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February 2014 - Terra Infirma

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28 February 2014

Ask Gareth: The Hard Yards of Sustainability

As a sustainability practitioner, have you ever found yourself wondering if you are making a difference or even getting really down about the environmental pickle we find ourselves in?

In the second edition of Ask Gareth, I reflect on progress, the challenging situation we are in, and suggest 3 simple habits which will help you keep your enthusiasm up. What's your view? Do you agree, disagree or do you have a completely different perspective? If so, please add it in the comments below.

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here.


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26 February 2014

IEMA Employee Engagement for Sustainability Webinar Recording

The above recording is from an employee engagement for sustainability webinar I co-presented for IEMA a couple of weeks ago. Unsurprisingly I was talking about Green Jujitsu - I start at about 4m 30s in. My co-presenter was Paul Rhodes from Greggs giving some really great insights from the front line.

As per usual with webinar recordings, the sound quality isn't exactly hi-fidelity, but there's a lot of value in there on this most critical of topics for the sustainability practitioner. Enjoy!

If you want more of this, I'm delivering an Employee Engagement Masterclass at Newcastle University Business School (sponsored by Santander) on 4 April 2014 - you can see the brochure here.


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24 February 2014

The Green Economy IS Happening

walney wind farm


Last Thursday, on the last full day of my Cumbrian holiday, I took the elder two boys back to Hodbarrow nature reserve and, after an hour's Biblical battering of wind and rain, the clouds parted for a few moments and, lo, the Walney Wind Farm appeared on the horizon. The sheer scale of the installation was breath-taking - and we could just make out two other distant farms, all turning, all generating clean power.

It is very easy to get caught up in the hurly-burly of the sustainability debate and forget that we are winning, if only by a nose. But seeing is believing - and  it was a scene of ecological devastation that drove me into this career and it is the sights of such progress that drive me on. Let's do it!


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20 February 2014

How high do you set the bar?

Athlete compete in paul vault

Sustainability is by definition the biggest challenge facing mankind and, by extension, business. In trying to meet that challenge, one of the greatest dilemmas is how high to set the bar - what targets should you set for yourself? I spend a lot of time with businesses working on targets and the inclination is either to set very vanilla targets in the near future or extremely ambitious targets so far ahead that they can be abandoned to the next generation of employees. The key of course is to find the right trade off between ambition and timeframe to push the organisation to meaningful step changes in real time.

Another strategy is to let someone else to set the targets by using external standards, whether environmental management standards like ISO14001, product standards like the EU eco-label or  reporting standards. While these have many advantages - they are set by third parties, they strive to include all material issues, and they are a useful badge - they do tend to be lowest common denominator as they have to be universal. More worryingly, sometimes organisations hide behind such standards - mining company Glencore once refused to release figures on a certain type of injury because "it wasn't required by the Global Reporting Initiative" - hardly the kind of transparency that the GRI was set up to promote.

There is no easy answer to the target setting challenge and experience is the only effective guide. For large, capital intensive businesses, I prefer to see stretch targets which challenge the status quo set in the 10 year timeframe. But that is simply a matter of judgement - you'll have to rely on your own!


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18 February 2014

Greetings from not so sunny Cumbria

millom lighthouse

Half term holiday and our family - extended to include my parents - are staying in a farmhouse in the South West of the Lake District. We're pretty much off the  tourist trail here - the towns and villages have something of a Wild West feel. The weather hasn't been too kind so far, but I've got some short cycles in and a fantastic if wind/rain beaten trip to Hodbarrow Nature Reserve (above) - featuring a huge brackish lagoon created by old ironstone mining. For the birders: Slavonian Grebe, Goldeneye and more Red Breasted Mergansers than I could shake a stick at.

On the way here, we got a fantastic view of one of the new wind farms off Barrow. I'm not quite sure which one as there are about three or four in that area, but if it was the Walney Wind Farm then it was the largest in the world when commissioned in 2012 but its title has already been usurped a couple of times by bigger British installations. That just illustrates how fast renewable energy is expanding in this country.

The least eco-friendly thing we've seen so far is the outdoor hot tub here at the farmhouse - who on earth would want to sit in a hot tub when it's 6°C and pouring with rain? Apparently it can't easily be turned off, but I have asked for it to be turned down to salve my conscience...


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14 February 2014

Hearts and minds and sustainability

Valentines day heart balloonDespite the fact I let the schmaltzy tat-fest that is Valentines Day pass me by in real life, I feel strangely obliged to have something of a heart-shaped theme to today's blog. But actually, I've been mulling on hearts and minds for some weeks after a couple of exchanges on the Guardian Sustainable Business website.

Charles Eisenstein had posted a rather evidence-free piece about sustainability and the profit motive - basically arguing that profit and sustainability was incompatible:

Unfortunately, nine times out of ten, the interests of profit blatantly conflict with the interests of people and planet, at least according to any reasonable calculation.

[this sentence originally read "my hunch is..." but  has since been modified to take that out and add "by any reasonable calculation" - this is a bit dodgy as I took issue with the word "hunch" in my comment below the piece. But hey...]

Sustainability veteran Hunter Lovins responded to Eisenstein in typically rambunctious style:

It's hard to know where to start in pointing out all the failings in Charles Eisenstein's article, other than to say he's wrong in almost every particular.

There are now more than 50 studies from the likes of those wild-eyed environmentalists at Goldman Sachs showing that the companies that are the leaders in environment, social and good governance policies are financially outperforming their less sustainable peers: Sustainability IS better business and we can prove it.

But someone calling themselves SecondChance weighed in saying:

Yeah, but at least when you read his article, the voice that jumps off the page is considered, loving, balanced.

When you read your comment, there is too much anger, scorn and derision. Not pretty and it will stop people actually listening to any valid points you make.

No point being right if no one will listen

My first reaction to this last comment was "what a load of twaddle" - basically saying we should believe what we want to believe, whether the evidence supports it or not, but actually that last sentence is quite correct. Being right is not enough - you have to speak to peoples' hearts to get your message across.

Happy Valentine...



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12 February 2014

Nigel Farage has a soggy experience

There was a comedy gold sequence on Channel 4 News last night when Garry Gibbon asked a couple of climate-sceptic politicians, including UKIP leader Nigel Farage, what their views on climate change were as they were knee deep in floodwater (it's towards the end of the sequence above). Wonderful squirming with the normally bullish Farage admitting "I don't know" when he was asked whether he thought climate change was man-made.

But behind the schadenfreude there's a serious point here. It's one thing to sneer at climate science when you're sat at your computer blogging or sinking a pint in the golf club bar, quite a different thing when you are standing slap bang in the middle of its (probable) impacts. We learn much better from first hand experience than being told something second hand.

I often talk about my road to Damascus moment on the road to Monchegorsk in Arctic Russia (below) where I saw and even taste in the air the damage done by acid rain from a nickel smelter. This propelled me from armchair environmentalist to actually doing something about it.


But experiences don't have to be negative. Nestlé allowed their employees to try out and even borrow electric cars so they could gain positive experiences and reduce the fear of the new. Other bodies such as Sustrans run guided cycle trips to give adults confidence to get back in the saddle.

Primary school children are taught to "show, don't tell" - something that sustainability practitioners - and the environmental movement in general - should take to heart.


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10 February 2014



I took the picture above this time last year as I crossed the Somerset Levels to run a workshop for a major client based in Taunton. You'd have to be living on Mars not to have heard it's even worse this year - and the storm warnings keep rolling in. As the initial shock and awe has subsided, politicians and the media have got into a bun fight over who is to blame for what - and even who turned up to witness it, when and for how long.

I am pleased, however, that there is a move away from the 'pour more concrete' approach to flood management. The problem here is the confluence of several man-made problems - fast run off in the upper reaches due to land use changes*, building on floodplains and the weather-on-steroids effect we have been expecting from climate change. Many people are realising that the solution to these problems are subtle, long term - and I hope the blame-throwing media and the blame-dodging politicos will start to pay attention to the voices of reason.

The bottom line is that we have to start thinking in eco-system terms - to be in tune with those natural cycles instead of trying to disrupt them. As someone once said, if you push nature out the door, she comes back through your window with a pitchfork.

* when I was in Somerset, the River Tone was running chocolate brown from the silt washed off the surrounding land, indicating something was very wrong upstream.


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7 February 2014

Awareness weeks/days/hours nailed...

I was having another rant about the pointlessness of green awareness weeks/days/hours recently when Hiram Wurf pointed me towards the satirical song "National Brotherhood Week" by Tom Lehrer recorded in 1965. Hits the nail right on the head. Enjoy!


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5 February 2014

Ask Gareth: My Green Champions Aren't Happy

We're very excited here at Terra Infirma Towers about this new venture - Ask Gareth. The concept is very simple - you send me your sustainability/CSR dilemmas, challenges etc and I answer them. I intend to publish at least one of these per month, but more if you send me lots of great great questions.

This first edition answers the question "My green champions aren't happy, what can I do?"

Please add your comments and experiences in the comments below and, if you found the video of use, please share with your colleagues.


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3 February 2014

Getting into a Sustainability Mindset


To act without knowing why; to do things as they have always been done, without asking why; to engage in an activity all one's life without really understanding what it is about and how it relates to other things - this is to be one of the crowd.

Meng Tzu aka Mencius 379-289 BC

What Mencius (the most famous interpreter of Confucius) was getting at is our innate tendency to do what we have always done and/or what everybody else does. This is the key barrier to sustainability and why 'business as usual' has such inertia.

The green movement has its own blinkers as well, and its inability/refusal to see the world through the eyes of the person in the street is a key barrier to it reaching its own objectives.

So how do we broaden our minds to overcome these forms of inertia? Here's some ideas that work for me:

  • Read everything and anything about change - many of the most influential books on my shelves eg Nudge, Switch, have little to do with sustainability and everything to do with psychology. I'm currently reading Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman;
  • Every book you read, seek out the counter argument, if any, and consider the arguments;
  • Do this with the news too - if you read the Guardian, then scan the Telegraph too, or vice versa;
  • If a statistic seems to good/bad to be true, seek out the raw data - journalists, campaigners and activists are no strangers to cherry-picking;
  • Learn to filter out dogmatic views, green or anti-green (reading James Delingpole is just a waste of vital seconds of your life, some green drivel is just the same);
  • Train yourself to always ask Why? Use the Toddler Test - ask Why? 5 times and you'll get to the true reason;
  • Challenge people to solve problems - if they get the kudos for the 'win', it seriously breaks down the mental barriers to success;
  • Interact with others - particularly those who challenge your assumptions. My Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is based on interaction, not one-to-many teaching;
  • Set stretch targets - incremental targets encourage incremental thinking, stretch targets make you raise your sights;
  • Be an intelligent contrarian - if someone blithely parrots received wisdom, gently challenge them;
  • Choose your words carefully - don't close down options before they've been explored;
  • Allow people to be creative - workshops are much more powerful than meetings.

That should be enough to be getting on with, but if you have any more, add them to the comments below:

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