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August 2016 - Terra Infirma


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30 August 2016

Clean power: past and future

tall ships blyth

We've just had a wonderful Bank Holiday weekend chez Kane - taking in art, cyclocross, but most impressively, the Tall Ships Regatta at Blyth Northumberland. The enormous, beautiful ships were arrayed against the backdrop of Blyth's coastal wind farm and various huge sheds containing various parts of the renewable energy supply chain.

piratesMrs K grew up in Blyth and we squatted in her mother's house in the town for three years at the end of the 1990s when we first moved to the North East of England, so it was a bit of a nostalgia trip. It's had a tough time; a post-industrial town hit by poverty and and drugs – legend has it that its own inhabitants once voted it the worst town in England. It still has problems, but the establishment of the New and Renewable Energy Centre (in the building in the left of the pic), combined with the regeneration of the Quayside, has given it an air of hope. I don't have many positive things to say about our now defunct Regional Development Agency, One NorthEast, but this is one of them.

Newcastle University, where I took my first professional steps in Sustainability and got an MPhil in Life Cycle Engineering, had a great display showing their work on everything from designing new floating wind turbine concepts, through efficient propellor design, to the next generation of non-toxic ship anti-fouling systems. The building holding this exhibition has just been constructed to rehouse a 'Emerson Cavitation Tunnel' later this year – it will be used to test prototype propeller and tidal turbine designs.

The juxtaposition of this hi-tech, next generation clean technology work with the historical renewable energy systems of the tall ships  was just lovely. The ships will live on in the memory of the people of Blyth, but the low carbon economy looks like the future for this ex-coal mining town.

 

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25 August 2016

Virtue Signalling: an insidious form of greenwash

I've always hated those pious "Save the planet: don't print this e-mail" statements in people's e-mail signature blocks. Why? Because it is blatant 'virtue signalling' – making the author sound virtuous without the inconvenience of actually doing anything virtuous themselves, in this case admonishing others for something they would probably never do.

Fortunately those e-mail mini-sermons are less common these days, unfortunately they seem to be being replaced by equally vacuous tweets instead. This one caught my eye last week:

Note that the instruction is aimed at the reader, not the author. How many people do you think will see this flicker past on their twitter stream and sit up and say "Oh, I'd never thought of that!"? The "saving a shoe is saving the earth" hashtag is particularly amusing in its vapidity.

Now, if they had linked to a document explaining what elements of a shoe can be repaired and how, that would be useful to the reader and would be making a minor contribution to sustainability. But as it is, this is a particularly irritating form of greenwash.

 

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22 August 2016

Do you want Sustainability or not? Lessons from the Olympics

Jess Ennis

The story has been told many times, but it's a good one if you're a Brit. Thoroughly embarrassed by GB's pathetic single-gold-medal showing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1994, Prime Minister John Major diverted National Lottery funding into British Sport. As the curtain drops on the (main) Rio Olympics 20 years later, we've just pushed China into third place on the medal table for the first time since the latter started competing.

Elements of the press are starting to react uncomfortably to this success, even likening it to the chest-thumpingly patriotic Eastern Bloc displays of the Cold War era. They fret particularly about GB's decidedly Darwinian funding formula – win medals and you get a shedload more dosh to win more (which buys the best facilities, coaches and kit), lose out and you get nada. Sorry, basketball, but we spent your cash on new cycling skin suits.

My immediate reaction to this soul searching is: do you want to win or not?

If not, that's OK, taking part is fine. But don't complain if we can't deliver top level sporting results with non-competitive thinking, because it's one or the other. Personally, I'm quite enjoying the winning.

I see a strong parallel with Corporate Sustainability. All too often people who claim their organisation takes Sustainability seriously tell me that they would never ditch a supplier on Sustainability grounds, never consider axing an unsustainable product, never invest in developing new sustainable technologies. They are uncomfortable at targeting key decision makers for engagement ("we believe it's everybody's responsibility"), putting sustainability targets into those individual's personal objectives (ditto) or moving them along if they're incompatible with the strategy (ditto).

In the wider environmental movement, we often see green activists campaigning against green solutions - witness George Monbiot's writings against the very solar feed in tariffs which are delivering a renewables revolution. I agree with Monbiot that FiTs aren't perfectly fair (they divert cash from all bill payers into the pockets of those who can afford to invest in solar), but doing nothing is much, much worse. Anti-capitalists such as Naomi Klein claim, conveniently, that we will only tackle climate change by replacing capitalism with an vague and untried alternative which may not actually exist.

So, we can get our hands dirty delivering on Sustainability now, messy compromises and all, or we can wait indefinitely for a perfect solution, because it's one or the other. I know which one I'm doing.

 

Photo: © 2012, David Jones, Creative Commons License

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18 August 2016

There's no talking to some people (about the environment)

Crazy WomanTwo things made me smile this week.

First, Prof Brian Cox's face as he realised what level of idiocy he was up against when debating with an Australian climate sceptic. The debate can be summarised as:

ACS: There is no proof.

PBC: Here's the evidence (holds up graph demolishing ACS's arguments).

ACS: That data's been manipulated.

PBC: By who?

ACS: Nasa.

[Audience bursts out laughing, PBC doesn't know where to look]

Secondly, I've seen a number of letters in newspapers and comments on blogs where the author clearly believes the UK is lagging the world, if not moving backwards, on renewable energy. The reality is, as the FT points out, the UK is ranked No 2 for renewable energy amongst G20 nations having gone from 6% of electrical power from renewables to 24% in the last five years.

It is simply impossible to argue that this surge is not impressive without contorting reality beyond breaking point. But these guys manage it with remarkable ease.

Both ACS and the green doomsters are suffering from extreme cases of confirmation bias – our tendency to grasp any tiny sliver of evidence to back up our gut instincts, while ignoring everything which contradicts that feeling, no matter how strong that counter-argument is. We all do it, shouty people just do it much more than the rest of us.

The moral of the story? Evidence is not enough. We need to engage with people's gut instinct as that's where change happens or doesn't.

 

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15 August 2016

Stealth Sustainability?

"A

As a British cycling fan, I've been throughly enjoying the team's continuing success in the Olympic velodrome. One of the remarkable characters is sprinter Jason Kenny, who has just picked up his 5th gold and is likely to get a 6th tomorrow, yet he could knock on my door the day after and I'd assume he was delivering a parcel. Kenny deliberately keeps a low profile, winning little between Olympics, before turning up every four years and destroying the field. Fellow 5-gold legend Sir Steve Redgrave is currently using his haul of medals to flog breakfast cereal – not sure I'll see Kenny plastered across the aisles anytime soon.

It got me thinking about those companies who lead on Sustainability and make a big fuss about it and those who prefer to operate under the radar. Which is best?

Going public raises the stakes. Like a sports celebrity your every move will be scrutinised and assessed, sometimes fairly, sometimes not. This can be a powerful driver for continued change, and an inspiration to others, but it can lead to a focus on superficial, media friendly actions which are easily digested by the public. Body Shop is one company which bragged of its environmental principles and spent many years fighting off allegations of greenwash by investigative journalists.

For the last year I've been working with carpet tile giant Interface. The company has long been my choice for most sustainable large business in the world, yet they rarely trouble green business league tables compiled in the media (which may reflect the arbitrariness of the latter more than anything else). But it surprises me how many sustainability practitioners I meet who are only vaguely aware of Interface and its quite incredible Mission Zero programme. In many ways they are the Jason Kenny of Sustainability – delivering world class results while flying under the radar.

Which is best? Consumer-facing and/or high profile companies should probably lean towards the razzmatazz not least because many of their competitors will be doing so. But they will have to appreciate 'tall poppy syndrome' – the media will be watching them like hawks.

For lower profile or more specialist businesses, they are unlikely to get much high profile coverage simply because of the way the media works, and should focus on telling their story directly to the stakeholders who matter such as customers, potential employees and regulators.

I was going to say 'horses for courses', but, given my opening metaphor, 'bikes for parcours' may be more appropriate!

 

Photo © U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

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12 August 2016

Should you abolish your Sustainability Department?


The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers a rather existential question for sustainability practitioners – should corporations get rid of their Sustainability Department? My answer is "yes, but not yet." Why? Hit play and find out.

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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9 August 2016

A day at the Zoo

stick insects

To break up the monotony (as if) of rock pooling for the kids in our lovely coastal holiday location, we took them to Edinburgh Zoo yesterday. Like many, it always takes me a while to get over the confinement of the animals, until it is driven home to me what an essential job they do in terms of conservation, awareness and education.

It is indeed sad to see two bored Sumatran tigers pacing along in synchronicity where their cages meet, but as soon as you find out about that there are only 500 left in the world, it puts their individual situation into a wider perspective. I know there are some purists who would rather see the species go extinct than be in zoos, but I think they're idiots.

Mid-afternoon, we went to the 'meet the insects' session which went down great with the kids and adults alike (see pic) and which gives people that deeper connection with the animals. The keeper, Barry, who led this session then went on a whirlwind tour of other exhibits - some scheduled, some just 'cos he felt like it. His commentary was brilliant, mixing animal physiology, conservation and fascinating factoids (like the sun bear being the main source of Chewbacca's voice).

Barry's emerging theme was that the biggest threat to many of the endangered animals is palm oil production in SE Asia leading to loss of habitat. My homework is to investigate further as, due to the nature of my clients, this is a bit of a blindspot in my Sustainability knowledge.

Every day is school day!

 

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4 August 2016

Greetings from Sunny Scotland

cove

We're holidaying just north of the border from where I live in North East England – in a very secluded location. To get here from the main road, after a short wiggle through some minor roads, we had to unlock a gate, drive down a rough track with a precipitous fall to some jagged rocks and the sea one side, and stop outside a tunnel in the hillside. Just inside the tunnel is a wheelbarrow which we had to unlock, load up with some luggage and walk 50 metres in the dark towards the light, then out and 200m across a beach path and up some steps to our cabin.

The tunnel bit was enlivened by bigger children telling the youngest it was full of zombies who would "suck out his brains." It took about 3 shuttles with the barrow, and lots of reassurance to small child about the undead (or lack thereof), to get all our stuff in (and about 10 minutes to log onto the wifi.)

It's a glorious location, watching the tide roll in and out of the harbour, leaving rock pools full of fish, prawns and hermit crabs for the children to harass. House martins are nesting in the cliffs above us, swooping around feeding on the midges and trying not to feed the sparrowhawks in turn. The midges seem to be taking it out on me, and me alone, putting me in a special place in the food chain.

When we climb back out of the cove, we're surrounded by low carbon energy – Torness nuclear power station dominates the skyline to the west and we have major wind farms to the south and east. The latter two form an impressive backdrop to my cycles/hunts for a decent coffee stop.

We've been here for five days and have hardly 'done anything' – just being here is enough!

 

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1 August 2016

Happy 10th Birthday to Us!

Terra Infirma is 4 years old!Drumroll! It is 10 years to the day since I set up Terra Infirma to bring sustainability to life.

Ten years.

A whole decade. ("I wouldn't go that far, Dave" as Trigger once (almost) told Rodney in Only Fools & Horses)

And what a decade. I started with a self-built website, self-designed/printed business cards and a dormant contract with Envirowise to do waste minimisation visits which I had transferred over from my previous job. My plan that summer was to build a dry-stone wall in my garden during August and get marketing in September with the hope of work in October. Three days of humping sandstone around later and the phone rang.

Next thing I knew I was in the shower, out, dried and into a suit – I'd landed my first new contract by mid-afternoon. The Envirowise work suddenly sprung into life a few weeks later, bringing in regular work. The dry-stone wall took another 18 months to finish.

And look where the company is now! A roster of great blue chip clients such as Johnson Matthey, BAE Systems, the BBC, News International, Viridor, East Coast Mainline. Stanley Black & Decker, the NHS and, most recently, Interface. Five books on Sustainability. Green Academy webinars. On-line training. The Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group. The Low Carbon Agenda. Green Jujitsu. This blog. Modesty aside, I'm very proud of what's been achieved.

But we want to do more to help others embed Sustainability into everything they do. Looking ahead, I'm working on a second branch of the Mastermind Group (because it's the richest way to learn I've come across) and expanding our on-line training (as that's got global reach).

Lastly, I would like to extend a massive, warm thanks to everybody who has helped over the last ten years: clients, suppliers, associates, partners, friends and, not least, family. It wouldn't have happened without you.

Here's to the next ten years!

Cheers!

 

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