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August 2014 - Terra Infirma

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28 August 2014

Stupidity and employee engagement for sustainability

einstein tongue outEinstein famously said:

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

And so, apparently, did Ben Franklin, Rita Mae Brown and Confucius... but whoever said it (and the smart money's on Ms Brown), they could have been talking about employee engagement for sustainability.

Again and again and again, I see the same old eco-clichés wheeled out - the hand-wringing, the clichéd imagery and the switch it off stickers and posters. None of this works, but everybody keeps trying it, bashing their head repeatedly against a brick wall.

The whole point of my Green Jujitsu approach is to break this cycle of stupidity. The concept is very simple - you abandon the 'green activist' point of view and look at sustainability through the eyes of the people you are trying to engage with. This simple, but profound switch will transform your fortunes.

My little cartoon, The Art of Green Jujitsu, is over 18 months old, but the message is still fresh. Watch it and think 'what is the difference between our protagonist Barry's initial approach and his brainwave?' Once you can work that brainwave out for yourself, you're flying.

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26 August 2014

Leadership is (still) THE key factor in Sustainability

Green Executive coverFour years on, I'm back in the Yorkshire holiday 'cottage' - actually a 3.5 bedroom stone house - where I beat my second book, The Green Executive, into shape. It's lovely to be back in such an important location to me, even though the leather recliner and ottoman upon which much of the work was done has sadly gone.

I write in a very non-linear style. Once I have a theme, I start by sketching a structure to lay out the overall framework. Then I copy and paste all my previous musings on each topic (from this blog and elsewhere) into that structure. Then I start on an epic cycle of filling in the big obvious gaps (some of that text can appear back on this blog!) and editing the recycled text so it is fresh, up to date and coherent with the new text.

This cycle continues until I get to the tipping point - the critical read-through and edit after which only superficial changes are required to ease the passage of the reader from introduction to conclusions, along with the odd minor fact sourcing. It was here in Croft House, Askrigg where I did that crucial edit for the Green Executive - it only took me two weeks of early morning sessions!

Anyway, the central theorem of The Green Executive is that Leadership is the difference between those who dabble in sustainability and those who really succeed. How does that argument stand up four years down the line?

Well, perhaps the most compelling piece of evidence was the survey of challenges faced by sustainability practitioners by the 2degrees network. The No1 challenge? (drum roll...)

Engaging senior management.

In other words, lack of leadership is what most practitioners think is the factor holding them back. Why is this important?

Because without proper leadership, no significant change will happen in the organisation. That's what leadership is for - to set the strategic direction in the business. So, yes, without buy-in you might persuade someone to specify a much more efficient boiler or trial electric vehicles in the fleet, but the really big stuff - exploiting business opportunities in the low carbon economy, deleting product lines which are intrinsically unsustainable and/or investing in a supply chain to provide recycled material at a competitive quality, quantity and price - all that just won't happen.

And all too often, in my experience, sustainability gets stuck at the middle management level because no-one at the leadership level wants to pick up the baton and run with it.

The Green Executive still sells moderately well (ie at all) for a specialised business book, but I await the day it shoots up the charts as maybe that will be the sign that the penny has finally dropped!


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21 August 2014

Aligning sustainability to success (and vice versa)

Upton_Beall_Sinclair_JrLast Sunday, John Naughton quoted 1930s campaigning author Upton Sinclair (right) in a piece in the Observer about the social contract and tech companies:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it."

While Sinclair was coming from a political activist point of view, the quote resonated deeply with some of my thoughts on corporate social responsibility:

  • On an individual level, it chimes with my concept of 'green jujitsu' - that we must translate sustainability into terms which make it attractive to each employee.
  • On an organisational level, it illustrates my oft spouted opinion that if the business's core function and sustainability pull in opposite directions, the former will win - in the short term at least.

Too many corporate sustainability efforts fail through cognitive dissonance - employees are told to think about the long term future of civilisation AND to maximise short term profits at any cost (or suffer the consequences). There is often an implication that what the individual/business is doing is morally abhorrent and, as Sinclair says, people will switch off.

To square this circle we need to find the common ground between sustainability and the interests of the individual/organisation. That sweet spot gives us our 'in' for engagement and understanding - then we can work on further alignment on a win-win basis.


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19 August 2014

Greetings from the Green Dales of Yorkshire

tdf yellow bikeI'm into phase II of my summer holidays - back in our favourite spot of Askrigg in Wensleydale. In the past, I've always refused on principle to holiday in the same place twice, but we love this old croft house so much, this is our third visit. First time we had one child, second time two, this time three. And no, we won't be continuing that particular trend...

You can't miss the Tour de France paraphernalia still adorning every house from the Grand Depart almost six weeks ago. I've been pedalling up hill and down dale a couple of times already, giving the old muscles a warm up before I hit the 'Côte de Buttertubs' that Nibali, Froome, Contador et al made look like a speed bump. Unlike them, I'll be stopping for tea and cake or a pint halfway around my circuit.

Naturally, I like to seek out local sustainability efforts when I'm on holiday. The amount of rooftop solar installed had increased once again, but the biggest permanent change I noticed was this fantastic archimedes screw on the river Bain in nearby Bainbridge - capable of powering 45 houses and generating £35,000 per annum for the community group which installed it - once the investors are rewarded, the profits are being invested in the local environment.

I remember reading an article in New Civil Engineer about a decade ago suggesting that hydro-projects at this scale are very cost-effective and avoid the impacts of large scale hydro. Nice to see a good, (presumably) successful community energy project too.

Another thing I like about Askrigg is the local produce, whether Wensleydale Cheese, local bread and honey, and, of course, the eponymous local ale. Don't worry, I'll have one on you!

askrigg ale

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14 August 2014

It's not about who YOU can trust, but about who THEY can trust...

oil pricesI'm thoroughly enjoying the first phase of our family summer holidays visiting my parents in my home town of Belfast. My dad has become something of an investor, and I'm starting to dip my toe into clean tech investment, so it was a good opportunity to get some hints and tips.

The only slight tension was he's an archetypal Telegraph reader who invests in traditional blue chip companies and I'm looking at the much riskier emerging green markets. To bridge this gap, I made sure that data I showed him came from sources he would trust rather than sources an environmentalist would naturally reach for first.

This is a classic green jujitsu move. If you want to sell sustainability to a Telegraph reader, then use Telegraph-type sources rather than, say The Guardian. If you want to sell sustainability to an economist, use analyses from major business schools or respected economic sources. And so on...

It's good discipline to challenge yourself in this way anyway. If you use sources that will almost always agree with your gut instinct, confirmation bias is a serious risk.

So, while ignoring the climate change denying lunatic fringe, I deliberately seek out well argued opinion and analysis that I wouldn't naturally gravitate towards. It broadens my mind, challenges my assumptions and keeps me on my toes.


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12 August 2014

The problem with One Planet Living...

world brainIn the latest edition of my monthly e-mail bulletin The Low Carbon Agenda, I made an aside that an organisation should not have more than 7 top-level sustainability goals. I immediately got an e-mail from a sustainability practitioner saying she was being asked to use the One Planet Living system which has ten objectives and was this a problem?

The problem was illustrated by the fact that, even though I have read the One Planet Living objectives many times, I still had to look them up to remember what any of them were. OK, you could argue I'm going senile early, but if you go over more than 5-7 objectives, they all just become a haze.

For the record, here are the ten:

  • Zero carbon: Making buildings more energy efficient and delivering all energy with renewable technologies.
  • Zero waste: Reducing waste, reusing where possible, and ultimately sending zero waste to landfill.
  • Sustainable transport: Encouraging low carbon modes of transport to reduce emissions, reducing the need to travel.
  • Sustainable materials: Using sustainable healthy products, with low embodied energy, sourced locally, made from renewable or waste resources.
  • Local and sustainable food: Choosing low impact, local, seasonal and organic diets and reducing food waste.
  • Sustainable water: Using water more efficiently in buildings and in the products we buy; tackling local flooding and water course pollution.
  • Land use and wildlife: Protecting and restoring biodiversity and natural habitats through appropriate land use and integration into the built environment.
  • Culture and community: Reviving local identity and wisdom; supporting and participating in the arts.
  • Equity and local economy: Creating bioregional economies that support fair employment, inclusive communities and international fair trade.
  • Health and happiness: Encouraging active, sociable, meaningful lives to promote good health and well being.

Some of these could clearly be sub-objectives of the others. Sustainable transport could be a sub-objective of zero carbon. Local and sustainable food - local should be a possible subset of sustainable, but overall this objective could be covered by zero carbon, sustainable water and land use. (One could also ask where phasing out persistent organic pollutants fits in... Oh, I do get very pedantic...)

Anyway, my point is that One Planet Living, like all such systems, is a framework developed to help you, not ten commandments carved in stone. If you find yourself struggling to match your efforts to the framework, then the tail is wagging the dog and you should adapt the framework to your needs, find another one or generate your own. And, whichever you do, if you go over 7 objectives, you will find other people struggling to remember them - not just me!


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6 August 2014

Ask Gareth: 5 Steps to Make Sustainability 'The New Normal'

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I set out the 5 things you really need to do to make sustainability 'the new normal' in your organisation.

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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4 August 2014

Sustainability Strategies in an Uncertain World

screamI'm a news and current affairs junkie, but the news is so unremittingly grim at the minute, I'm trying to ration my intake for my own sanity. Whether it's Ukraine, Gaza, the Ebola virus, Boko Haram or ISIS, we seem to be in a swirl of instability where one small event can pitch us into a crisis.

Sudden disruption is a feature of corporate social responsibility too. The 24 hour news beast needs constant feeding and social media means allegations, legitimate or otherwise, can spread across the globe like wildfire, unfiltered by the reality checks a traditional NGO would be expected to apply. This can turn into a self serving cycle where the mainstream media finds itself reporting on a 'Twitterstorm' which in turn feeds the rumour. All this using a technology which is only 8 years old.

As one of the Sustainability Mastermind Group Members put it ten days ago "Instability is the new business reality." So how can you deal with the beast?

  • Make sure your strategy is separate from your action plans. A strategy should tell you where you want to get to, but you need to be flexible on how you intend to get there. Action plans need to be flexible - remember the old military adage 'a plan never survives first contact with the enemy';
  • Dump liabilities overboard. If you've got a product which you think could get you in trouble in the future, develop a replacement. If you use a chemical of concern - find an alternative or design it out of your process. GM got rid of Hummer after its Government bail out for a very good reason;
  • Open up: Apple has defused much of the bad publicity around its Chinese subcontractors by publishing all its audit reports. This incentivises Apple to deal with problems, incentivises the subcontractors to deal with problems and removes the sting from the NGOs.

But the bottom line is, instability is here to stay, get used to it!




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1 August 2014

Making Your Business Resilient with the Sustainability Masterminds

Last week saw the eighth meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. We rolled up to another top-notch venue, the Lord Crewe Arms in Blanchland - a County Durham village recycled out of a monastery many centuries ago (is that upcycling or downcycling? discuss...).

The topic of this meeting was Resilience - how do we prepare for and deal with unexpected and sudden changes. The Group chose to focus on raw material security, legislation, NGO campaigns and changes in key personnel. Here's a selection of the learning points generated:

  • Unpredictable things happen - Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous ‘unknown unknowns’;
  • Instability is the new business reality;
  • Unpredictability makes risk assessment increasingly difficult;
  • Too many people like to bury bad news or ignore ominous weak signals;
  • Sometimes a bad experience is required to focus minds on preventative measures – do not be afraid to use it;
  • Review each crisis – how did we handle it? What can we learn?
  • Legislation can come over the horizon very quickly eg ESOS;
  • Can spend a huge amount of time and energy reacting to legislation when proactive planning can be more effective;
  • Turn trauma into opportunity via new product/service development;
  • Clicktivism means campaigns can rise up the agenda very quickly;
  • Develop a set procedure and script to deal with a PR crisis – don’t ‘do a Tony Hayward’;
  • Warning signals on security of supply are flashing eg China’s monopolisation of rare earth metals or US food production problems;
  • Develop long term supplier relationships for key strategic raw materials;
  • Circular economy and renewable energy solutions may be more resilient to global risks;
  • Have sustainability properly embedded so back-pedalling by a new executive is more difficult than moving forward;
  • Work out what makes a new person tick and pitch sustainability in those terms.

As always it is how we got to these points that held the most value for participants.

The meeting concluded with a fantastic lunch followed by a circular stroll up onto the moors above the village and back along the river Derwent. Life's hard sometimes!

If you want more information on the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group click here.


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