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June 2015 - Terra Infirma

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29 June 2015

Broadening Horizons


Everybody looks at the world through their own 'frame' – the psychological filter that blots out the majority of stimuli to concentrate our attention on what matters.

One thing the sustainability practitioner must realise is that, when it comes to sustainability, some people's frame is extraordinarily narrow. At the HR event I attended last week, someone said "The only sustainability issue HR can get involved in is commuting." They simply hadn't thought about recruitment, behaviour at work, training, personal sustainability objectives or employee engagement.

For those of us who eat, sleep and breathe sustainability, such a narrow view is unbelievable. Trying to 'correct' a narrow viewpoint, however, is dangerous – you can't nag or humiliate someone into taking a broader point of view as the shutters will come down instead (although I personally struggle to fight the temptation, I have to say). Green jujitsu says you need to get people to work it out for themselves.

You can accelerate this process, not by saying "No, that's not the case", but by saying "Another issue HR can get involved in is communicating our sustainability culture during recruitment." If you let the conversation go for a bit and then make another suggestion, everyone will soon start to explore the breadth of the topic. And that's when sustainability gets under their skin.



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26 June 2015


cipd bag lo resOn Wednesday I was at an event organised by CIPD North East for HR professionals. I'd been asked to come along by my colleague Tracy Scurry of Newcastle University Business School as she was facilitating a discussion session on the role of human resources on sustainability and she thought my experiences would add to the conversation.

As is often the case in these sessions, the interesting thing is the 'journey' that delegates go on. At the start, the discussion was centred around how people could be persuaded to behave in a sustainable way, by the end, it had evolved to focus on how to keep up with the sustainability demands of current and future employees. That's quite a change in perspective and the change in mindset of delegates alone made the session worthwhile, never mind all the hints and tips.

By chance, when I got home, I came across a zingy quote in a WBCSD document:


Actually, I'm not sure it is strictly true. Surveys suggest on 10% of business drive CSR/sustainability through HR (although that figure had doubled in the last few years). But it is certainly true that if employees are not involved, they will tend to see any CSR project as greenwash and the project will almost certainly be less effective than it would without the involvement.

Whether employee involvement in sustainability is driven by HR is a different matter... but if you want to engage your HR department in sustainability, it's a flattering quote!



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24 June 2015

Exploiting the Virtuous Circle of Employee Engagement for Sustainability


I'm working on an employee engagement project for a major client which requires a quite detailed literature review. While I endeavour to keep up to date with the latest thinking in practical terms, it is rare that I get to plunge into the murky depths of the academic literature. While ploughing through the peer-reviewed papers, it struck me that they tend to fall into two camps:

  1. Those that conclude that employee engagement is vital to the success of sustainability performance;
  2. Those that find that sustainability is a great way of getting employees engaged in a more general way with their employer with consequent financial benefits (some quote 18% more productive employees and 12% more customer loyalty).

These two form a nice virtuous circle – the more you engage, the better your sustainability programme, which gives you more opportunities to engage etc.

It also opens up a new case for employee engagement for sustainability. Instead of saying "I need £X,000 to engage our employees to meet our sustainability targets." you can say "Invest in £X,000 in our sustainability engagement and I will give you much more productive, effective employees, better business performance – and progress towards our sustainability targets."

For those of you struggling to persuade senior management to loosen the purse strings, this kind of argument might just tip the balance.

Update: As I read on, I've come across a third nexus between employee engagement and sustainability/CSR – those who see having engaged (read: happy) employees as a CSR goal in its own right. Interesting...

Image from Wikipedia.

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22 June 2015

Making Sustainability the Easy Path to Take


I loved this picture when I saw it on LinkedIn last week (I don't know who to credit it to, I'm afraid). It sums up for me why many sustainability efforts fail – because they expect every member of the public/employee/consumer to go out of their way for sustainability.

Green Jujitsu understands that people aren't stupid, but most are busy, and they'll always take a shortcut. Our challenge is to make sustainability the shortcut and not the long way around.


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19 June 2015

A week's a long time in (climate) politics

George_osborne_hiIt's been quite a week in terms of political positioning on climate change.

One of the most interesting statements came from UK Chancellor George Osborne who was standing in for his boss at Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday – the weekly ritual of verbal violence in the House of Commons. He got three climate-related questions, probably stimulated by the climate march outside. His first answer, in relation to fracking, was no surprise – he's pro-. But to two questions on climate commitments and carbon leakage, he gave a reasonably solid commitment to getting an international agreement at COP21 in Paris and for the UK to meet its climate targets, although with the slightly unnecessary caveat "in the cheapest way possible".

This commitment is significant as Osborne has long been said to be a 'luke-warmer' ie believes the threat from climate change is much exaggerated and the impacts are manageable. And he made it twice, just in case anybody was in doubt.

However, the "cheapest way possible" was undermined by the announcement the next day that the Government would be ending subsidies to onshore wind a year early as its targets had been met. Given that onshore wind is the cheapest form of renewable energy in the UK context left much of the industry scratching their heads. New DECC minister Amber Rudd made a spirited case for solar PV instead, but this seems to be policy by aesthetics – for what its worth I prefer the graceful blades of a turbine than a field covered in black panels – but that's just a personal point of view, not a sound basis for policy.

Another big problem I have is that the Government seems to be seeing those targets as a maximum commitment rather than a minimum. And the third and most important is the lack of consistency – we need clear leadership, not politicians blowing hot and cold (pun intended).

Then came the Pope's encyclical on climate change. Now, as an atheist, I find a faith leader appealing to people to listen to the scientific rationale for action more than a little ironic, but the employee engager in me realises it is more important to appeal to hearts than minds. It will be an interesting intervention as many climate deniers are very religious. Christopher Booker is a creationist and Roy Spencer has signed a declaration that God wouldn't allow catastrophic climate change (despite the fact he apparently allowed The Black Death).

Lastly, Green MP Caroline Lucas showed exactly how not to appeal to those who 'don't get it', writing in the Independent:

It’s been a mixed week for those of us who care about protecting our environment and securing a decent future for generations to come.

Taking the attitude that we are morally superior to everybody else will get us nowhere.

On that note, have a great weekend!


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17 June 2015

If you can't trust a charity...

Giving to charityA couple of months ago, I was leaving the swimming pool with the older two boys and I was stopped by a nice man selling lottery tickets for a local hospice. I've long been of the opinion that larger charities have become too much like self-serving businesses, but this was a good local cause, so I bought a tenner's worth of tickets. I went happily on my way, a spring in my step.

Since then, I have been contacted several times by phone or mailshot to tell me my lottery has expired and asking would I like to make it a regular donation. Which begs the question, how much of my donation ended up in the hospice's running costs? It doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out that my original tenner must have atrophied to almost nothing through the costs of chasing me for more money. Was the original transaction effectively a con to get my details?

I know I shouldn't let it get to me, but it does. I have been bitten this way too many times over the years and now I am cynical. In the past I have found that any donation just leads to more emotionally manipulative letters through the door – "Imagine waking up to feel hunger gnawing at your stomach." And my experience fades into nothing compared to those kind souls such as the late Olive Cooke who was getting 260 letters a month asking her for more.

But from the charity sector's point of view, are they not biting the hand that feeds? The response from the charity sector sounded like any other bog standard corporate excuse with Peter Lewis, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising telling the Daily Mail:

"We are absolutely committed to ensuring that our Code of Fundraising Practice achieves the right balance in setting robust and clear standards which enable fundraisers to ask for money in a safe and legitimate way while at the same time respecting and protecting the rights of individuals.

We welcome the opportunity to talk with the Minister for Civil Society to update him on the plans that we have in place to review our Code and make sure that we act on any learning that arises from the FRSB’s investigation into the tragic death of Olive Cooke."

It's not about rights, it's about trust. Trust is the glue that holds society together. And if we can't trust charities who can we trust?



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15 June 2015

The Wonders of Nature

We've had a very educational Spring chez Kane with our camera-rigged bird box hosting its first blue tit family. The video clip above shows the mother – 'Melody' – bringing in food and removing a fecal sac. Having watched the parents build the nest, lay the eggs, feed and brood the young and, finally, a quick glimpse of the fledgelings making their way in the world, we feel a bit sad that they've moved on.

But our attention has now moved on to our Painted Lady butterflies. A friend gave our boys a kit where we could see the caterpillars fatten themselves up and then move into a chrysalis and now the first one has emerged, stretching its wings, fastening the two sides of its proboscis together and expelling shockingly bright red meconium – basically all the poo it has stored up since it last ate. As Mrs K put it, when you see the magic a caterpillar does to become an adult, there's a long, long way for technology to go.

mands green wallNow you can watch all this stuff on Springwatch – and we do, religiously – but there is something about experiencing the joys of nature right in front of your eyes which can never be replicated. It is no surprise that 'eco-therapy' has been shown to help those with mental health problems, that nature is an interesting start point for engaging employees or the general public in sustainability (our local Nestlé factory kicked off the process with a butterfly garden), or that bringing nature into the urban core is becoming the in thing (see M&S's living wall in Newcastle, right).

But you don't have to think about all that, you can also just relax and enjoy it!


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12 June 2015

Staying one step ahead of legislation

Baltic view

Last Friday saw the 11th meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group – the small group of sustainability managers from large organisations I facilitate. We were back at the site of the very first meeting, the Baltic Art Gallery in Gateshead with its fabulous views over the Tyne.

The topic was legislation and, in particular, what we can learn from wrestling with current legislation to anticipate the next wave. The Group focussed on three areas of legislation – Energy/Carbon, Supply Chain and Product Design. Here's a selection of the 60+ 'take home' points arising:

  • A compliance mindset means always playing catch up;
  • Need an early warning system to identify and screen forthcoming legislation;
  • Spending time to understand the true scope and depth of the requirements is a very worthwhile investment;
  • Use legislation to stimulate innovation;
  • Always assume legislation will tighten;
  • Suppliers may say ‘no’ if they are not directly obligated;
  • You can sometimes sell compliance to customers as added-value by de-risking their compliance;
  • Energy/carbon biggest opportunity for automating data collection;
  • Purchase plant, fleet and equipment on through life costing basis;
  • Care needs to be taken with data – trends may be due to changing collection process;
  • Energy management software needs to work for the business and not the other way around – take care with choice of vendor;
  • Reinvest a % of savings to generate a snowball effect;
  • Investment appraisal needs to be able to capture energy/carbon costs.
  • Knowing what’s actually in your product is a real challenge, yet legislation makes it your responsibility;
  • Further down the supply chain the harder it is to check, yet the bigger the risk to reputation;
  • Categorise suppliers to identify risks: strategic/tactical, single/replaceable, and by geography;
  • Giving priority to sustainable suppliers means unsustainable suppliers will lose market share ie you can transform the market with purchasing decisions;
  • LCA heavily dependent on assumptions and must be used with care;
  • Watch-list of chemicals/components is growing fast;
  • Designing out problematic materials is the best solution – and can provide extra value to customers.

As always it was the discussion that got us to these conclusions which gave the most value. This discussion continued over lunch in the fabulous SIX rooftop restaurant – 'no dreary buffets' is one of the three rules of the Group!


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10 June 2015

Supply Chain Sustainability for SMEs

In this edition of Ask Gareth, I'm asked how a small, local shop can compete with larger retailers when it comes to supply chain sustainability. The ideas I respond with apply to any small business which wants to take sustainability seriously.

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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8 June 2015

Getting (Green) Things Done

world brainYears ago, I started a blog called Green Gurus where I summarised the achievements of some of the great green thinkers. After a while I lost enthusiasm for the project as a theme started to emerge. Many of the people I had intended to write about about were very good at producing and selling ideas (or themselves), but a substantial number left behind a trail of (expensive) failed projects, unproven solutions and unfortunate predictions. Could I really describe them as 'gurus'?

In the meantime, I noticed that the people getting things done weren't the green rock stars, but the ordinary engineers, scientists, business people and bureaucrats simply doing their jobs well, but in a greener direction.

At lunch after the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group last Friday, I mused that some people who were thinking about joining seemed to believe they weren't intellectually up to membership of such a group. One member joked that I did tend to present it as some kind of rarified Bloomsbury set salon rather than what it is – senior sustainability managers sharing best practice in a comfortable environment. Doers rather than philosophers.

My own consultancy has shifted from telling people what to do and focussing instead on asking them what they think they should be doing. In other words engagement and problem solving mashed into one and it works.

All of this points in one direction: a sustainable future will be delivered by a boring evolution of the actions of many doing their job differently, rather than man-the-barricades revolution led by a charismatic few gurus.




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5 June 2015

Sustainability is BORING!

broing training

This week I delivered a sustainability workshop for the executive team of one of my longstanding clients. Engaging at this level is tough – these guys are at the pinnacle of their organisation and they didn't get there by being dupes. And they are used to questioning everything, you can't get away with generalisations or platitudes. Tough, but I like the challenge.

As we started off, the default position was, at best, cautious:

"What do we need to do to keep out of jail?"

"We shouldn't do anything which isn't cost effective."

"The new Government doesn't seem to be prioritising this."

By the end, however, the executive had decided to make the already challenging proposed targets significantly more ambitious, to drive forward work on renewable energy and were throwing around some quite radical ideas on their business model (so radical I wasn't allowed to take them out of the seminar room!) There was no sudden tipping point, but as we explored the issues, the attitude shifted decisively from being warily reactive to boldly proactive.

During the wash-up session, I mused on this change. One participant shot straight back:

"Sustainability sounds so boring – it just isn't an inspiring word. But, as soon as we started getting stuck into the issues, it turned out to be really fascinating!"

This was music to my ears as my whole approach to engagement is to get people properly involved, working out for themselves what sustainability means to them and their organisation. I don't tell people what to think – least of all senior managers. From the moment I walked up to the flipchart, pen in hand, and asked "Why should you take sustainability seriously?" I got them to do all the work, selling sustainability to themselves.

Classic green jujitsu, in other words.



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3 June 2015

Greetings from Bristol, European Green Capital


I'm down in Bristol for a couple of days to deliver a senior management/director sustainability workshop for one of our long-standing clients. I worked in this City for a couple of months about 20 years ago (gulp) but this is my first proper visit since then – I've only used it as a staging point in the meantime. The big news here, of course, is that the City won the European Green Capital for 2015.

I'm quite jealous as, with my Councillor hat on, I helped steer my adopted city, Newcastle upon Tyne, to the top of the now-defunct Sustainable Cities Index run by Forum for the Future in 2009 and 2010 – beating Bristol and other cities with a green reputation such as Brighton. We had been sizing up a Green Capital bid just before the electorate consigned me to the opposition benches and I spent an enjoyable couple of days in Stockholm learning from other interested cities across Europe and gauging the competition. The incoming Council administration submitted a bid and fell well short, having pooh-poohed my advice that we would need to up our game to compete. It took Bristol three attempts to get it, so I wasn't wrong.

What I found from the Sustainable Cities experience is that these really high profile awards are surprisingly good at creating forward momentum. The old cliché "success has many fathers, failure is an orphan" was all too true – all sorts of people came out of the woodwork to claim credit through what were sometimes tenuous links, but we let them join the celebrations without getting arsey about it and used it to get them to actually do something.

Bristol is taking an similarly inclusive approach, asking organisations to sign a pledge in order to take part. The pledge isn't that onerous, which is a good thing – a high bar would simply lead most to sit back and do nothing. Once you get them engaged, you can use the momentum of participation to encourage them forward.

But the key success factor in sustainability is the same as it is in any organisation, country or community – leadership. Newcastle topped the Sustainable Cities Index because of the leadership of my colleague and cabinet member Cllr Wendy Taylor. After the change in political control, sustainability was dropped from the Council's priority list and the City's reputation has faded. In Bristol, Mayor and architect George Ferguson has put his reputation on the line to win the European Capital status and he and his red trousers have been at the forefront of the bid.

Leadership makes all the difference. That's what I'm working on for our client. In the meantime, I'll take a wander around the City and see if I can spot the poo-bus.


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1 June 2015

For Blatter or Worse

muddy footballAnother week, another massive ethical scandal – this time the curtain has been drawn back on the seething pit of corruption that is Fifa with the arrest of seven Fifa officials on the eve of its annual meeting. More arrests are expected.

Most people would have expected more heads to roll, but at the meeting Fifa president Sepp Blatter was easily re-elected and immediately cast himself as a reformer.

Now, as a number of people have pointed out (for example Vivek Chaudhary), Blatter has largely been a force for good in world football – opening up the cosy European cartels and making it a truly world game. In particular he has shifted cash from the wealthy leagues into those in developing countries and delivered the first World Cup Finals in Asia and Africa.

But, as I have argued over and over again, culture flows from leadership. There is no way such endemic corruption could have taken root in the organisation without, at the very least, the tolerance of the man at the top. No matter what good he has done, justice requires Blatter should go and let someone else take over the reins. Otherwise nothing will change.


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