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September 2013 - Terra Infirma

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30 September 2013

Will your business and sustainability strategies converge?

Railway tracks joinAt the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, my job is to guide the conversation, ask provocative questions and record the 'take home points' that arise. Of these, asking provocative questions is my favourite, and at last week's meeting, my best was:

"When will your business and sustainability strategies converge into one?"

At that point the conversation was about the need to take a product-oriented approach to sustainability so responsibility went from cradle to grave (or indeed cradle to cradle as the circular economy was a key theme) of the product life cycle. It struck me that if you are restructuring your supply chain, your operations and your offering to the market in terms of sustainability, what is the point of having separate sustainability and business strategies? Only the metrics (£, t CO2e etc) would differ.

The ultimate act of embedding sustainability into the organisation would be for the two strategies to be combined into one. The direction and speed that many leading companies are heading towards sustainability, there would be little point in not doing it.


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27 September 2013

Strategy Secrets of the Sustainability Masterminds

undercroft sustainability mastermind group

On Tuesday we had the fifth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) - the small group of senior sustainability executives from large organisations which I facilitate on a quarterly basis. We met in what was probably our best location yet, the Undercroft at the Live Theatre Newcastle. Most of the room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships. It has been used for storing flammable materials, French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars and those press-ganged into the Navy - certainly the huge thick metal doors gave the place a slight penitentiary feel.

I was press-ganging the members into discussing next generation sustainability strategies - a massive topic which we are going to continue next time. The Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, but here are some highlights:

  • Most organisations need to shift from an organisation focussed strategy to a product focussed strategy;
  • That shift means engaging with the market and addressing supply chains are essential steps;
  • A sustainability strategy must be built around the business drivers for that organisation – so a meaningful understanding of drivers is a prerequisite;
  • Stretch targets raise sights and broaden thinking – however they must remain credible;
  • Won’t achieve the endpoint without breaking the journey down into intermediate steps;
  • Is the Brundtland definition of sustainability ambitious enough? Should we not want to improve the world for future generations?
  • But in such net positive thinking, how do you make sure you don’t cheat and claim others' efforts for yourself?
  • At what point do sustainability and business strategies converge into one? They will inevitably do so;
  • Communicate the strategy using big clear statements, underpinned by clarifying statements, data and caveats;
  • What you stop doing is as important, if not more so, as what you start doing.

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. If you'd like to learn more, please drop me a line.


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25 September 2013

The Sustainability Iceberg


The great paradox of sustainability is that it is extremely complicated and yet, to make progress, we need to make it appear simple to wider audiences. Regular readers will know I have been mulling recently on the need to 'simplicate' sustainability - make it accessible without losing so much substance as to render it meaningless.

This topic came up at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group and during our discussion I alighted on the not terribly original analogy of an iceberg - that the visible tip is just a fraction of its mass. If we make the visible tip a simple compelling message along the lines of Marks & Spencer's "Plan A, because there is no Plan B", then we need to deftly back this up with all the evidence, caveats and nuances without detracting from that simple message.

So the sustainability section (or preferably the home page) of the corporate website, say, would have the 3-5 main pledges/targets and links would take the curious and/or sceptical deep into the evidence and thinking. While the former can be easily rattled off by everybody from the CEO to the cleaner, the detail will satisfy the curious and/or sceptical and, if done honestly, see off the risk of accusations of greenwash.


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23 September 2013

Has 'sustainability' been devalued? No, just popularised!


I often see it said in sustainability/corporate social responsibility circles that the terms 'sustainability' and 'CSR' have become diluted and devalued through use/misuse until they are almost meaningless. While I agree that there is some truth in this - particularly with the ambiguous word 'sustainability' - I can't help thinking that too many practitioners and 'thought leaders' resent the world catching up with them and, instead of rejoicing, feel they have to be derogatory. It's like those music fans who only like bands before they are famous and resent the popularity of their once-obscure favourites when they hit the big time.

In fact there is a counter-argument  - that the bar is rising on sustainability, not falling. A decade ago, CSR meant sponsoring the local kids' football team, not the big chewy issues it covers like wage differentials, tax avoidance and working conditions in the supply chain today. A decade ago, retailers only put their own fossil fuel and electricity use in their carbon footprints. Today they are driving sustainability down through their supply chains (WalMart) or building circular supply chains (Marks & Spencer). In the UK, household recycling used to be a minority pursuit, now it has tipped 40% of domestic waste - and domestic energy use has fallen.

That's not to say all is rosy, quite the contrary, there's a colossal amount to be done as the IPCC will tell us next week, but we are moving in the right direction. To achieve anything close to sustainability, we've got to lower the barriers to participation to get as many people on board as possible - it has to be a mass movement, not the preserve of a select few. Resenting progress is an incredibly shortsighted, damaging and frankly self indulgent perspective. To accelerate, we need to build on momentum, help people succeed, celebrate, AND then encourage them to go further.


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20 September 2013

All Hail the Green Collar Worker!

Man installing solar panels

Yesterday I presented the concept of Green Jujitsu to the North East Recycling Forum. The event was part-sponsored by waste giants SITA, and I found myself presenting next to one of their pop-up banners which proclaimed "Making The Planet Sustainable is The Best Job on Earth." During my talk I spoke about my road-to-Damascus moment in the Russian Arctic where massive damage from acid rain made be decide to change my career - a decision which will go down as one the best I ever made. At coffee, somebody tried to tap me up for a job for their son.

Then I came home to find that RenewablesUK had released a report to show 18,000 people now work directly in the UK's green energy sector (excluding nuclear) - compared to about 5,000 in the coal industry - plus another 16,000 indirect jobs - a rise of 74% in just 3 years. This is despite the fact that much of the technology is imported rather than being produced domestically. This figure is expected to rise to 70,000 in a decade. This is on top of the famous Confederation of British Industry (CBI) report which showed a third of all growth in the British economy is green growth.

This all made me think that at a time when climate scepticism is rising, we need to be making more of the green collar worker. People who are climate sceptics are usually from the pro-free-market end of the political spectrum. The Green Jujitsu way to bring such people on board is not to argue the fine details of climate science, but to keep showing clear evidence of green growth, green jobs and a strong green economy.

All hail the green collar worker!


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18 September 2013

Don't Complify Sustainability


Last week, I was revelling in the concept of simplication of sustainability - making the complex appear simple and accessible without losing anything critical. The antonym of simplicate is complify - to make things more complicated sounding than they really are. Well, this week I landed by chance on the phrase "endosymbiotic thrivability".

I like what the coiners of that phrase are trying to get at - 'endosymbiotic' refers to a rather particular biological phenomenon of one organism developing inside another - used as an analogy for society evolving within the natural world to the benefit of both - and 'thrivability' is about looking beyond mere sustainability into a future where we do more than merely exist. Those are both worthy ideas that I already stand for.


And it's a big BUT.

I've worked in sustainability for over 15 years and I had to google 'endosymbiotic'. In fact, I first read it as 'endoscopy' which is something else entirely... What chance, then, does the person in the street trying to make ends meet, or the executive in a high pressure boardroom, or the politician trying to get re-elected have of getting their head around this concept quickly? Those are our target audiences!

And while I agree with presenting the future as thriving rather than some kind of hair-shirt, back-to-the-yurt movement, we're just about getting some traction on the word 'sustainability' (which is a real word) without ripping it up and trying to sell a brand new one. Perfection is all too often often the enemy of success.

Setting aside the irony of using neologisms to knock neologisms, but we really do need to concentrate on simplicating rather than complifying sustainability - make it accessible, intuitive and attractive to people outside the sustainability field. Because, after all, it is those people in their multitudes who will deliver sustainability in practice, not the inner priesthood of practitioners.



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16 September 2013

Sustainability as a Horror Story?

The_Blob_posterToday the Confederation of British Industry has revealed that 95% of its members are concerned about energy prices. This follows an EEF survey which showed 80% of senior manufacturing executives thought limited access to raw materials was already a business risk - for one in three it was their top risk and two of the executives I interviewed for my forthcoming Greening the Supply Chain ebook flagged security of supply of raw materials as amongst their key sustainability risks.

This is interesting as, when I interviewed 18 senior sustainability executives for The Green Executive about 3 years ago, security of supply didn't come up and I only mentioned it in passing under 'rising costs'. For the record, the biggest concern was brand protection/competitiveness in the market place. Likewise, shareholder pressure wasn't an issue during those interviews, but it has moved up the agenda in the meantime.

I have come to the conclusion that the business case for sustainability is constantly changing, but not in a zero-sum-game/squeezing-a-balloon type way where some drivers rise and others fall. No, drivers like legislation and customer demand are still there, still important and in many cases getting more important, it's just the other factors have emerged and grown.

I've struggled all morning for a suitable analogy and the only thing I can think of is one of those early schlock horror movies like The Blob, where the 'monster' just keeps growing and pushing its tendrils out and into every corner. Like in those movies, the drivers for sustainability will catch up with you no matter what you do or where you try to hide. Some companies stand there screaming like a horror movie victim and get engulfed, but the heroes see the creature as a chance to prove their worth, show some leadership, ingenuity and bravery, and live to save the day.

With threats like this, we need more heroes!


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13 September 2013

Sustainability Needs to be Simplicated

I got this wonderful tweet about The Art of Green Jujitsu this week:

What I like about it, apart from the animation has another fan, is the portmanteau word "Simplicated" - defined in the Urban Dictionary as

"Something that is simple and complicated at the same time."

and as a verb as

"To make something simpler through a process that initially seems daunting or complicated."

It struck me that this sums up sustainability - it is both simple and complicated at the same time. Our challenge as sustainability champions is to make the whole concept simple and accessible without undermining the scale and scope of the challenge.

If I have achieved that with The Art of Green Jujitsu, I am very proud indeed - and it sets the bar for the rest of my work!


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11 September 2013

Green Jujitsu Black Belt Technique #1: Segmentation

Green Jujitsu Black BeltIt's almost a year since my Green Jujitsu book was published by DoSustainability. As regular readers will know, Green Jujitsu is the concept of aligning 'green' to your company culture, working to its strengths rather than trying to correct 'weaknesses'. So in an engineering company, you ditch the poor-polar-bear guilt trip and present sustainability as an engineering problem - and challenge employees to develop solutions because that's what they know and love.

Since publication, I've been using Green Jujitsu at many of the UK's biggest organisations both in the public and the private sector. Every time I do an engagement, I refine the techniques a little more and one that has emerged is segmentation.

For some organisations, you can assume that culture is fairly homogenous, but in others there are quite distinct job roles which will employ quite different people. For example, when working with one of the country's leading scientific organisations, we realised that there was a gulf in culture between scientific staff and support staff such as security and cleaners. The scientists wanted evidence for any statement to the extent that some divisions would provide them with, say, raw energy consumption data and let them do their own statistical analysis on it! It was the only way to keep them happy.

Like most of the rest of us, the typical security guard wouldn't have the time, resources or, frankly, inclination to go to these lengths. The security sector tends to be much more rule-based in culture, so the guards will want clear guidance on, say, what equipment and lights can and should be switched off overnight and what needs to be left on.

Clearly what is a turn on for one job role is a turn off for the other. The answer, then, is segmentation. In the same way that marketeers and political psephologists divide society into different segments, a diverse organisation should brainstorm the different audiences and apply Green Jujitsu to each one. So the eggheads get their data and the guards get the 'switch off' guidance embedded into their procedures.

One word of warning: while tailoring the message to each segment is essential, it is important not to stereotype employees in a crude or restrictive way. The insights and suggestions from those on the front line such as security guards are just as useful, if not more so, than those from academic backgrounds, so make sure you engage properly with everyone.


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9 September 2013

Does big = bad?

schumacher-small-is-beautifulLast Thursday I had a fantastic night's debate at the Green Thinkers book club run by my friend Marek Bidwell. Up for discussion was one of the seminal books of the environmental movement, Small is Beautiful by EF Schumacher - a 1973 paean to organisations and institutions being of the 'right size' rather than growing too big. Growth is a major theme of the book, as Schumacher was one of the first to challenge the GNP/GDP obsession of our times.

And a great debate we had too, ably chaired by Marek fuelled by local real ales - most of which I argued weren't about 10 years ago showing that 'going large' isn't a one-way street. But does big = bad?

While I love the great green-niche entrepreneurs out there, and the diversity they bring to the market, there's one things the big boys have which they don't - buying power. If Walmart, Unilever or Tesco, so much as twitch, the ripples spread out across the world. If they invest in a new technology, its price plummets. They have the power to shape the entire economy and many of them are starting to understand the full depth of the responsibility that goes with that power.

Building those supply chains and bringing technologies forward can have interesting side effects. There was an interesting piece on Dara O'Briain's Science Club on how games consoles like the Kinect and the Wii have brought down the price of certain sensors to a level where specialist equipment for people with severe disabilities becomes viable. In the same way, if Marks & Spencer creates a supply chain for recycled polyester thread or Unilever cracks the sustainable palm oil problem, it's an opportunity for everyone big and small.

Maybe big can be beautiful after all.


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6 September 2013

Business As Usual Is Not An Option

Here's the latest in the Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Business As Usual Is Not An Option" - how 'do nothing' on sustainability will hurt your business.

Audio MP3

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

GBC26 Business As Usual Is Not An Option

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



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4 September 2013

I Do Not Like Green Eggs & Ham!!!

green-eggs-and-hamMy favourite kids' book is undoubtedly Green Eggs & Ham by the legendary Dr Seuss. I love reading it to my boys, putting on the amateur dramatics as the persistent Sam-I-Am character goes to increasingly bizarre lengths to pursue and persuade the other (unnamed) protagonist to try the rather unpalatable looking, but apparently tasty, eponymous dish.

Of course the main lesson the book is trying to teach kids is to try something before dismissing it, but as I read it last night to the middle-sized one, I couldn't help thinking Sam-I-Am is also a great metaphor for the way far too many sustainability advocates try and bully other people into 'green' behaviour. If you stuff green (eggs and ham) under someone's nose and say 'try this', they'll simply walk away (and maybe jump on a train - a train! a train! - or a boat - with a goat? Sorry, I get carried away...)

In the real world, we don't have the time or energy to wage a war of attrition to break every colleague's will the way Sam-I-Am eventually does. We've got to think of ways to make the green dish more inviting in the first place, so people will give it a try and find out how nutritious and tasty it really is.


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2 September 2013

Do you suffer from Green Rage?

rantInteresting piece in Edie the other day about employees suffering "green rage" when their colleagues aren't behaving in a green way. Apparently the rise of environmentalism means the workplace is "brimful of emotion." Phew.

In my experience this kind of anger often occurs with 'green champions' and other volunteers frustrated that their colleagues 'just don't get it'. "I think we need to shock them into listening!" said one very passionate young lady to me during a workshop. She was quite surprised when I said "Really?"

The problem is that such self-righteous anger rarely if ever makes a difference, saps your energy and can drive a wedge between the 'greenies' and other employees. I deliberately parodied the ineffectiveness of anger in The Art of Green Jujitsu  (below) - trying to get a Basil-Fawlty-beating-up-his-car vibe going with the protagonist Barry Greene, while his colleagues get on with their jobs around him. It's only when Barry calms down and starts thinking that he starts bringing them on board.

I'll leave the last words to Mark Twain:

“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”


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