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December 2014 - Terra Infirma

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22 December 2014

Merry Christmas to all our readers!

robin snow

And so it comes to my last blog post of 2014. It's been an interesting year here at Terra Infirma Towers, and here are some of the highlights:

  • We have continued to work with long established clients including Johnson Matthey, Newcastle University and the NHS.
  • Along with some new clients including University of Sunderland, NEPIC and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
  • The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (CoSM) had another fantastic year, debating everything from 'making sustainability sustainable' to 'communicating sustainability'.
  • This month saw the publication of my 5th book (and 3rd DoShort): Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule.
  • I launched my Ask Gareth sustainability agony uncle series.

Not bad, given that I also got myself re-elected to Newcastle City Council in May - and had to deal with the loss of my dear Mum in October. It's been a roller coaster of a year and I'm eternally grateful to family for always being there for me. I am blessed.

Looking forward to 2015:

  • I'm working on a different version of Green Academy which will be rolled out through the year - in the meantime make sure you sign up to our taster session: '15 Kick-ass #Sustainability Ideas for 2015'
  • I'll be giving an overview of the new book on another free webinar 'Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule'
  • I'm looking forward to welcoming some new faces to the Mastermind Group and debating some tantalising new topics.
  • Ask Gareth will continue as long as you keep submitting the questions!
  • And, there's another, full-length book on the go (as always).

That just leaves me to thank you all for all your support, banter and comradeship over the last 12 months and to wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous and sustainable New Year!


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19 December 2014

Some consistency please, Mr Cameron

CameronHuskiesAs a good liberal, I'm always keen to give people the benefit of the doubt. When newly installed Prime Minister David Cameron promised back in 2010 to preside over "the greenest Government ever", I was delighted, if a tad sceptical. Then, last winter, he was said to want "to get rid of all this green crap" in relation to energy bills.

The last few months, and indeed days, have seen a continuation of this wild see-sawing between rampant scepticism and enthusiastic flag waving. Here are some high- and lowlights:

  • 23 September 2014: To the UN, Cameron put forward a solid right-of-centre argument for a low carbon economy: "We need to give business the certainty it needs to invest in low carbon... we need a framework built on green growth not green tape." This was probably the first major speech on climate change by a UK PM since Margaret Thatcher in 1990.
  • 1 October 2014: To the Conservative Party conference, the green economy got the very briefest of mentions: "leading the way on tackling climate change".
  • 16 December 2014: He tells the Liaison Committee that people are "Frankly fed up with so many wind farms being built that won't be necessary. Enough is enough and I am very clear about that." He goes on to say he wants to phase out subsidies on renewables and talks up fracking instead.
  • 17 December 2014: Prime Minister's Questions: Cameron answers two questions on green energy, both times enthusiastically declaring that the green economy is creating jobs. In response to a third question he brags of having halved excess winter deaths from fuel poverty through insulating homes.

In The Green Executive, I posit that to deliver sustainability, we need leadership above all else. Paraphrasing leadership guru Warren Bennis, I listed 4 key leadership qualities:

  • A sense of purpose;
  • Trust;
  • Resilience;
  • Bias towards action.

It's clear that on all of these things, Cameron's performance is lacking. His sense of purpose is all over the place which impacts in turn on trust - and without trust, investors will hedge their bets, slowing progress. He shows little resilience and we could do with a lot more action rather than a constant wrestling match with his much greener Liberal Democrat coalition partners (usual disclosure: I'm a member of the Lib Dems).

The strangest thing of all is that, despite this, the UN recently ranked the UK third in the world for its efforts in tackling climate change, so Cameron could justifiably say he had delivered on his promise. But just imagine what we could have achieved if he showed a bit of leadership!


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17 December 2014

The Sustainability Revolution Starts Here!

My latest book, Accelerating Sustainability using the 80/20 Rule, is out this week!

It was written to change the way we address sustainability issues. As I explain in the video above, I am fed up with the mucking about that passes for progress in our industry - all the bureaucracy, over-precise but inaccurate analysis and low expectations.

The 80/20 Rule says there is often an imbalance between effort and results - typically 20% of effort results in 80% of results, and the other 80% of our efforts deliver just 20%. If you focus on the former and throw off the latter, you'll get much better results, faster - it's a mindset thing.

I'll be hosting a webinar on the book on 28 January where I'll be giving you an insight into how this mindset can change how you approach everything from employee engagement to your sustainability strategy - you can register here.


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15 December 2014

The Oil Industry: Resurgence or Death Throes?

old oil pump

Like many, I've been completely gobsmacked by the plummeting oil price - down from over $100 a barrel at the start of the year to $64 a barrel this month. Trying to unpick what has happened has led me to the following line of thinking:

  • The growth in demand is slowing dramatically, worrying all producers (IEA);
  • Production is actually falling (IEA);
  • Shale oil production in the US is threatening OPEC's stranglehold on oil markets (BusinessWeek);
  • OPEC are trying to drive out shale oil and other competitors by keeping quotas high (BusinessWeek) - presumably draining their stocks.

Given this political/economic wrestling match, it is very hard to say where oil prices will be in 2-3 years time. Given the relative flexibility of shale oil extraction compared to lumbering OPEC conventional extraction, I can't help but think, like BusinessWeek, that OPEC are going to emerge a much weaker force as a result of their tactics. It may be they are up against the wall and lashing out in desperation. So the answer to my question above is: both - resurgence for shale, long term decline for OPEC.

This uncertainty is a massive problem for investors in alternative energy - who need to know what the market will be like to invest. I can't help but think that the solution is still a carbon tax to reflect the damage done by carbon based fuels - along with the removal of fossil fuel subsidies. This would stabilise the market and give renewables a level playing field.


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12 December 2014

Green Communications - Secrets of the Sustainability Masterminds

biscuit factory

Last Friday saw the final Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group of 2014. We met in the fantastic Biscuit Factory art gallery in Newcastle, surrounded by some wonderful pieces of art (above).

The theme of the meeting was Green Communications and here are 12 of the 44 learning points arising from the discussion:

  • It’s easier to get green communications very wrong than wonderfully right.
  • All communications have to be able to answer the question “so what?”
  • Facts must be in context – what does it mean?
  • 'Green' and ‘sustainable’ are difficult words – facts may be more powerful.
  • Authenticity is the key success factor.
  • Admitting mistakes or including honest third party views (eg Jonathan Porritt with Marks & Spencer) helps authenticity.
  • Some people want detail, some want the big picture – need to provide for both by 'layering' the message.
  • Need to target the audience(s) with influence – may be a step or two removed from your immediate stakeholders eg customers of your customers.
  • Match format to the audience – eg data and charts for technical audiences, infographics for non-technical audiences.
  • Age matters: millennials have different values/language than, say, baby boomers.
  • Litmus test – does the message get echoed back, or does the same question get asked over and over again?
  • Make your communications team part of your sustainability team to cut the number of hoops you have to jump through.

As ever, the discussion that lead to these points was more valuable than these bullet points.

The Group members have identified a fascinating and challenging topic for the next meeting - 'Age and Sustainability' - how we need to account for the differences between millennials and baby boomers in our sustainability programmes.

The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is for sustainability practitioners working in large organisations. You can learn more about the Group here.


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10 December 2014

You've got to celebrate success in sustainability

Terra Infirma is 4 years old!On Friday night, my partner and I watched her hometown football team Blyth Spartans - a bunch of spirited part-timers - beat the full time professionals of Hartlepool in the FA Cup. The town went wild.

On Saturday, the local premiership team, Newcastle United, continued their unexpected run of form by beating the all-conquering Chelsea, ending the Londoners' 23 game unbeaten run. Again, the joy in this football mad city was palpable.

Yesterday, the UN published its index of national rankings of 60 industrialised countries on their efforts in tackling climate change. All three UK news outlets where I saw the story - The Guardian, the BBC and the Independent - used the same headline: Australia came bottom of the list. You had to read well past that headline to find that the UK came third.


Out of 60?

Beaten only by Denmark and Sweden?

That's brilliant!

So why aren't the news outlets running that? Is it because the truly want to pillory Australia? Is it because bad news sells? Or is it because the media line has been "PM Cameron promised the greenest Government ever and failed" and this doesn't fit that narrative? Who knows?

But whichever, it is a real shame, because, as any top sportsman (or newsagent from Blyth with twinkle toes for that matter) will tell you, you've got to celebrate success. Celebrate and build on it. Because that's the way to keep on winning.


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8 December 2014

Green Communications: Are you speaking to the right audience?

Angry manager

Last Friday saw the last Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meeting of 2015 - we were discussing green communications. I'll be posting some of the multitude of learning points here later in the week, but one key point that arose was the need to speak to the right audience.

Most companies try and speak to everybody with the same bland, uninspiring message - and waste their time and money as everybody ignores it. Green jujitsu says you must tailor the message to the audience, so first you need to identify your audience. The 'right' audience is the one which will have maximum impact (positive or negative) on your sustainability efforts. It might not be immediately obvious who that target audience should be:

Internally, people with influence over business models and product/service design are the people you need to target.

Externally, it gets more difficult. If you produce an eco-friendly material, then the people you need to speak to are often a couple of levels along the value chain - in the ultimate brand for consumer goods. You want them to instruct their suppliers to buy your material.

It might take a bit of head scratching and trial and error to get it right - but it's worth the effort!


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5 December 2014

Message to George: "Green = Growth"

George_osborne_hiI sat through Wednesday's Autumn Statement from UK Chancellor George Osborne with increasing disappointment. Normally such a set piece speech will have at the very least a token mention of the green economy, but we got nothing. Nada. Rien. Chochote.

Even worse, we got exactly the kind of subsidies for fossil fuel extraction that his boss David Cameron said we needed rid of back in September. As Cameron put it:

In short we need a framework built on green growth not green tape.

There are four issues the Chancellor should have considered:

  1. Leadership: the mixed messages coming from the top of Government will do nothing to encourage investment in the low carbon economy. A clear steer is needed.
  2. Innovation: the fossil fuel industry is mature and has little scope for driving technological development. Boosting Government investment in, say, the smart grid and/or energy storage could trigger a cascade in innovations for future energy and transport systems.
  3. Costs: despite all the hype about oil prices plummeting in the last month or so, they are still higher than they ever were pre-2007. Renewable energy has huge amount of scope to get cheaper, the price of fossil fuels will inexorably rise in the medium term.
  4. Politics: given the level of public support for renewables, leadership on the green economy would have appealed to centrist swing voters.

And he if doesn't believe me, he can always ask his boss.


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3 December 2014

Thinking about a career in sustainability?

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I describe how I switched career into sustainability from engineering and how you can do the same, no matter what your background.

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 December 2014

What makes a company 'good'?

There was an article in the Observer yesterday on Simon Anholt and his 'Good Countries Index' that was so fascinating, I immediately checked out Anholt's TEDtalk (above). It asked a really fundamental question. What do we want a/our Country to do? Make us rich? Happy? Healthy?

Anholt's refreshingly selfless answer to this question is that he wants a country to do good for humanity as a whole. So his good country index consists of seven international metrics:

  • Science & Technology
  • Culture
  • International Peace & Security
  • World Order (not as ominous as it sounds - it includes charitable giving, refugees given refuge, UN declarations signed)
  • Planet & Climate
  • Prosperity & Equality
  • Health & Wellbeing

Ireland tops the rankings, with the UK 7th and the US 21st. My only quibble of Anholt's TEDTalk is his claim that Kenya making no 30 means money isn't a prerequisite for 'being good'. I think that's wishful thinking, the predominance of Western nations in the top 30 suggests resources and attitude help a country to make a difference in practice.

That aside, I found this a highly refreshing approach to measuring progress. And as Anholt briefly asks at the end of his talk, what would make a good company in this sense? Reporting standards such as the GRI allow companies to choose which issues are 'material' to them or their industry. But what would a standard, outward looking, international set of metrics look like? Who would top it?

That's too big a question to answer here, but we can ask "what does a good company look like from the outside?", and what are you doing with your company to fulfil that vision?


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