reporting chains.
  • Responsiveness - a small change can have a large impact - e.g. upgrading the sole boiler in the company.
  • Innovation - new ideas are less likely to get lost in internal politics and committees, but can tried, assessed and dropped if necessary.

I have particular scorn for those who assume SMEs struggle with sustainability - many of my favourite case studies feature forward thinking SMEs. Whether a business is big or small, fundamentally it comes down to the mentality of its leadership.


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11 March 2013

If you're asking why consumers don't get it, you're asking the wrong question

shopping sustainability consumers


Most Fridays I take part in connectFriday on Twitter - an hour's green business chat which originated here in the North East but has now gone global (follow @connectFriday for more). I get bullied by the organisers into providing a quote of the week and a tip of the week and I enjoy a good chinwag on a chewy topic.

Last week's debate evolved from someone plaintively asking when will consumers 'get it'. My immediate riposte was that it was the wrong question - that as businesses it is futile to blame customers for not buying our product - it is either the wrong product, the wrong price or it is being marketed and sold the wrong way. In this respect we have to assume the customer is always right - and sitting back and waiting for them to 'get it' is self defeating.

The conversation evolved into the cost of green goods and services and how it was difficult to avoid passing those costs onto the consumer. This is a valid point and an area where the big brands have a distinct advantage over the green entrepreneurs who are the typical connectFriday participants. They have the buying power and the financial oomph to build the supply chains they need.

In the Green Executive, I  gave examples of Marks & Spencer and Royal Mail actively building the supply chains they need and this morning Asda announced it had developed a supply chain for bananas in the Canaries which will slash their carbon footprint from the perspective of European consumers. The small business may have to wait for such supply chains to emerge and mature, or use that entrepreneurial spirit to exploit opportunities for green materials others have missed or passed over.

But whatever the situation, the green entrepreneur must approach the market from the right direction - offering desirable green products at the right price, not waiting for some kind of mass Damascene conversion. You'll be waiting a long time.


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8 March 2013

A Better Poster Won't Do You No Good

This week is Climate Week - another of the plethora of weeks, days and hours dedicated to the planet - and it seems to have stimulated a spike in queries on forums for 'awareness' posters. And they've generated a slew of helpful replies pointing the way the 'the best' material.

Just one problem.

Generic awareness posters just don't work.

When was the last time you looked at a poster and decided there and then to change the way you live your life? If employee engagement was as simple as putting a poster up, we'd have saved the planet many years ago. I deliberately parodied the 'death by poster' approach in The Art of Green Jujitsu (above) for this very reason.

The requests for generic material, and the responses, show that too many sustainability practitioners are simply happy to follow the crowd. If there's one thing I have learnt over the years is that you have to put yourself in your colleagues' shoes (or in my case, my clients' employees' shoes) and build your engagement programme from that point of view.

They don't need a better poster. They need a better perspective.


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6 March 2013

Let's drop the mumbo-jumbo and get on with it!


Here's something I read on Guardian Sustainable Business from Doug Tompkins, founder of North Face and Esprit:

"we should not rush into trying to solve problems before we have truly understood the deep dynamics of the system we are seeking to transform...

...what we need is idea work, which helps build the intellectual infrastructure necessary to make deep structural changes in the economic technologies that we use to operate our societies. For ultimately, there can be no hope of ending the eco-social crisis until people abandon the arrogance of humanism and adopt an eco-centric worldview."

This sort of thing drives me up the wall.

1. The climate does not care whether a kilo of carbon dioxide has been emitted while you've been listening to whale music or watching X Factor. It is a kilo of carbon that causes a certain amount of warming. We need to cut carbon, not achieve enlightenment. If we get more spiritually enlightened by doing so, then great, but let's put the horse in front of the cart.

2. "We should not rush" - err - the science tells us we should. Sitting in a yurt chanting or stroking our beards in the wilderness may be self-fulfilling, but it must not be confused for practical progress. Learn by doing, make mistakes, but get going.

3. But most importantly, trying to change our whole philosophy towards nature raises the barriers to participation. My philosophy (yeah, I know) of Green Jujitsu is to make 'green' desirable, easier than 'ungreen' and intuitive, not some mystical priesthood with byzantine initiation rituals and secret handshakes.

The people I know who are making a real difference are driven not by "an eco-centric worldview" so much as a famous brand slogan - "Just Do It!"


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4 March 2013

Environmental legislation - enemy or ally?

lawI've recently noticed a real gulf in the way top sustainability practitioners talk about environmental legislation and the way everybody else does.

When you read the press or listen to many business executives, these laws are said to be stifling growth, raising prices and putting people out of business (ignoring the fact that most of the energy price rise has been due to stubbornly high oil prices). Legislation = bad.

But when we touch on legislation in, say, my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, there is a completely different tone to the conversation. These guys believe that legislation is their ally - driving innovation, getting the attention of senior management and punishing those who don't invest in sustainability. Legislation = good.

As always it comes down to mindset. Do you want to surf the waves or let them knock you over in the shallows?


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1 March 2013

You Can't Change Culture - So Don't Bother Trying!

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "You Can't Change Culture - So Don't Bother Trying". Make sure you listen to the end...

Audio MP3

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

GBC20 You Can't Change Culture - So Don't Bother Trying.

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



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