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December 2013 - Terra Infirma

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31 December 2013

My Prediction for 2014: The Year of the Resource Crunch

crystalballBack in 2009/10 when I was writing The Green Executive, I interviewed 18 senior sustainability practitioners to generate fresh case studies. I asked all of them what were the key drivers for sustainability in their organisation. The answers ranged from legislation to cost to customer demand - even the value of assets, but nobody mentioned resource scarcity.

This year I've interviewed 5 new, but similar practitioners for Building A Sustainable Supply Chain and my next book and all of them mentioned resource scarcity or security of supply. OK, it's hardly resounding proof, but it makes me think something is definitely up. And if you look at the MGI Commodity Price Index (below) you can see why. After falling for the duration of the 20th Century, save the odd glitch,commodity prices (energy, food, minerals, fibre) have shot up so they are more expensive than any time in the industrial era.



Business is all too aware of this - and not just my 5 interviewees. A recent EEF survey found 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.

What frightens me even more than that surge in commodity prices is that politicians and the mainstream media seem completely oblivious to this. Take energy prices - the right blame subsidies for renewables, the left cartels, but everybody ignores the fact that the cost of oil and gas is crazily high.

Why does this matter? Well, non-renewable energy will can only get more expensive as demand outstrips supply. Conversely renewables only get cheaper as technologies evolve and economies of scale come to bear. But they need subsidy, investment and political support to accelerate up to the point where they can stand on their own two feet.

I would argue that the same is true of non-energy resources. Virgin plastics will only get more expensive as oil prices rise, secondary plastics will only get cheaper as reverse logistics networks mature, sorting and recycling technologies evolve and economies of scale kick in - the circular economy. But this process needs accelerating and fast.

In other words our choice is not 'green or growth' but 'green or stagnation'.

So my optimistic prediction for 2014 is that this message will finally filter from the sustainability and business world through to the mainstream of politics and media - my pessimistic prediction is we'll hit the crunch first.


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26 December 2013

A Baker's Dozen: My top 13 blog posts from 2013

business angelIf you're after a bit of post-Chrimbo reading in what's left of 2013, here's my favourite blog posts of the year:

That should keep you busy. A big thanks to every reader, commenter and sharer of this blog - more of the same in 2014!



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24 December 2013

A Big Shout Out to SolarAid!

My eldest son Harry came home a couple of weeks ago and announced that he wanted to collect money for "poor people in Africa." This gave me a wee bit of a dilemma as I worry that much of our 'charity' locks developing countries into poverty by undermining the very local markets they rely on for that development, but I wanted to encourage my young son's philanthropy, so choosing the right charity was paramount. I put a request for suggestions out on Facebook/Twitter for suggestions and my good friend Neil Bradbury suggested SolarAid.

SolarAid distributes solar powered lamps to villages without electricity to allow school kids to study in the evening without relying on highly polluting kerosene lamps. The lamps go out via a network of local entrepreneurs and they have to be purchased at a subsidised price which allayed my fears that a donation could be damaging in the long term - plus the renewable energy angle rang my bell.

Anyway, Harry collected £24.00 and we sent it off to SolarAid with a note from the man himself. Yesterday a card arrived with delightful personal messages to Harry from the SolarAid team thanking him for his efforts. Cue misty eyes from his parents.

So if you do want to make a contribution to those less fortunate this Christmas, my whole hearted recommendation would be SolarAid!


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20 December 2013

2013 and all that!


It's that time of year that we do ourselves a little navel gazing and reflect on what has happened here this year. Here are the highlights:

  • The release of our hit employee engagement animation, The Art of Green Jujitsu
  • Publication of my second DoShort book, Building A Sustainable Supply Chain (see the webinar here)
  • Getting shortlisted for Green Consultancy of the Year at the Business Green Leaders Awards
  • The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) really hit its stride with some truly great sessions
  • I gave keynotes/talks at the launch of the Preferred Supplier, The Big Eco Show, the North East Recycling Forum and the IEMA North East Regional Forum
  • We landed some great new consultancy clients, News UK, the Natural Environment Research Council and Newcastle University Business School, and continued working with many of our existing clients.

That's not to say it's been all plain sailing. Purse strings are still tight out there and we have lost out more than once this year to our bitterest rival - 'Do Nothing'. We reluctantly decided to suspend indefinitely the Introductory level of Green Academy due to sporadic demand. On the other hand, we trialled a number of webinars for sustainability consultants this year and, given the interest, will be running them again alongside our popular Green Academy Advanced level.

Looking forward to 2014:

  • We already have lots of event dates in the diary;
  • We're going to add the Ask Gareth format to this blog;
  • There's another, full length, book being drafted, working title The Art of Green Jujitsu.

So that just leaves it for me to wish all our readers a very Merry Christmas and a very prosperous New Year!


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18 December 2013

Busting "it can't be done"

diving inYears ago I did a waste minimisation visit at a big furniture factory. One of my recommendations was to get a lean manufacturing expert in to cut the massive amount of 'work in progress' (WIP) - partially-assembled products sitting around clogging the factory and asking to get damaged. The environmental manager told me that there were very good practical reasons for the WIP and removing it couldn't possibly be done. Plus there was no money...

Fast forward 12 months and I bumped into my contact again and asked him how he had got on with my report. "Oh, things have changed a lot since you were in." he told me "We got some lean manufacturing expertise from our parent company and removed all that WIP and waste has gone way down." I brightened up and said "So you did implement my recommendation after all?" He frowned at me "Err - I don't remember you recommending that. No, it was our own decision to do this." I gave up.

"It can't be done" is the bane of the sustainability practitioner. Time and time again I am told this and then, as if by magic, the impossible suddenly becomes possible.

So why does it happen?

  • Not invented here: if people have no 'skin in the game', it is very difficult to persuade them to adopt your ideas;
  • Fear of failure: people rarely get criticised for continuing to do things the way they have already been done - if you try something new and get egg on your face, then you get finger-wagging and/or sniggering;
  • The system doesn't measure and/or reward the benefits of the new system;
  • Institutional inertia - these issues seem to increase exponentially with the number of people involved so small barriers get magnified into large ones.

How do you overcome these problems?

For a start, the standard Assess, Diagnose, Recommend consultancy model I was using at the time walks slap bang into this trap. Now I generally get stakeholders within the organisation to identify and solve problems themselves - usually using a workshop format which points them in the right direction. This generates excitement and ownership, which in turn can overcome fear and reduce institutional inertia. The remaining task is to remove those systemic barriers to progress - often the easiest of the four, although the workshop format helps identify required changes to bureaucracy as well.

But the bottom line is - if you're getting 'no' for an answer, you're probably asking the wrong question.



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16 December 2013

Smash the System!

keep leftYou might have noticed these little fellas popping up around the country - self contained keep left signs which rely mainly on their reflective properties rather than a hard wired light. However some like this one have a small solar cell on top which powers an internal light via a battery. This is the perfect way to use renewable energy - collect it, store it, use it all in the same location. This is very efficient and it does away with the need for expensive cabling etc.

Only one problem.

When we collate energy statistics, such off-grid generation of renewable energy doesn't get counted. The system assumes that renewable energy will be distributed via a centralised grid which was set up with concentrated and locally polluting fossil fuel energy in mind. Think of all those solar powered calculators, road signs, yacht batteries, log burning stoves, solar hot water systems etc, etc which are busily working away producing clean energy but never bothering the statisticians.

That's one way the system is damaging, the other is it encourages on-grid renewables over off-grid with all the inefficiencies the grid brings to the equation.

The tail is wagging the dog.

I see this again and again in organisations too - where the system rewards business as usual, ignores progress and often penalises sustainable change. Unfortunately there are too many people who believe the system is the system as if a bureaucratic process was an immutable law of physics.

Well, if the system doesn't work, smash - or at least tweak - the system!


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13 December 2013

All your sustainability/CSR questions answered!


I've got an exciting new resource for you coming next year - Ask Gareth - a sustainability agony aunt, for want of a better term.

Here's how it works. You send me tricky questions regarding implementing sustainability/corporate social responsibility, I pick those I think will appeal to a wide audience and answer them. Simple as that.

So what are you waiting for? Submit your questions here.


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11 December 2013

What do dog poo, human urine and the digestive juices of worms have in common?

disgustedThe answer is they have all been, or still are, used as a resource.

Once upon a time, dog faeces were collected as 'pure' and used to tan leather. And if I haven't already put you off your lunch, it seems that it was not just random poop-scooping, which apparently meant the pure-finders had a pretty good income:

The 'dry limy–looking sort' fetches the highest price at some yards as it is found to possess more of the alkaline or purifying properties; but others are found to prefer the dark moist quality.

(source: laudatortemporisacti)

Human urine was used as a colour fixer for fabrics, to kill lice in clothing and, believe it or not, as an ingredient in cheese- and bread making. It is still used, um, informally by gardeners as a compost accelerant. If you want more uses for pee, check out the amusing book Liquid Gold by Carol Steinfeld.

Worms have great digestive juices and earthworm enzymes have been used to dissolve blood clots and prevent cardiovascular disease in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and China. The Zero Emissions Research Initiative (ZERI) harvests them to make detergents.

Feel yourself going 'ugh' yet? Well it is the very properties of these substances that make you recoil that make them useful in the first place. Back in pre-industrial days, you didn't have much choice but to use what was to hand and there was no place for squeamishness.

This mentality - of seeing 'problem' qualities as opportunities - is essential for the uptake of industrial symbiosis (one company's waste becoming another's raw material) and to develop a circular economy. If you have, say, an acidic waste stream, the question you should be asking is not "how do we neutralise this?", but "who needs an acid?"

In other words, get over it!


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9 December 2013

How targeted is your employee engagement?

Sniper Tank

Despite what you might see in some organisations, there are three levels of employee engagement for sustainability available to you:

  • Universal: a single message going out to all employees;
  • Segmented: the message is tailored to match the different tribes in your organisation;
  • Precision targeting: key individuals are engaged on a one-to-one basis due to their influence.

The universal level message is essential and the bedrock of the engagement. By definition, it must be broad and shallow, but, by the rules of Green Jujitsu, it should tap into the prevalent culture of the organisation.

Organisations with a diversity of employees - for example a company which employees highly technical product specialists and low-skilled security - will want to segment their more in-depth engagement to match the culture of those 'tribes'. This can be in the form of different training courses, engagement workshops and the format in which information is provided.

Precision targeting: some employees - business development managers, production managers, design leaders - may require their own bespoke engagement to ensure that the levels of power they operate get aligned with the organisation's sustainability goals. This usually requires one to one sessions and workshops with other key decision makers. If the decision maker is difficult to bring on board, asking them to help solve a (real) sustainability problem is a powerful way to start the process.

As always, the mix of these three depends on the organisation involved.




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6 December 2013

Make it easy, make it easy...


Two tax experiences I've had in recent months.

I got a car tax reminder. It said got to this website and fill in this number. I did. It produced my car's details and asked me to confirm. I did. It asked me for payment details. I filled them in and the tax disk arrived in the post a couple of days later. Bish bash bosh done. Painless. I didn't give it another thought - even though it was money out of my own pocket.

VAT. Hmm. We've recently opened a new VAT account to set aside funds to pay at the end of each quarter. This meant changing the direct debit which meant entering the ring of hell which is the HMRC webiste. First attempt, after filling in all the new details, the system told me I had to ring HMRC. I did and they told me they'd need to cancel the old direct debit first. I gave it a couple of weeks and tried again. It accepted my direct debit details then, strangely, asked me to make a payment. I didn't have my VAT return ready so I couldn't. I later submitted my return on time. Of course by the time I found out the direct debit hadn't been set up as no payment was made, I was past the VAT deadline. So I went back in and made the payment. I then get a letter threatening me a surcharge because payment was late and had to write back to explain. You can probably guess I'm still furious. As a responsible business I want to pay my tax - just let me do it, please!

To me the contrast couldn't be starker. The car tax was like an Apple product - you click on what you want and it leads you through a frictionless, short'n'sweet process. The VAT was like Kafka's worst nightmare - I was groping around in a dark maze of bureaucratic purgatory when a simple redesign of the system could have made it a simple process.

I find the same with sustainability issues. In many organisations they throw a passive-aggressive guilt trip at people to act in an eco-friendly way and then expect them to jump through all sorts of hoops to do so. I've flagged up the Government's Green Deal as a great idea that no-one can get their head around, so they don't do it. And our towns and cities still funnel pedestrians and cyclists through strange elaborate detours to take us 'safely' across a road system designed only for cars.

A basic principle of Green Jujitsu is to identify and remove such barriers with extreme prejudice. Make the green option easy, intuitive and desirable - think iPhone. Then you might find people will actually want to do it.


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4 December 2013

The Business Case for A Sustainable Supply Chain

No matter what element of a client's sustainability programme I am dealing with, my first move is always to pin down the business case for addressing that element as it applies to that particular organisation. This is so we:

  • Get everybody bought into the 'why' before we get into detail;
  • Make sure that the programme is aligned to the interests of the business from the very beginning;
  • To give me an insight into the organisation's culture and business environment.

Supply chain sustainability is no different, which is why, after a brief introduction, I started last week's webinar with the business case (see the recording above). This business case varies widely - a food company could be coming under pressure from NGOs on the provenance of their palm oil supplies, but the prime driver for an electronics company could be legislation such as the RoHS directive or the availability of rare earth metals, and a clothing brand may want to protect that brand against shifting consumer concerns. There is no one-size fits all.

Probably the single factor that affects everybody is commodity prices - as you can see below, they've been surging since the turn of the millennium. Traditional supply chain were built on relatively cheap commodities, especially oil, so this resource crunch is a real risk to everyone's quality of life.


The MGI Global Commodity Index

But even here, different businesses will be exposed to commodity prices in different ways. So, in short, it is imperative that, before you do anything else, to get a grip on the business case. You could write a case yourself and try and sell it to decision makers in the organisation, but I recommend getting those decision makers in the room and getting them to explore it themselves. The importance of gaining their buy-in cannot be understated.


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2 December 2013

Ever seen a happy Green Champion?

vektor image sizif

At last week's IEMA Green Jujitsu session, I asked the audience how many had a network of green champions. A forest of hands went up. I then asked who had a network of happy green champions. Most of the hands fell again.

Appointing Green Champions is one of those things people do because everybody else does it, but I have rarely seen a green champions network that works. It's a bit of a cop out, if you think about it - we'll ask people to volunteer for a worthy but poorly defined cause, give them no tools or levers to help them, and grumble when the network withers on the vine.

Here's some ideas that might help you:

  • Instead of recruiting self-selecting volunteers, target specific job roles or people of influence and make them your champions;
  • If you do recruit volunteers, use them as an advisory board to generate ideas to implement sustainability across the organisation, to comment on messaging/campaigns and/or to identify/feature in case studies;
  • Train volunteers in techniques such as green jujitsu to avoid anybody preaching at their colleagues;
  • Give recognition to individuals who do go above and beyond the call of duty;
  • Thank everybody for their contribution, whether they do much or not.

But never, ever give volunteers responsibilities - that's unfair, going on unethical.


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