A funny thing has been happening in the UK over the last 7 years. We have had two Conservative Prime Ministers since 2010 who have rarely paid more than lip service to sustainability issues in general and tackling climate change in particular. We have a press which is largely sceptical about climate change science, or possibly worse, cynically calculate that climate denial sells papers. Green activists fume and rage about all of this, but how come UK renewable energy is booming and coal is dying?
Here's a few things which might explain things:
1. Ninja legislation: Some simple legislation, such as Feed-In Tariffs, the press and green activists can get their head around, but there are other bits and pieces which are more complex and stealthy in operation. A good example is the Carbon Price Floor, which has been lurking quietly in the background putting the coal-fired power sector to the sword and boosting the opportunities for renewables.
2. Supply and Demand: one good reason for cutting solar feed-in tariffs is that they have been far more effective than their designer, one Ed Miliband, expected, leading to a precipitous fall in solar PV installation prices. Cutting the tariffs may have slowed the original goldrush, but installations continue to make financial sense. Demand not only pushes down prices, but incentivises innovation – a virtuous cycle which will drive ever more demand and remove the need for any subsidy in time.
3. Responsible Business: as businesses grasp the full business case for Sustainability (ie going beyond a simplistic 'go green, save money' mindset), they are investing in renewables whatever the direct financials as they know the indirect benefits (PR, winning business, attracting and retaining staff) will deliver many times the return.
4. High fossil fuel prices: while the price of oil plummeted from its 2008 peak, at $55 a barrel, we are still facing historically high oil prices and the $147 peak in 2008 is a brutal reminder that nailing your colours to the fossil fuel mast brings significant risk.
Which all begs the question, how good could the UK be if senior politicians showed real leadership and the press woke up and smelt the coffee? I live in hope, perhaps naively.
In the meantime, if they don't do it, the rest of us will get on with the job!
When I first read the bumf around Mark Lefko's new book Global Sustainability, I was a bit worried that it clashed with my own tome, The Green Executive. Both are aimed at senior management, both take a more strategic look at Sustainability and both are built around a series of interviews with senior executives. However, on the latter Lefko has roped in considerably more star wattage than I did, with Sir Richard Branson and the CEOs of TATA, Dow, Cargill, and Unilever featuring amongst the 21 interviewees.
From these interviews, Lefko has extracted 9 best practices which make up the chapter titles of the book. The content of each chapter consists mainly of interview quotes from those CEOs, some extending to quite lengthy extracts. The nine chapters are:
Establish Guiding Principles
Practice Long-Term Thinking
Deal Fairly and Ethically with Suppliers, Employees, and Customers
Be Concerned about Your Employees’ Motivation and Well-Being
Support the Well-Being of the Communities Where You Do Business
Form Good Partnerships
Find Ways to Reduce Waste
Be Adaptable—and Seize Opportunities
Measure the Return on Your Sustainability Investment
The book's aim is clearly to persuade senior business executives to get on board the Sustainability train via peer pressure – if these business titans are doing Sustainability, shouldn't you be? And it does this job very well, with a consistently clear and upbeat message, reinforced by those captains of industry.
I've had plenty of arguments with publishers over book titles and, to me, Lefko's subtitle "(21 Leading CEOs show) How to do well by doing good" would be a more accurate title for the book – and one more compelling to its target audience of CEOs and those new to Sustainability than "Global Sustainability".
The book is not really a 'how-to' on making Sustainability a strategic business priority (check out The Green Executive for that!). As someone who lives corporate Sustainability day in day out, I got a couple of new insights and some nice fresh case studies, but nothing to shake up the status quo on planet Sustainability. That's not a criticism, just an observation on the target audience.
A couple of times in recent weeks and months I have heard/read calls for 'long term thinking' for Sustainability - 2050 seems to have a particular allure due to UN climate targets. As is all too common in our field, there is no challenge to the assumption that this is a good thing. But in my experience, setting organisational targets too far in the future, is counter-productive. Here's why:
1. People, particularly key decision makers, assume they will be on the golf course or pushing up the daisies by then and don't see the targets as their problem, so you create drift;
2. For everyone, 2050 seems a long time away, so there will be plenty of time to do something about those targets when all this short term stuff gets sorted;
3. The assumption that technology will come to our rescue, also negating the need to act now – solar powered hover cars and all that.
In other words, we need timeframes which create a sense of urgency while giving time to make substantial change. I find 7-10 years is optimum for most organisations with significant assets; you can go a bit shorter in, say, the service sector. If you are wedded to 2050, make sure you set some interim targets (2025?) to create that urgency.
I suppose a bit like 'Think Global, Act Local', we need to 'Think Long Term, Act Now.'
My big theme this year is 'Sustainability conversations', and one thing that sets 'conversation' apart from 'communication' is you've got to listen as well as talk.
If you actively listen to those you are trying to communicate with, you will find the following benefits:
1. Your audience will trust what you are trying to say if you show that you care about what they think;
2. You will be able to respond to your audience's hopes, fears and uncertainties and the audience will get a deeper understanding as a result;
3. If the audience feels it is 'in the loop', individuals are more likely to embrace new ways of working;
4. You will learn how to adjust your language, tone and imagery to appeal to your wider audience (I don't guess what the culture is like when I'm using Green Jujitsu, I tend to ask them);
5. You will discover the barriers your audience see to more sustainable behaviour and be able to remove them.
The last one is not to be underestimated – some of my biggest 'wins' with clients have come from listening to what frontline employees say. Fixing such problems is often at low or no cost and tilts the playing field permanently towards more sustainable behaviour for all.
As the old saying goes, you've got two ears and one mouth and you should use them proportionately!
I needed an example of user influence on a building's carbon emissions for my CIBSE talk on Tuesday night. I had a nagging feeling that the lofty goals of the BedZed zero-emission development in South London had been compromised by user behaviour and, after a bit of digging, found a study which suggested the difference between the highest energy users on site and the lowest was an incredible factor of 8. That's a colossal range given everybody has the same technology. And it's not just BedZed, the Western Harbour development in Malmo and the Vauban neighbourhood in Freiburg have both struggled to get residents to change their behaviour to match the ideal.
This goes for virtually any product – you can design washing powders to wash clothes at low temperature, but if consumers keep pushing the temperature selector on their washing machine upwards 'for luck', the benefit won't be felt. User behaviour is probably the ultimate challenge for the sustainability professional.
There are two responses to this:
1. Continue to design the neighbourhood/product/system to make green behaviour easier than business as usual. At one client we removed the bureaucracy around using their teleconferencing system and it went from gathering dust to being overwhelmed almost overnight;
2. Accept that your product is only one part of the larger jigsaw and you can only do what you can do. It's not P&G's fault that my washing machine doesn't have a 15°C setting, so I can't make the most of Ariel Excel Gel's low temperature performance, but there is now an incentive for the washing machine manufacturers to design one in.
I think the latter is very important – someone needs to jump first. We talk about 'chicken and egg' to describe apparently unsurmountable problems, but in evolutionary terms the egg did appear before the chicken. Are you going to be that egg?
I gave a talk last night to the Chartered Institute of Building Service Engineers about behaviour change in building users. One of the themes was the need to get out of the green echo chamber and speak to the unconverted in a way that will appeal to their worldview aka Green Jujitsu.
For this very reason, I am more interested in politically right-of-centre arguments/solutions for tackling climate change than centrist/left-of-centre arguments because on that side all but the very far left have accepted the need for urgent action. Bringing those who are uncertain for that need is much more important than virtue signalling to those who already get it.
So this morning's reports that a group of US Republican old guard are proposing a carbon tax as a conservative approach to climate change really pricked my interest. If left, right and centre want to tackle climate change in their own way, then that's much more viable and robust than trying to persuade one side to adopt the views of another. Progress is always better than no progress.
As I said last night, finding the sweetspot of overlap between Sustainability and the views of key stakeholders is the road to success.
A very topical question for this month's Ask Gareth – what will happen to Sustainability in the age of Donald Trump? I offer three important principles to make sure short term political upsets don't derail your Sustainability programme.
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.
A tweet appeared on my twitter feed yesterday urging people to buy loose fruit and veg to avoid packaging waste. However loose veg leads to 20% higher wastage than packaged veg, so while you might save on a plastic bag (you're going to need a container to get them home anyway, even a paper bag has an impact), you're going to be responsible for 20% more land-use, 20% more irrigation and fertilisation, 20% more washing and processing, 20% more transport and 20% more waste. I haven't done the sums, but I'm guessing the packaged fruit comes out on top by a country mile. Excess packaging is wrong of course, but we package goods for a very good reason.
You get similar simplistic thinking about bottled water. Now I try to remember to take tap water out with us on family trips (Mrs K is much better at this than me), but if I don't have any and I have to buy a drink from a shop, which is more eco-friendly – bottled water or a soft drink (= bottled water + sugar + chemicals)? I've seen people buy a coke rather than water on this basis - madness.
This simplistic good/evil demarcation in the environmental world is potentially damaging. The anti-nuclear move in Germany has propped up the coal-fired power sector. As Mark Lynas points out, the vilification of carbon offsetting by green commentators has almost certainly had a negative impact by cutting off a flow of finance into green projects.
These issues aren't particularly complicated but the dogmatic mantras of some campaigners can do more harm than good. Let's think before acting.
Over the last couple of days I've been writing about understanding the business case for sustainability, why it varies for different companies and why it is imperative to understand how it affects you. What bothers me is the way most commenters have defaulted to the 'Go Green Save Money' mindset. I'm clearly not getting my message across!
I can see why people default to 'save money', you can and probably will save money through your sustainability programme. For some companies this is a strong driver, but for most, keeping regulators and customers happy will be much more important for the business. After all, breaking compliance can lead to product recalls or plant shut downs, disappointing your customers can lead to loss of market share; both of which will have a much bigger financial impact than shaving a few % off the energy bill. From a positive point of view, raising turnover by gaining market share or exploiting new emerging markets will dwarf any efficiency savings.
This is extremely important as if you stick to the 'Go Green Save Money' mindset you will not do make any of the step changes required to get your business fit for the 21st Century. You'll be debating returns on investment while your competitors plunder your market share.
I recorded the following video on the business case a few years ago. It's getting a bit long in the tooth, but the core message still rings true.