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May 2013 - Terra Infirma

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28 May 2013

Kids get it, why don't adults?

harry recyclingLast week I had one of the more exacting challenges of my professional career - explaining the circular economy (but not using that phrase, natch) to about 100 5-8 year olds at my eldest boy Harry's school. That's a tough gig - especially when you can't work out whether that look on your son's face is pride or mortification.

I went for the green jujitsu principle of 'show don't tell', taking a crate of recycled products, plastic bags of compost and the 'waste' those things were produced from. My pièce de résistance was talking about where a plastic juice bottle came from, then whipping off my Marks & Spencer's fleece to show them the big 'made from recycled plastic bottles' label inside. But the kids really went mad for stroking the sheep's wool insulation, poking at the undressed edge of chipboard and sniffing compost - I nearly had a riot on my hands.

But what really struck me is that these kids just get it. They love recycling a) because it's obviously the right thing to do and b) because they've grown up with it. They were born into a world where the domestic recycling bin was as common as the residual waste bin. They don't know a world where you dumped everything into one bin, or even one where you had to make the long slog to the bottle bank in some distant supermarket car park. It was harder to explain landfill to them than recycling.

Which made me wonder how much of the resistance to green behaviour is simply the baggage of having grown up without all this new-fangled renewable energy and closed-loop business models and seeing it as some esoteric novelty that we're not quite sure about? And how will we persuade people clinging to the sinking wreckage of the old, fossil fuel-driven economy to swim off boldly towards the green rescue boat on the horizon? Or do we have to wait for the natural cycle of the grim reaper and the stork to do that job for us?


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24 May 2013

Supply Chain Secrets of the Sustainability Masterminds

Crown Hotel Wetheral

Tuesday saw the fourth meeting of our Corporate Sustainability Mastermind (CoSM) Group. This time we went for a rural location - the Crown Hotel, Wetheral, Cumbria - with another great restaurant (one of the rules of the group is "no executive buffets").

The theme of the meeting was greening the supply chain. As the group operates under the Chatham House rule, I can't share the company specific solutions we discussed, but here's a sample of the three dozen or so generic lessons we recorded at the meeting:

  • Sustainability risks in the supply chain often exceed risks within the factory fence
  • Proactive anticipation is essential – reacting is usually too late
  • Need to continuously scan horizon for future legislation from around the world - legislation has impacts way beyond its immediate jurisdiction in a globalised world
  • The business model defines the supply chain – only incremental improvements can be made without rethinking that business model
  • Awareness days are highly effective ways of sharing good practice across silos and identifying synergies
  • Identify the ‘difference makers’ and make them your champions
  • Use competition to drive performance above standards eg allocate 15% of tender scoring to sustainability and let bidders compete for those points
  • Investment appraisals must be made on through life costs, not just capital costs
  • Joint research with suppliers on greener options can deliver synergistic benefits
  • There is plenty of scope for closed loops for certain materials, particularly metals
  • Small products can be very difficult to recover. Composting and energy recovery may be preferential routes
  • Widen tolerances on inputs to open up a wider range of raw material sources
  • Chicken and egg situation with closed loop business models and civic infrastructure (materials recovery/composting) – need to be proactive and lead

As always, the real benefit was how we got to these generic points and the examples of company specific challenges and shortcuts members threw in to the discussion.

The CoSM Group is for senior sustainability managers in large organisations which meets quarterly in great locations for open and frank discussion - and NO Powerpoint. The next meeting will be in September and will be themed around Sustainability Strategy: The Next Generation. If you'd like to learn more, please drop me a line.


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22 May 2013

Words Matter: What "The Bedroom Tax" can teach us about selling sustainability

words-that-workYou can win or lose an argument on the words you choose to use.

Take the recent furore over changes to UK housing benefits. The Government introduced what they called a "under-occupation charge" for those living in social housing with more than the minimum number of bedrooms they needed. The Opposition branded this "the bedroom tax" and the press adopted the term. The Prime Minister tried to fight back, talking about the status quo as a "spare room subsidy", but it was too late, "the bedroom tax" had stuck.

Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of the policy, the case demonstrates how important language is. The original name was a dreadful piece of technocrat-speak, wide open to attack. The attack was effective as it used the much more emotive term "bedroom tax" which painted the policy as a 'bad' - tax - applied to a 'good' - a nice cosy bedroom. The response of a "spare room subsidy" was an attempt to apply the 'bad' (subsidy) to something much less cosy - a 'spare room', but it was too weak, too late.

This kind of verbal reframing is all part of the daily cut and thrust of politics, and, more often than not, whoever coins a resonant phrase first wins.

I was thinking of this at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting on sustainable supply chains. We were discussing Industrial Symbiosis - one company's waste becoming another's raw material - when one group member said that when talking to colleagues he preferred to call it "Waste to Value".


Why? Do some green jujitsu and put yourself in your colleagues' shoes.

You are busy doing your job when someone comes up to you to talk Industrial Symbiosis. Your reaction is likely to be "Huh? Can't this wait?"

Or they could ask you about Waste to Value - "What, we can make money from our waste? Tell me more!"

To win sustainability arguments, we have to think more like politicians, kick out the technocrat-speak, and put a positive spin on our sustainability ideas and projects. As Frank Luntz, George W Bush's infamous spin doctor put it, it's not what you say, it's what people hear. We need to use words that work.


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20 May 2013

Book Review - The Green Book: New Directions For Liberals in Government

green-bookI've been a member of the UK's third political party, the Liberal Democrats, for the best part of a decade - and an elected Councillor here in Newcastle for most of that time (full disclosure!). When I first joined, the party seemed so far from power that its earnest and sometimes fiery debates on policy seemed somewhat quaint, but the 2010 General Election changed everything.

With no clear majority for either the incumbent Labour Party or the opposition Conservatives, the decision to go into coalition with the latter, on the grounds they got more of the vote than anyone else, sent shockwaves through the party, the 'Westminster bubble' and the electorate. Suddenly what the Lib Dems did or said meant something - for better or worse.

The central thrust of this new tome, The Green Book, is that the party should focus on its strong reputation on environmental issues to define the next stage in its history. The editors make the case on three grounds:

  • Moral: many environmental pressures are now hitting critical levels and the time for action is now;
  • Economic: a green economy could rescue the UK economy from its current torpor;
  • Political: as the Conservatives' initial ambition for 'the greenest Government ever' has faded, the Lib Dems have continued to fly the flag, providing clear green water between the coalition parties.

What follows is a collection of 31 essays designed to set out a vision for eco-liberalism, as distinct from the eco-socialism championed by the Green Party. The authors are predominately MPs and party insiders, but many of the latter are sustainability professionals in their day jobs, and they are augmented by heavyweight guest authors. As a result, the majority of the pieces are intellectually hefty pieces of work, going way beyond the usual political blandishments. Here are some of the key themes I distilled:

  • The need for political leadership: across the UK economy, companies are sitting on mountains of cash which could be invested into greentech, if they the confidence to do so;
  • The need for a narrative: too much of the environmental debate has consisted of barrages of data and statistics, we need a narrative to take people with us on the quest for sustainability;
  • The need to sell the wider benefits of a green economy as well as the risks of inaction: energy security, rebalancing the economy, job creation etc;
  • The need to tackle the (politically more difficult) demand side of the economy as well as the supply side;
  • The need to understand and work with prevailing culture: "Persuading people to change their behaviour is, in general, only likely to succeed when it goes with the grain of their lifestyles and beliefs." (fits with my concept of Green Jujitsu);
  • The need for finance: for example, 3% of companies in the Cambridge greentech cluster have venture capital funding, compared to 36-40% in sectors such as healthcare or IT;
  • The need for policy integration: only the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) sees a green economy as more than a standalone issue, the need to see resource management as more than a waste issue etc;
  • The need to break up vested interests and cartels to open up markets and devolve solutions to the local level.

Given there are more than two dozen authors, the book provides a smorgasbord of potential solutions to these issues rather than a tightly defined manifesto. The ideas range from high level principles, most well understood in the sustainability sector such as the circular economy, to some quite specific solutions, such as how to allow the Green Investment Bank to borrow to invest without upsetting national finances. There is however a significant job left to do to weave these together into a cohesive whole and, more importantly, develop that narrative to make a compelling case to the electorate - we're still deep in policy wonk territory here.

Obviously this is a party political publication, and non-party supporters will have to put up with a degree of Lib Dem braggadocio, but there's plenty of red meat in here for environmental policy geeks no matter what their political viewpoint. As many psephologists are predicting another coalition Government after the 2015 election, and the party leadership has adopted its key thrust, The Green Book could become very influential indeed.


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17 May 2013

Sustainability Stories or Statistics?

LOTR or Data


How many times have you sat through a sustainability presentation that consists of graph after graph, table of data after table of data. And then at the end the presenter says "OK, what are we going to do?" and you rouse yourself from your day dream and think "about what?"

I've long promoted storytelling as a way of making sustainability more enthralling than an avalanche of evidence. Most people who use storytelling use a simple little personal story, but the best use the classic narrative ark of the quest. Somebody like us is suddenly thrown into a challenge and they must change to meet it - just like Frodo in Lord of The Rings, the everyman who is suddenly tasked with saving the world. The best example is the late Ray Anderson of Interface who talked of the 'spear in his chest' which made him set off on 'Mission Zero'. I once saw him tell this story in person, calmly and politely with no histrionics, and it was riveting.

Of course I have been a bit naughty and set up a false choice in the title of this post, but it's a mistake many people make. Stories and narratives wrap us up into sustainability, but the hard facts must be there to underpin the story - substance to match the style.


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15 May 2013

The New Mindset




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13 May 2013

How to Unblock Global Progress on Climate Change


The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was set up at the Earth Summit in 1992. That's 21 years ago and where are we? Atmospheric carbon levels have just hit 400ppm for the first time in human history and emissions show no sign of slowing. We're running out of time.

Is it time to admit that, no matter how many international jamborees held or acronyms forged, trying to agree an over-reaching framework of targets, processes and systems that will satisfy Beijing, Washington and Dar es Salaam just ain't gonna happen?

On the other hand, we know what will happen if we don't have some form of international agreement. Nations that take action will lose polluting industries to those who won't, creating to a race to the bottom and no reduction in emissions. The Tragedy of the Commons writ large.

This is a conundrum I've been wrestling with for a long time and I've come to the conclusion that simplicity is the answer. Just think about when you get overwhelmed at work - trying to do too many things at once just leads to you rushing around like a headless chicken and getting nowhere fast. The only solution is to list what needs doing, pick the one which will give you the biggest return on your efforts, and focus on that 'til it's done.

So if you could pick just one thing to do on the climate, what would it be?

My vote goes for a carbon tax in every nation. A carbon tax is very simple, penalises carbon intensive energy (eg coal) more than cleaner energy sources (renewables), and some countries have already gone down this route so we have some experience to build on. If every UNFCCC country committed to impose a carbon tax then, in theory, there would be no carbon 'leakage' as industries would find a similar regime in place wherever they went. Nations could spend the revenue raised as they see fit to avoid 'World Government'-type paranoia.

In order to prevent poor countries being penalised, the level of taxation in each country could be linked to per capita GDP. This could lead to limited carbon leakage initially, but growth and carbon emissions would be decoupled.

This approach would lead to immediate action on carbon emissions, rather than arguing over targets which, once agreed, might lead to reduced emissions at some point in the future - and might not.

Once a such a global carbon tax agreement was agreed and implemented, then the UNFCCC could start looking at other issues one by one, such as protection of forests, targets, development mechanisms etc. These would have to play second fiddle in the medium term, but at least we'd have one practical measure up and running and cutting carbon, rather than yet another avalanche of position papers.

So let's keep it simple and actually do something. Carbon taxes for all!


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10 May 2013

Green Business Confidential: Lighten Up

Here's the latest in my Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Lighten Up". Make sure you listen to the end...

Audio MP3

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

GBC22 Lighten Up.

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



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8 May 2013

What would you ban, if you could?

law"Hurrah!", shouted the green world, as the neonicotinoid pesticides blamed by everybody (except their producers and their political allies) for the worrying decline in bee numbers.

Bans work. Some major environmental problems have been pretty much fixed by banning the substances involved:

  • The Montreal Protocol banned the use of CFC refrigerants, leading to a stabilisation and slight closure in the hole in the ozone level.
  • The ban in leaded petrol has been credited for great improvements in local air quality - and even for the steady reduction in violent crime which has occurred since the ban.
  • Restrictions on DDT use have been attributed to the rebound in Bald Eagle numbers in the US (although eggs shells remain thin). A ban in lead shot fishing weights led to a massive increase in swan numbers in the UK.

What is inevitable, however, is that those threatened by a ban (and those who are against any environmental protection as a 'cost' to business) will resist, producing their own research to prove that, in the memorable title of a book on the subject, "toxic waste is good for you." This happened in response to the call to phase out DDT in Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and it is happening in the neonicotinoid ban now.

This economic barrier is bunk as bans lead to innovation which is good for the economy. We still have fridges despite the CFC ban. Non-toxic 'sharkskin' anti-fouling paint was developed in response to a ban on toxic TBTs. So we shouldn't listen to the voices of 'no change'.

You don't have to wait until international authorities act, of course. Many organisations run black and grey lists of undesirable chemicals and other materials. Black listed substances must never be used, and whoever proposes a grey list chemical must make the case why it should be used over alternatives. This pre-empts legislation and makes sure the company is ahead of the curve. Some companies have added green lists of preferred chemicals too.

InterfaceFLOR deleted quite a number of carpet tile lines because of the flame retardants required by the other raw materials. The company sees ruling out toxic materials as a drive to innovate and maintain competitive advantage, so they're quite gung-ho about it.

So, over to you. What would you ban, if you could?


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6 May 2013

Is business evil?


Very amusing column from Lucy Mangan in the Guardian at the weekend where a trip to her local independent bookshop threatened to tempt her from her from her bookish, left of centre, middle class intelligentsia comfort zone into the raging vortex of greed that is free market capitalism. Well, she had a thought that if she took a stake in the bookshop she wouldn't want people hanging about in the cafe for too long, which seemed to mean the same thing to her.

It is easy to mock such woolly thinking - if booksellers couldn't make a profit, there would be no bookshops. And quite probably no books.

On the other hand, business has done itself no favours recently with greed outstripping common sense in the banking sector, big businesses shifting money around the world until it settles in the lowest-tax jurisdiction, the horrendous factory collapse in Bangladesh, and pharmaceutical and engineering companies caught bribing officials. We can't even caveat this as a big business problem - cf the "entrepreneur" who made millions selling war-ravaged poor countries golf ball detectors instead of the bomb detectors he promised them.

So is business a necessary evil?

I would say 'no'.

Business decisions are not made by 'the market' but by people. In each of the cases above a person or people are making those moral decisions and coming up short. This can be through greed, or it can be through ignorance. And these scandals can cause as much lasting damage to the business as they do to society.

And beyond that, business brings fundamental benefits like political stability - a functioning local economy is one of the criteria used to measure the recovery of a war-ravaged state. It is business which has brought people out of poverty, not aid. There could be no free press if it didn't operate in a market.

In Ms Mangan's case, I suspect that she might find that her instinctive urge to bring more efficiency to her putative bookshop cafe would put off exactly the sort of bookish customer like her she would be trying to attract. Because capitalism gives people choice and, if they don't like what you're offering, they can choose to go elsewhere.


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3 May 2013

Can you design a green economy?

Darwin monkeyYou only have to see the repercussions of the 'Arab Spring' to see that revolutions are inherently unstable. Yet we constantly call for a 'revolution' in sustainability.

Evolution is stable, but slow. Nature itself took over a billion years to come up with a stable, sustainable environment which could support a diversity of life.

The internet 'revolution' of the mid nineties was over 20 years in the making - waiting for a number of key technologies to mature.

Far too many big green ideas seem to involve trying to 'redesign' chunks of the economy - cf the Hydrogen economy. And like the hydrogen economy they tend to fail.

On the other hand, evolution is slow, and in terms of climate and biodiversity in particular we don't have much time to waste.

So how do you accelerate evolution?

In economic terms, anything that boosts demand which produce change much more quickly than any other intervention - see how the costs of solar PV plummeted as Feed-In Tariffs produced a domestic market for a technology which was previously a specialist niche. Marks & Spencer boosted demand for recovered polyester fibre by using low grade material in bulk in cushion filling etc which brought down the price of high grade fibre for clothing.

That's not to say that business and Governments shouldn't intervene in supply chains when there is a key sticking point. But they shouldn't try to 'design' a whole green economy as one thing is sure - they'll get it wrong.


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1 May 2013

Have eco-labels had their day?

eulabel You get eco-labels on everything these days. You can't grab a coffee without it being rainforest-certified, fair-trade, organic or all three. This very ubiquity bothers me - are all these products wonderful, or is the bar too low and do labels continue to challenge industry to strive harder?

Even the most successful of the eco-labels - the EU energy label on white goods which drove up energy efficiency dramatically - has a fatal flaw. Instead of cranking up the ratings so it was more difficult to meet them, the EU simply added ratings to the top end - A+, A++ etc. So a fridge that hit A in 2000 will still be ranked A in 2020 - where's the drive to improve or ditch old and under-performing technologies?

More worrying was a conversation I had with a sustainability manager at a major multinational last week (not one of our clients). He said something along the lines of:

We lobby to make sure the eco-label is something we can achieve, then we meet that target and no more - there's no pressure to exceed the standard.

In other words, industry tries to dictate what "green" means, makes sure it is easily achievable and then, bingo, achieves it! And sits back, job done.

Such lowest common denominator thinking exasperates me. We need to be creating powerful drivers to make industry strive forwards, not sit on their (modest) laurels. The rankings in all eco-labels should be designed to tighten over time to keep people on their toes. If there is no fear of losing the label, then it is worthless.

An alternative approach is the league table. Industry loves competition and hates to come last - certainly the Greenpeace ranking of electronics firms made even Steve Jobs sit up and listen. A comprehensive set of rankings across sectors would really spice up progress to sustainability.

Whatever is done needs to be done quickly - very soon the public is going to notice that almost everything has a label of some sort. And if they get cynical, the eco-label won't be worth the product packaging it is printed on.


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