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October 2016 - Terra Infirma


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31 October 2016

My Top Ten Sustainability Horrors

screamYup, it's Hallowe'en, so here's the top ten sustainability related things that make me scream:

  1. Pictures of hands cupping saplings to illustrate 'responsibility' – I really, really hate them!
  2. The word 'recycling' being used in the media to describe a celebrity wearing the same dress twice.
  3. "For sustainability, we need a whole new economic model." – effectively just an excuse to do nothing.
  4. Sustainability commentators being regarded as more influential and/or more virtuous than sustainability doers.
  5. Corporations using twitter to lecture us on what we should be doing to be green rather than explaining what they are doing.
  6. 'Don't print this e-mail' lines in e-mail signature block - passive aggressive virtue signalling of the worst kind.
  7. Those for whom no practical sustainability solution is ever good enough.
  8. People who say cyclists should pay (non-existent) road tax. Get. a. life.
  9. "Green" products which are shoddy, ugly and expensive.
  10. Those who conflate environmentalism with hippy nonsense such as (and particularly) homeopathy.

Any more for any more?

 

 

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27 October 2016

All the leaves are falling...

Colorful autumn leaves, top view.

Half term means it's half-working, half-child-caring here at Terra Infirma Towers, although I did sneak off for a 47-mile cycle this morning. And it was glorious, with the late-ish autumn giving a spectacular display of colour across the rolling hills and river valleys of Northumberland and the crunch of leaves and fruit under my wheels.

I always find autumn a time of reflection – whether about life, working practice or Sustainability philosophy. Those leaves falling, becoming food for a variety of microfauna whose own 'waste' feeds plants and so on, is the basic model of the circular economy. That cycle, like every other natural cycle, is powered by solar energy, which gives us another basic principle for Sustainability. And it's beautiful – a much neglected element in Sustainability where sheer pleasure is often neglected.

 

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25 October 2016

Heathrow – The Litmus Test for UK's Climate Strategy

london_-_heathrow_lhr_-_egll_an1572653

If, as expected, this lunchtime sees political approval for the expansion of Heathrow Airport, there will be some serious political fall out – including the resignation of MP Zac Goldsmith. Much of the debate will be over local environmental issues – noise, air quality – but the carbon argument has been largely confined to green circles.

Basically, as this excellent piece by Carbon Brief from last year points out, expanding either Heathrow or Gatwick will take us over the aviation carbon 'budget' for 2050 (which should be capped at 2005 levels to meet our requirements for an 80% cut). When Lord Deben wrote to Davies about this, the latter claimed that a combination of biofuels, a (steep) increase in carbon price and efficiencies should deliver those requirements. Carbon Brief raises some serious doubts about Davies' assumptions.

Aviation is probably the hardest nut to crack in terms of techno-fixes. Biofuels are unlikely to provide sufficient quantities to make a dent without serious land use issues (unless there is a major breakthrough in, say, algae biofuel technology). Electric planes or nuclear planes have yet to make it past old episodes of Thunderbirds.

Policy changes are also difficult. I recall that over a decade ago, the PM's own Conservative Party mooted a frequent flyer levy – you'd get one flight tax-free each year, after that you pay through the nose – but this perfectly reasonable solution was shot down in flames by The Telegraph and other right-wing papers. The average family at the time took 0.75 flights per year, so the papers' argument that this would hit ordinary people's holidays falls a bit flat, but they won anyway and the proposal was swiftly dropped.

The alternative to Heathrow is expansion of Gatwick. This is regarded as 'less bad' in terms of all environmental impacts, local and global, but only just.

There is of course another option: no expansion, anywhere. I've often said the litmus test for corporation's sustainability commitments is not what they start doing but what they stop doing. So when B&Q refuses to stock patio-heaters on carbon grounds or Interface deletes product ranges with harmful chemicals, that's true commitment. Putting a real constraint on aviation would be the most powerful incentive for low carbon alternatives.

So this is a litmus test for the May Government, and everybody expects them to flunk it. We may, of course, end up with 'no expansion' whatever decision is made today, if the process gets bogged down in years of protest, legal arguments and political wrangling. We shall see.

 

Photo: Konstantin Von Wedelstaedt - Gallery page http://www.airliners.net/photo//1572653/L

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21 October 2016

Are wind turbines green? Do bears...

viz-turbinesCame across this clipping from the satirical Viz magazine that made me chuckle, but it isn't a million miles from some of the nonsense I've seen printed in the supposedly serious media over the last few decades. My own esteemed engineering institute's journal printed a letter about a decade ago postulating that climate change was actually being caused by wind turbines slowing air movements around the world. Of course the letter cited no actual evidence, it was purely opinion.

What gets me about all this anti-green stuff, whether from those who hate cyclists or full on climate change deniers, is the assumption that 'experts' are idiots and can't see what's in front of their nose (Viz nailed that in the 'letter'). Boris Johnson's "I can see snow in the garden, therefore the world can't be warming" is one of the most unintentionally funny examples.

I never take anything on blind faith, but if I want to know about my health I'll talk to a doctor, about my car or bicycle, I'll talk to a mechanic and on climate I'll listen to a climatologist. If I'm not convinced about what they tell me, I'll dive deeper. But I never listen to armchair philosophers with extraordinarily high confidence in their own opinion.

 

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19 October 2016

Is your Sustainability Programme hitting a ceiling?

go green

This week I read an article on Medium.com entitled "Why I’m breaking up with sustainability" by Tara Holmes, which suggests that Corporate Sustainability programmes are plateauing. Holmes says:

...the word sustainability has devolved into a word that embodies a non-offensive, contradictory acknowledgement of the need to address the dire issues facing our rapidly changing climate without actually having to shift core business models...

...I bump into professional contacts of mine at various conferences and events in the sustainability space who say they feel disempowered in their role. They’ve “hit a ceiling” with executive leadership, they’ll tell me. Or they work in a silo in the facilities department or operations, or only have an intern for support. How can any single person in a massive organization have the opportunity to fundamentally shift the bottom line, particularly when that bottom line is triple-down, without the necessary backing and support?

I find this analysis depressing, a tad self-pitying and ultimately self-defeating. Enough exemplars have shown that massive leaps towards Sustainability can be made while making increased profit. The contradiction Holmes identifies is only in the mind – it's not an 'or', but an 'and'.

And, yes, one person will struggle to make a difference if they adopt the silo mentality of their organisation, but they need to turn that mindset around and see their role as facilitating others to make a difference instead (check out this edition of Ask Gareth). You don't need a huge team, or a team at all, to do that.

In her conclusion Holmes proposes education, suggesting starting over, for which, as she points out earlier in the article, we have limited time. Personally, I think if your organisational Sustainability programme is stuck under a ceiling there's a very simple formula to smash through to the next level:

  1. Get buy-in from key players using Green Jujitsu (in large part by involving them actively in the following steps);
  2. Set stretch targets within a reasonable timeframe (7-10 years typically);
  3. Use backcasting to work out what that future vision of the organisation would look like and a list of what you have to start doing now to get there;
  4. Help those key players do the things on your list which will have biggest impact, while identifying and eliminating barriers as you go along.

The first step is the most important. By involving key players, they have 'skin in the game' and you will start to see those ceilings disappear. The backcasting process itself is fun and really energises those involved. You'd be surprised how often meaningful engagement makes resistance to melt away like snow on a warm spring morning.

 

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17 October 2016

Sustainability by habit

questions

How many decisions do you make everyday?

Real decisions, I mean, where you actively choose between two options rather than follow your usual practice. When you got in the shower this morning, did you choose a shampoo or grab the only there one, your usual one or the nearest one? When you fired up your computer at work, did the option of not doing that cross your mind? How often have you bought a different newspaper to usual, just to get a different perspective on life?

I realised this morning in a coffee shop that, by choosing a cappuccino for a change rather than my default black americano, I was making different choice that I take maybe 1 in 20 times. Last week I read the Daily Mail cover to cover for the first time in years (which was a shock to the system in more ways than one). A few years ago I signed up to a 'green household awareness' scheme but failed to weigh my rubbish for more than a couple of days at a time before defaulting to chucking it straight in the appropriate bin. Me – Mr Sustainability himself – couldn't even cope with this minor deviation from the norm. Embarrassing.

We are creatures of habit.

And, as Sustainability practitioners, we have to embrace that, rather than fight it. We've got to appreciate new habits take a long time to form and, more importantly, working with people's normal routines rather than against them is the quickest way to get Sustainability embedded into the organisation.

 

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14 October 2016

Hey! It's World Standards Day!!!

CalendarHold onto your hats folks, it's finally that one day of the year that we can celebrate the most unlikely of causes, the humble ISO standard. But, hold on, should we not document how we should celebrate before we celebrate?

Now, sarcasm aside, environmental standards do help on the move to Sustainability by raising the game of the poorest performers. But, in the same way you could get an ISO9000 quality standard for a concrete lifejacket (as long as it meets its specification), ISO14001, as one wag put it, lets us destroy the planet in a well-documented manner. Management standards are about process, not results.

It bothers me that they give businesses a false sense of security. This morning I clicked on the 'Sustainability' tab of a local manufacturer and found endless references to ISO14001. That's all well and good, I thought, but where are the results? When I dug around, they had done some interesting stuff, so why not promote that? Why not set out some ambitious Sustainability goals? Or put some product stories first?

Most people take ISO14001 as read in a modern forward-looking company. It's what you do above and beyond that which will make you stand out from the crowd.

 

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12 October 2016

Squaring the Sustainability vs ROI circle


The latest edition of Ask Gareth considers the problem of making sure Sustainability benefits are considered fully in investment appraisals/decision making so it can stand up against 'return on investment' calculations – a critical issue if we are to move away from 'business as usual.'

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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10 October 2016

Supply Chain Wisdom from the Sustainability Masterminds

acklam-hall

The end of last month saw the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group meet at the sumptuous Acklam Hall in Middlesbrough to discuss supply chain issues. Here's a baker's dozen of the many nuggets which emerged from the meeting for your delectation:

  • Many organisations have no idea about what’s in their supply chain which is an enormous risk as problems bubble upwards;
  • Poor supplier performance on Sustainability is often indicative of wider incompetence;
  • Need to keep an open mind regarding risks, eg slavery occurs in the UK as well as developing countries.
  • Write contract conditions to pass sustainability risks to the suppliers who represent those risks eg traceability;
  • Innovation should always be put into contract extension commitments to drive continual improvement;
  • Can be a tension between need to collaborate and get tough on suppliers – need to present carrots and sticks;
  • Get suppliers to solve your problems, rather than you trying to solve theirs;
  • Run award schemes for ‘supplier with best sustainability performance’ eg Johnson & Johnson;
  • Internally, need to align responsibility with authority so the actual decision maker is held accountable for the Sustainability implications of their decisions;
  • Consider using emotive words such as ‘Risks’ rather than ‘Sustainability’ on meeting agendas;
  • External speakers can sometimes bring gravitas that internal practitioners can’t;
  • Recruit people who have ‘been there, done that’;
  • Make suppliers compete on sustainability by having ‘open’ scoring system in addition to proscribed/box-ticking requirements.

The Mastermind Group meets quarterly in the North of England to discuss Sustainability issues under the Chatham House Rule. We are currently working on kicking off a South East branch with the first meeting pencilled in for 10 November. Contact me (gareth@terrainfirma.co.uk) for more details on either Group.

 

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5 October 2016

Slim Sustainability Pickings from UK Political Leaders

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)Every year I sift through the leaders' speeches at the UK political party conferences so you don't have to. My theory is that, no matter what is discussed in the rest of the conference, the content of the leader's speech shows just how much of a priority is put upon green policies. Last year, I concluded the content was disappointing, this year makes that look like a low carbon bonanza. All the conferences were dominated by one word – Brexit – and most of the party leaderships where in something of a state of flux, but still, this was poor stuff. Here goes: Read the rest of this entry »

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Sustainability: do the same old, get the same old...

escher

This week I read an article on employee engagement for Sustainability on a well-known eco-business website (I won't bother linking to protect the guilty), wondering if it had a new angle, a nice case study or a clever technique I hadn't come across before. Unfortunately the piece could have been written 10, 20 or even 30 years ago – we had 'switch it off' stickers and posters on the walls when I started in the Civil Service in 1993.

Here's a thing – if it hasn't worked in the last 23 years, why would it start working now?

This approach is so old hat, I parodied it in an animation 3 and a half years ago. We have so much more sophisticated approaches including gamification, 'nudge' techniques and my own Green Jujitsu (translating Sustainability for the worldview of each audience) that you would have thought that a half-competent environmental consultancy may have come across (hint: try Google). But apparently not.

To deliver Sustainability, we need new thinking across the board. Whether that is managing distributed energy, developing new business models or effective employee engagement; blindly trying the same old technique whether or not it works is the epitome of stupidity. One of the joys of working in Sustainability is learning something new every day – revel in it!

 

 

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3 October 2016

Activate your sustainability programme!

cosm7-template

At last week's Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group, I (re)used my 'monster truck' template (above). The analogy is that we are in the truck, transversing the boulders which are in the way of 'the new normal' - ie meeting our sustainability goals.

As we were packing up, one member, a chemist by background, referred to the pile of boulders as the 'activation energy' for sustainability. I can remember enough of my A-level Chemistry to remember that this is the energy required to get two reagents to react, even if the results are more stable than the ingredients you started with. So to light a wood fire, you need to light a match and set it to paper and kindling to give the main fuel enough energy to burn itself. In a way the wood is sat there waiting to be burnt, but if you just throw a match at it, nothing happens.

I thought that activation energy was a great analogy. One of the big frustrations of Sustainability practitioners is that a sustainable world is clearly more desirable than an unsustainable one. Who really wants pollution, an unstable climate or the destruction of natural habitats? So why do we allow those things to happen? Or why do our efforts to change things often flounder? The answer is the activation energy required to get from here to there.

What do chemists do if activation energy is too high? They find a catalyst to reduce it. Sustainability catalysts include policy changes, technological breakthroughs and facilitators – the last of which is where we come in.

Here are several ways that you, as a sustainability catalyst, can reduce that activation energy:

  • Focus people on defining 'the new normal' rather than obsessing about 'business as usual' (this is how we start with the template above;
  • Expand this into a backcasting approach to define intermediate steps;
  • Frame sustainability to match the culture of the audience (aka Green Jujitsu eg talk engineering for engineers, health for the health sector, cash for accountants etc);
  • Involve people in solutions generation to get enthusiasm and buy-in for change;
  • Get visible leadership buy-in;
  • Demonstrate progress;
  • Get people (employees, suppliers etc) to compete to be the most sustainable;
  • Remain upbeat, encouraging and cunning.

But don't just chuck matches at the fuel and complain when it doesn't light.

 

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