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May 2014 - Terra Infirma

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30 May 2014

Transparency rules OK?

Crazy WomanIt's the conspiracy theorist's favourite event of the calendar this week - the Bilderberg Conference, which depending on your political leaning/grasp of reality is either a global Government in waiting, an orgy of capitalists carving up the world between them, or shape- shifting lizards doing whatever shape-shifting lizards do. But, joking aside, there is something a bit rum about over 100 of the world's most powerful people getting together behind closed doors and talking.

Or is there?

While I was musing on the conference over my muesli this morning, it struck me that my disdain for the secrecy around Bilderberg was a little hypocritical. Our Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group prides itself on its adherence to the Chatham House rule, because it allows people to say things that might get them sacked if they were speaking on the record.

Likewise, the world's markets, political institutions and entire communities can be thrown into turmoil by a single badly worded phrase from one of the great and the good. Is it any surprise they occasionally want to talk freely?

Which brings up an important question - when is transparency good and when is it bad?

How about this as a guideline: facts should be shared, opinions can be private or public, depending on the desires of those who give them.



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26 May 2014

How many wake up calls does 'ethical' business need?

epicfailFirst it was the Co-op debacle, then it was the revelation that gender pay differentials are worse in CSR than in wider industry and now we get told that FairTrade maybe isn't actually so fair after all.

Yep, a study by the UK Government and SOAS has found that, rather than paying higher wages via the 'FairTrade' premium, some certified producers pay workers less than large 'unethical' farms in Ethopia and Uganda. FairTrade have responded that this isn't comparing like with like - that you should compare small non-FairTrade with small FairTrade.


When you or I, as ethical consumers, go to a shop and pay over the odds for produce which we are told was produced by people paid a fair wage for their work, then we expect just that. If the same people can get the same job down the road at a non-certified producer and get paid more to produce products which cost the consumer less, then we are being swindled, plain and simple.

My patience with the 'ethical' sector is wearing very thin. It is very much starting to look like an industry taking advantage of concerned consumers to line their own pockets.


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21 May 2014

The kids are alright, but adults need more attention...

Happy friends

My eldest son, Harry, has been asked to design a carbon footprint awareness poster at school this week. As I dropped him off this morning, I took a moment to admire their drafts. One said "Save the Universe!!!" - I don't think climate change is quite that bad, but I admire the sentiment. All of them focussed on telling us what we shouldn't do - leave lights on, drive too much, fail to recycle.

As I've said before, kids naturally get sustainability and can respond to such simple slogans. Unfortunately much of our green comms messages for adults aren't any more sophisticated than the kids' efforts - Switch it off! Save the whale! Don't fly! - yet they need to cut through the clutter of our everyday lives, our deeply ingrained habits and our carefully cultivated cynicism. If you want to get that message through, it needs to be relevant to our everyday lives.

One interesting approach used by the Eco-schools project is to get kids to interest their parents in sustainability, for example by getting the kids to do projects about the environmental impact of their domestic lives. Companies such as Nestlé do similar, having used family activities such as building a butterfly garden as part of their sustainability engagement. I see this as a form of Green Jujitsu - if people listen to their kids, and kids get it, then let the kids do the talking.


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19 May 2014

Go Big or Go Home

I get a little frustrated with the obsession with the little stuff. People fretting over the best time of day to charge their mobile phone, or, like Dilbert, whether polystyrene or paper cups are better, or calling for a ban on plastic bags. Some of this navel gazing gives counter-intuitive results like when people buy a smoothie rather than bottled water when the latter has a lower carbon footprint, but social stigma forces their hand.

This is all displacement activity and won't make a damn difference to the state of the planet.

If you are serious about cutting your personal impact, then insulate your loft, cycle/walk to work and holiday at home. If you are serious about the impacts of your organisation, then identify the big impacts and tackle them. P&G famously did this with Ariel Excel Gel where their biggest impact by far was heating water in washing machines, so they developed a low temperature washing product.

We only have a certain amount of time, energy and goodwill to act. Wasting that limited resource on activity for activity's sake is a crying shame.


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16 May 2014

Practising what we preach...


We're all human.

And a human trait that concerns me is a tendency for some who are on a CSR/sustainability/ethical mission to give themselves a 'pass' when it comes to their own behaviour. Cobblers being the worst shod and all that.

Some examples:

I'm nervous about preaching this myself in case someone unearths some enormous hypocrisy on my part (we're all human), but we should never be blinkered by our mission. Doing good at one thing doesn't trade-off against doing wrong elsewhere. We must meet - and surpass - the standards we expect of others.


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14 May 2014

Sustainability by Innovation vs Sustainability by Metric

gk pt camira

Yesterday, I had a fantastic visit to Camira, the UK's largest interior fabrics company. Even if you've never heard of them, you've almost certainly sat on one of their products if you've used London Underground or one of many rail franchises.

My host was Sustainability Manager Paul Taylor who I've known for about 14 years - his enthusiasm is infectious and there's a truly liberating 'let's try it' attitude at the company which he revels in. I recorded the conversation and will post it here in my interview series, but one of the big themes that emerged from our discussion was the two quite different mindsets:

  • In Sustainability by Innovation, where the thinking is "What's the problem? What's the best solution? Can we make that work?"
  • In Sustainability by Metric, where the thinking is "What target shall we set? What do we have to do to meet that target? How much will that cost?"

While Camira has its metrics and targets, it is Sustainability by Innovation which is not only delivering their fantastic sustainability achievements (that's a Queen's Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development behind Paul's head above), but driving the growth of their business. Major brands are approaching the company on the back of their ability to make sustainability happen.

I find too many companies focussed too hard on the metrics. Companies like Camira show that raising your ambitions with the innovation mindset will not just deliver on targets, but smash them to smithereens.


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12 May 2014

'Do Nothing' never looked so unappetising...

old oil pump

Industries fail. Big brands hit the rocks. Governments fall. Change is as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning.

The winners are those who can read the writing on the wall and embrace the new realities. The losers are those who sit tight and pin their faith in crossed fingers.

With climate change at the top of the agenda, resource prices remaining stubbornly at an historic high and environmental legislation tightening, sustainability pressures are building. On the other hand clean technology evolves, synergies emerge and business opportunities open up.

Change brings with it risk, yes, sure, but what people are less attuned to is the risk of 'do nothing'. A powerful 'Green Jujitsu' lever is to communicate 'business as usual' as the bigger risk - to tap into people's risk aversion to push them towards sustainability, not away from it. That takes a clever piece of reframing, but it does work when you get it right.


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9 May 2014

Green Jujitsu is the Launchpad of Employee Engagement


My green jujitsu approach to employee engagement says forget all the clichés of 'green' - the jute bags, the fair trade chocolate and the heart-rending posters - and work to the strengths of your colleagues - their skills, their interests and their habits. So we talk engineering to engineers, finance to financiers, brand protection/enhancement to marketeers.

I often see signs of dismay from sustainability practitioners when I say this - because it often flies in the face of their (and my) worldview of humankind existing in harmony with nature.

Two points:

1. It's not about us, it's about them. We should not be preaching to the choir, but to the unconverted, so we have to speak their language and appeal to their wants/habits/fears.

2. You can start to introduce more 'sustainability-think' when you get some forward momentum and interest, but if you start off trying to engage people by shouting slogans at them (or appearing to), you'll get nowhere. They will switch off.

So even if it pains you to let go of your green sacred cows, try to see green jujitsu as the launchpad for engagement. Pragmatism wins in this game.


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6 May 2014

What if your boss doesn't get Sustainability?

Opening eyes

Regular readers will know my opinion that the one difference between the best and the rest at sustainability (or any other organisational priority for that matter) is leadership. In fact I wrote a book about it - the Green Executive (available at all good on-line bookstores and even some real ones).

But what if your boss doesn't get it?

In my experience this rarely manifests itself as overt hostility, but more often as ambivalence or a slightly patronising punt into the long grass - "Yes, we really should do more on that, why don't you run along and write a report on it?"

All is not lost, however, there are some crafty ways of 'managing up' to get your boss's attention.

  • The killer question: how do we respond to compulsory carbon reporting? Here's our competitor's CSR report - how will we compete on this? Our energy bill is £2m pa - should we be tackling it?
  • Use Green Jujitsu to reframe sustainability to align it to company goals and other priorities. For example, a discussion of security of supply of raw materials could end up leading to circular economy solutions.
  • Volunteer them to give a presentation on sustainability: this may sound less than thrilling, but in the case of the late, great Ray Anderson of Interface such a request was the trigger for Mission Zero - probably the greatest corporate sustainability programme ever.
  • Develop a critical mass of activity demonstrating great results and then give them the opportunity to become the face of such success (see above).

What doesn't work is the standard default response - passive-aggressive indignation. Don't get mad, get clever!


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2 May 2014

Play the game

muddy football

Too many sustainability people I meet are single-handedly trying to change a huge monolithic organisation into some kind of hippy village with people sitting around in circles being mindful. Guess what? They lose.

Green jujitsu says play to the organisation's strengths, rather than trying to address its weaknesses. For example:

  • If your organisation is driven by risk, make sure you get legislation, resource cost pressures, branding, climate change impacts etc etc into the risk management system.
  • If your organisation is driven by metrics, then make sure the right people have the right sustainability targets and are held to account.
  • And, if you do work for a new-agey, progressive company where mindfulness and meditation are encouraged, then by all means do the hippy thing and be proud!

But at the end of the day, work with the system, roll with the momentum and play the game - just play it by your rules.


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