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October 2014 - Terra Infirma

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30 October 2014

I need your Pearls of Wisdom

YodaIt's that head-scratching time of year again - when I ask you for a pithy one-liner for my 'Green Business Pearls of Wisdom' series of Xmas publications.

So, have you had a profound thought, a flash of blinding light, or a brutal learning experience in the field of sustainability, environmentalism and/or corporate social responsibility in the last 12 months?

If so, boil it down to 140 characters and get it immortalised in pixels for the 2014 edition of Pearls of Wisdom - the sixth in the series. Originality scores well, as do thoughts that run contrary to conventional green wisdom.

Send them to me here.

Over to you!



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28 October 2014

Inspiring the Next Generation


My Mum died last Monday.

That's why this blog has been largely quiet for the last week - I've been in that weird bereavement hollow zone where only family matters and everything else - news, entertainment, work - just seems irrelevant, not to mention irritating. But we gave her a great send off last Thursday - it was standing room only at the funeral service - and I'm getting back into my normal routine.

My Mum was a nature lover and it definitely rubbed off on me. I remember her running the Nature club at my primary school and we went on many nature hikes along the Lagan in Belfast where I grew up. In her later years her passion for the birds which visited the garden meant that there was only one option for charitable donations in lieu of flowers - the RSPB. Her passion also inspired my kids, particularly my eldest, Harry, who would trade bird lists on a regular basis on our Sunday morning phone calls.

The closing stanza of Mum's funeral service went like this:

You can remember her and only that she is gone,
Or you can cherish her memory and let it live on.
You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back,
Or you can do what she would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

And that's what I intend to do - not only work for a better future for the next generation and the one after that, but to inspire them to take up the torch themselves. Not that kids need much encouragement!


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21 October 2014

Sunk Costs Sink Sustainability Ambitions

piggybanksTime and time again, clients tell me "if only we'd factored this in before we invested in that new boiler [or whatever] - bad timing!"

Sunk costs - those capital investments where the cash cannot easily be recovered - are a real headache for sustainability ambitions as no-one wants to be seen to 'waste' that money, even if ripping out a relatively new piece of kit and replacing it with a more sustainable one is the economically sensible thing to do.

The answer, of course, is to get in there before the investment is made and get the most sustainable bang for your buck. But this simple action is much more difficult in practice as the most restricting decisions are often made by default before any investment appraisal takes place.

The only answer is to have a clear sustainability strategy, with appropriate stretch targets, embedded into the structure of the organisation. Trying to waylay every investment reactively as it comes over the horizon is like trying to rugby tackle charging elephants - it's never going to end well.


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17 October 2014

The Answer My Friend, Is Blowing In the Wind...

turbineInteresting news recently:

  • Glasgow University ad committed “to fully disinvesting from fossil fuel industry companies”, subject to reassurance that the financial impact for the university would be “acceptable”. Full divestment will mean the reallocation of around £18 million of investments, which will take place over a 10-year period.
  • The Rockefeller Brothers Fund is joining a coalition of philanthropists pledging to rid themselves of more than $50bn (£31bn) in fossil fuel assets - and putting them into renewables instead.
  • Worldwide spending on renewable-energy projects reached $175 billion in the first three quarters of 2014, up 16 percent from the same period a year ago.
  • China could add 14 gigawatts of solar capacity this year alone - more than all the solar power installed in the United States.

Puts all that anti-renewables nonsense spouted by the likes of Owen Paterson into perspective doesn't it?


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15 October 2014

Horses for (Sustainability) Courses

Gareth KaneIn my executive coaching, I try to adhere to the Socratic/pull model where you guide the coachee along with a series of searching questions. The idea is they get to work through the problem themselves, getting a deeper understanding, and they're more likely to implement the resulting ideas - just in the same way I use workshops in place of traditional 'clipboard' consulting.

This patient approach is against my nature, which is to jump in with advice before the other person has stopped talking. It takes quite a bit of discipline not to butt in all the time.

But with one coaching client, I have to drop this approach and push advice. This particular business owner wants to bounce ideas off me, talk through what is and isn't working and ask me what I would do in certain circumstances. If I suggest something to him, he'll roll it around in his head and work out how to make it work for him in practice.

I'm the opposite - despite my enthusiasm for giving advice, I'm not that great at taking it. I had a consulting coach for a year and while I valued his advice, I always felt he was trying to corral me in particular direction rather than let me think things through. I spent most of my time telling him why his advice wouldn't work for me, which wasn't very productive.

At the end of the day it doesn't matter which approach is 'better' - or worse 'right' (although I find for most people the pull approach works best and so it's my default). What really matters is doing what is best for your audience - Green Jujitsu in other words. It takes humility to work to their preferred way of learning rather than your favoured methodology.

And that's my advice.



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13 October 2014

On Sustainability: Go Big or Go Home

Athlete compete in paul vault

The first four of my rules of pragmatic environmentalism were mainly aimed at the old-school green activism mindset which in my opinion holds us back from the rapid progress we need to make. But this last, fifth rule is aimed at us all.

For too long we have been told that we face existential threats, but are given '10 Top Tips' such as reusing plastic bags and not leaving the TV on standby. While there's nothing wrong with doing these, they won't deliver sustainability on their own and the cognitive dissonance between the threat and the action can switch people off as its like firing a pea shooter at an aircraft carrier.

We need to go big, or go home.

Two weeks ago today I submitted the manuscript for my next DoShort book, provisionally titled Accelerating Sustainability using the 80:20 Rule. The 80:20 rule says that, in many cases, 20% of actions/effort/input give us 80% of results and 80% of actions give us just 20%. This is a phenomenally powerful tool as it allows us to cut away all the extraneous activity - all those networks of green champions, endless supplier questionnaires and jute bags of green goodies - and focus on those things which will make a real difference - such as ditching a low sustainability supplier in favour of one with good sustainability credentials, or substituting secondary materials for virgin materials, or purchasing an electric vehicle fleet.

Along with the 80:20 Rule, a restless mindset of "good, we've done that, but it's not enough, how can we do it better?" will keep you out of your comfort zone and continually reaching for the next level.

And one of the most powerful moves is the stretch target - if you set your sights on cutting your carbon emissions by, say, 50% in 10 years, you will come up with much better projects than you will if your target is 5% by next year.

So set the bar high, clear it, then push it higher. You may just surprise yourself!


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10 October 2014

Will we get political leadership on sustainability in 2015?

political leaders2
The UK political conference season has come to an end, the last before the General Election scheduled for May 2015. So, with manifestos starting to take shape, and given that leadership on green issues is the difference between leaps forward and incremental improvements in sustainability, how much leadership did the main party leaders show? Here's my summary (with the usual disclosure that I'm a member of the Liberal Democrats, but I'll try to be objective!):

First up was Ed Miliband, Labour leader. His speech was wildly derided for flogging to death the already knackered 'I met a normal person recently who thinks just like me' trope and for forgetting to mention the yawning economic deficit. But he did remember to cover green issues (he forgot them in 2012), and it was good, clear stuff, making green jobs one of his 6 goals for the next parliament if he takes the keys to No 10 next year:

So our third national goal is for Britain to be truly a world leader in Green technology by 2025, creating one million new jobs as we do.

Under this government, Britain is behind Germany, Japan, the United States and even India and China for low-carbon, green technologies and services. So many of our brilliant businesses are desperate to play their part in creating their jobs of the future but they just can’t do it unless government does its bit. With our plan, we will.

Making a clear commitment to take the carbon out of our electricity by 2030. A Green Investment Bank with real powers to borrow and attract investment. And as Caroline Flint announced yesterday, devolving power to our communities so that we can insulate 5 million homes. The environment may not be fashionable as a political issue any more. But I believe it is incredibly important to our economy today. And it is the most important thing I can do in politics for the future of my kids and their generation.

The second leader to speak was Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, back from the UN where he gave the first speech on climate change by a British PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1990. He said some very interesting things then, but I said the litmus test would be how much of a priority he gave it when addressing the party faithful. He flunked it. To say green issues got a token mention is stretching the meaning of 'token', with Cameron merely mentioning 'Britain leading the battle against climate change' in passing. His green/blue 'green growth, not green tape' message at the UN could have, and should have, been a compelling pitch to bring round the anti-green forces in his party, but given he has just lost a couple of his MPs to the maverick, climate change-denying UKIP, one can only assume that he decided not to rock the boat.

Lastly, Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat Leader and Deputy Prime Minister took to the podium. His party may be languishing in the polls and his personal ratings at rock bottom, but with another tight election in prospect, it is very possible that he will find himself in negotiation to form another coalition Government next year. Clegg made several references to environmental issues throughout his speech, but two passages were important, the first being to claim credit for progress under the current Government:

And just as we are refusing to saddle our children with mountains of debt, we are determined to hand them on a clean planet too. Both parties in this Government promised we would stick to our green commitments, but it has taken constant pressure from the Liberal Democrats – not least Ed Davey – to hold the Tories to their word. And I can tell you now that a sustainable environment will remain at the heart of our vision for Britain’s future – it’s not green crap to us.

That last line was a potshot at what Cameron is alleged to have said about green taxes on electricity production. Clegg later returned to the theme to set out five green laws:

...if you want to spread opportunity you can’t just stop at today. You have to think about tomorrow too. And for that same reason, our next manifesto will contain something I can guarantee you none of the others will: A commitment to five green laws. Laws that will commit British governments to reducing carbon from our electricity sector…Create new, legal targets for clean air and water…Give everyone access to green space… Massively boost energy efficiency and renewable energy… Prioritise the shift to green cars…Bring an end to dirty coal… Because Liberal Democrats understand that opportunity for everyone means thinking not just of this generation, but of future generations too.

So, in summary, Miliband and Clegg not only made clear commitments on sustainability, but sketched in some of the important detail behind that - as much as you can be expected to in a wide-ranging speech. Cameron flattered to deceive - if he means what he said at the UN, then we have something of a political consensus, but any personal commitment won't count unless steps up and shows leadership - to the public, to industry and to his party faithful.


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8 October 2014

The Littlest (Sustainability) Hobo

I've got a really random and retro ear worm. I can't get the theme from 'The Littlest Hobo' out of my mind. You know the one:

"Maybe tomorrow, I'll want to settle down,
Until tomorrow, I'll just keep moving on."

By coincidence I have been finishing off the manuscript of my latest (fifth) book where I identified this kind of restlessness as a key attribute of the best in sustainability - "OK, we've done good, but it's not enough, how can we do better?"

If you want to install such a restlessness, some or all of the following will help:

  • Learn by doing - keep trying new things and keep what works;
  • Allow people to fail - a blame culture stifles innovation;
  • Celebrate success - show everyone what people like them can achieve;
  • Ask for solutions from everyone involved - inside and outside the organisation;
  • Creative destruction - keep pushing the company forwards by calling time on unsustainable practice/products/systems.

And going back to everybody's favourite canine good Samaritan:

Down this road that never seems to end,
Where new adventure lies just around the bend.

Let's make it an epic adventure of discovery, not a dull march of green tape!


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6 October 2014

If this is war, we must use all the weapons at our disposal


Every Monday for the last couple of weeks, I've been mulling on one of my proposed Rules of the Pragmatic Environmentalist. This week, it is Rule 4: "Technology and markets mechanisms are powerful tools: we must use them to our advantage."

One of my favourite sustainability reads has been The God Species by Mark Lynas- mainly because it is so joyfully contrarian, kicking tired old green tropes and making a daring proposition (I paraphrase):

If we are wreaking biblical levels of destruction on the planet, we'd better use our 'god-like' technologies to stop the damage before it is too late.

Like Lynas, one of my great frustrations with the activist end of the environmental movement is their near-religious belief that the most powerful weapons in our armoury - capitalism, GM technology, market-based solutions, nuclear energy to name a few - are evil. Every time something is proposed it gets knocked down as, at best, not good enough, at worst, the works of the devil. Biodiesel = bad. Carbon offsetting = immoral. Feed-In Tariffs = enrich the rich etc, etc.

Fortunately none of the people peddling these dictates actually has to propose something that works. If you do get a solution, it's something vaguely along the lines of reorganising society into modern villages, going back to the land, growing nuts and whittling sticks.

Now I love a bit of whittling, but let's get real - if we want change and we want change fast, then we've got to harness the powerful tools that we have at our disposal, not shy away from them. Let's get our hands dirty!


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3 October 2014

How Is ISO14001 Changing? Interview with Marek Bidwell

In this very special edition of Ask Gareth, I get to ask the questions! I have been asked about the forthcoming changes to ISO14001, and to cover up my ignorance, I invited my friend, colleague and ISO-geek Marek Bidwell to outline what will happen and when.

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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1 October 2014

California is banning plastic bags. Big Deal.

shopping plastic bag

Have you read the headlines in the press that the State of California is going to ban single use plastic bags in large supermarkets?

Well, sound the trumpets.

Why my cynicism? Well, taking the average UK citizen  - plastic bags represent about 0.1% of our individual carbon footprint, whereas, by comparison, heating our homes represents 10% (I don't have the equivalent Californian data to hand, but I suspect it is similar but with cooling rather than heating). You don't have to a mathematical genius to realise that a very modest improvement in home insulation regulations would easily outstrip a complete removal of single use plastic bags from the economy.

Let's focus on what matters, shall we?


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