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April 2013 - Terra Infirma

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29 April 2013

The Real Tragedy of Bangladesh


As I write, the official death toll from the collapsed Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh has hit 380, hundreds remain unaccounted for, and the eponymous Mr Rana has been nicked by the police trying to flee the country.

Who is responsible for this tragedy? Mr Rana and his fellow factory owners? The Bangladeshi authorities? The big brands who use such suppliers? Western consumers who think a £2 T-shirt doesn't come at a bigger price? Global capitalism?

That debate will run and run - and to me it's an impossible question to answer except "all of the above." The more pertinent question is "who's going to step up and fix it?"

Inevitably some journo/polemicist was going to play the contrarian card - step forward Alex Massie of the Spectator who has been declaring that while such sweatshops are awful, they're better than the alternative - hardscrabble subsistence farming. While that is indeed true, it's a false choice - a moral-cop out to justify the status quo. This is the real tragedy of the Bangladesh disaster - that so many people think such events are somehow inevitable.

There's a clear third option - decent working conditions for all.

The inevitability position is blown out of the water by the brands who have "fixed" such problems in their own supply chains. 15 years ago, Nike was a dirty word amongst the international social justice movement, but it has driven standards down through its supply chain (although some concerns remain). Marks & Spencer sponsored a low-carbon, high quality lingerie factory in Sri Lanka. Apple has been shining a torch into the darkest corners of its supply chain - and publicising what it found there.

These brands know that investing time, effort and money into their supply chains creates a win-win-win-win for the consumer, the brand, the supplier and the worker. So we can either do that and everyone's happy or we could all just shrug our shoulders and say "Que sera, sera" - and that would be a real tragedy.


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26 April 2013

Triple Dips, GDP and Sustainability

George_osborne_hiAll eyes were on UK Chancellor George Osborne yesterday as the first quarter's GDP growth results were released. If they were negative, then we would have been in a 'triple-dip' recession - don't you love the way it rolls off the tongue - which would be terrible, and if positive then everything's absolutely fantastic. It went positive and George sighed a big sigh of relief.

The whole hoo-hah over the figures of course is nonsense. The definition of recession - two negative quarters in a row - has absolutely no economic significance in itself. Statistically the UK economy has been flatlining for 18 months, and whether or not we hit the accepted definition of recession or not in this period makes little practical difference.

All this makes me think about the growth/no growth debate in the sustainability world. If this is what zero growth feels like, then nobody seems particularly happy with it. My argument is that we've never really tried to decouple GDP and, say, carbon emissions, so we don't know whether the two are locked together as tightly as the no-growth proponents claim.

Which leads on to GDP itself. The big problem with this being the dominant measure of progress is that it treats all economic activity as equal whether that activity is highly socially/environmentally damaging or whether it adds value to society and the natural world. If we could get a better definition of GDP that focussed on 'good' economic activity, then the growth/no growth argument might become redundant.

Another aspect of the weakness of GDP was flagged up on BBC's Today programme early yesterday morning. The debate was how come employment was increasing if there was no growth. Economist Prof Jonathan Haskell of Imperial Business School explained that method of calculating GDP used in the UK was developed in the grimy post-war times of Keynes and doesn't handle 'production' from the modern knowledge economy. If we switched to the system used by the US, growth would leap by 1% - which would make George a very happy boy indeed.

But the implications of that current system is that relatively clean industries like software (and by extension the whole lightweight digital economy) don't register as growth whereas old smokestack industries and resource intensive sectors like construction do - a perverse incentive. So, go on, Georgie boy, change the system and make us all happy.


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24 April 2013

Our Place in the World

Harry WWT

My eldest son, Harry, is mad about nature. If you ask him "What would you like to do this weekend?", he'll respond with the name of one of half-a-dozen nature reserves. At six years old, his knowledge of birds in particular is quite remarkable - he'll spot a nuthatch or a reed warbler from quite a distance.

As most boys of his age do, he asks lots of questions, many of which start "Dad, does nature..." Sometimes I tease him "Well, you're part of nature, what do you think?" He always gives me his nervous not-sure-about-this laugh.

And I think that this is the default, anthropocentric position of most if not all of us, that we somehow float above the natural world, observing it remotely. We like to point out to Harry that he still has to poo, just like everything else alive. That breaks the tension if nothing else.

Yep, we all have to eat, drink and poo - we are all part of nature, like it or not. There are three different dimensions:

  • Spiritually: Everybody gets a spiritual lift from the natural world - evidenced by everything from higher hospital recovery rates amongst those with a natural view to higher prices on houses with river/sea views. Some take this to the extent of neo-spiritual nonsense with its healing crystals, prayer flags and Paulo Coelho books, but we don't need to go all hippy-dippy to commune with nature - just walk to the top of a hill and breathe in.
  • Physically: Everything physical we need, we get from nature - animal, mineral or vegetable - plus all the eco-system services we rely on like stable climate, screening the sun's rays and waste disposal. Many businesses forget this, but they are embedded into the natural environment and highly reliant upon it. Therefore it makes practical sense to nurture the natural world rather than ravaging it.
  • Intellectually: the scientific discipline of 'biomimicry' has shown us many ways we can learn from the way nature does things. Nature has been pretty sustainable for over 2 billion years so it has much to teach us whether on a macro level like the circular economy or in micro level solutions like emulating sharkshin on boat hulls to avoid using toxic anti-fouling.

And if you want to really experience nature, take a young child with you. They get it.





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22 April 2013

8 Ways to Bring Creativity to Sustainability


Oh, look, it's Earth Day! And it was Earth Week just last week when I was bemoaning this rash of me-too, unoriginal thinking. Don't worry, I'm not going to rant about this again, but meeting the sustainability challenge is going to require more than the bog standard range of 'solutions' - awareness days, protests, posters, switch it off stickers, ISO14001 etc, etc.

To reduce the sheer bandwidth of information that floods our senses, we restrict our worldview to a certain frame and block out what doesn't fit in that frame. So us sustainability practitioners tend to see the world from a "Save the World!" point of view where "doing something, anything, for Earth Day" is more important than doing something effective.

The problem here is that the people whose attitudes and behaviour we need to change are looking at the world through a quite different frame. This is the whole point of my Green Jujitsu idea - that us practitioners need to take a look at the world through those other people's frame(s) and develop engagement techniques to suit.

Another problem with our mindset frames is that they restrict us creatively. We tend to focus on those things which are urgent, easy to understand, close to us physically and/or which we are familiar with. So how do we expand our frames to see breakthrough solutions?

Here are some guidelines I use:

1. Don't go down the mumbo-jumbo route. In my opinion much of the 'mindfulness' movement is inward looking whereas solutions are largely found outside our experience. And you'll put off cynics like me, so put away the crystals and the prayer wheels;

2. Don't be a doom-monger. If you want to get people creative, telling them the world is about to end will make many think "what's the point?" Get excited about sustainability and others will too!

3. Likewise, go easy on the green jargon. I try to introduce ideas such as the circular economy, product service systems and industrial symbiosis as work progresses rather than trying to get everyone up to speed before starting.

4. Read outside your discipline. If you look on my bookshelf, many of the books which have influenced me most are not 'green' books but those that tackle broader issues like change (Switch, Nudge), communications (Lend Me Your Ears, Visual Meetings) and management (Good to Great, In Search of Excellence, The Fifth Discipline). There are big themes in many of these books which apply to sustainability as much as any other aspect of life.

5. Draw. When I get people to plot out their business processes graphically, it always has some interesting results. It also gets the problem down on to one large sheet of paper which makes it more manageable.

6. Use the Toddler Test aka The 5 Whys to get to real reasons: We need this piece of kit. Why? To dry the materials. Why? Because we added water to make them flow. Why? To shift them from that side of the factory to this one. Why? Errr...

7. Ramp up the challenge. Even in my short workshops, I try to get each team to rotate around the issues under discussion and instead of starting from scratch on each one, challenge them to build on the ideas of the teams that have gone before. The good ideas often come in the last iteration when all the obvious ones have been identified.

8. Ditch Powerpoint. Presentations kill creativity. I recently did a Powerpoint-free workshop but two thirds of the way through had to cede the floor to a guest speaker who fired up the projector. You could feel the enthusiasm drain out of the room like air escaping from a punctured lilo.

I hope these 8 points give you plenty of food for thought - as I've said the need for creativity is just as strong amongst practitioners and facilitators as it is amongst our clients and colleagues. Keep trying stuff and keep what works for you.


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19 April 2013

Who's for yet another environmental awareness week?

CalendarApparently it's Responsible Business Week.

And Earth Week.

And Work Zone Awareness Week, National Beanpole Week, Bowel Cancer Awareness Week, Parkinson's Awareness Week, Depression Awareness Week, World Voice Day, World Haemophilia Day etc, etc, etc.

Please, please, spare us from more me-too 'awareness raising'. It is just lazy copycat activity for activity's sake, preaching to the converted. It might make us feel good about ourselves (a rude person might say 'smug') but it clearly flies over the heads of the intended audience.

Because, let's face it, if these weeks, days and hours worked, I'd know what Work Zone Awareness was. But I don't. Do you?




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17 April 2013

Sunrise Industry

sunrise wind turbines


The view from Casa Lobo, Salobreña, Spain



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15 April 2013

Do Business Schools Get Sustainability?

bowlerDeprived of BBC radio here on my Spanish holiday, I've taken to downloading the Beeb's podcasts to listen to while cooking or doing the washing up. The change in medium is leading to quite a bit of serendipity and at the weekend I happened upon Peter Day's World of Business and, in particular, an edition on whether big-name MBA courses are worth the huge amount of money they cost.

Pertinently, Day asked academics from Harvard Business School and the Sloan Business School at MIT how come the Masters of the Universe they had expensively groomed had failed to avoid the great financial crash of 07/08. The immediate response was "we have an ethics module."

We have an ethics module.

Hmmm. Kind of reminds me of "we have ISO14001" as a straw that businesses clutch at when they're challenged on their sustainability performance. ISO14001 will not deliver sustainability. A module on business ethics is hardly going to overcome the predominance of the profit motive in the rest of the course.

Out of interest I took the top scoring business school on the 'Beyond Grey Pinstripes' social/environmental ranking, Stanford Graduate School of Business, and had a browse through their MBA cirrculum. There was indeed quite a lot on ethics, but virtually nothing worthwhile on the fundamental relationships between business, society, and the environment. On environmental issues there was a lot on the green buildings in which the course was taught, but I couldn't find anything about, say, the circular or low carbon economies. If it was there, it wasn't obvious. And Stanford is meant to be the best at this.

No-one needs to pay me megabucks a year to learn an inconvertible and basic truth that underpins all business: the economy exists to serve society which is part of the environment - and all three are thus interdependent.

If a business school isn't teaching you that, I'd ask for your money back.


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11 April 2013

MMR, climate change and the irrational me

syringeI am Mr Rational.

Strict atheist, anti-tribalist, and demander of evidence, statistics, margins of error. Black cats, broken mirrors and ladders hold no fear for me.

In fact, the quickest way you can put me off you is to ask what star sign I am.

Which is why it is so strange that 5 years ago, when my eldest was up for his measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination, I had a genuine wobble. Should I? You know, with all the fuss that there's been in the papers (and papers I don't even read)? Should I risk it with my own flesh and blood?

Fortunately Mrs Rational put me straight or I too might be panicking like all those parents in Wales who demurred and ended up putting their children at risk of dangerous disease outbreaks.

It struck me recently that there were great parallels between the MMR scare and the climate change 'debate'. In both cases, a small number of people have managed to seed doubt in people's minds using circumstantial anecdotes which flies in the face of robust scientific evidence. But that doubt is very powerful. Do health professionals really know what they're doing? How can the world be warming if it's snowing?

It is tempting (and hands up, I've succumbed) to fight such irrationality with a deluge facts, graphs and hard evidence, but it rarely works. In the elephant/rider/path model of human behaviour, the elephant/subconscious is always more powerful than the rider/conscious. If the elephant is spooked, there's precious little the rider can do to calm it down.

So, what's the answer?

My Green Jujitsu approach says acknowledge the power of the irrational mind and try to use it to your advantage. Inspire people to do the right thing by making it inviting, fun and in line with our cultural norms.

Unfortunately the merchants of doubt will always be there, but lets worry about what we can change, not what we can't.



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10 April 2013

S/Hola from Spain! (Part 2)

villa solar

villa solar detailMy first impression of Spain on this holiday was a huge amount of installed solar PV capacity, then, when we got to our villa, we found a huge homemade solar hot water system (above and right) at the bottom of the terraced garden. It turns out that this heats the private outdoor pool (we're really slumming it).

Unfortunately, as you can see, the sun has bleached the dark blue collector pipes almost white, which will significantly curtail its effectiveness by reflecting more light and heat than it absorbs. Certainly the pool is a little on the cool side (26°C) with at least one oo-oo moment on the way in.

The domestic hot water is heated by another solar panel on the roof which we can't see, but seems to be very effective. The villas below us all have professional systems installed, so I assume it is one of these. By default, the panel is the sole provider of hot water - if we want to heat it electrically, we physically have to plug the immersion heater into the wall.

Why all this solar power? Spain, like Israel, made solar hot water systems mandatory on new and refurbished domestic buildings in 2006 (commercial buildings must have PV as well). Our villa, and I would guess the big solar panel, would appear to predate this legislation, but there are also incentives like 0% VAT and low interest loans for equipment. Given the amount of sunshine you get here, it must make a lot of economic sense.

While I sip my beer on the veranda, in between shouting at the kids, I can watch two wind farms turn lazily in the distance. At night, kids in bed, slinging a couple of logs in the chiminea allows me and the old girl to enjoy the sea breeze until bedtime. Flight aside, this holiday is turning out a lot greener than I expected it to be.


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8 April 2013

Margaret Thatcher: Britain's only Green Prime Minister

Margaret Thatcher, who died today, was one of the most divisive political leaders of our time with people either loving or hating her with equal passion. I must be one of the tiny minority that is ambivalent to her legacy.

As the son of a self-employed couple and who runs his own business, it would churlish not to acknowledge I have benefited massively from her economic liberalism. On the other hand, living in the North East of England I can see first hand the destruction that liberalism did to traditional heavy industries - and, Nissan at Washington aside, the lack of anything to replace those industries. This has led the demise of the proud blue collar worker and the disintegration of many communities.

But one of Mrs Thatcher's more unexpected legacies is that she remains Britain's greenest Prime Minister. She was the first to warn openly of the dangers of climate change in a speech to the UN in 1989, saying:

"We are seeing a vast increase in the amount of carbon dioxide reaching the atmosphere... The result is that change in future is likely to be more fundamental and more widespread than anything we have known hitherto."

She set up the Hadley Centre to study climate change which has informed all progress and legislation since. The Green movement hates to admit it, but Mrs Thatcher set the ball rolling.

This led to one of the more bizarre climate change denial theories - as put forward in The Great Global Warming Swindle - that Thatcher invented climate change to destroy the coal industry and its Unions. This is despite the fact she pretty much did that 5 years previously in the Miners' strike.

Right-wing climate change deniers have tried to reclaim her since, but no British Prime Minister has nailed their colours to the mast so vividly. Major, Blair and Brown said nothing. David Cameron may have declared he would lead "the greenest Government ever" but he has barely managed to pay lip service since.

Cameron would do well to emulate his heroine, as Mrs Thatcher never did anything halfheartedly. Love her or hate her, you cannot accuse Mrs T of lacking in the leadership that we now need so badly.


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(S)Ola! from Spain (Part 1)

solar tower power station spain

This is our first ever family holiday by 'plane. Like good greenies, we've avoided flying for ages but we're desperate to get some sun and the old girl celebrated a significant birthday this year. We've done long distance train travel with kids before but, now we're outnumbered, I think we'd struggle until they can all entertain themselves for more than 10 minutes.

About two hours into the flight, I took the bored middle one over to the empty first row and showed him the plains of Spain arrayed out below us. "Look, solar panels!" I exclaimed to an unimpressed 3 year old as entire fields of arrays came into view. And then a blinding light appeared on the ground, emanating from the middle of a series of concentric rings, like ripples on a pond. "What's that?" was my first reaction, until I realised it was concentrated solar power. Jimmy remained non-plussed.

Ensconced in our lovely Granada villa, I did a bit of googling and I think we saw the Gemosolar Thermosolar plant (above) near Seville (the other two Spanish power tower systems sit side-by-side, so we'd have noticed them both). This 140m tower with its 2650 reflectors (sorry, heliostats) can pump out 20MW and certainly from the air, it looked fearsome.

Spain has more than 4.2GW of installed solar power compared to the UK's 1GW -  unsurprising given how much sun the country gets. The rate of increase is being slowed by the kind of Feed-in Tariff (FiT) reductions that have been seen in the UK. However wind power beats solar in both countries - 21GW in Spain and 8.5GW in the UK.

While these huge installations are impressive, I can't help thinking that trying to emulate the economies of scale that work for fossil fuels isn't the most efficient way of using renewable technologies. Renewable energy (insolation, wind, hydro etc) is diffuse and so is our use of energy - so matching generation and consumption on a more local level may be more efficient and sensible on the larger scale. That takes us neatly onto the solar hot water systems in our villa which I'll describe next time.

Photo: Torresol Energy


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5 April 2013

Don't go quiet...


One of the advantages of working with clients' employees is you get a glimpse of the view of companies' sustainability efforts through their eyes. A common complaint, which I heard again this week is:

We won [big award] - there was a big fuss with the Chief Executive and all the great and the good - and then it all went quiet and we thought the attitude was 'job done, feet up'.

But, as is usually the case, there was lots of hard work continuing on with no real let up. The problem is that once you've raised the public profile so high, it is very hard to maintain it at that level. Some of this is inevitable, however there are a couple of things you can do to prevent a post-success slump:

  • Make it clear in all your communications that the success is merely one milestone along the road to sustainability and that you have more ambitious targets.
  • Give this narrative to the great and the good so they're saying it as well.
  • Secure commitment from the great and the good to show up at times other than the great successes - for example giving out annual green awards or pep talks to staff.
  • Ensure that leaders are talking about your whole programme when they speak to internal or external audiences.
  • Keep inserting fresh stories into the narrative so it doesn't get stale.

As an aside, those who give out green business awards do so with all the best of intentions, but they don't encourage continuous improvement. I think league tables are more successful - think Greenpeace's electronics company ranking or the now sadly defunct Sustainable City rankings from Forum for the Future. People who win an award aren't incentivised to win it again the way that people who come top of the league want to maintain that position.


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3 April 2013

Business to be proud of

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Business you can be proud of". Make sure you listen to the end...

Audio MP3

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

GBC21 Business to be proud of.

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


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