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April 2014 - Terra Infirma

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30 April 2014

Save us, please, from vacuous green slogans

Green Lorry

Saw this the other day. Anybody guess what it means?

Does 'green' just refer to the company livery?

Or is it a promise of sustainable performance in the future?

Or are they saying they're doing great green stuff now to ensure a green future?

Or are they simply greenwashing?

Your guess is as good as mine...



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28 April 2014

Getting Skin in the Sustainability Game

rouletteI've written before about the need to get skin in the game for sustainability - to turn spectators into participants. Otherwise many of your colleagues will watch your efforts with mild curiosity without ever understanding that they have to actually do something. A much used, but pertinent quote comes from Marshall McLuhan:

There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.

While that's the ideal, the difficult bit is getting people to understand how their decisions tie into sustainability. There are several techniques that can help:

  • Involvement: challenge people to come up with solutions in their sphere of operations;
  • Aligning systems: making sure the right people have the right responsibilities;
  • Leadership: people believe what they see, not what they read - active leadership will go a long way to help;
  • Branding: some of the best sustainability programmes - M&S's Plan A, Interface's Mission Zero and Unilever's Sustainable Living spring to mind - have really strong in your face branding to ram it home that "this is how we do things around here";
  • Training & awareness: this must be carried out at critical points eg induction.

Simple, eh?


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25 April 2014

Ask Gareth: How Green Is Green?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I discuss the thorny issue of making green claims and how to avoid accusations of greenwash.

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

If you'd like to send a question to Ask Gareth fire away!.


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23 April 2014

Why storytelling gets your Sustainability message across

ReadersIf I had to choose the best method for communicating sustainability, my automatic first choice would be involvement (workshops, problem solving etc). But if you are need an effective broadcast method, then storytelling is the next best thing. We relate to stories in a way we can't relate to raw facts or data.

I must admit my evidence for this came mainly from my own experiences and received wisdom, but now scientists have weighed in with proof. Some recent neuroscience research by Uri Hanson at Princeton shows that when you tell a story, brain activity of audience members starts to reflect that of the storyteller:

By simply telling a story, the [storyteller] could plant ideas, thoughts and emotions into the listeners' brains.

[Hasson] found that the more the listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker's.  When you listen to stories and understand them, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling the story.

So the next time you are giving a talk on sustainability or writing the 'green pages' on your company newsletter, make sure that you tell stories - lots of them. It's what your audience will latch onto. And that's scientific fact.



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16 April 2014

The Insiders' Guide to Making Sustainability Sustainable

Baltic template

Last Thursday, the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group celebrated its second birthday at the place of its birth - the iconic Baltic art gallery in Gateshead. With views of the Tyne and Millennium Bridges and the kittiwakes wheeling around outside, it was great to be back. And just like two years previously, I couldn't resist adding a little artwork of my own to the walls - one of the graphical templates I use to structure the discussion just enough.

The topic was 'Making Sustainability Sustainable' and our journey was to go from 'business as usual' to the ideal place where sustainability was 'the new normal' by driving our (low carbon) monster truck over the big pile of boulders in our way. If you want a copy of the template, click here.

By the time we finished, the template looked like this (plus a couple of dozen tangential points captured on the flip chart):

CoSM7 results

Here's a selection of the ideas the Group generated:

  • Need to clearly define and communicate the compelling reason to act
  • Give sustainability a strong corporate brand to lock it into the business (eg Mission Zero, Plan A)
  • Use storytelling, not ‘tractor production statistics’
  • Set clear, ambitious high level goals
  • Cascade goals down through the organisation, translating them as appropriate
  • Build these goals into job descriptions/personal objectives of key people
  • Play the system – identify the key driving processes (eg risk register) and get sustainability in there
  • Identify key individuals and engage them directly eg CEO, FD
  • Put leaders on the spot eg “Can you give a presentation on sustainability?”
  • Don’t be afraid to shake things up
  • Never give up!

But as always, there was as much value to be gained from the discussion and the debate than from these bullet points. As one delegate put it "that was the best one yet - the light, airy venue was really conducive to free thinking." Not to mention the fantastic lunch in the 6 restaurant on the top floor.

The next meeting in July will discuss a related topic "How to Make Sustainability Resilient" - ie to sudden upheavals such as changes in legislation, markets, business structure or key personnel.

The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is suitable for senior sustainability managers from large organisations - see our FAQs here.


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14 April 2014

Nature and Industry in Harmony (-ish)

little egret teesside

On Friday I took school holiday boy down to Teesside for a treat - not words that often go together, but despite having worked in the area for six years, I have never checked out the wildlife before. We visited the RSPB reserve at Saltholme where we notched up 45 species of bird plus a fox, and stopped at Greatham Creek where the pictures shown here were taken. All around us, heavy industry loomed large - literally and figuratively.

In many ways Teesside is a candle of hope. There was nothing here until the 19th Century when discoveries of iron and coal led to an industrial explosion. This was followed by explosives factories during the wars which were demobbed into fertiliser production and then later came the petrochemical industry. By 1960 the Tees was biologically dead, and the seals that gave the northern estuary its name, Seal Sands were gone.

Fast forward to today and the seals are back - the only colony in NW Europe to have been wiped out by industry and recovered. The seals, the fish they must live on and the large number of wading birds such as the little egret (above) show that the local pollution has been successfully dealt with. This hasn't happened by chance - instead it has been driven by a mixture of legislation, protest groups and a massive effort from the industries themselves.

seal sands

Of course, the petrochemicals, inorganic chemicals and iron works on Teesside are still not sustainable in the global sense of climate change and resource depletion. But it goes to show what you can do if you really try.


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11 April 2014

The Curse of Mid-Table Mediocrity

muddy footballIn the English Premier League, it is hotting up at top and bottom - with about 6 games to go, there's just four points separating the top 3 teams and 5-7 points separating the relegation zone and the teams hovering above. It is, as the cliché goes, all to play for.

But in the middle is a dead zone. Teams like Southampton, Newcastle and Stoke could win or lose all their remaining games and their fortunes would be unlikely to change. This is the zone of mid-table mediocrity and, if like me you're an armchair Newcastle fan, it's a dismal end to what was a sometimes exciting season as the cosseted overpaid playboys players can hardly be bothered.

This analogy came up at yesterday's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting (I'll post a full report next week). What happens if your performance is good enough to avoid the wrath of NGOs, regulators, customers and employees in the sustainability relegation zone, but lacks the competitive excellence shown by the Champions League of Interface, Marks & Spencer, Unilever at al? It is all too easy to embrace the comforts of mediocrity and simply drift. I'm not talking about you personally, of course (you are reading this after all), but your board, your shareholders, your senior managers.

It is, as the Masterminds agreed, a false comfort. As with professional sport, people might think they are standing still in this game, but they will soon start drifting down the table as others improve - often so gently that they don't realise until they're in the drop zone. Breaking out of such complacency and putting some vim back into performance is a real challenge - as many a football manager can attest.


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9 April 2014

What does the gender pay gap say about CSR?

Environmental data and analysisA very disturbing report from BusinessGreen (£) on the gender pay gap amongst CSR executives - women earn 23% less than men. To put that in context, the gender pay gap in the UK economy as a whole is 10% amongst full time employees and 16% amongst all employees, part- and full-time (source: Telegraph).

Does anybody see the irony here? Companies that employ CSR professionals are meant to be good at this stuff, but these stats suggest they are worse than average at gender equality. Much worse!

Can 'doing CSR' make you worse at CSR? That's a serious question a lot of people have to ask themselves.


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7 April 2014

Are You The Real Sustainability McCoy?

Not the real McCoy

Not the real McCoy

One of the more illogical species of spam e-mail/cold call I receive goes "outsource your thought leadership!"

How on earth can I do that? Work with a clairvoyant? Stick a probe into my brain and transcribe the random thoughts over the web? Or, more likely, pay someone to pass some anodyne 'content' off as my own wisdom?

Readers of this blog, my articles and books know that I write every word myself - no plagiarism, no ghost writing, no reheated clichés - this is the real McCoy (OK, maybe the occasional cliché!)

Which brings us neatly to authenticity and sustainability. People believe what they see rather than what they are told. So no amount of posters, reports or publicity campaigns will overcome sloppy behaviour, flip flopping or dissembling from leaders and sustainability professions. If you want to change the behaviour of your colleagues, the place to start is your own.


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4 April 2014

Leadership is everything in CSR

I wrote The Green Executive in 2010 to provide both an inspiration and a manual for the new generation of responsible and progressive business leaders which appeared to be emerging from the ranks of the grey suits.

Therefore it is a bit depressing to see "engaging senior management" hitting the top of the 2degrees Network's survey of corporate sustainability challenges.

Let's get one thing straight:

Leadership is everything in Corporate Social Responsibility

Without leadership, you will not get the convergence of sustainability and business strategies. Without leadership you will find it impossible to change the behaviour of your employees (whether they'll admit it or not, most look to the leadership as exemplars). Without leadership you will never get the organisation to stop environmentally/socially damaging practices voluntarily. Without leadership, you are pushing, erm, water uphill.

And if it doesn't come within, it is very difficult to persuade indifferent business leaders to take on such an enormous challenge. But I'll give you a hint. The key is not to try to hector bosses into submission, but to help them to work it out for themselves. And that's green jujitsu, the topic of another book...


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2 April 2014

Embedding Sustainability OR Culture Change?

world brainI'm busy writing up the results of a client workshop and something that has struck me is how the following two phrases are used interchangeably:

"Changing culture to embrace sustainability"

"Embedding sustainability into the culture of the business"

I must admit I sometimes mix the two up, but, if you think about it, they are quite different mindsets and it is very important to distinguish between them.

"Changing culture" carries the impression of imposing a worldview on employees - at worst trying to brainwash them. This is extremely difficult to do, morally dubious and most people trying it simply flounder.

"Embedding sustainability into the culture" implies working with the culture that is already there to find common ground between people's attitudes and sustainability - in other words what I call Green Jujitsu. This isn't easy either, but it is a much more effective approach than trying to change culture wholesale.

Language matters - so we must choose our words carefully.


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