This month's Ask Gareth answers a great question from Dan – how do you keep Sustainability running after the honeymoon. My basic answer is that it is too late to consider it then and I suggest three ways you can design your Sustainability programme to be self sustaining.
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.
Regular readers will know I'm a great proponent of the 80:20 Rule in Sustainability – I wrote a book about it (see below). The 80:20 Rule says that you should target the relatively small number of actions which deliver the vast majority of change.
At the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group earlier this month, we discussed the application and limitations of the 80:20 approach. These are the times you should worry about the 'little stuff':
Engaging employees: switching stuff off and waste minimisation generally won't take you that far down your path to zero carbon, but people easily understand it, so you can use these quick wins as an 'entry drug' to get your colleagues hooked on Sustainability before moving on to the hard stuff.
Avoiding cynicism: for the same reason, laypeople will get more upset about disposable coffee cups than the use of a persistent organic pollutant. So you need to make sure you are seen to be tackling those iconic issues even while you're doing the big stuff that no-one will ever notice.
Continual improvement: If you have a zero carbon or zero waste target, you've still got to do the 20% of results as well as the 80%. So while you should prioritise the critical 20% of actions, it's worth keeping the other stuff tapping along (maybe combined with the engagement above).
But, and this is a big but, these exceptions should never overwhelm the rule. When push comes to shove, if you need to make a tough choice, go for the one which will deliver the biggest results.
On Thursday, the eldest child and I set off on our bikes to Amsterdam – Harry had won the ferry tickets in a prize draw from a cyclocross race he'd won. We made a little video about our trip which you can watch below – and yes he really did slide into a stinking stream on the way to the ferry. He was very lucky he wasn't injured, but we both had a whiff of stagnant water about us for the rest of the trip.
As always on journeys abroad, I had my eyes peeled for different approaches to Sustainability. Eight years ago, a business/pleasure trip to Belgium had really brought home the difference between that country and the UK on renewable energy at that time. However this time the difference wasn't apparent; the number of wind turbines we saw approaching the Dutch coast was similar to the number we saw along the North East coast of England on our way back to the Tyne on Sunday morning.
The biggest difference I noticed was the cycling infrastructure. A friend of mine, on seeing our video, said we had managed to make the Tyneside cycle paths as good as the Dutch ones, but there is an extremely important difference. By chance, the old riverside railway on the north bank of the Tyne has been converted into Hadrian's Cycleway, connecting our neighbourhood with the ferry dock. If the dismantled railway route wasn't there to build the cycle path, I doubt we would have cycled at all – we'd have been dodging lorries the whole way.
In the Netherlands, there is no such lottery. Every route has a cycle route. Every roundabout had a outer cycling ring. Every junction is properly signposted.
When we hit Amsterdam, we didn't need to work out a good cycle route to get through the bustling city centre to our hotel – we just picked the roads that went where we wanted to go (although if you watch the video, Harry was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer number of Amsterdamers shooting past us on bikes and mopeds as we made our stately way along the canals).
The generic lesson from this experience is: we must make every option a Sustainable option. Customers, employees and stakeholders ideally shouldn't have to make a choice between Sustainability and non-Sustainability, and, if they do, the decision making process should be heavily tilted towards the former.
Last week saw the seventeenth – seventeenth, blimey – meeting of the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (an amazing venue, see above). Due to a couple of members being called away at the last minute, we postponed our proposed topic of maximising the value of accreditations, and did a series of short sharp sessions on topics that were bothering those in the room. The first of these was 'waste' and I thought I'd share some of the learning points arising:
Understand your waste streams, volumes and disposal routes
The true cost of waste is 10-30x disposal cost – and it ramps up from goods in to goods out as value is added
Use the 80:20 Rule – go for the big issues first eg product damaged at the end of the process
However, need to be cognisant of 'iconic' waste streams such as coffee cups. They may not be significant in practice, but laypeople often believe otherwise
General societal culture change in domestic recycling helps with recycling at work
Because it is tangible, waste can be used as an effective ‘entry drug’ for wider employee engagement for Sustainability.
Make sure reducing waste is always incentivised eg in tenancy agreements
Involve employees in developing waste solutions – you get better solutions and buy in
Don't empty recycling bins containing ‘wrong’ materials – makes the point very clearly
Make segregation easy and use a standard colour/logo scheme
Seeing somebody have to sort out mis-segregated materials can lead to a positive guilt trip (eg show the consequences)
Educate employees including understanding the benefits (eg £ per bag)
Be careful with Waste Transfer Note terms & conditions – you could be signing an ongoing contract
Supermarkets are particularly good at waste reduction from suppliers – much to learn from them
Reduce ‘bought in waste’ from suppliers
Lean manufacturing techniques target and eradicate waste
Order dimensions and quantities carefully to avoid waste
Construction Site Waste Management Plans may not be legally required by law any more, but you can still insist on them in construction projects
Can use objective-oriented procurement and forward commitment procurement to drive innovation in waste management services
On Saturday I was at a workshop looking at improving the experience of pedestrians and cyclists in inner-city neighbourhoods in our city. One of the guest speakers brilliantly summed up why that horrible 1980s/90s street design style which corralled pedestrians into convoluted, fenced routes to guide them away from busy roads didn't work:
"We're natural Pythagoreans. We'll never walk around a right angle if we can see a hypotenuse."
One of my principles of embedding Sustainability into organisations is to make the sustainable option the easiest route. That means removing barriers to that hypotenuse and making the unsustainable option(s) the 'right angled' route(s).
This can be physical (like putting cycle parking by the front door) or it can be bureaucratic (making it more difficult to book flights than trains), but I have seen time and time again that it works.
I've long preached that there is a pressing need to align responsibility for Sustainability with authority. There is no point in delegating responsibility for Sustainability targets to environmental managers, or worse, volunteer sustainability champions, if they have zero power to actually make change happen. Instead appropriate sub-targets must be embedded in the personal objectives of key decision makers. Stands to reason, but often neglected.
During the Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group on Tuesday (more on this next week), I realised that this alignment principle doesn't only within organisations but also between them.
If a landlord is responsible for a heating system, but the tenants pay the bills, the landlord will go cheap on the system as efficiency is not their problem. If the heating bills are split equally between tenants rather than individually metered, then there is less immediate incentive to cut consumption. If a purchaser is responsible for disposing of packaging, then there is little incentive for the supplier to provide recyclable or returnable packaging. And, as the Carbon Trust found with Walker's Crisps, if potatoes are bought by wet weight, then suppliers are incentivised to artificially hydrate the potatoes even though Walker then has to waste energy evaporating off that excess water during the frying process.
In all these cases, there are ways and means of changing the agreements between the different parties so those who have the power to change are fully incentivised to do so, either financially or contractually.
I have a tonne of stuff to do this week, yet I’m writing this in my local NHS Walk-in Centre waiting to get my eye checked out after an unfortunate gardening incident yesterday. It’s always the way, isn’t it? Just as you want to get off to a flying start, you notice your shoelaces are undone.
I often find Sustainability practitioners waiting for the perfect moment to launch their new project, venture or strategy. And, of course that perfect moment never comes. New legislation, a change in CEO, Brexit – there’s always something that pops up to spoil the moment.
So what can we do? Are we doomed to sit in perpetual stasis?
Well the first thing I did here in the waiting room was to remind myself of my long term priorities, then sketch down what I’m going to do this week and today to help meet those goals. That put my mind at rest, dissolved most of the frustration and focussed me on forward motion.
When I’m working with clients, I use a technique called backcasting to do the same on a grander scale. Instead of trying to work through the short term noise, we work backwards from the ultimate goal to work out what we need to do now to hit the right trajectory. After that exercise, usually carried out with key stakeholders, the way ahead appears clear and straightforward, no matter what life is throwing at us from the sidelines.
Back in 2009/10 I was second in command of a small political team which steered my adopted hometown of Newcastle to be designated the UK's Most Sustainable City two years running, beating frontrunners such as Brighton and Bristol. It made a big splash in the press – "It's Green Up North" headlines etc.
The first time we got it, a strange thing happened. Individuals who had had to be bypassed because they were so intransigent suddenly started saying things like "we put Sustainability at the heart of everything we do", and whole organisations who had only had the most tenuous involvement started bragging about their contribution.
At first I bristled ("The cheeky b*******s!"), then I realised that this bandwagon-jumping was a sign of success. Our goal was not to bask in the glow of adulation of others, but to use the award to build momentum and move forward – which we did as the second year our winning margin had increased (the award wasn't given out after that). For someone with my ego, I found this magnanimity very difficult in practice!
I was reminded about this lesson recently when I saw a great environmental success get tainted by a squabble over who did what, which is a real shame. Much of it comes down to different perceptions and partial knowledge of who did what. It's sad to see the success get overshadowed and progress grind to a halt – a warning to us all.
Sometimes I just can't help myself challenging what I see as inadvertently dangerous statements on Sustainability. One tweet I saw yesterday was about how little business understands the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that this was a Bad Thing. My view is that the 17 SDGs and their multifarious subgoals do not provide a suitable structure for corporate sustainability. So I couldn't resist weighing in.
What problem have I got with the SDGs? It's the same with trying to adopt, say, the ten One Planet Living principles. There's nothing wrong with OPL, but can you recite all ten principles without looking? I bet no-one can recite the 17 SDGs without hesitating. Are all 10OPLs/17SDGs priorities for every business? After all, these frameworks are designed to be universal, and, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing.
Imagine Google trying to come up with a statement on land use. Yes, they could plant a few extra shrubs to attract butterflies at the Googleplex, but I'd rather see them focus efforts on their carbon footprint (which they do) as that will make most difference – and be most meaningful to employees and other stakeholders. Leave land use to the food, fibre and forestry industries.
There's a deeper reason why you shouldn't try to adopt someone else's framework wholesale – the concept of 'Not Invented Here'. You will never, ever get as much buy-in for an imported off-the-shelf system than you do for one which has been created by those charged with delivering on it. A inclusive process of creating the strategy and setting the goals can be used to help create the culture required to deliver them (one of the reasons why we base our strategy development process around workshops for key decision makers).
Strategy + culture = success.
Take one of my clients, Interface. When founder Ray Anderson created Mission Zero, the overall target was a zero footprint by 2020. They break this down to 7 goals which are appropriate for the business – which is good as 7 is roughly the limit to the number of things you can easily remember. They call these the seven faces of Mount Sustainability, all of which have to be climbed. My pedantic side says "but you only need to climb one face of a mountain...", but that quibble doesn't matter – Interface created the analogy, they own it, and it works for them, big time. That's what matters.
So, use the SDGs, One Planet Living or whatever as a checklist to pick and choose from, but build the strategy that works for you and your colleagues, not something off the shelf.