Interesting CSRChat on Twitter last night, featuring David Gelles who writes on Business & Sustainability for the New York Times. He mentioned that he thought it was relatively easy to get good press out of sustainability stories. I flipped it around and suggested it was equally easy for journalists to find fault with the same stories and accuse them of greenwash.
The word greenwash is said to have been coined in 1986 by environmentalist Jay Westervelt complaining about those "we only launder towels left on the floor signs" found in hotels – which I actually find a bit harsh as that always struck me as a neat quick win. Westervelt's argument was the true motivation here is profit – making the same argument as Aneel Karnani made last year that true Corporate Social Responsibility should harm the business concerned in economic terms.
This is crazy. If a company managed to make a huge leap forward in sustainability, for example a breakthrough in biofuel from algae which slashed the carbon emissions of the airline industry with negligible land use impacts (unlikely I know, but go with me), making a fortune as a result, would it be greenwash to call it a green business? Clearly not.
On the other hand we need a sceptical press to cut through corporate spin and expose the reality behind many green claims – or the bigger picture from which they may distract. Anita Roddick may have dismissed Joe Entine, who popularised the term greenwash in his exposé of less than green behaviour at Body Shop, as a weird obsessive, but she tightened up the company's transparency and reporting as a result of his investigations.
As I get older, I have learnt that no thing and no body is ever 100% good or 100% bad, no matter what the media or Twitter hashtags say. As the sustainability field matures, practitioners and commentators need to become more realistic than the activist movement from whence we emerged. They survive on a diet of outrage, justified or otherwise, which can do more harm than good, we need to work in shades of green.
And my advice to any business announcing an achievement? Frame it as "We are very proud of this, but it is just one step on a longer journey." But don't be put off doing well by doing good.
The current economic hysteria sweeping the globe has been triggered by the sudden slump in oil prices in the last 18 months.
But hold on a minute. In an oil based economy, surely these low prices should be driving massive economic growth, rather than a climate of fear? What is going on?
The answer is demand is low – and staying low, no matter what the oil price is. And investment in renewable energy continues to break records regardless of cheap fossil fuels.
Looking at the figures, it is too early to say the low carbon economy is taking over – yet. However I'm starting to wonder whether approaching a turning point where it's starting to squeeze the brakes on the oil-fired juggernaut. Think of all those businesses which are investing in massive renewable energy installations, the drive for energy efficiency and the rise of the digital economy – we don't need all those plastic CDs and DVDs anymore, thanks to iTunes, Spotify, Netflix etc. At some point it will happen.
The one thing we must avoid is talking ourselves into a recession because oil demand is stubbornly low. There are other forms of energy and new ways of using it – or not using it. The rules are being rewritten.
During the 16 Kick-Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2016 webinar last week, I (inevitably) covered Green Jujitsu – the idea that we should 'frame' sustainability to match the culture, interests and habits of each audience rather than expecting people to move from unengaged to eco-warrior in the course of a single powerpoint presentation. I explained how I first 'discovered' the power of Green Jujitsu by running an engagement session for engineers where I got them solving their own sustainability issues using simple engineering problem-solving tools. In other words, I framed sustainability as an engineering challenge. They loved it.
During the webinar Q&A I was asked how I work out the prevailing culture in an organisation if I'm not familiar with it. Great question and a problem I've had to solve in practice when I've been asked to do employee engagement in sectors I'm not familiar with. There'd be nothing worse than making a presuming a particular group of people think a particular way and finding out the hard way I'd got it all wrong.
The answer is I ask the employees themselves – or a group of them anyway. This is a great job for that network of green champions who are probably wondering what they should be doing.
I simply put up a paper template on the wall with a happy face at one end and a sad face at the other and ask the group to note on post-its what turns their colleagues on and what turns them off. If you cluster similar responses together on the template, you'll get a powerful map of positive and negative drivers with which to design your engagement.
For example, when working with a media group, speed and impact bubbled to the top – there was no point in talking to these guys about 'cathedral building', their product had a lifespan of hours. When working with a waste group – who sign 25 year contracts with local authorities – quite a different mindset emerged.
Yesterday I hosted our annual Green Academy Taster Session, this one entitled "16 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2016" – a fast moving run through some cutting ideas at the forefront of sustainability. We had a fantastic turnout from around the world – including a strong antipodean contingent – a truly global affair.
A couple of weeks ago, the wonderful Green Thinkers group I'm a member of considered Energy Without The Hot Air by David MacKay – a very analytical look at the energy challenge. Today there was an article in Guardian Sustainable Business taking a similar analytical look at electric cars. Both come to fairly pessimistic conclusions.
Despite all the numbers, I have a problem with this approach.
First, these analyses tend to use a snapshot of current technology and economics. They take little account of trends, future policy and obviously they can't predict technological breakthrough as that is unpredictable.
But, more importantly, the authors seem to revel in how impossible the challenge is right now, rather than focussing on solving it in the medium/long term. We end up feeling powerless and frustrated, entangled in short term issues when we should be creating the future we want.
This happens to be the theme of this month's Ask Gareth, if you haven't already seen it. I explain why forecasting is dangerous and why you should backcast instead.
If there's one thing I hate more than zombie climate myths (eg "the world hasn't warmed since 1998"), it's daft green pronouncements taken as gospel when they're clearly nonsense. I say daft, but some are worse than daft as they close down the routes to sustainability.
Big brands have been dabbling in practices such as “greenwashing”, convincing customers that buying their green products is the way to fight global warming.
Errr - how else are we meant to combat global warming? I buy renewable electricity and biogas from my energy supplier, I buy logs for my wood stove, I bought extra insulation for the attic, I bought a solar hot water system and an efficient boiler, I bought triple-glazed windows, I bought a bicycle from a bicycle shop, I try to buy seasonal veg and other low impact food – it goes on. As I don't actually produce any of my own stuff, bar a few herbs, I rely on companies providing such green products and services to reduce the impact of my lifestyle.
There's even more to it than that. Every time someone buys an electric vehicle, a solar PV system, or even hires a green taxi, it strengthens the supply chain for those options and weakens traditional, carbon-intensive markets, making the low carbon version more cost-effective for others.
Whether at home or at work, let's ignore the half-baked wisdom of people like Mr Morozov, spend the green pound with pride and do our bit to build a sustainable future for all.
This is the first thing I've typed using fingers of my right hand for over a week. Last Friday morning, while out running, I slipped on some black ice, hit the deck hard and dislocated my little finger on my right hand - and cut up the one on my left for good measure. A hospital visit and a cast later, and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I had a disability. A temporary one of course, but my week flapping at things ineffectively with my left hand, having to wear elasticated trousers and slip on shoes and taking up to four times as long to perform a simple task like having a shower, gave me a quick, but immersive insight into the world of the less able.
The old quote "you don't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes" springs to mind. And this dictum of course applies to us sustainability practitioners as much as anyone else. The majority of green messaging I see is all about the transmitter, not the receiver. No wonder it falls on deaf ears.
My Green Jujitsu approach flips this around and tries to find the overlap between the interests of the audience and sustainability, and starts the engagement there. That's the whole point of the 'lightbulb moment' in the animation:
Anyway, I've now got just a small splint on my right hand which opens up the wonderful world of laces, zips, buttons, pens etc again, but still puts restrictions on exercise, cycling and driving. That sound you hear is a partial sigh of relief from the rest of my family.
Twice in recent weeks, UK prime minister David Cameron has answered questions on green issues with a simple and superficially impressive statistic:
98% of solar panels in the UK have been installed while I've been Prime Minister.
Now that may be strictly true, but I'm sure it generated howls of anguish from the two Lib Dem energy and climate change secretaries who had to fight tooth and nail to keep renewables on the agenda during the coalition government when this solar surge happened.
The other problem with this approach is that it's justification of the past rather than true leadership for the future. We need our leaders to set out the direction and magnitude of change (the sustainability 'vector' as my client Sean Axon of Johnson Matthey likes to put it). UK private and public sector organisations are not getting the signals they needs to deliver sustainability. Some are forging their own way, others paying lip service like the PM, others not even bothering with that.
Leadership matters – with just a couple of years left to leave a legacy, Cameron should emulate Barack Obama in the twilight of his presidency and stick his neck out.
Photo copyright by World Economic Forum swiss-image.ch/Photo by Remy Steinegger
Just before Christmas, the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group met at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle. The topic was capacity building and engagement but as usual the conversation ranged widely and took in quite a few points about green procurement in particular. The group meets under the Chatham house rule so we cannot reveal who said what, but here are just some of the learning points arising from the discussion:
Think different – big carbon cuts require radical innovation;
Stretch targets give time for capital investment;
Only certify if and when required or there is unlikely to be a payback;
Analytics have progressed fast, but context hasn’t kept up (eg toxin limits are often set at lowest detectable levels);
Use ‘future-proofing’ as a driver to go beyond compliance;
Use fear of legislation (eg Reach) as a driver for action;
Use hardnosed sustainability consultants, many are too woolly;
“No demand” often means people don’t know what’s possible;
It is critical to change the pernicious ‘green = cost’ mindset;
Deliver people’s pet projects under guise of sustainability to improve acceptance;
Mandatory sustainability training can devalue the subject to ticking boxes;
Link behaviour to core of business and client satisfaction;
Output oriented procurement (letting suppliers write specification) can drive innovation in suppliers;
Forward commitment procurement can help get your supply chain ready for the future;
Contracts which ‘turn the screw’ on sustainability requirements can drive innovation;
Impact of green procurement is wider than one contract as it makes greener options available to others;
Contracts need to be cognisant of potential future regulatory changes.
I'm looking forward a fantastic 2016 for the group and so are its members - Colin Thirlaway, the global sustainability lead for Black&Decker, has described the group as "invaluable" - you don't get much better praise than that!
We have one place available on the group for a sustainability manager or sustainability director from a large organisation, preferably based in the north of England. If you would like to join a group or want more details then do not hesitate to get in touch.
The latest edition of Ask Gareth is a reflection on the question I get asked most at this time of the year: what are your predictions for the year ahead? While I answer each request individually, really the whole thing is not only futile, but dangerous. In the video I explain why and what you should be doing instead.
Ask Gareth depends on a steady stream of killer sustainability/CSR questions, so please tell me what's bugging you about sustainability (click here) and I'll do my best to help.
Well, I'm sitting here, steaming gently after my first exercise of 2016, and pondering the year ahead. 2015 was the best year in Terra Infirma's history, however you measure it, and it's going to be a real challenge to raise the bar in 2016. I've got some very exciting plans in store, along with the results of some fab client projects, at least one of which will be publicly available.
If you want to join us to make the sustainable business revolution happen in 2016, we have a whole load of ways to accelerate progress in your organisation:
First up, make sure you're subscribed to The Low Carbon Agenda (see right), our free monthly sustainability bulletin. We're going to hit edition 100 in a couple of months and I'll be putting together some really great stuff for then.
Secondly, try out our Green Academy on-line training, for free, by signing up to 16 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2016 on 20 January. I guarantee you'll get more than a couple of inspirational ideas out of it to kick off your year.
The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group hits its fourth birthday this year. It's my favourite thing that we do – a small group of sustainability leaders from some of the world's greatest organisations putting their heads together to learn from each other. One member who joined in 2015, Colin Thirlaway, Global Sustainability Lead for Black & Decker, described the group as 'invaluable' to his work. We have one seat free – contact me if you are interested!