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January 2017 - Terra Infirma


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31 January 2017

The Sweetspot of Sustainability Success

Business Case Venn

I love a good Venn diagram so, when I was reviewing the contents of this week's Business Case for Sustainability webinar, I realised there was an interlocking-circles shaped gap in the introduction. So, I came up with the above.

It illustrates a basic principle of Sustainability success: when Sustainability programmes are synergistic with business interests (and, more importantly, are seen to be synergistic) then that programme will in itself be (small 's') sustainable. Conversely, if you design a Sustainability programme which doesn't fit with business interests then you will have a constant battle to keep it on the agenda at all, never mind making significant changes. First bump in the road and you can say goodbye to the commitment.

What does this mean in practice? Well if your Sustainability programme is driven by customer demand, then you focus Sustainability efforts on those customer demands, rather than, say, cost reductions. If, like one of my clients, you are selling reasonably complex products globally, then compliance is at the fore (eg eradicating problem chemicals) rather than cost cutting. However, if you are a bulk commodity producer you may find that a cost reduction focus will give your Sustainability programme traction with the powers that be.

I sometimes get accused of cynicism when I present ideas like this, but idealism is the enemy of success. And don't forget this pragmatism is just a starting point; once you have embedded Sustainability in the organisation as a friend, not a a foe, you can work to increase the area of overlap by converging the two circles. But finding that starting point is crucial.

 

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27 January 2017

How are those 2017 Sustainability resolutions going?

New Year's Resolutions

I don't know about you, but my 2017 hasn't really taken off yet. I started the year with minor surgery followed by quite a lot of physio and Mrs K has been away for two week-long trips leaving me in sole charge of the Kane gang (the two weren't meant to coincide, but Sod's law...). So while I've been able to keep things ticking over and prepare some of the groundwork, none of my big plans have taken off just yet.

What about you? How are your plans progressing? If you've had a sluggish start to making Sustainability happen in 2017, let me know and I'll do what I can to help.

 

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25 January 2017

Zero waste requires new thinking, not the same old, same old

wasted

Yesterday I downloaded the Carbon Trust's Zero Waste guide. As most of the content could have been written a decade ago, it was, frankly, a waste of electrons. Where was the aspiration, the innovation, the inspiration? We get a nod to the circular economy and design, but no more detail. Instead we get the 3Rs and talking to waste management contractors.

If you want zero waste, paradoxically you've got to stop thinking about waste. You've got to think about preventing resources being wasted instead (my mantra is "waste is a verb, not a noun"). You've got to think about loops, not linear processes.

Once you've changed your mindset, you've got to find quality uses for every stream of material or design it out of your system. You need to talk to suppliers and customers about closed loop business models and innovations. You've got to talk to other organisations who may be able to use unwanted material as a raw material. You, and plenty of other people, have got to do things radically differently.

We cannot face a challenge like zero waste with a linear waste minimisation mindset, it's like taking a pea shooter to a war zone. As Einstein said "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."

 

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23 January 2017

A Green Industrial Strategy for the UK? Ish.

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office_(cropped)UK Prime Minister Theresa May has a reputation as something of an inscrutable sphinx and we only get glimpses of what makes her tick. When she stepped up to the hot seat, there was none of the husky-hugging of her predecessor and she abolished the Department of Energy and Climate Change to the dismay and anger of the green commentariat. However, I was less worried about that as DECC had been folded into the new department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy where arguably it could be better integrated into business as usual rather than being treated as a special case – and BEIS Minister Greg Clark is a champion of carbon reduction.

So today, we get an insight on progress as the Government publishes the 10 pillars of its Industrial Strategy. And one of the pillars is rather encouraging:

Delivering affordable energy & clean growth: We will keep energy costs down, build the energy structure we need for new technologies, and secure the economic benefits of our move towards a low carbon economy.

Added to this is various public statements by the PM and BEIS ministers over the last 48 hours singling out electric vehicles, battery technology, 'smart energy' and nuclear as areas they would like to boost. I'm very pleased with this as I've long called for Government intervention to accelerate the smart grid as a way of unlocking more, and greener, growth, than the usual road building.

So far, so good, but what's not there?

The big omission is the circular economy which as usual has to play second fiddle to low carbon energy. For as long as I've been in the sustainability trade, this has been the case – 'waste' is simply not seen as sexy enough. I think it is time for a rebrand, focussing on technologies such as bioprocessing, smart disassembly, automatic sorting technologies and using big data methods to facilitate reverse logistics. More white coats and coding, a bit less in the way of tipper trucks, in other words. A circular economy would also boost the robustness of a post-Brexit UK economy – a key way of selling it to the green-sceptic amongst May's backbenchers.

The other problem is that the industrial strategy launch has been overshadowed by news of another – a misfiring Trident missile last year which hit the headlines yesterday. Events, my dear boy, events...

 

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20 January 2017

On Demand: 17 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2017

On Wednesday we held our annual taster session for our Green Academy training webinars. If you want to catch the recording, you can stream it by clicking here. For the full experience, you should download the workbook here so you can apply the ideas to your organisation.

Note: we did have a slight glitch during the session which led to the sound dropping in and out (we now know what happened and how to fix it in future).

The full Green Academy syllabus is listed below. The sessions usually cost £45.00 + VAT a shot, or £330.00 + VAT for the series of 10, but if you sign up before 31 January 2017, we'll knock 25% off – use the following link to pay by credit/debit card.

green-academy-2017

 

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18 January 2017

The Sustainability bar is rising – fast

Athlete compete in paul vault

There has been a raft of big Sustainability announcements from Corporations recently:

  • Ikea achieving zero waste last year;
  • Google saying they'll be 100% renewable-powered by the end of the year;
  • Unilever's pledge to make all its plastic packaging ‘fully reusable, recyclable or compostable’ by 2025.

These are BHAGs (big hairy audacious goals) and a half. And what's more they're being delivered. That's because big stretch targets such as zero waste or 100% renewable energy make you think in a quite different way to incremental targets. Business as usual will not do the job, neither will Sustainability as a bolt on.

Go large or go home.

 

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16 January 2017

Happy Monday! Or why it's too easy to be Blue

the end is nigh

Before I had kids I used to see myself as a bit of a songwriter. One of my enduring insights from that time is that is much more difficult to write a good happy song than a good sad song. For the latter, you only need to reach for a minor key, a slow tempo and some pseudo-intellectual phrases and you're away. I could never get it right with an upbeat, positive song, so I used to fall back on scathing satire to make it work.

I find the same happens with sustainability news (or any news for that matter). It is very easy to  create a headline from a negative story, much more difficult to be impactful with a positive one. So you get articles like this one from the Guardian's Robin McKie which includes the line

"The trouble is that very little has been done in the past decade to trigger changes that might wean us off [the UK's] fossil fuel addiction."

That is utter nonsense. We have seen a renewable energy boom and a collapse in the coal-fired industry. OK, so the domestic heating/insulation sector and transport are proving harder nuts to crack and the Government should be putting this much higher up the agenda, but the picture is encouraging. Of course we need people like McKie to keep the pressure on, but the context is important or people will get despondent.

You can scale this up to the global level. Carbon emissions are stalling, as is population growth, and extreme poverty is falling fast, but you'd never know it from the press. The war isn't won yet by any means, but our front lines are moving forward. Let's keep the troops motivated!

 

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13 January 2017

How to start a Sustainability conversation

Upset woman speaking to her therapist while she is taking notes

As I've said before, our big theme in 2017 is Sustainability Conversations as this is where we believe breakthroughs lie. But the critical question is how do you get the right people interested in having that conversation in the first place? The answer lies in our old friend, Green Jujitsu.

Green Jujitsu is the art of framing Sustainability in terms which each audience will find irresistible. That means finding the overlap between Sustainability and that person's/those people's perspective on life. So for an Technical Director talk technical solutions, for a CFO talk £/$/Euros, for a CEO talk competition.

Green Jujitsu Venn

In practice this means the following:

  • Engineering an opportunity to start a discussion on their terms ("Can you help me with something?");
  • Using their language, imagery and idioms, not impenetrable Sustainability jargon;
  • Put the ball in their court by asking killer questions (eg "our competitors have just launched a non-toxic version of our product, how should we respond?");
  • Listen to their responses and encourage them to keep trains of thought going by asking follow up questions (this is essentially how I do my client coaching and it is very powerful).
  • Summarising conclusions and next steps at the end of the conversation.

Key to all this is realising that Sustainability success will not be so much about how well you do your job as how well you can get other people to do their job. Let them take credit for success even if you've had to drag them kicking and screaming to that point.

We'll be discussing sustainability conversations and green jujitsu in more detail on our webinar on 18th January - more details here.

 

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11 January 2017

Getting heated over renewables incentives

epicfailI was born and bred in Northern Ireland, my 19 years living there coinciding with the bulk of 'The Troubles' – the Unionist/Protestant vs Nationalist/Catholic (delete as applicable) conflict which cost in the region of 3,500 lives over 30ish years. Since the Good Friday agreement of 1998, an elaborate power-sharing structure has just about held peace together and the province has returned to some state of normality.

The NI Assembly has been pitched into one of its periodic of crises, ostensibly by the revelation that the local implementation of the Renewable Heat Initiative has overspent by £400 million.

Now, I've semi-deliberately avoided keeping up to date with Norn Irish politics as I find the tribalism depressing, but I know enough to assume that the crisis is probably more than a failed renewable energy subsidy scheme. But I am very angry at just how inept the NI RHI scheme was. It paid users of biomass heating systems a staggering 150% of fuel costs. The safety mechanisms that prevent abuse in the rest of the UK were not implemented, resulting in a 'cash for ash' goldrush (Irish politics are notable for their memorable rhyming nicknames). Rumours abound of farmers heating empty barns and factories heating previously unheated spaces to profit from the subsidy. What did the scheme's architects think was going to happen?

Why does this anger me? Because bodged subsidy schemes, like the UK's original Feed-In Tariff scheme (which didn't take into consideration plummeting solar PV prices) or the Green Deal insulation scheme (which loaned householders cash at an interest rate higher than a standard commercial loan), give renewable energy a bad name. They create uncertainty and apprehension amongst the general public, anger amongst tax-payers, and feed into the clarion calls from the anti-renewable/climate change denying/pro-fossil fuels lobby. The RHI scandal has had far more press coverage than, say, the record levels of renewable electricity generated in the UK in 2016, even though the latter is in many ways a much more significant story.

Delivering on sustainability is hard enough without tying our shoe-laces together and falling flat on our faces. We can try and fail on technology or private-sector initiatives, but when it comes to spending public money, we must get it right first time.

 

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9 January 2017

Why clean technology disappoints then defies expectations

300px-google-cardboardAbout 17 years ago, I took a job establishing and running the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) at the University of Teesside. At the time, the Uni was known for one thing above all else – Virtual Reality. Our building was called the Virtual Reality and Technology Centre – every other engineering and science discipline was crammed in under the afterthought. And then, suddenly, it was decided that VR had no future and the VR Centre was unceremoniously shut.

I mused on this when my sister presented the boys with a Google Cardboard for Christmas. Just a decade after the VR Centre closed and a piece of cardboard with a couple of lenses in it, costing less than a fiver, is giving us VR in our living room. Of course you have to add in the critical element yourself – a (my!) smartphone. And that's probably where the VR centre went wrong – it closed a few years before the smartphone revolution changed the way we interacted with technology for ever. You could accuse those decision makers of being short-sighted, but the extent of that supposedly-unrelated revolution was extremely hard to anticipate.

When you look at clean technology trends they follow a similar trend – individual ideas will appear, get hyped and then disappear. And then, suddenly, we get something like the current renewable energy boom, far exceeding all predictions. The traditional way of explaining this is the hype cycle (see below), but to me this is over-simplistic.

Gartner_Hype_Cycle.svg

 

I believe such breakthroughs occur as much by the convergence of technologies as by the maturity of individual technologies. If we go back to the smartphone, all the component technologies: mobile telecommunication, data transmission, the internet (in the form of bulletin boards etc), GUIs and even touch screens were all bimbling along in the 1980s but it took until 2007 for a certain Mr Jobs to conceive the smartphone as we know it. But I doubt that even Jobs would have foreseen, say, the addition of a piece of cardboard bringing VR to the masses. Predicting the future is a mugs game.

We're starting to get to the stage where the Energy 2.0 revolution could go really huge. At the minute we still have a centralised energy system (1.0) slowly morphing into a distributed one. You can see the other elements starting to fall into place – smart(er) grids, electric cars (with their batteries for storage), the Internet of Things, variable energy pricing and the ubiquity of smartphones as a potential interface/control system. That vision of sitting in front of the TV getting an alert on your phone that you could sell some of your solar-generated, EV-stored energy at a premium price if you tap OK right now could soon be with us. Or it could be something completely different, who knows?

 

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6 January 2017

The Importance of Sustainability Conversations in 2017

Janus

Happy New(-ish) Year from Terra Infirma!

I write this from a ward of Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary after surgery on the little finger upon which I cleverly landed when out running/dancing-on-ice exactly a year ago. Not the most auspicious start to the year, but the enforced time out is giving me a chance to reflect on the last year or two and plan the year ahead.

One thing I have concluded is that our non-project delivery mechanisms often deliver much more value to our clients than the traditional consultancy project. A project is tightly defined and the client gets what they asked for. But in Sustainability it is often the stuff that people don't know that they don't know where major breakthroughs lie – those crucial issues take conversation to uncover, not phases and milestones and deliverables.

We have three main non-project delivery mechanisms (in increasing level of conversation richness):

But shameless plugs aside, with whom are you going to (or do you need to) have conversations about Sustainability in 2017? Is it everybody, or, more likely, key influencers? How will you start that conversation? What language will you use? What format will it take? And how will you work with the results?

And, as that last paragraph demonstrates, one of the best ways to kick off a conversation is with a question.

Here's to a successful and more sustainable 2017, full of rich conversation!

 

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