As regular readers will attest, my most recent soapbox has been the use of the 80:20 Rule to get sustainability programmes out of the mire of incremental improvements and 'green tape' and onto a straight, fast road to our goals (see video above).
The awkward question is why does the sustainability movement tend towards the comfort zone of incremental improvements, bureaucratic systems and mediocrity? Why favour activity over outcome? Why stultify creativity and innovation?
I think it is, to a large degree, down to fear.
Fear of moving out of our comfort zone.
Fear of rocking the boat.
Fear of taking a punt.
Fear of failure.
Fear, possibly, of success.
Fear is a natural emotion, but we need to programme ourselves, Anthony Robbins-style, to fear the status quo rather than being scared of actually fulfilling our goals.
Interesting article in the Guardian yesterday about the drop off in FairTrade sales. Some of this decline is due to squeezed consumer wallets, but there were plenty of coffee and chocolate producers who believe that they go way beyond the guaranteed price of FairTrade and that some of the movements' ambitions are misguided:
“When you get to the bottom of it, [the Fairtrade scheme] is kind of neo-imperialistic,” [says chef Olivier Roellinger] “It’s something we impose on them.” He’s thinking particularly of the pressure for producers to form groups, usually co-operatives, in order to join. “Can you imagine what British farmers would say if their American customers came to them and said: well, I’m only going to trade with you guys if you get together and I can buy from all of you at the same time?”
The advantage of any eco-label is they present an easy way for consumers and buyers to ensure they are getting minimum standards of performance against (hopefully) objective criteria. The original EU energy label (right) transformed the market, but the EU unfortunately blotted its copybook by adding extra levels (A+, A++ etc) instead of tightening the criteria on the original A-G rankings. This removed the driver for producers to want to avoid slipping down the scale.
The questions for any eco-label to answer are:
Who sets the criteria?
Are those criteria scientifically/objectively robust?
Do those criteria move with the times to keep pressure on the holders?
Are those criteria sufficiently ambitious for the label to mean something? I have been told by a representative of a major corporation that they actively lobby to water down any standard in their sector.
Are there any potential side effects of the label?
Are the criteria flexible enough to allow breakthrough innovation?
What level of administration is required to meet the criteria and is this justified?
My advice for producers on eco-labels is to adopt them if you see a clear benefit for your organisation (ie if the customer wants them), but don't feel obliged to do so if they don't work for you.
I saw this explanation of the circular economy in the business section of our local rag last week and it made me grind my teeth.
It was trying to distinguish between a linear economy and a circular economy by adding the '3 Rs' to the linear economy. It's not the first time I've seen the circular economy drawn as a straight line – and it's a really stupid way of illustrating the difference for a number of reasons:
1. It still looks like the linear economy at first glance;
2. Figure 2 is actually the way our economy is at the minute – linear + 3Rs – so no-one would notice the difference between that diagram and the status quo;
3. Psychologically, it doesn't get across the most important difference between the two. In a circular economy, pre-used material is more desirable than virgin material.
If you draw the circular economy as a circle - see below - it changes the whole way we look at materials. In particular we see the loop as producing quality raw materials at a competitive price, not as a form of waste diversion (3Rs). Yes, you could add in other loops and some minor leakage/input, but the core circle is a very powerful metaphor in our minds and we need to emphasise it.
So let's draw the circular economy as a circle. The clue is in the name.
Has HSBC been helping very rich people people avoid tax? Did the Conservative Leader know about it before ennobling an HSBC boss? Did the Labour Leader avoid tax himself on his father's estate opening him to accusations of hypocrisy? Is it OK for a national newspaper to avoid reporting on the scandal given HSBC is a major advertiser? Is it OK to pay tradesmen cash in hand? Did the Shadow Chancellor always get a receipt from his window cleaner? Are the energy companies exploiting vulnerable customers by keeping them on higher tariffs? Is it OK to kick a robot dog?
In none of these cases did anything illegal take place - they are all about ethics.
So why then do leaders of great organisations still see ethics/corporate responsibility as a side-issue? Why do you rarely hear people talking about doing the right thing in a genuine sense, instead doing what is expedient and hoping for the best? Why are people happy to leave a ticking time bomb under their business?
Doing the right thing may involve a bit of pain at first, but compared to the agony of what can happen in the long run.
An anecdote from another consultant this week really resonated with me. He had a meeting with a C-level executive at a major client about an aspect of sustainability (you'll have guessed by now that I'm being deliberately vague to protect my colleague). The executive got rather hot under the collar because the consultant asked questions pertaining to the level of leadership on this issue. The meeting didn't end well.
This has happened to me many a time - at middle or senior management levels. When I used to do simple waste minimisation visits on behalf of the now defunct Envirowise, there was always the point where I was taken to the operations manager or production manager as the environmental manager, who had typically invited me in, couldn't answer the questions. So I would sit in the former's office, politely working through my questions while the temperature plummeted. Fierce glances would be fired at the environmental manager who would eventually cut the meeting short.
There's a big lesson for sustainability practitioners here - whether internal or external. People don't like to be challenged on their own patch. And the further up the reporting chain you go, the worse it gets.
This is exacerbated by the fact that many senior managers see paying lip service to sustainability as 'leadership'. It's not - leadership on sustainability almost always involves driving step changes in the way the organisation operates, not just finding the right words.
Unless you have built up a really trusting relationship with that individual, if you even imply that the putative 'leader' is not really leading, things can get very heated, very quickly.
My preferred approach is to help the leader work out for themselves what they need to be doing. Easier said than done, but it does work - and without any bruised egos.
"When? Where?" it took a real effort not to scream.
Like many in our sector, I worship Tesla as not only the first company to get EVs right, but as true cleantech pioneers, shaking up traditional business models with their open sourcing of patents and sales of batteries for domestic energy storage. But I'd never actually had a go in one.
And when I saw the Model S, I was stunned. It is a very, very handsome car, clearly aimed at the Jag/Lexus market. I couldn't wait to get going.
The only snag was this one is a registered taxi - the only Tesla Taxi in the North of England, no less - so I couldn't drive it on the public highway. So we set off with Bryan Chater (above, right) of Phoenix Taxis driving, me in the passenger seat, attention split between marvelling at the car and scanning the horizon for a piece of non-highway tarmac so I could get my mitts on the steering wheel.
In this first edition of Ask Gareth in 2015, I'm asked about whether it is appropriate to engage employees in sustainability by talking about their private lives. I explain why, with one important exception, I think it's a silly, if popular, idea and suggest my alternative.
One of the more controversial statements I make on sustainability is that you have to be prepared to drop suppliers who are not pulling their weight on sustainability. After all, their carbon footprint is part of your carbon footprint (and your customers') and their reputation is part of your reputation.
However, many companies - including some big names - tell me they would rather work with suppliers to improve their performance than show them the door. I can understand that sentiment, but I think the full implications of that approach have to be understood (see above).
Here's some thoughts on when to nurture suppliers and when to walk away.
Clearly, if the supplier shows no intention of improving, or they present a clear and present danger to your reputation, drop them as soon as you can find an alternative.
If you want to build a new supply chain (part of the circular economy, part of the hydrogen economy etc) and your current suppliers are sticking to their traditional technologies/business models, then no matter how well they perform otherwise, you've got to thank them and move on.
If a new entrant into the market can provide materials/technology which will revolutionise your ecological footprint, then you should challenge your suppliers to match that and, if they can't, move on.
If the existing supplier is enthusiastic about sustainability and keen to solve your sustainability problems (rather than you trying to solve theirs) then keep them - and work with them.
This might seem harsh, but we cannot create a sustainable economy while remaining faithful to suppliers who do not deserve that loyalty. We owe it to ourselves and the greater good to be firm but fair.
OK, the bad news - 2014 was the warmest year on record and carbon emissions are still rising. There's still a long, long way to go.
But there are signs of hope.
Take renewable energy - which is is booming - Germany hit a record 28% of power from renewable sources in the first half of last year, the UK is at around 20% and the US 13% with all on a strong rising trend. UK Solar installations doubled in 2014 alone. As demand rises, costs are plummeting.
You might say I'm clutching at straws, but I am unashamedly upbeat for two reasons.
Doom and gloom turns other people off. We have to make a sustainable future an attainable desirable, even sexy, goal to bring people along with them.
Doom and gloom slows me down personally. I wouldn't be doing this if I didn't think we could 'win' and I am determined to help as many organisations as I possibly can. That takes a huge amount of energy and I simply couldn't do it if I focussed purely on the negative.
Back in the days when I used to record my own music, I would muse that it's much harder to write a good happy song than a great sad song. But that's our challenge - being miserable is easy, being positive much more difficult. But ultimately the planet may depend on it.
Whether in business, sport, the arts, science or technology, there is a natural, human drive to be the best - the fastest, the strongest or the best selling. And we can harness this in sustainability:
League tables of sustainability indices to set business vs business, city vs city or even country vs country;
Making suppliers compete on sustainability as well as price and performance to win your business;
Setting up internal competitions to see who can cut the most carbon, save the most paper or develop the best innovation.
I've seen all of these deliver fantastic results. Yet many sustainability practitioners seem to think that this is against the spirit of the overall goal. I have no such qualms.
Of course, you have to make sure the competition is well refereed - if people can game the system, then you could end up in a mess cf the banking crisis, mid-90s professional cycling or a million and one accounting scandals.
We took the kids to the National Railway Museum in York yesterday, in part to sate the train-mania of the littlest one. The Museum has a full complement of Dyson Air Blade hand dryers in the loos, and each one had a big sign above it claiming the dryer was responsible for 72% less carbon per hand-drying.
What was really impressive was the small print. It pointed out that the study had been commissioned by Dyson, citing the title and authors, that it had been accredited by the Carbon Trust and even that it used the US energy mix in its calculations.
That's incredibly detailed for a hand dryer in a museum! Good effort.