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April 2016 - Terra Infirma

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29 April 2016

On sustainability, are you running with the herd or swimming against the tide?

herd of african elephants on the move

Humans are herd animals. You can see this in every political scandal, such as the current antisemitism row in the Labour Party, where otherwise intelligent people will defend indefensible behaviour by a colleague – behaviour which they would condemn vociferously from anybody outside their clique. This herd instinct is a natural one – in prehistoric times, sticking together no matter what kept our forebears alive and we wouldn't be around if they hadn't.

In modern organisations, however, this instinct manifests itself as what I call institutional inertia – and it can make the life of the change agent very difficult not least for sustainability practitioners. We often feel we are (swapping metaphors mid-blog) swimming against the tide, slowly exhausting ourselves until we get swept along with the rest.

However, as every schoolchild will tell you, if you get caught by a tide, you shouldn't swim against it, but at 90° until the combination of the tide and your efforts get you to a point of safety. This is the thinking behind my Green Jujitsu approach to employee engagement – don't fight the current culture, but find a way to work with it to get where you want to go.


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27 April 2016

Sustainability Timescales – not too near or too far

harry binocsAn organisation I have dealings with (not a client), has recently announced an challenging sustainability target for 2050. "More ambitious than Paris" is the boast.

Which is great except for the fact that few people sitting around the table, patting themselves on the back, will still be there in 34 years time. It will be somebody else's problem – if anybody remembers to pass it forward, that is.

I have recommended they adopt at least one interim target to focus minds on a comprehensible goal to aim for now, but it remains to be seen whether they will take me up on it.

Setting a timescale for sustainability targets is as much an art as a science. It depends on the organisation – some of my clients are happy planning decades ahead as that's their natural business cycle, but most work to a much shorter timeframe. You need to find the zone where the target will affect important business decisions (particularly capital investment) but without being so far in the future that it gets shunted down the agenda.

My rule of thumb is 5-10 years as this allows for capital investment and innovation, but remains tangible to people working in the business now. Some leaders, notably Interface, have gone longer than this and stuck to it – 24 years in Interface's Mission Zero – but the commitment needs to be absolutely rock solid to deliver that far ahead.


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25 April 2016

You must forge your own path in Sustainability

indy jonesAt the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange two weeks ago, a representative from the Tees Valley stood up and gave a presentation on a vision for low carbon economy for the region. Frankly, it was almost identical to all the presentations I sat through when I worked there 10-15 years ago. "Why hasn't it happened in the meantime?" was the question I asked. Lack of coherent Government policy was the reply.

This sounded far too familiar (not least in the Tees Valley a decade ago). There is pretty much universal agreement that the UK Government's leadership on a low carbon economy has been fitful at best. Sudden changes in policy and instruments create uncertainty and hold back investment.

But when is it going to be any different?

Do you really think there's going to be a day when sustainability is easy?

The true pioneers in Sustainability – Interface, Unilever etc – don't moan about Government policy, or if they do, they don't use it as an excuse to do nothing. They set their destination and create their own path to get there – there may be a few stumbles along the way, but that's how they learn.

So it's time to pick up a compass and a machete and hack a path through the jungle that is in the way to your destination. Enjoy the adventure!


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22 April 2016

Shakespeare, Storytelling & Sustainability

william-shakespeare-portrait11It's old Billy S's 400th death anniversary tomorrow - I'm sure you could hardly have missed the fuss. It's quite extraordinary how the bard has stood head and shoulders above his peers over the centuries, with no-one coming close to his reputation.

And it all comes down to one word: Storytelling.

We love stories, whether it is the rise and inevitable fall of Macbeth or the latest on Miley Cyrus' love life, our appetite for a good tale is insatiable. This is why I always recommend using storytelling as a vehicle for communicating sustainability, as it is an intrinsically engaging medium.

One of my favourites is the story of an engineer working at one of my clients. He was given a lift by his son in the latter's new car and was fascinated at how the engine would switch off when the vehicle was stationary and spring back to life as soon as it was time to move off. At work, the production line was designed to be set up and calibrated at the start of a particular product's production and if anything was switched off, the whole set up had to start again. He applied the thinking of the start/stop technology to that production line so machines could power down automatically while waiting for the next batch, yet spring to life when it came along. This saved huge amounts of energy.

That story had permeated the business and the engineer had become a minor celebrity amongst his peers – much to his embarrassment, he was a modest man who just liked solving problems.

So next time you want to communicate sustainability, try framing it in the context of a story – how individuals overcame adversity or had a flash of genius which made something amazing happen. It will spread the word much faster and deeper than any set of statistics.


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20 April 2016

A hidden barrier to sustainability

traffic lightLast week I told the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange that the biggest barrier to sustainability is just 6 inches wide – the space between our ears. While that certainly is the case, this morning on the school run I was reminded of another pernicious barrier.

The kids and I stopped at the first of two pedestrian crossings we use on our school/nursery circuit. A Council worker had unscrewed the control panel and a whopping great incandescent bulb was hanging out – the one which lights up the 'Wait' sign. He disconnected this and started installing an LED lamp instead. While the main lights were converted to LED long ago (rightly prioritised given one light is always on), this insight into the inner workings of the light system was a reminder that over the decades we have built up a huge stock of inefficient infrastructure and that much is hidden from everyday view.

Infrastructure also suffers from a chicken and egg syndrome. Until there are sufficient electric vehicles, there is little incentive for investment in charging points, which in turn can dissuade people from electric cars. Our electricity grid was designed for centralised fossil fuel/nuclear power and not for distributed renewables. Our waste systems are still designed as disposal mechanisms rather than for material recovery.

There are several ways to address the stock of unsustainable infrastructure, whether at a national, local or organisational level:

  • Identify and target critical infrastructure bottlenecks and either address them directly or incentivise others to change them.
  • During investment decisions, whether in the public or private sector, ensure that not only are these best practice, but that they are flexible enough to allow future developments.
  • Develop highly innovative solutions which make existing infrastructure completely redundant (as opposed to needing replacement).

Simple? If only!


Photo © Unisouth used under  creative commons licence.

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18 April 2016

A Tough Sustainable Supply Chain Conundrum


At last week's Sustainable Best Practice Exchange, Shaun McCarthy of the Supply Chain Sustainability School posed us a very interesting conundrum:

You have two options for your main raw material:

A. a high sustainability, high cost supplier;

B. a low sustainability, low cost supplier.

Which do you choose?

I'm sure most readers of this would instinctively plump for A. We should be rewarding those who make the effort to address sustainability seriously, and as that supplier increases its volumes, prices should drop.

Shaun, however, argued for B(-ish). His thinking is that going for A risks keeping sustainability in a high cost niche while everybody else goes for B and nothing changes. He would go for B but insert contract requirements for them to improve their sustainability over time. Then you - and the rest of the market - will end up with two sustainable suppliers who will compete on sustainability and price.

I've been mulling on this ever since and am struggling to go 100% for either argument. What do you think?


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15 April 2016

Green Jujitsu at the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange

I had a fantastic day out at the Sustainable Best Practice Exchange at Harrogate yesterday. I used to be a regular facilitator at these events when they toured the country between 2010-2012 and I loved them as they promoted discussion over presentation and everybody learnt from each other. In fact the round table format was a formative influence on the design of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group.

Yesterday, I gave a speech on Green Jujitsu as a better approach to employee engagement. I took a (slightly noisy) recording which you can hear here:

Audio MP3

I also facilitated a session on 'getting colleagues on board', and the conclusions were:

  • Match language to audience
  • Legacy is a strong driver for CEOs
  • Peer pressure works
  • No evangelism
  • Middle management need formal objectives
  • Awards attract attention
  • Let colleagues pitch pet projects – the best get implemented
  • Give targets branding (even 'characters') to make them easy to communicate
  • Removing barriers is as important as new ventures;
  • Human interest stories beat case studies
  • Stretch targets grab attention

If much of that sounds familiar, one of the delegates had read Green Jujitsu and was quoting from it at length!


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13 April 2016

How to engage apathetic people in sustainability

The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers another critical question: how do you engage with people when they really aren't interested? I challenge the idea of apathy and suggest 3 generic ideas to help.

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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11 April 2016

Steel & Sustainability: The Future

Steel works VysokePece1

The repercussions of the announcement that Indian conglomerate Tata wants to sell off or close its Port Talbot steel making facilities continue. With the closure of its blast furnace on Teesside some years ago, closure would decimate what was once a proud industry.

Sections of the media have jumped on 'high energy prices' due to 'green levies' as the reason for the loss making on the plant. But analysis has shown that green levies cost the plant about £7.5m per year - about 1% of the plant's manufacturing costs. And it has been revealed that Tata has made £704m profit on trading carbon permits... Do the math.

So sustainability has not killed UK Steel. In fact, it may be coming to its rescue. A putative buyer for the plant wants to change from traditional blast furnaces (which use raw ore) to electric arc furnaces (EAFs) which recycle scrap. Not only do EAFs form an important part of the circular economy, their carbon footprint is 20% smaller. Win-win all over the shop.

The bigger point here is that industry must prepare for a sustainable future or wither on the vine. Go green or die.

Photo © Třinecké železárny


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8 April 2016

In Sustainability, "Everybody's Responsibility" = "Nobody's Responsibility"

what can I do

As regular readers, will know, as well as my day job as sustainability consultant/pontificator, I have another day job which fits round it of local councillor. A subset of that job is, unsurprisingly perhaps, Opposition Spokesman on Sustainability Issues.

Now, while I keep this blog free of partisan party political stuff, it is fair to say that when my party lost control of the Council back in 2011, Sustainability has dropped from a first tier priority down to the third tier of "other things we should really do". But in the last few months, it has suddenly bubbled back to the second tier, much to my delight – I finally have something to scrutinise.

While the new initiative is quite good, the thing that bothers me is that the responsibility for it is really unclear. Two of the ten Cabinet members have formal responsibility for climate change, but the new initiative was led in the press by a third, and a fourth member presented the report on the new initiative.

When challenged as to who was 'it', the answer was the same one we hear across many organisations. "We are trying to make sustainability everybody's responsibility." That line always reminds me of the old story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody and Nobody...

There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.  Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody’s job.  Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have.

As I have argued many times, professionally and politically, somebody has to show responsibility from a leadership point of view. Somebody has to be driving that change, somebody has to stand up and defend progress (or lack of it), somebody has to be the 'face' of sustainability.

With my clients, I always recommend:

  1. There must be clear and visible leadership at both an executive and an operational level;
  2. Responsibility for sustainability in key middle management positions should not be left to chance – sustainability KPIs should be translated for those job roles and embedded into personal objectives;
  3. Once those formal roles are set, "everybody's responsibility" can be delivered through peer networks and employee engagement – but you should have no doubts that it is unlikely to deliver more than reasonable incremental change.





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4 April 2016

Sustainability & Freedom

bike at big waters

Last Tuesday, I got on my bike for the first time since I dislocated my finger in early January (it's been a very long haul), and toured some of the nature reserves of Newcastle with Mrs K before dropping down onto the Tyne and heading back home. Apart from a short break to sit outside a pub in the sun with a local beer. "The Freedom!" I thought "The Freedom!"

It's a weird one, because this was one of the most sustainable days out I could imagine, yet sustainability and freedom are often seen as polar opposites. Both the right and left of the political spectrum are more than happy to argue they are incompatible.

But think about the freedoms of sustainability: the freedom to enjoy clean air, beaches and rivers, the freedom to get clean energy without being in hock to various oppressive regimes around the world, freedom to sell your own energy to the grid, freedom to cycle or walk wherever you want, freedom from extreme weather or rising sea levels. I'd prefer any of these to the freedom to sit in a car in a traffic jam on a hot day.

The point I'm trying to make is that to cope with all the information we have to process, we narrow our thinking to certain frames. If we frame sustainability as anathema to freedom, then people will switch off. If we frame sustainability as a form of freedom, people will take note.

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