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January 2014 - Terra Infirma

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31 January 2014

Work To Your Strengths

Here's the latest in the Green Business Confidential podcast series. It's called "Work To Your Strengths" - a plea to focus your sustainability efforts on what your organisation does well, rather than trying to turn it into some kind of hippy commune.

Audio MP3

Or, you can download it here and listen on your MP3 player: GBC28 Work To Your Strengths

You can get the whole podcast series here.


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29 January 2014

Red Tape or Green Light?

redtapeUK PM David Cameron gave a speech to the Federation of Small Business (FSB) on Monday where he lauded the Government's drive to cut regulation. He claimed that this would be the first Government in history to leave behind fewer laws than it found on taking office.

While as a small business owner myself, I hate unnecessary red tape, I bridle at the assumption that all legislation is bad for business. It is a constant refrain at my Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group that legislation can spur innovation and create value. In fact, one of my clients, FTSE100 precious metals giant Johnson Matthey, attributes over 75% of its turnover to helping others meet the requirements of legislation whether supplying catalytic convertors for cars or NOx-reducing systems for industrial processes.

I would go so far as to say it is not the quantity of legislation that is the problem, but the quality - if Mr Cameron really wanted to help small business, he would get HMRC to completely rebuild its website which is impenetrable to mere mortals who simply want to pay their tax on time. Make being responsible easy!


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27 January 2014

Reasons to be cheerful (parts 1-327)

business angel

We can be a gloomy lot, us environmentalists - always on the verge of despair. But, hold on a minute...

  • Renewable energy produced a record 15.5% of the UK’s electricity in the second quarter of 2013 – up 50% on the previous year (rewind a decade and renewables hardly bothered the statisticians);
  • Portugal managed a whopping 70% of electricity from renewables in quarter 1. Iceland is pretty much zero carbon in this respect, Spain and Germany are also breaking records left right and centre;
  • The cost of a solar panel has plummeted by a factor of 100 since the 1970s and halved in just the last couple of years;
  • Electric vehicle sales in the US have risen 447% on the back of the Tesla Model S. The Tesla was also the best selling car of any kind in Norway in September, but it got bumped in October - by its electric cousin the Nissan Leaf.
  •  The amount of material going to landfill in the UK has hit an all-time low;
  • According to the CBI, a third of all UK growth now comes from the green sector;
  • The rise in global carbon emissions slowed last year.

And there's grim news for business as usual:

  • Fossil energy prices remain stubbornly high despite the shale gas boom in the US;
  • Commodity prices in general are higher than they have ever been since we started measuring them.

OK, there's no room for complacency, but we are making progress and we should be proud of that. We won't get to tipping points without struggling through the 'hard yards' of breaking open vested interests and established infrastructure first. Telling other people "we'll never make it" dispirits them as well as us. So let's cheer up, be proud and keep on at it!


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24 January 2014

Let's inspire the next generation!

Happy friends

I'm starting to feel my age. Throughout my career I've always been younger than average, whether in employment, in management, in local politics, in self-employment. But in the last few years since I've passed the big four - oh, I've started to notice that I've caught up with that average. It's not just that - muscle memory is much harder to develop. I've been trying to teach myself front crawl in the last 6 months and it hasn't been pretty - coughing up half a swimming pool at the end of each length. We bought a second hand piano in the summer and I can still play pieces I messed about with a few times as a student better than those I've patiently worked on week in week out in the months since. Most shockingly, I find it hard to go out mid-week and get much work done the next day - the pub quiz team has had to do without me. I have to face it - I'm getting old.

But what does bump me out of me this self-indulgent introspection is my children. I love their crazy inventiveness and imagination. The elder two (4 and 6) build  amazingly intricate and complex lego spacecraft that put the rather more rectangular models of my youth to shame. They don't see barriers, they just let their minds go.

Last year I went to my eldest's school to talk about recycling and the hardest thing to explain was landfill. They couldn't believe we throw stuff in a hole in the ground. "Why don't we recycle all of it?" yelled one indignant child, a question which was very difficult to answer.

This makes me really hopeful for the future. In the same way as an iPad and wifi is just part of the furniture to my boys, they will see renewable energy, recycling, telecommuting, the sharing economy, electric vehicles and the digital technology as the norm, not something in an exotic niche or too complex. Their minds are free of the baggage of the old economy that my generation still carries.

And it is our responsibility to encourage and inspire them. To avoid letting our cynicism hold them back. We owe them that - after all, it's their future that's at stake.




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22 January 2014

Green Thread = Green Wash

Green Thread
This month I had to comment publicly on an important local strategy which boasted about having "a green thread" running its policies. Yesterday, someone complimented me on the way I attacked the analogy, so I thought I would share:

I don't normally like the "green thread" analogy, but here it actually seems very appropriate. It suggests the strategy is like a blanket of many colours with a single green thread running through it. If you want to look for green, you will find traces of it, but it does nothing to change the overall colour of the blanket. Likewise in this document you will find hints of green if you look for them, but sustainability has little influence on the whole.

In other words green threads are just a form of greenwash.


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20 January 2014

Want to accelerate sustainability? Then take your foot off the brake!

go green

There's an Chinese proverb which goes:

The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is today.

In other words, if you haven't already done something you should have, then get on with it. Sustainability fits that bill quite neatly, doesn't it?

Which in turn begs the question, how do you rapidly accelerate sustainability? Infrastructure and technology takes time to plan, procure and implement. Behavioural change in employees also takes time. So what can you do?

In my experience, the fastest way to see results is to remove obstacles to greener behaviour. I often find that people implement systems that make their colleagues jump through all sorts of hoops to do the right thing - and then get surprised when they demur. In a classic example, at one of my clients we found that it was much easier to book a face-to-face meeting with colleagues from across the country than it was to book the teleconferencing system. The unnecessary bureaucracy was removed and the use of teleconferencing exploded.

How do you detect these barriers? Ask your colleagues - and then you're starting to kick off the engagement at the same time.


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17 January 2014

The Answer is 'Run A Workshop' - What Was The Question?

Gareth KaneWhen coaching a number of sustainability practitioners before Christmas, I noticed that, whatever the question they asked me, my immediate impulse was to answer "run a workshop." If I reflect on the last couple of years of client projects, then the vast majority have featured a workshop at some point. I'm sitting in my office surrounded by spare brainstorming templates and enough Post-Its to keep 3M trading for years.

Why's this? Am I a one trick pony? Maybe...

My use of workshops came from years of frustration with what I call 'clipboard consulting' - collecting information, analysing it and coming up with conclusions. The result was inevitably a battle to convince the client to adopt those conclusions - in some cases they did so and then denied that the idea had come from me! The reason for the battle was 'not invented here' - people don't like being told what to do in their business if they've never had the idea. This tempts consultants to recommend what the client already wants to do - the notorious 'steal their watch and tell them the time' approach - which is deeply unethical.

A workshop flips this around - challenging the client and colleagues to generate solutions for their business so they have 'skin in the game'. It is genuinely engaging so it inspires people to take ownership of sustainability in general. And you tap into the wisdom, experience and knowledge of the workforce who have a gut instinct for what will work and what won't.

If that makes me a one trick pony, then I plead guilty, m'lud.


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15 January 2014

The Ultimate Career Goal of Every Sustainability Practitioner...

grass feet small

...should be to make ourselves redundant. Unfortunately I don't think it's going to happen in my lifetime, but it is the goal we should always be aiming for.

There's a tendency amongst far too many in the sector to try to make it exclusive with increasingly complex jargon and inflated self-righteousness.

We need to do the opposite - make sustainability inclusive, intuitive and integrated into everyday life - making sustainability sustainable in other words. Then we can put our feet up.


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13 January 2014

Shout sustainability from the rooftops or keep mum?

keep mumThe first green neologism I have come across in 2014 is 'green hush'. If greenwash is exaggerating environmental performance then green hush is playing it down. The consensus of opinion seems to be that it is A BAD THING.

Is it, really?

For a start, many organisations that have a good sustainability record and did publicise it have come under attack from the green movement for not being perfect. Who decides how green green is?

Secondly, what was seen as green a decade ago - ISO14001, office paper recycling, energy efficient lighting, building management systems, IT virtualisation, digitisation - are now seen as the new normal. This is obviously a good thing, but it creates the risk that you could find yourself being accused of greenwash for not keeping your marketing material right up to date.

And lastly, at the end of the day what matters is a smaller footprint, not the distracting debate that swirls around it.

That said, there is an argument that good communication of environmental performance helps raise the bar across business - and there are PR benefits for individual companies if the greenwash bear traps can be avoided. What is important is HOW the message is communicated - making it compelling, robust and in context. And that's quite a challenge.


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10 January 2014

More Strategy Secrets of the Sustainability Masterminds

undercroft sustainability mastermind group

On Tuesday we had the sixth 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 returned to a venue for the first time, the fantastic Undercroft at the Live Theatre, Newcastle. Most of this room is mediaeval, but those timbers in the background were recycled from Elizabethan ships, and it has functioned as everything from a prison to a wine cellar and, most recently, for exploring sustainability strategy in detail!

The Mastermind Group operates under the Chatham House Rule, so I can't reveal who said what, or give the specific examples we were discussing, but here is a selection of the generic conclusions we reached:

  • Business meets societal needs. No value => no profit and no profit => no value;
  • Defining societal need in large companies can be difficult as they are often multi-faceted;
  • Fundamental question: does growth => more harm? Depends on business model;
  • Ethical dilemma – whose ethics are ethical? The definition may be out of your hands;
  • Another ethical dilemma – where does responsibility end? Again, the definition may be out of your hands;
  • Fundamentally need to do what’s right for your business;
  • One effective tactic is to drive sustainability goals by piggybacking on other business goals;
  • Need to decide on granularity of the strategy eg simple energy efficiency measures vs reconfiguring whole business;
  • Sometimes you arrive at sustainability objectives from a different direction, but this is not a problem;
  • Asset intensive industries typically use 5 year rolling planning cycle – too short for sustainability planning;
  • Ten year stretch targets for sustainability are compatible with such a cycle;
  • An alternative is to use iconic dates eg corporate centenaries – something for the organisation to rally around;
  • People can obsess about the little stuff ,eg disposable coffee cups, and ignore the big picture;
  • Emotions beat arguments, so show don’t tell – “facts” are never enough;
  • ‘Behind the label’ – provide the detail for those who want to dive into it;
  • Need to complete the whole product sustainability jigsaw;
  • A full product life cycle assessment can be a real eye opener, however care must be taken with life cycle assumptions (eg use patterns, life span);
  • Product stories are an increasingly effective way to market green performance;
  • Independent substantiation of all claims is vital.

As always, the real benefit of the session lies in 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. It 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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8 January 2014

Tickling The Employee Engagement Sweet Spot

Green Jujitsu Venn

The diagram above explains why most employee engagement for sustainability fails. It is all set slap bang in the middle of the world of sustainability and takes into no consideration the interests, strengths and fears of the audience. The basic assumption is that if you bang on about sustainability loudly enough for long enough, the blue circle will shift leftwards sufficiently to meet your sustainability aims. Good luck with that.

My Green Jujitsu approach initiates engagement by finding the sweet spot of overlap between the sphere of interest of your audience and sustainability. If anything, it pulls the sustainability circle to the right until sufficient overlap can be found. So if your audience is engineers, you look for the engineering aspects of sustainability; if they are healthcare professionals, you look for where sustainability and health overlap (eg walking/cycling to work); if they are designers then you talk about cool eco-products and so on. As you proceed, the sweet spot will get larger as two circles converge.

I would take this a step further as you can see in the diagram below. If you look for the sweet spot from your sustainability side of the fence, you're more likely to misjudge where that audience boundary lies. If you put yourself in your audience's shoes and look at the problem from their perspective then you're far more likely to get it right.

Green Jujitsu Venn2

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6 January 2014

Is it time to stop banging on about climate change?

Climate ChangeThat title may be a surprising one, it even might get some people foaming at the mouth, but bear with me.

'Risk perception' is the science of how we subjectively judge risks. And we are very subjective - a few years ago I went through a moderate phobia of flying but never worried about driving when the latter is much more dangerous. There's a woman who cycles slowly around my neighbourhood wearing a helmet, fluorescent jacket and a lit cigarette firmly clamped between her lips. By any judgement her risk assessment makes no logical sense, but she'd rather take her chances with the fags.

There are all sorts of theories on what we fear and why, but basically we fear something less when it doesn't appear to impact on us directly, it is intangible, and/or its effects are delayed and/or geographically distant. A bit like climate change. Very much like climate change, in fact.

The complexity of climate change science is vast. We can't even answer a simple question like "Are these storms battering the South of England due to climate change?" without giving an lecture on statistics and weather systems. It is no wonder that so many fall for the intellectually vacant logic of Boris Johnson's "if it snows, the world can't be warming."

On the other hand, the resource crunch is right here, right now. Every time you fill up your car with fuel, pay your utility bills or go to the supermarket you get walloped right where it hurts by high commodity and energy prices. You don't have to explain any complicated science.

Now here's the clever bit.

The solutions to the two problems are broadly the same - as they are two sides to the same coin. To tackle the resource crunch, we need to accelerate the uptake of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Solutions to a shortage of other resources such as the circular economy also have a positive impact on carbon emissions. So apart from a few specialised areas, such as refrigerants, we can tackle both the same way. It's just a question of how we sell them.

What I'm basically proposing is large scale Green Jujitsu. Instead of trying to explain a complex, distant and intangible problem to people, why not sell them the same problem packaged in a different way whose solutions can make a real difference to their quality of life here and now? We don't have to 'give up' on the climate crisis, just use its sibling to get action going in the short term.

What do you think? Genius or idiocy?


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2 January 2014

Fiendish Low Carbon Quiz Answers

awardEvery December, I produce a quiz for subscribers to The Low Carbon Agenda. Here are the answers to 2013's 6 fiendishly difficult questions:

1. Which climate contrarian objected to peering at glossy wind turbines from his house this year?

Matt Ridley (clues "peering" - he's a Peer in the House of Lords, "glossy" - opposite of "matt") complained about turbines spoiling the view from his country estate.

2. Which electric car set the world (and itself) on fire this year?

Tesla Model S which saw US electric car sales rise by 447% last year but suffered bad PR when one burst into flames.

3. Why is ordering whipped cream on your Starbucks coffee no laughing matter?

The nitrous oxide, aka laughing gas, used as a propellent in the cream has a bigger carbon footprint than the roasting of the coffee.

4. Which climate envoy didn't get to try any Polish food in Warsaw last month and why?

Yeb Sano, Head of the Filipino delegation to the COP19 fasted to draw awareness to the devastation wreaked on his homeland by Typhoon Haiyan.

5. Which climate politician's ability to get his points across a decade ago lead to the end of his career this year?

UK Energy and Climate Change Secretary Chris Huhne went to jail for getting his wife to take the penalty points for speeding.

6. Who sweated over an extra large issue in a big climate speech this year?

President Obama's big climate change speech in sweltering temperatures addressed head-on the issue of the XL tar sands pipeline.

So how did you do? I got a correct answer for every question, but nobody got them all right, so they were just fiendish enough!

And the winners are (drum roll):

First Place: James Dixon with 5 points

Second:  Gio Bagordo also with 5 points (but James was quicker!)

Third:  Ricky Alfred with 4 points

Thanks to everyone who took part!


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