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November 2014 - Terra Infirma

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28 November 2014

You can't push a circular economy

Green ThreadYesterday I went to the North East Recycling Forum (NERF) Annual Conference, which as usual, punched way above its weight when it comes to speakers. We had Steve Lee, CEO of CIWM, David Palmer-Jones, CEO of SITA, Roland Arnison of AEA Ricardo and Mark Shayler of Ape giving a wide range of views from the waste industry through to the whole nature of consumption.

The broad theme of the morning was the circular economy and Steve and David started with the EU circular economy package which was adopted this year. What bothered me though, and I said so, is the provisions in the package revolve predominantly around the waste end of the linear economy - with the headline target of a recycle rate of 70%.

As Dwight D. Eisenhower put it:

Pull the string, and it will follow wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.

The one factor which will make or break the circular economy is demand or pull. Without demand, you can try and push as much stuff into the recycling pipe as you want, but it'll be like trying to push string - or a shop full of unwanted and unsold toys. And, even indirectly, recycling target based on quantity, not quality, is unlikely to attract much enthusiasm from the manufacturing industry - the cart is being put before the horse.

If the EU changed their focus to setting standards for recycled material in products then it would create demand for high quality secondary materials. This demand, and only this, is essential to create the pull which would bend our linear economy into a circular one, driving up quality and pushing down cost. It's that simple.



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26 November 2014

What do we need to solve climate change? A hashtag!

Yesterday the UK's Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) launched a tweetathon around the hashtag #BackClimateAction. The idea was that each hour between 9am and 7pm people would tweet on a different theme - everything from Cities & Homes to Sport.

Now, DECC's previous attempts at public engagement have included an unmitigated disaster - the infamous 'bedtime story' in 2009 (above) signed off by a certain Ed Miliband MP. So, despite the change in administration at DECC, I must admit I was more than a little sceptical before I started, but I dutifully chose Business Hour at 3pm and settled down in front of Tweetdeck with a cup of tea.

Reader, I tried my best. I tweeted resources, I asked questions, I answered others' questions.

The results?

I had a couple of brief interactions with people I already knew while a torrent of noise slid past on TweetDeck. After 30 minutes, I gave up and started writing this piece.

To be slightly more objective, I put out a question at the end of the hour asking whether anybody had found it of value. Three people got back to me to say they had picked up some good ideas.

That said, the numbers taking part were certainly impressive - DECC says they got 100 million 'impressions'. But the exam question is, did all this effort lead to ANY engagement of the disengaged?

I know this is non-scientific I couldn't see one person tweeting who didn't already have a strong vested interest in sustainability (apart from the ubiquitous semi-clad spam merchants who pick up on any trending hashtag). This effect is known as an 'echo chamber' - people who agree on something agreeing rather noisily and at length. They tend to assume that it attracts a wider audience, but this is debatable - witness all those exasperated #CameronMustGo tweeters complaining that the mainstream media is ignoring their protest against the British PM.

But in a way, this lack of wider engagement is inevitable. The whole point of a hashtag is to bring people of similar interests together, not to attract those on the sidelines. As a rallying call to the faithful, the tweetathon was obviously successful, but we need to go beyond that - and fast.

Engaging the disengaged is the biggest challenge in sustainability, but a hashtag probably isn't the way to go about it.


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24 November 2014

Winter is coming*... or is it?

harry winterfell


My eldest son, Harry, is doing a project at school entitled 'The Angry Earth.' Last night over dinner he suddenly shouted "I hate global warming!"

His mother, possessor of more degrees than you can shake a stick at, said "Why?"

"Because we will get no more snow!" he retorted.

"Or we might get lots of snow..." I muttered


"Because it could mess with our weather system."

As I spoke I realised I had opened the whole weather/climate can of worms. He's a very clever boy but I was at risk of leaving him confused. We talked it through and he seemed OK with the idea that global warming might result in local freezing. But it begs the question - is it better to leave people with a over-simplistic understanding of climate change or confuse them with the complexities?

It is this reason that I've given up trying to explain climate change science to people in my employee engagement work for clients. I prefer to ask people what they are going to do about carbon emissions instead - usually a much more fruitful conversation.

* Sharp-eyed fans of Game of Thrones might notice that Harry is pictured in the courtyard of Winterfell, give or take a little CGI and a lot of mud.


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21 November 2014

We are all ethical - until we go to work...

business angel

Interesting piece of research doing the rounds in the media where they found that bankers were more honest when they weren't thinking about being bankers. This suggests that bankers aren't inherently more unethical than the rest of us, but rather that the culture of modern banking is responsible for LIBOR, Forex, PPI and all the other banking scandals.

Culture is an incredibly powerful force - for good or bad. It is incredible how resilient culture is to change, particularly in larger organisations where you get what I call 'institutional inertia'. Management legend Peter Drucker (is said to have) put it like this:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast.

If you want to change anything for the better - ethics, social impacts, environmental performance - you better start with the culture.

But Drucker also said:

Company cultures are like country cultures. Never try to change one. Try, instead, to work with what you’ve got.

This is the essence of Green Jujitsu - work out where the overlap between the existing culture and sustainability sits - and use this as the entry point. It applies just as well to ethical/social issues as it does to green issues.


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19 November 2014

Interview with Paul Taylor, Sustainability Manager, Camira Fabrics

paul taylorHere's an extract of an interview I did with Paul Taylor, Sustainability Manager of Camira Fabrics over the summer. Camira Fabrics is the biggest producer of commercial fabrics in the UK, producing 9 million metres of fabric per year, employing 600 people and turning over £70 million. Paul has since left the company, but there are some great nuggets of wisdom in here which we can all learn from.

How did you first get involved in sustainability?

You could say it started when I was five years old. I lived in Central London, surrounded by concrete, and I just felt claustrophobic. For one week a year we went to West Sussex to stay with a relative because the family couldn’t afford a holiday. But on the South Coast, when you are exposed for one week a year in the summer to coast line, marshes, sunsets, sky – it’s extraordinary the impact it has on you. Eventually I went off and studied environmental management and geomorphology – that was my passion to understand the world and to find a route where I could have a positive impact on it.

I started my professional life as a community development officer in Central London, because sustainability options weren’t open to me at that time. But those years taught me about how to have an impact on people and I decided that I had to find a career in sustainability. So it was apply for a job anywhere – pin on a map – and the first opportunity was at Middlesbrough Environment City. I had the opportunity to work on a project which was all about Agenda 21 and the world opened up. The path since has taken me through some dark days in the public sector, but nevertheless, it was a great, great experience. It was about realising you can’t just change the world from the bottom up, you have to have the policy from the top down as well – for a positive contribution you need to do both. And the path led me here, to Camira.

What’s the history of sustainability at Camira?

Camira has only been around since 1974. We started out as Camborne Fabrics, a textile supplier, and we began manufacturing here in Mirfield in 1987, and grew very quickly despite the perception that textiles production in the UK was declining. The big change happened when Camborne was bought by Interface in the late 1990s and became part of a company whose whole drive was around sustainability – and using sustainability to grow the business, not just as a bolt on. Camira was born in 2006 when there was a management buy-out from Interface. So we were born with a culture of sustainability, wholly owned by directors and investors who had seen what sustainability could do for a business. The turnover was £26m in 2006, now it’s £70m. And that’s been purely from a drive for sustainability- in terms of people understanding it, getting the processes right and the whole idea of leaving behind a better world than the one you found.

How do you induct new employees into the culture?

Well we have a new laboratory manager starting this week and on day 3 I have her for half a day informal discussion on sustainability. Every single new person who walks through the door gets that half day – and we learn from it too – what their previous experience of sustainability has been. Read the rest of this entry »

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17 November 2014

A neat trick to engage your boss in sustainability

Tony_Abbott_-_2010An interesting thing happened at the G20 summit which took place in Australia over the weekend. Aussie premier Tony Abbott (right) is one of the few pro-coal, anti-climate action leaders in the world, but he ended up signing a communiqué including the following phrases:

We support strong and effective action to address climate change.

We reaffirm our commitment to rationalise and phase out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies.

(I've stripped out the detail to focus on the commitments)

How did this happen?

A: Peer pressure.

With the weight of the leaders of the world's greatest economies pressing down on him, Abbott crumbled and signed. Whether he will act is another matter, but he signed - a significant step that he can be reminded of if he doesn't act.

How can you perform a similar miracle in your business if the boss, or one of the bosses, isn't interested?

Look to their peers and identify those who are taking sustainability seriously. Those peers could be individuals or they could be organisations. Then ask yourself: Are your competitors doing better on sustainability? Well, constantly compare your organisation to the best. Are you a member of a trade organisation? Suggest your boss gives a presentation on your sustainability programme. Has an individual peer been recognised? Work that into your communications.

The G20 showed that peer pressure works. Use it.

Photo © MystifyMe Concert Photography (Troy) Creative Commons License


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14 November 2014

Should we be exploring space when life on earth is unsustainable?


Like much of the population on Wednesday, I was gripped by the Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Never mind that it's parked worse than my car on a Saturday morning trip to B&Q with a hangover, as an engineer, I cannot help but marvel at the sheer ambition of propelling a probe the size of a fridge 300 million miles through space (as the astrocrow flies), slingshotting it around planets and landing on a lump of rock less than 3 miles across.

But, as an old colleague pointed out, is this really a good use of resources and ingenuity when we face the challenges of climate change, resource depletion and global poverty?

That's a toughie.

But here's the way I look at it:

  • There is no 'or' here - we can do both. There is plenty of money to tackle global problems, what we need is political will and co-operation. If it was an either-or choice, then obviously we should prioritise sustainability, but it isn't.
  • Space exploration has already told us a lot about our planet and we rely on satellites and their technology whether monitoring the ozone layer, measuring the energy imbalance that is driving climate change, or warning of drought conditions.
  • OK, the Rosetta mission isn't about the earth. But the challenge is driving forward important technological advances in everything from solar panels to data analysis via environmental sensors.

So, I'm happy to spend billions pushing forward this kind of exploration, as long as we spend commensurate billions back here on earth sorting out our own backyard.


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12 November 2014

The military has climate change in its sights


Despite all the jibes about 'military intelligence being an oxymoron', armed forces around the world spend an awful lot of time and effort analysing geopolitical trends, identifying potential causes of conflict and scoping out what preparation is required. Back in my days at the Ministry of Defence in the mid-90s, water resources were regarded as a key flashpoint, but in recent weeks both the US and UK military have come out to say that climate change is a major risk to national security and peace.

The Pentagon’s 2014 Climate Change Adaptation Roadmap says:

“Climate change will affect the Department of Defense’s ability to defend the Nation and poses immediate risks.”

Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti told UK MPs earlier this week:

“Climate change will require more deployment of British military in conflict prevention, conflict resolution or responding to increased humanitarian requirements due to extreme weather impacts. It is posing a risk to geopolitical security, which is a prerequisite for economic growth, good health and wellbeing for all of us.”

The military isn't renowned for its wishy-washy lefty-liberal tree-hugging. If they see risks, we can be pretty sure those risks need to be considered seriously.

I had hoped that such unequivocal statements and respect for the military from the political right would jolt the latter out of their doubts about climate change science.

But no.

In May, Republicans in the US Congress passed an amendment to stop the Department of Defense from spending money on any climate-related initiatives, including planning programs. Republican David McKinley put it like this “This amendment will ensure we maximize our military might without diverting funds for a politically motivated agenda.” The Democrat-controlled Senate threw the amendment out (source Businessweek). The mid-term election results mean that the US is likely to see more such moves, not less, for the foreseeable future.

Let's hope the military keep making the point and the penny eventually drops. In the meantime it looks like the old George Porter quote "If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago." mightn't be so far from the truth.



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10 November 2014

Putting my money where my mouth is...


I've just made a modest investment in Triodos Renewables via the TrillionFund. This follows a smaller peer-to-peer loan to another renewables project I made earlier in the summer. My reasons are:

  • I want to build an income stream in addition to my consultancy and invest for my and my family's medium to long term future;
  • I want to make that investment to be environmentally- and ethically-sound (or as sound as it reasonably could be);
  • I want to do my bit for the renewables industry;
  • If I don't invest in green energy, how can I expect anybody else to do so?
  • I now have some 'skin in the game'. As with anything I have a monetary stake in, I will now take a lot more rigorous and objective interest in the topic - it's no longer an academic subject to dip into as and when I feel like it.

This last point is very important for all of us. I often ask clients or potential clients the killer question "what's your budget?" and usually get some stammering in reply.

No budget = no commitment.

When Sir Stuart Rose created Plan A at Marks & Spencer he gave it £200 million to get going - and didn't expect to see a direct financial return on that investment. That is commitment.

Do you have skin in the game?


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7 November 2014

"Why?" is the most powerful weapon in sustainability


One of the things I love about my job is I get to speak to people from a wide range of sectors - from charity shops to defence, from crazy golf course owners (really!) to national newspaper groups. On Wednesday I chalked up a new one - the laboratory sector when I was asked to talk about Green Jujitsu at LabInnovations2014.

One of the perks about these gigs is hearing other speakers - I've worked alongside sport legends such as Steve Backley and Ellen MacArthur - and this time the keynote was given by Robin Ince of Infinite Monkey Cage fame. He was very entertaining and made a wonderful case for being proud and excited by science for science's sake, never mind solving the world's problems.

Another highlight for me was Andrea Sella, Chemistry Prof at UCL and frequent Monkey Cage participant. Andrea is one of those ferociously intelligent people who has never lost that childhood knack of questioning absolutely everything - and has the manic energy to pursue any enquiry to its fundamentals. And he reminded me of the importance of asking Why? because the answer is usually "We've always done it like this."

Andrea told an anecdote about lab gloves at UCL. Every student entering a lab was being issued with gloves - a total of 250,000 per annum at a cost of £15k, even though:

  • Not all the chemicals the students were using were harmful;
  • The gloves don't actually protect your skin against many organic solvents such as toluene - giving a false sense of security;
  • Students spill more chemicals when they're wearing the gloves than when they don't.

He persuaded his Health & Safety people to only issue gloves when they were needed - and would actually make a difference (I would love to have sat in on that conversation). The result was a massive reduction in glove use, a cut in waste production and a decent financial saving - and no rise in accidents as the students take more care with bare hands.

You will be surprised how many decisions are made by default. Your job as a sustainability practitioner is to find your inner toddler and always ask "Why?" You may be surprised by the results.


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5 November 2014

How do you define sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I discuss how to define sustainability in a way which makes sense to your fellow employees.

What do YOU think? Is this a valid approach or is it ducking the issue? Do you have a good definition of sustainability? Let's hear your views in the comments below!


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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3 November 2014

Science Has Spoken (Again) - Now What?

IPCCSo the cycle goes around again. The International Panel on Climate Change produces its five yearly synthesis report on the state of climate change science and, instead of triggering an outburst of action, we get another rather dreary media debate between NGOs, climate change 'sceptics' and politicians of all stripes.

Given that the report says acting now will prove much easier than playing catch up in a decade, what do we need to do to get going? Here's my happen'th:

1. Political Leadership: Obama is trying to make climate change a core plank of his second term, but seems to be hobbled by his own mediocre popularity rankings and the rampant, take no prisoners climate change denial of his Republican opponents. Our own David Cameron blows hot and cold. Other industrial powerhouses such as China and Germany are doing their bit, but hardly showing international leadership - that is to left to relatively poor countries such as the Philippines and the Maldives to tug at our heartstrings. Who is going to stand up and lead?

2. Business Leadership: as I've said many times, leadership is the difference between the best at sustainability and the rest. Sustainability leadership cannot be delegated to middle management - it must come from the top. And actions speak louder than words - let's see some real ambition.

3. A Flexible International Framework: different countries will have different risks, opportunities, strengths and weaknesses, we need a framework which allows countries to thrive while cutting carbon. Action needs to be rewarded as much as inaction is punished.

4. Open Minds: the report concludes that no single mitigation or adaptation measure will solve climate change. We need every weapon in our arsenal - even some we may personally not like. This applies to economics as well as technology - we need economies of scale in clean technology which an anti-business mindset will hinder, not help. NGOs will have to learn when they are helping and when they are hindering and adjust aim their guns appropriately.

5. Smarter Communication: Different people respond to different words, phrases and visions and we need top not only accept that, but positively embrace it. A few weeks ago I praised David Cameron for his framing of carbon reduction from a centre-right point of view - green growth, not green tape. Centre left thinkers may respond better to a message around collaboration, regulation and community action. Which is right? Both.

6. Positivity: we must not let the scale of the task frighten us, failures stop us in our tracks, or those throwing abuse from the sidelines put us off. We have a goal, let's go and do it - and have some fun while we're at it!


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