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June 2014 - Terra Infirma

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30 June 2014

IKEA, fashion and sustainability


Last night I caught the first episode of the BBC documentary "The Men Who Made Us Spend" (if you live in the UK and you're quick, you can catch the who series on iPlayer). It was a fascinating (and balanced) history of the rise of consumerism from the 1924 Phoebus Cartel of lightbulb manufacturers (who agreed to limit the life of their products to 1000 hours when 2500 was the norm) through to those poor deluded souls who camp outside Apple Stores to be the first to get their mitts on the latest slightly better model iPhone.

The most painful moment in the episode was when presenter Jacques Peretti asked Stephen Howard, Global Head of Sustainability at IKEA, how he reconciled the company's claims of sustainability with their continued marketing of throwing away existing furniture from the famous "Chuck Out The Chintz" to the modern day "My Old Sofa is So Going to the Kerb". Poor Mr Howard could only stammer that he would ask the question of the marketing department.

This is a huge issue, not just one for IKEA - for at least 60 years the modern economy has relied on old products going out of fashion and being replaced long before they physically break, a kind of Faustian pact between consumer and producer with planetary limitations being the party pooper.

But while it is easy to deride such consumerism, the problem is that the modern capitalist model has brought fashionable clothes, furniture and vehicles to billions on low incomes - who wants to go back to the model where the moneyed classes can afford comfortable lifestyles while the majority scratch a living in homesteads and city slums? I love my tech as much as the next person, and it would be churlish of me to deny the process which has brought us huge leaps from my first computer, a BBC Model B, to my (not quite) cutting edge iPhone4.

Fortunately there are solutions. The circular economy has the power to keep materials being useful, just in different forms so function and fashion can keep moving forward. The digital economy means that we can consume huge amounts of information - movies, books, music, TV etc etc without consuming as much stuff. eBay has opened a huge market for secondhand goods, Freecycle one for freebies. And the technology which means at 210mph Porsche super car can have emissions less than that of a Prius show that planet friendly technology doesn't have to mean stuff made out of cardboard.

It's a big ask, but I think we can have our lifestyle and sustainability, if we really put our minds to it.


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27 June 2014

Making Sustainability a Bonus

walletInteresting report in Guardian Sustainable Business that Intel and Alcoa are putting sustainability/CSR-type metrics into how they calculate their Executive's bonuses (if only by a token amount to date). To my mind, this kind of incentive will work where sustainability is integrated into an existing system - giving out cash bonuses for environmental improvements alone can lead to gaming the system.

But the more I think about it, the more I like the idea - provided sustainability becomes a significant factor in the amount of bonus. The financial crisis was blamed on individuals making poor decisions because their whopping great bonus depended on short-term gains at the expense of any other consideration. But what if you restructured the bonus system to reward short term performance and long term issues? It would drive behaviour towards sustainability win-win-wins and balance the short term and long term prospects for the business.

What do you think?


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25 June 2014

What we can learn from Greenpeace's flying farrago...

epicfailIt is usually politicians who are brought down by preaching one thing and then being found to be practising quite the opposite. But now it is another of our moral guardians which has been found wanting - Greenpeace have admitted one of their directors, Pascal Husting, regularly commutes by air from his home in Luxembourg to the NGO's HQ in Amsterdam.

Husting's defence - that he has a young family, the train journey is a 12 hour round trip, and that the arrangement was only meant to be temporary - would stand up for anybody other than a senior staffer of an organisation which has campaigned fiercely against air travel.

While I respect Greenpeace and their aims, I've always been uncomfortable with that NGO tendency to preach at those who 'don't get it'. And, if you are going to make environmental protection a moral issue, then you cannot, and must not, live a high-carbon lifestyle out of convenience - because that's exactly what you are criticising others for doing.

It all comes down to authenticity - being what you say you are. If you are going to lead on sustainability, whether in an organisation or in public life, then you must be seen to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Set the standard for everyone and stick to it yourself, because people believe what they see, not what they read.

The coda is that a chastened Husting is now taking the train.


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23 June 2014

Can you see the wood for the trees?

Future Forest Growth

Something I've come across a couple of times in recent months is sustainability practitioners complaining that they are too bogged down in process to actually change anything. Pressures from environmental management systems, reporting requirements and client environmental questionnaires mean that so much effort is put into gathering data that practical projects cannot get moving.

I often think this is a symptom of silo-thinking where every sustainability idea has to come from, and be implemented by, the sustainability team. But if you want a truly sustainable business, then those ideas should be coming from, and be implemented by, every corner of the business. The sustainability team should see themselves as facilitators rather than deliverers - helping others come up with the inspiration, putting in the perspiration and, of course, letting them bask in the glory.


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20 June 2014

My Generation (or the next...)?

Happy friends

I was speaking to a senior manager from a major company last week, a gent of a certain age on the brink of retirement, and I asked when he thought sustainability would be truly mainstreamed. And his reply?

"When your generation is in charge."

Scary thing is, it already is. Many of the most powerful in our country are my age or thereabouts. And many aren't covering themselves in glory, are they George Osborne?

Maybe the Millenials, who don't know life without kerbside recycling, will make the leap. Or my kids generation where hybrids, electric vehicles, wind turbines and solar panels are perfectly normal, or...


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18 June 2014

'Mindfulness' vs 'the New Normal'

world brainThere's a bit of tendency amongst us sustainability practitioners and in the greater green movement that we need everybody to 'get' sustainability - some go much further claiming 'mindfulness' is a pre-requisite of sustainability, or that everybody must form a deeper connection with nature.


Now I like communing with nature as much as the next guy/gal, but our aim should be to make sustainable behaviour reflexive, not something that requires daily meditation on the deeper meaning of life.

I'm busy writing up the interview I did with Paul Taylor of Camira last month and something he said about the workforce there really resonated:

People weren’t talking about sustainability, they were talking about ‘what I do’.

In other words, at Camira sustainability had become 'the new normal' - people didn't need to think about it, they just did it. I am yet to find a business where 'mindfulness' is the norm.


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16 June 2014

When it comes to supply chains, ignorance is risk

Admiral Lord NelsonInteresting report in Bloomberg Businessweek recently on industry's response, or lack of it, to the new US regulations on conflict minerals - the standard response sees to be a shrug and "I dunno..." Or as Charles Harris, an audit partner at PwC, is quoted as saying:

“It took some companies a little bit of time just to figure out what their supply chain was and where they needed to start to gain the information.” [my emphasis]

It seems quite extraordinary that in this day and age that so many major businesses are taking this lackadaisical attitude to the extent where they don't understand their own supply chain. The rules provide for a lack of knowledge, but you would have thought that the risk of this blowing up in their face would spur action not just to avoid a media storm, but also to ensure security of supply.

Businessweek also quotes Keir Gumbs, a partner at Covington & Burling LLP who advises companies on their disclosures, as saying:

“If suppliers are really unhelpful and just fail to respond in any meaningful way or with bad information, companies are just kind of stuck with that.”

Or they could go and find some better suppliers.


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13 June 2014

Elon Musk, disruptive innovation & sustainability

tesla pic by Gareth Kane of Terra Infirma Ltd

Regular readers will need no reminder of my high regard for Tesla Motors and its maverick owner Elon Musk. And the thing I like the most is the way he thinks differently from everybody else, to take three examples:

  • Launching an electric vehicle company on the back of a roadster with astonishing performance (above);
  • Seeing and exploiting the cross-over between EV and domestic battery systems;
  • Launching an all-electric sedan that you would want to buy whether or not you want an EV.

Well Mr Musk has done it again, throwing another innovative cat amongst the business as usual pigeons. He's announced that he will make a number of key patents open source so others can use them without paying royalties. This flies in the face of the usual secrecy in the motor industry.

But it is classic 'creating shared value' thinking. The more electric vehicles on the roads, the more prices will come down and the more infrastructure will get installed which means more electric vehicles will get sold, which means carbon emissions will fall and so on.

It is very easy for commentators like me to say we've got to think different for sustainability - I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. But Elon Musk is a shining beacon for those of us who believe the solutions are out there - if only we free our minds from business as usual.


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11 June 2014

Sustainability for Real People

family blossom

As I write, I'm half way through an 8 day stint of solo-parenting our three boys - and, boy, am I exhausted. With the little one still at the nappy and Calpol stage, and the middle one still demanding quite a bit of attention, it's a flat out effort to keep food on the table, dishes done, cleanish clothes on them, and some semblance of order in the house. By the time they're all bathed, regaled with stories and in bed in the evening, I'm beat - and facing a load of chores just to be ready for the morning.

A couple of years ago, I tried out a 'sustainable living' programme run by a high-profile not-for-profit - partly because of a position I held at the time, and partly to see how other people do engagement. The idea of the programme was to monitor your waste and energy usage and then share ideas on-line on how to reduce those impacts.

Reader, I flunked it completely.

The problem was even the small effort required to weigh and record each load of waste going to the bins was at least doubling the time taken to perform this task. And in our house, if it takes twice as long to do something differently, then it doesn't happen. OK, I might manage once or twice, but if you have a teething child screaming at you, dinner is on the hob and the bin is starting to stink, that bag of waste goes out fast. My data quickly became so patchy it was a joke, so I packed it in.

And I think that summarises the problem with the attitude of much of the activist end of the environmental movement - and even the Government programmes such as the UK's Green Deal. They assume that people have, or should find, the time, inclination and energy to sacrifice on sustainability. A sizeable minority may do it, but for the majority, other pressures - or pleasures - will take priority.

The best way to do sustainability for real people is to make it as easy as 'normal' behaviour, if not easier. Failing that, make it more fun, cheaper, or more status-enhancing, whatever - just make it better. And, if you are looking to test a sustainability idea for practicality, can I blearily suggest a single parent might be the ultimate target audience...


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9 June 2014

Stay Hungry...

In Steve Jobs' legendary commencement speech to Stanford University students (above), he signed off with a maxim he first read in the proto-sustainability bible, the Whole Earth Catalogue, namely "Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish."

In other words, keep searching for what you want to do and don't be afraid to try stuff and fail. When you succeed, don't stop, keeping going.

This is the opposite of the 'mid-table mediocrity' trap identified by the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. We need to build on success, not rest on our laurels.

The CEO of Coca-Cola, Muhtar Kent, put it nicely in a recent HBR interview when he talked of being 'constructively discontent' - taking a frame of mind that what you have achieved is never good enough, but in a way that puts other people off trying.

So how do you reward success, but keep people hungry - or constructively discontent?

One of my favourite approaches is competition - whether giving out awards for good performance, internal/external league tables and/or competitive tendering where the best sustainability performance is always rewarded. No-on wants to lose that no1 slot, or that Queen's Award, or lose a contract to a greener competitor. So they have to keep raising the bar - and so do their competitors.

And if you can bring a bit of the foolish into it, why not?


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6 June 2014

Sustainability as Core Business Strategy

go greenThe whole corporate sustainability thing emerged from the idea of 'doing the right thing' or 'social responsibility' - but a recent trend is to harness sustainability as the core business strategy to drive sales.


  • GE: CEO Jeff Immelt has hitched the venerable company's future to the 'ecomagination' programme of sustainable technologies;
  • Camira Fabrics: the company sees its sustainability stories as the unique selling point of its products;
  • BT: sees its products and services cutting carbon through digitisation;
  • Interface: famously, the carpet tile manufacturer talks of little else but sustainability.

This attitude requires a massive mindshift within the business - what was seen as a 'silo' activity not only has to spread out across the business, but into the whole value chain. It's not just about solving your own sustainability issues, but solving those of your customers too.

The one thing you have to watch for is that you still do both - you can't let yourself off dealing with your own negative impacts just because you are creating such positive impacts for others.




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4 June 2014

How do I get my CFO engaged in sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I answer the tricky question "How do you get the Chief Finance Officer on board for sustainability?"

You can see all editions of Ask Gareth by clicking here. Feel free to share or embed these videos - that's what they are there for.

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


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2 June 2014

The First Law of Sustainability

charlie messThe Second Law of Thermodynamics says:

The entropy of a closed system always increases.

Indulge me here for a minute...

Entropy is a measure of disorder. My favourite analogy for the Law is a our toddler Charlie in our living room. Disorder always increases unless an external source of energy (ie a parent) intervenes and tidies up.

If we use entropy as a measure of pollution, the Second Law tells us that unless we use an external source of energy (eg solar), then in the long run we are, frankly,  in deep doodoo (that's a specialist scientific term). Every time we want to do something useful - make electricity, move a car - it will always involve creating more bad stuff than good.

Nature gets over this by using solar/gravitationally-powered cycles such as the carbon cycle and the water cycle. By opening up the system to these external sources of energy, nature can be sustainable.

Why am I lecturing you on Thermo? Well, the Second Law is a wonderful rule of thumb when sizing up potential sustainability ideas.

The Second Law rules out perpetual motion machines and adds a level of cynicism to my assessment of technologies such as ground source heat pumps and carbon capture and storage. Both of these attempt to decrease the entropy of the system (turning diffuse heat into concentrated heat and concentrating a diffuse gas) and are often prey to 'unexpected inefficiencies' when implemented in practice.

The Second Law pushes us to emulate nature and use renewable energy and the circular economy concept to build a sustainable economy.

Not bad for eight words - that's why I think of it as the First Law of Sustainability.


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