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February 2016 - Terra Infirma

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29 February 2016

No Leadership, No Sustainability

green superhero

I'm working on two major client projects at the minute, one on sustainability strategy and one on employee engagement – which between them make up the essentials of delivering sustainability, the formal process and the buy-in from all stakeholders. But there's one subject which keeps bubbling to the fore in both – Leadership.

Without leadership, any ambitious sustainability targets will remain just ink on a page or pixels on a screen. The level of change required, the investment called for, the new business directions – none of this will happen without the process being driven from the top.

Without leadership, employees will simply not engage with the subject – whatever we might say, we look to our leaders for inspiration and direction. If leaders aren't leading then we drift back to business as usual.

As an aside, I've always been slightly baffled that my first book, The Three Secrets of Green Business, which is oriented to operational practicalities, has always outsold my second, The Green Executive, which is aimed at the emerging generation of sustainability business leaders. Especially as it has 18 exclusive interviews with pioneers in the field, making sustainability happen at a leadership level. It's a much more important book.

Because, at the end of the day, it's a matter of no leadership, no sustainability.



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26 February 2016

Making an emotional connection to sustainability

Valentines day heart balloonVery belated happy valentine to you - the least romantic day of the year has passed chez Kane without a murmur once again.

Last week, on a session about my Green Jujitsu approach to engaging people in sustainability, I found myself talking about making an emotional connection with sustainability. Now while some people get a bit obsessed about the topic, I'm not really talking about emotion in a lovey-dovey sense. Rather I'm talking about connecting with people's sense of identity.

So engineers love to solve problems, so get them solving sustainability problems. Healthcare professions care about their patients so talk to them about health, whether cycling to work or switching off unnecessary equipment in wards to help patients sleep. Accountants don't feel happy without facts and figures, so give them the numbers. Business owners care about the competition, so tell them what their competitors are doing. Captains of industry care about their legacy, so play on that.

In every case you are tapping into the drive that gets these guys out of bed in the morning. That's what I mean by an emotional connection.


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24 February 2016

You can't change culture for sustainability...

1024px-Leopard_africa...or not quickly anyway.

I was reminded of this on Monday at the sustainability strategy workshop I was running for a client, when a participant pleaded:

"Please, please, please, don't propose another bloody culture change programme!"

Or as Peter Drucker put it:

"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 my Green Jujitsu approach to engagement. Find the overlap between the existing culture and sustainability and start there. So for engineers, talk engineering sustainability, for healthcare professionals, talk, say, air quality or fuel poverty, for journalists, use human interest stories and infographics*.

Speak the language of your audience and they'll absorb sustainability into the existing culture. After all, it's behaviour you need to change; if culture changes over time, then that's a bonus.


* note these aren't exclusives – you can use infographics for engineers, but you should use 'technical' imagery in those infographics.

Photo: © JanErkamp at the English language Wikipedia, Creative Commons License

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22 February 2016

Never underestimate the ability of an organisation to resist change

vektor image sizifI've had a number experiences recently with trying to get a large organisation to change its mind. It is quite incredible the number of ways bureaucrats can express the view "Yep, we got it wrong, but no, we're not going to do anything about it" usually involving euphemisms like "there are clearly lessons to be learned." I've kept firing back strongly argued missives, more to make myself feel better than any expectation that someone might actually say "Yes, we were wrong and here's how we're going to fix it."

I often talk about 'institutional inertia' – the way big organisations resist change. It can be quite brutal – years ago I interviewed an amazingly inspirational sustainability director for a project I was doing – I marvelled at what she had achieved with no resources. I heard a year or two later that she had been made redundant. The person who told me this news explained "I think she was a bit too high octane for them" – in other words she was too good at her job and it was ruffling too many feathers.

It's easy to get despondent, but there are ways to work around the inertia. I'm writing this in a hotel room in Birmingham before a client workshop - the third in a series of four we are running to develop a sustainability strategy. That might seem like overkill, and, yes, I could put together a reasonable strategy with the information I have now, but a. it may miss out crucial detail which I don't know I don't know (hat-tip Donald Rumsfeld), but more importantly, b. I won't get the same buy-in if key people aren't involved all the way along the path.

My number #1 rule of tackling institutional inertia is:

Keep involving people in the change process.


BTW If you want to learn how I run highly effective workshops, check out our on-line training course.


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19 February 2016

Book Review: Doing Good Better

41pTZkw0-4L._SL160_When I was an undergraduate, I unexpectedly came into a small amount of cash as I'd been underpaid for a summer job. Rather than fritter (all) the money on beer, I thought I'd do some good and sponsor a child in a third world country. £144.00 a year seemed a small price to pay to salve my shame at being born relatively rich.

My naiveté was shattered when I realised that the whole child sponsorship thing was just bait to get well-meaning people like me onto a mailing list so I could receive a begging letter from the charity every month - a typical opening sentence was "Imagine waking every morning to hunger gnawing at your stomach..." I also discovered the money was not going directly to the child concerned, but unspecified "projects in the area". My dream of dragging one child out of the mire of poverty had absolutely no basis in reality. I'd been had.

When I later found out how much the CEO of that particular charity earned, I got very angry indeed – no hunger gnawing at his fat cat stomach I can tell you. I concluded the charity industry was just another way of keeping the rich rich and the poor poor – and one which was much less honest than the others.

Reading William MacAskill's Doing Good Better has blown that cynicism out of the water - not a bad effort for such a short, punchy book. MacAskill points out that if the only good thing that all international development aid in history has ever done is eradicate smallpox, then it is still money well spent, given what we spend on combating diseases in the developed world. He notes that many charitable ideas are worse than useless, and that even worthwhile projects have an difference in impact from the worst to the best of up to a factor of 500.

So, MacAskill argues, we should give to charity and make other acts of altruism, but instead of following our emotions, we should apply some highly rational analysis to our options to make sure our money is delivering. That analysis includes use of metrics such as quality-adjusted life year (QALY) and robust randomised controlled testing of different options. Doing this type of rigorous assessment, for example, revealed that deworming children has a much, much bigger positive effect on their education (and thus their life prospects) than an 'obvious' and sexier solution such as donating school books.

Likewise, MacAskill shows, many people would be advised not to work in an altruistic job unless they have particularly in-demand skills (such jobs are usually over-subscribed so it makes little difference whether you do them or someone else does), but would make a bigger impact by earning a higher salary in a conventional job instead and donating a chunk instead.

When he moves into issues, such as climate change, MacAskill takes a similarly hyper-rational approach as Mark Lynas, blowing myths about carbon offsetting out of the water. He points out that, if you want to save a tonne of carbon a year, you can either go veggie (which MacAskill already is), or buy the equivalent offset from, say, Cool Earth for just $5. You can easily save more carbon than you emit by donating a modest amount to an effective scheme. Fairtrade, on the other hand, is exposed as structurally unsound.

The one point where I felt MacAskill was getting a bit too carried away with his contrarian thesis  was sweatshops where he made the 'better than hard scrabble farming' argument. That's true if those are the only two options, but there is a third – manufacturing jobs with decent working conditions.

If you give money to charity on a purely emotional basis, then you should read this book – it will make your money go further and keep charities on their toes. If, like me, your donations have dried up due to scepticism about whether I'm doing good or paying someone to make me feel good, you should read this book. It may be a rather cold, hard look at altruism, but in my opinion that's exactly what's needed.


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16 February 2016

So what is 'natural'?


I've just spent a long (but all too short) weekend in the North Yorkshire Moors with the family – staying in a converted barn we've stayed at several times before and generally mooching about. On Sunday, Harry, my eldest, and I went on an 8-mile hike covering high moor, farmed valley floor, plantation forest and old copse – quite a nice microcosm of what we think of as the English countryside.

Of these, my favourite was being up on the 'wild' moor (above) and the weirdest was the path through the dense plantation (below), with nothing growing under the pine trees.


Of course there's more to all this than meets the eye. The plantation, while planted by man, is probably more 'natural' - ie requiring less human input - than the moor which takes intensive maintenance, including burning of heather, to maintain the dominant species, red grouse, which are basically farm animals. The fields in the valley would once have been deciduous woodland and the copse, as its name suggests, will have been maintained for generations to produce coppice wood.

Which begs the question - 'what is natural'? And is 'natural' always better than unnatural? Back in the days when all of this landscape was in its natural state, human life was nasty, brutal and short.

As I've got older, I've grown to appreciate the real benefits we get from things I previously denigrated such as intensive agriculture, the pharmaceutical industry and, yes, capitalism - tempering my idealism with reality. That doesn't mean I don't want to make the world a better, more sustainable place, rather that I accept that we are where we are - and its not all bad, rather than wrapping myself in nihilistic utopianism.

After all, life's pretty good.




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10 February 2016

Sustainability vs the bottom line – who wins?

The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers the relationship between Sustainability and the bottom line – and explains why a change of mindset is required to get the most environmental and economic benefit out of Sustainability.

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.

You can see all previous editions here.


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8 February 2016

Catching the Sustainability Virus


During a recent piece of employee engagement work, one of the people I was speaking to likened sustainability to a virus – once it infects you, it takes you over and can spread to others. It's a powerful analogy, however, unlike some of the horrendous real viral outbreaks around the world, many people seem to have a strong resistance to sustainability.

So how do we break down immune systems? I've found Green Jujitsu is a great method. In Green Jujitsu, we reframe sustainability to match each audience – their language, their worldview, their strengths. I suppose it's a bit like the way a real virus will mutate to find a chink in its host's armour.

If you want to learn more about Green Jujitsu then I'll be taking part in CSRChat on Twitter, this Thursday 11th February at 7-8pm GMT. Just follow the #CSRChat hashtag and join in!



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5 February 2016

Peak Peak Oil?

old oil pump

"Whatever happened to Peak Oil?" is a question being asked by many commentators as we sit on a global oil glut.

We first have to remind ourselves that Peak Oil Theory is not about oil 'running out'. It is the point where demand outstrips supply. There are implicit assumptions in the theory that demand will keep rising, alternatives will easily not be found, and normal economic supply/demand cycles apply.

The current situation is that demand is stalling and the Saudis are artificially flooding the market in an attempt to kick-start that demand (the House of Saud is facing an existential crisis). But, in the words of one commentator, "no-one is buying it", so the price has plummeted.

This has kicked off a slew of opinion pieces – many calling into question whether "peak oil demand" is a thing or not. The sceptics rest their case on the fact that oil is not as easy to substitute as, say, coal – usually using US consumption figures, rather than the global picture. However, the unexpected solar boom has shown that energy predictions are often highly conservative.

My view is that it is difficult, nay impossible, to work out what is happening as we are in uncharted territory – it may be 5-10 years before we work out where Peak Oil theory stands in the new world order.


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3 February 2016

The silent green revolution


I saw the above graph on Carbon Tracker, and it tells a great story. Despite all the fossil fuel subsidies, erratic Government policies and powerful anti-renewables lobbies, solar energy is exceeding expectations by a country mile – taking an exponential growth rate rather than the predicted incremental linear approaches (from reports of the respected International Energy Agency between 2000 and 2007).

We are winning folks. Let's keep striving forward, driving the sustainability revolution forward and ignoring the cries of "it'll never happen" from the libertarian right and the deep green left. Let's build the future we want our children to enjoy.


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1 February 2016

Leveraging Human Interest for Sustainability


I saw a quote from the old Kirk Douglas movie Ace in the Hole in the Sunday papers and it really resonated with me, so I looked up the wider exchange. Grizzled reporter Charles Tatum (Douglas) is lecturing the young photographer Herbie Cook (Bob Arthur) about the realities of the newspaper world.

Cook: Like the faces of those folks you see outside a coal mine with maybe 84 men trapped inside.
Tatum: One man's better than 84. Didn't they teach you that?
Cook: Teach me what?
Tatum: Human interest. You pick up the paper, you read about 84 men or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn't stay with you. One man's different, you want to know all about him. That's human interest.

This is true – look at any big newspaper story, such as the current refugee crisis, and there will inevitably be a focus down to an individual case. This isn't by accident – telling the story of one individual amongst the bigger picture brings it down to a level we can relate to on a more emotional level. As Tatum points out, you can connect to one person, but not 84.

Have a look at your sustainability communications. Are you talking purely in terms of statistics and the big picture, or are you embedding human interest stories to give your audience something to relate to? The best stories show someone just like the audience – typically a fellow colleague – doing something different to deliver on sustainability.

One person's better than 84.



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