This week, the SolarImpulse aircraft has completed the first solar-powered round the world flight, an epic 17-stage journey taking journey covering 42,000km, over four continents, three seas and two oceans and taking 16 months. More than anything, it was an act of human endurance, with the pilot confined to a cockpit the size of a telephone booth, whose seat doubled as the toilet, and only allowed to sleep for 20 minutes at a time.
An impressive piece of derring-do certainly, but as an example of clean technology, a 30mph plane with no practical payload is hardly going to set the world on fire is it? I kinda think it reinforces the green hair-shirt cliché. Sorry if that's a bit harsh, but we've always got to look at clean tech as others see it.
I'm shaking the lactic acid out of my legs the day after the toughest cycle I've done in a long, long time (possibly ever), a 75-mile sportive around the North York Moors with plenty of brutal ascents and descents (the pic above is actually from the Yorkshire Dales, but we did quite a few 25%+ climbs yesterday). What shocked me was, having come in the top 9% on the 'Standard' route in the 64-mile Cyclone sportive a month ago, I just scraped into the top half of the 'Standard' table yesterday. Added to that, at least two thirds of the participants did one of the two much longer, tougher routes than the one I did. It was sobering – I was suddenly plunged into a different league and it wasn't entirely a comfortable experience.
There are definitely different leagues in the Corporate Sustainability world. At the top we have those such as Interface, Unilever, Tesla, GE and, arguably, Marks & Spencer who are transforming the way they do business. The next level down contains the kind of business that signs up to the RE100 (100% renewable energy) pledge which will be tough to meet, but who aren't going through such a level of transformation. Below that are the companies who may be doing exciting things, but don't have really challenging targets. The bottom two leagues are those who are following the rest at a distance and those doing nothing.
What I find interesting and frustrating in equal measure is that many practitioners define themselves against the others in their league rather than aiming to leap up to the next level. Like my cycling, doing well at one level feels much more comfortable than being mediocre to poor in the next level up. But if you stay in your comfort zone, your efforts will inevitably plateau.
So what are you going to do to challenge yourself? Stretch targets matching those in the league above make a fine starting point.
For an outsider, the battle for the leadership of the UK's opposition Labour Party is gripping. Old school socialist and pacifist Jeremy Corbyn swept to victory last year after a number of Labour MPs naively overrode the party's safety catch, which requires any candidate to have the support of a suitable proportion of Labour MPs, in the name of "broadening the debate". Now 80% of Corbyn's MPs want rid of him, citing dismal polls and chaotic party management, but with huge support amongst the rank-and-file party membership, he's not going anywhere fast. Who knows how it will end - or when.
"Why don't the MPs just set up their own party – or join the Lib Dems?" asked Mrs K one morning.
"Identity." I answered "For the vast majority of Labour MPs, leaving the Labour Party would be like cutting off their right arm – it's part of who they are."
Politics is largely about identity – which is why elections are generally determined by a relatively small number of 'swing voters' who do not vote on gut instinct but weigh up the pros and cons of each. Sustainability isn't any different. At one end of the spectrum you have the hardcore greens, whose sometimes superior attitude puts off many who sit in the middle. At the other end of the spectrum you have the climate denialists, like Corbyn's brother Piers, a self appointed weather expert, who despite making doomed predictions, such as the one in 2008 that "the world is cooling and will continue to do so", refuses to accept he might have got it wrong.
I've found that understanding the power of identity is key to engaging people in sustainability. Most green campaigning tries to get people to take on the identity of an eco-warrior. Some might convert, but most will be left cold. But if you translate sustainability to match the identity of your audience, you will find them much more receptive. Or as I call it, Green Jujitsu.
Photo by Garry Knight, used under the creative commons license.
The UK Government's erstwhile domestic energy efficiency programme 'The Green Deal' has been damned by the Public Accounts Committee for having "abysmal" take-up. "It was too complex, with excessive paperwork, while people were also put off by interest rates of up to 10% on the loans - far more expensive than other lending" was the verdict.
The Green Deal was clearly one of those clever political ideas which makes sense logically but fails to survive first contact with the real world. As I said three years ago, expecting busy people to get their heads around the supposed benefits of the so-called 'Golden Rule' was unrealistic. I said then:
"Again and again we keep getting the same lesson - that if you offer a green option it must not only be better than the alternative, or the 'do nothing' default option, but be simpler and more intuitive as well. A walk in the park, not a slog through the mud, in other words."
The bigger point is pragmatism beats idealism hands down every time. Do what works, kill off what doesn't, and never, ever be distracted by purists. They never create anything, because the real world is not perfect.
Before the horrors of the last few days, it must have been a slow news period as the Telegraph rolled out another of their 'lycra lout' articles about the village of Great Budworth which claims to be under siege from the two-wheeled menaces. I think one anecdote summarises the story:
"One nearly crashed into my brother's car as he was pulling out of the drive and shouted at him."
Or, translated into objective language:
"My brother pulled out on to a road without looking properly, nearly knocked someone off his bike, endangering his life, and was surprised that the guy was angry about it."
What surprises me is that neither the story-teller, the brother, the journalist or the editor realised the stupidity of this line. I'm sure they're all intelligent people, but they regurgitate this nonsense because it backs up the way they have already made up their mind. This is known as confirmation bias.
As a Sustainability practitioner you will have come across this phenomenon time and time again. The presumption that Sustainability must cost more, despite all the facts and figures you provide. The presumption that renewable energy will never be cost effective despite plunging prices. The presumption that Sustainability is not a core business issue despite the fact that those who do Sustainability better have been shown to make more profit. The 'zombie arguments' from climate change deniers refuse to die for this very reason.
Like those in the Telegraph article, there is no point in trying to confront those 'misconceptions' head on (just have a look at all the Godwin's-Law-breaking arguments on Twitter for proof). My Green Jujitsu approach works on the heart as well as trying to appeal to the mind, by getting people involved in Sustainability using their core skills and interests. For example, it's said that the Netherlands doesn't suffer from this us-and-them battle between motorists and cyclists because almost all drivers cycle as well, so they identify with being on two wheels.
So if you are locked into a war of attrition over a Sustainability issue or project, stop, take a step back and think about how you can make it appealing to your opponents' hearts as well as minds.
So, another momentous week in UK politics. We get our second ever female Prime Minister in Theresa May and a very new looking cabinet. Here's my quick guide as to who's who from the point of view of the green/Sustainability agenda.
Theresa May, Prime Minister
As with much about Mrs May, her attitude to green issues is a bit of a mystery. Her initial speeches were big on One Nation values when it came to socio-economic issues, but the environment didn't even get a token mention. This isn't encouraging, however BusinessGreen reports that a delegation of 'green Tories' including key lieutenant Amber Rudd sought and secured assurances that a May Government would pursue climate change goals. As always, leadership is key, so Mrs May will need to make her position clearer if the green economy is to thrive.
Philip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer
Predecessor George Osborne was regarded as a serious brake on the green economy over his tenure. Not quite a climate sceptic himself, the 'lukewarmer'/anti-renewables/pro-fracking lobby got a sympathetic hearing from Osborne. The 2010-2015 Coalition Government saw a whole series of pitched battles between the Chancellor and Lib Dem energy and climate secretaries.
Hammond may be seen as exceedingly dull, but in his former role as Foreign Secretary, he made a number of very important speeches on climate change. One in particular caught my eye as it made a case for action from a Conservative point of view to the American Enterprise Institute - using Green Jujitsu in the lions' den. I'm always more interested in right-of-centre arguments for cutting carbon than the traditional lefty case as we need to speak to the unconverted, not preach to the choir.
Overall, we should see the economic brakes easing as Hammond gets into gear.
Amber Rudd, Home Secretary
There's little in Rudd's new brief linked to the low carbon agenda, but given her commitment to the cause, the new Home Secretary will be a key supporter in Cabinet and importantly, as we have seen, she has the PM's ear.
Well, the UK and the US are currently in the process of changing their political leadership. Many commentators are trying to second guess the implications for the low carbon economy, but I'm keeping my powder dry until the dust settles. It did, however, get me thinking about change at the top.
The best organisations at Sustainability almost always have an inspirational leader. So what happens when they come to the end of their tenure and somebody else steps up? It is a real risk that the new leader doesn't have the same commitment as their predecessor and progress will tail off.
This happened to a client of mine some years ago and we dedicated a coaching session to managing the transition. While most of our discussion was company specific (and confidential) some of the generic principles were:
Don't be defensive – your outward attitude must be that Sustainability continues to be core to the business and there is not reason to change. If you aren't confident in what you do, it will come across as unimportant to the organisation.
Translate Sustainability for the new incumbent's worldview – ie Green Jujitsu. New leaders generally like to get 'up to speed' before they change anything, so make sure you can explain Sustainability in terms they will understand (eg $ for someone from a finance background, technical innovation for an engineer, market opportunities for an entrepreneur).
Find an excuse to involve the new leader – engineer a speaking engagement for them on Sustainability, or a new opportunity for consideration.
In other words, don't give them a chance to question Sustainability before they've experienced the benefits!
As I type, the UK is in a leadership vacuum at one of the most critical junctures in post-war British politics. Following the surprise Brexit vote to leave the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron bailed out, and now two very different women, safe pair of hands Theresa May and more traditional but untested Andrea Leadsom vie for the top job. In the main Opposition Labour Party, left-wing members' favourite Jeremy Corbyn will today be challenged by the more centrist, and more experienced, Angela Eagle on the ground that the party lacks direction.
In both cases, the two Parties' members have a choice between direction and competence. Corbyn and Leadsom undoubtedly match more closely with the grassroots' preferred policies compared to their rivals, but both look seriously underpowered when it comes to the ability to do the job. It will be a tough decision, and those of us on the outside sit uncomfortably, but enthralled (in my case), on the sidelines watching.
I have long held that leadership is the difference between the best at corporate sustainability and the rest. The best sustainability leaders combine the vision to see the right direction to go and the capability to take the organisation in that direction. Or as the cliché goes: doing the right things and doing things right.
I emphasised the 'and' there because, as in politics, we cannot afford to make it 'or'. Can you do both?
[Update: 13:45: Leadsom withdraws from Conservative leadership race]
Have you ever noticed how much you notice when you are on holiday? Wander around a strange place and details leap out at you in a way they never do in your home town. There's a whole genre of travel writing based on such observations, but you rarely, if ever, get anyone writing in such detail about their own neighbourhood (Xavier de Maistre famously wrote Voyage Autour de Ma Chambre to parody travel writing). Familiarity closes our minds, travel broadens them.
I was reminded of this when a client recently told me it was great to get a fresh pair of eyes (mine!) in to sort out a couple of sticking points in his corporation's sustainability strategy. One of the most important things an outsider can do, as I did in this case, is question implicit assumptions – the way your mind closes down options subconsciously. I now do more coaching and facilitation than traditional 'clipboard consulting' as this broadening of the mind can make an order of magnitude greater impact than a report of recommendations gathering dust on somebody's shelf.
How are you going to get yourself out of your comfort zone today?
A client coaching session last week focussed on investment appraisal and how it can block sustainability progress – in this case investment in renewables. As we dug deeper and deeper into the company's systems, we realised that the process did not account for direct carbon costs as these were apportioned to a regulatory budget. Simply factoring this into the benefits of investing in renewables could change a difficult decision into a very simple one.
Total Cost Accounting is the concept of apportioning all costs, fixed and variable, to their proper place. This sounds obvious, but simply being aware of all the costs involved is a challenge in itself. This is where a coach comes in handy, as they (I!) can ask the apparently stupid questions which uncover uncomfortable truths hiding in plain sight.
My client now has the task of trying to change the criteria to factor in carbon costs. In theory this shouldn't be too difficult as it will lead to better decisions from a financial point of view as well as a sustainability aspect, but in practice, changing processes in a very large company is never easy. But once it is done, all low carbon options will compete on a level playing field on costs at least.
Of course there are many other benefits of renewables which should be factored in – PR, customer satisfaction, employee engagement, energy security, risk reduction – but getting the £, $, €, ¥ right is an important step in the right direction.
“A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” – Winston Churchill
I was at a meeting of the Green Thinkers book club last night. We were discussing Prof Tim Flannery's "Atmosphere of Hope" book published on the run up to the Paris talks last December. I was actually going to review the book here, but to be honest it's not a great piece of work, seemingly rushed out to give an alternative view to the Australian Government's official line during the talks (Flannery was head of the Australian Climate Commission which was abolished by the incoming Abbott Government in 2013). But the curious thing is that, contrary to the title, it's quite a depressing read.
Appropriately, the discussion around tackling climate change split amongst the pessimists and the optimists. For the former, we're royally screwed by a toxic cocktail of greed, capitalism and corruption. For the latter, of which regular readers will guess I'm a life member, we have to utilise technology, capitalism and design to deliver a massive transformation.
We sustainability optimists are not naive about the scale of the problem, rather we use that as a spur to go further, faster. We are trying to build a vision of a glorious sustainable future, not trying to scare people into action. We use all the tools at our disposal – including the power of global capitalism to bring economies of scale to green technologies.
And, if we fail, it won't be for lack of trying.
“No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.” – H.Keller