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May 2017 - Terra Infirma

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31 May 2017

Experience is the deepest learning


I'm just back from our annual family half-term camping trip to Wooler in Northumberland. Every year for the last five years we've stayed at the same campsite and walked the same two walks. And every year the kids have an amazing experience – climbing hills, playing in streams, riding their bikes without helmets (woo!) – all the stuff we're told modern kids never do anymore because they're stuck in front of a screen (they're getting their iPad retox upstairs as I type).

It struck me last night as I took the above photo of Mrs K and Charlie that these experiences will be the ones the kids will cherish when they're my age. We never forget times like those, do we?

If you want to engage anybody in anything, giving them an experience is probably the deepest emotional connection you can make. I was an armchair environmentalist until I witnessed ecological devastation in Arctic Russia (I could taste the acid rain). I've met industrialists who got the green bug during a duty of care visit to their waste contractor. My local Nestlé factory loaned electric cars to employees to lower their fear of new technology. All my employee engagement work involves getting people to work through the problems themselves, so they can experience their own workplace issues. You simply cannot beat the power of experience.

So, how will you give your colleagues a positive Sustainability experience they will never forget?



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26 May 2017

Sustainability Strategy and Engagement: two sides to the same coin

team meeting

I had a meeting with a potential new client this morning. They want a sustainability strategy, but most of the conversation revolved about engagement of internal stakeholders. That's because, without engagement, a strategy will sit on a shelf gathering dust.

If you have engagement and no strategy, you're limiting yourself to incremental improvements in sustainability performance. In fact I know organisations who have wasted their high levels of engagement because the lack of strategy meant they hit diminishing returns and employees started to lose patience with slowing progress.

While Terra Infirma's two main streams of consultancy work are strategy and engagement, in practice there is a massive overlap between them.


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24 May 2017

After Manchester: Fear and Optimism

i-love-manchesterYesterday morning I woke at stupid o'clock and, after half an hour lying in the dark, decided that I'd head to the spare room with a book to avoid disturbing the slumbering Mrs K. I picked up my phone, the screen activated and there was the BBC alert "19 dead in Manchester bombing." [the death toll has since risen].

I'm sure my reaction was the same as almost everybody else's. "Killing kids at a pop concert? What kind of world do we live in?" I lay awake until everybody else rose, and made sure I gave each of my kids a big hug; grateful for what I still had, sorry for those who had lost loved ones overnight or were still waiting for news.

It must be my entry into middle-age, but I've recently grown nostalgic for the 1990s – when the Berlin Wall had fallen, Apartheid had gone, a peace process in my native Northern Ireland and peace talks in the Middle East, BritPop blasting from the hi-fi, Trainspotting, Jamon Jamon, and Pulp Fiction at the movies, plenty of disposable income in my wallet. What happened to those good ol' days?

But, I keep having to remind myself that this is utter nonsense. The 90s were the decade of the Balkan conflict with its massacres and ethnic cleansing, and the Rwandan/Burundi genocide. The fact of the matter is that we are now living in some of the best times in history. Global violence is at an historical low. Poverty, whether measured in absolute numbers or a share of the world population, is plummeting. Our attempts at tackling climate change, while not yet sufficient, are accelerating at a rate that no-one predicted.

ISIS has certainly put the terror into terrorism. They deliberately tap into our deepest fears – targeting kids, attacking crowds in the streets with lorries, revelling in cruelty – they truly are the stuff of nightmares. That fear can make us freeze, give up, look inwards, distrust others. It makes us feel the world is getting worse when it is demonstrably getting better.

There were at least two, probably three, orders of magnitude more heroes than villains on the streets on Manchester on Monday night. Let's be inspired by them.



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22 May 2017

Sustainability Is Personal


Yesterday we took the kids to the beach at St Mary's Island near Whitley Bay. We had lunch on the beach waiting for the tide to recede so we could cross the causeway to the Island itself. Inspired by the horrendous pictures of remote Henderson Island covered in plastic litter, I spent 15 minutes gathering all the plastic waste I could find – bottles, food trays, mastic caps and fishing line all featured prominently. I knew in my heart of hearts that this was inconsequential in the grand scale of things, but at least I was doing something.

I also came across the rotting carcass of a seal on the beach and mused on how nature goes about its waste management. Everything in that seal would be seen as food by another part of the eco-system.

We crossed to the island and watched the live seals basking, swimming and eating, along with a few eider ducks and oyster catchers. We stopped to talk to the wildlife rangers and mentioned the dead seal. They told us that it had got entangled in a packing strap as a youngster which eventually cut into its sides as it grew and led to its demise.

Suddenly the importance of my little beachcomb came home to me. Any one piece of plastic could represent a death sentence to some of our wonderful wildlife. By collecting a few dozen pieces, I could have made a difference.

But there is a wider conclusion. I help my clients get to grips with the Sustainability agenda, but the results are usually abstract to me. They tell me how they are doing against the targets I have help them set, and I help them tackle any glitches, but I rarely get to witness the actual difference in a tangible, visceral way. But my mini-litter pick made a visible difference – I could see the change.

"All politics is local" and "the personal is political" are two oft quoted maxims connecting big scale political concepts and the experience of the everyday. The same applies to Sustainability – you can talk all you like about the circular economy or zero carbon, but success will all come down to individual decision making by individuals and they will make decisions on their own experience rather than high-level slogans.

I moved from armchair activist to Sustainability professional when I witnessed ecological devastation in arctic Russia. I had to experience it personally to make the leap.

So, get personal!


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19 May 2017

Pringles and Lucozade still don't get it.

prod_img-2927296_pringles_original_190g_enI love it when serious Sustainability issues hit the mainstream and yesterday's public shaming of Pringles and Lucozade Sport for difficult-to-recycle packaging across mainstream media channels really hit the button. What brought my initial excitement down was the begrudging response from the companies (quoted from The Guardian):

A Pringles spokesman said: “We take our responsibilities to the planet we all share seriously and are continuously working to improve our environmental performance. All parts of a Pringles can act as a barrier to protect the chips from environmental contamination and to keep them fresh. The freshness of our chips means a longer shelf life, which minimises food waste.”

This is indeed true, but there is an implicit 'or' in there (I don't like 'or's, they suck). Many manufacturers produce packaging which protects against food wastage AND are easy to recycle. Try harder!

Lucozade said it recognised its environmental responsibilities and had reduced its use of plastic in bottles by 540 tonnes over the last year. A spokesman added: “We welcome any technological breakthroughs that support this ambition.”

Two problems here. First, how significant is 540 tonnes? How many tonnes of Lucozade Sport bottles are produced every year? Without that context, this statement is greenwash.

But it's the final quote that really bothers me – the plastic sleeve which renders the bottle hard to recycle is a design choice by Lucozade, it is not an inherent property of the bottle. It is Lucozade's social responsibility to design that problem out, not anybody else's as implied by the quote. Get your finger out!

Hopefully both these defences are just that and the campaign will have both companies' (and others') product designers working overtime to square these circles. I'm always optimistic...



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18 May 2017

UK Party Manifestos – how do they stack up on Sustainability?

polling stationSo all three of the big UK-wide parties have now published their manifestos for the coming General Election on June 8. Here's my take on the Sustainability elements of the three:


The Tory party manifesto is the only one of these three to champion shale gas extraction (aka fracking) and make a commitment to the (rapidly declining) oil and gas industry. They say they "do not believe large-scale onshore wind power is right for England", but state later that there is opportunity in Scotland. Despite this there are multiple nods to showing leadership on climate change and investment in low carbon energy.

The Tories have already said they will 'borrow' Labour's previous energy price cap policy, despite warning at the time that this could damage investment in low carbon energy. On domestic efficiency, the Tories say they will all fuel poor homes reach EPC band C by 2030, review energy efficiency rules for new homes, offer smart meters to all homes and business by the end of 2020. Business will get a new industrial energy efficiency scheme.

On transport there are nods towards improved rail infrastructure and cycling networks, but the biggest commitment to make almost every car and van being zero emission by 2050. Heathrow will be expanded.

Waste/recycling only gets a passing mention. Read the rest of this entry »

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17 May 2017

Are you curious?


Yesterday I was interviewed by a geography student for his dissertation. He was asking about the reasons for my participation in a climate march in 2015. I had to tell him I am not a natural activist and, frankly, I'm not convinced that my marching amongst the tie-dyed ranks made any practical difference whatsoever to those we were marching past.

Why did I go? Well, I had my political hat on and felt that myself and colleagues had to turn up represent our party, particularly given the impressive Sustainability legacy of our seven years running the City. We needed to 'get the optics right' in political parlance, but, whichever hat I have on, my priority remains doing stuff rather than shouting slogans or waving placards.

I coined the phrase 'pragmatic environmentalist' to distinguish sustainability practitioners who live in the real world from those who see the environment as a kind of moral litmus test. In practice, pragmatic environmentalists try to lower the price of admission to the world of sustainability; dogmatic environmentalists keeping pushing the price up until a chosen few make the grade.

I gave the student the example of the blue recycling wheelie bins we could see from our coffee shop window. When we introduced these, the green movement denounced us as sell outs as most of the dry recyclates get mixed together in the bin, rather than separated out by the householder. But we were proven right as the recycling rate went up by 50% overnight because we made it easier for everybody to recycle, not just the green-minded few.

Another way to think of the difference is the comprehension gap between those who don't 'get it' and those who think that 'getting it' makes them better human beings. The pragmatic environmentalist builds sustainability in that gap, rather than clinging to the green comfort zone.

And one of the characteristics that sets the effective pragmatic environmentalists apart from their dogmatic cousins is curiosity. Curiosity about what makes people tick, how to find the right buttons to press to engage with them, why things are the way they are, how things could be made better. This is where the sweetspot of engagement and innovation lie, so we need to keep questioning ourselves, others and the status quo.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs, stay hungry, stay foolish, stay curious!


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15 May 2017

Digitisation, smart grids and cyberwarfare

digital clock

One of the basic principles of pragmatic environmentalism is to embrace digitisation as a way of managing resources much more efficiently and dealing with the intermittency of some renewable energy sources via the smart grid. Another trope of the green movement is the inherent safety of renewables – flying a plane into a wind farm isn't going to have the impact of flying a plane into a nuclear power station.

However, last week's cyber-attack on the UK's National Health Service is a harsh reminder that warfare, terrorism and crime have also embraced digitisation for nefarious purposes. While this attack was designed for financial gain, what would happen if a foreign power or terrorist group aimed an attack at an intelligent energy grid? After all, Iran's nuclear programme was targeted via the Stuxnet virus in 2010, destroying 20% of the country's centrifuges.

We cannot shy away from this threat, but on the other hand, we cannot afford to keep our energy, industrial and commercial systems in the 20th century while we are fighting climate change. In the same way the internet was originally designed to be inherently robust to a physical attack, all our digital systems need to have sufficient protection, firewalls and redundancy that if one link in the chain fails, the rest continues on regardless, working around the damage.

That's some challenge, and, of course, a massive business opportunity for somebody.


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12 May 2017

Zero Hazardous Waste?

waste minimisation recycling workshops

I had a meeting earlier with a Sustainability Manager earlier this week who is busy drafting a Sustainability Strategy for his company. His waste goal was "zero non-hazardous waste" and I mused that in the last ten years such a once-impossible target has become pretty much standard – which is a brilliant achievement by the Sustainability community.

But what about hazardous waste? The main reason why this is caveated out of zero waste targets is the tight regulation around such material reduces the opportunities for action. In sectors such as healthcare where human tissue or blood is involved, there isn't much room for manoeuvre, but for others my (blasphemous) alternative to the waste hierarchy still applies:

Design it out or find a good use for it.

The circular economy mindset sees the hazardous nature of a material as an opportunity rather than a problem. So if you have a highly alkaline 'waste' material, you need to investigate uses for alkalis, preferably those which result in pH neutral materials.

The design process offers exciting opportunities for innovation. In one of my favourite examples, Camira found that using a mixture of wool and bast fibres (e.g. sisal) led to a naturally flame retardant fabric, eliminating the need for hazardous chemicals and the resulting waste.

It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next decade – I expect to see 'zero waste' applying to all waste, not just the benign stuff. After all it was just a few years ago that people kept telling me that zero non-hazardous waste was physically impossible.


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10 May 2017

Sustainability: if not now, when?

what can I do

There's always an excuse to do nothing. Brexit, the value of the pound, restructuring, a new boss – these are all reasons I have heard recently for stalling on Sustainability.

This makes no logical sense, after all, businesses which take Sustainability seriously are more profitable than those who don't. They exploit new markets, attract and retain new customers, inspire their employees, cut operating costs and avoid embarrassing compliance breaches.

But logic is not enough – the global political/economic tectonic plates have been shifting significantly of late, and it puts fear into people's hearts. Some ideas which can help:

  • Find equally compelling emotions to work on – fear of prosecution, keeping up with the Jones's (ie talk about what your competitors are doing), exciting new business opportunities etc.
  • Even better, find an opportunity to get that person to work through the business case for action themselves as they'll believe their own logic more than they'll believe yours.
  • Find an opportunity for an experience for the naysayer, whether that's driving an electric vehicle or feeling energy inefficiencies (I still remember the blast of wasted heat from a power station I got nearly 15 years ago when discussing districting heating potential) or witnessing waste production. Experience always trumps words and figures.

As I advise my clients, there is always a way, always a button or two to press – you've just go to find it.



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8 May 2017

At last, some political leadership on climate change

Emmanuel Macron Ministre de l'Économie, de l'Industrie et du Numérique

Emmanuel Macron

If you're of a liberal bent, then Emmanuel Macron's election as President of France is a welcome relief from the global political contraction into populist nationalism. And, if you care about the future of the human race and the natural world, then Macron mentioning climate change twice in his victory speech is a feast for the ears.

Twice. My rule for political speeches is once is a nod to an IMPORTANT ISSUE, twice is a significant commitment.

Regular readers will know that I believe that leadership is the critical issue for Sustainability. Obama understood this, but Obama is gone (well, Barack anyway), and most political leaders of the centre ground - including almost every UK Prime Minister I can think of - will say the right things, but do a little less than everybody hopes. The recent rise in right-wing populism threatened even that half-baked progress.

There is far more leadership on climate change coming from business at the minute than politics. That's not a bad thing as business is our supply chain where most of our carbon footprint lies. But imagine a world where political and business leaders vied for who could make the most difference. That truly would be something to behold.

But in the meantime: félicitations Macron, en marche!

Photo: Ecole polytechnique Université Paris © creative commons license

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5 May 2017

Breaking out of the Sustainability Silo

This month's Ask Gareth answers a great question from 'Bill' (name has been changed) which many face – how do you put together a Sustainability Strategy in a vacuum? I explain three steps to breaking out of the Sustainability Silo and getting key decision makers involved.

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 of Ask Gareth here.


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3 May 2017

To SDG or not to SDG? That is the question...

The ThinkerInteresting report last week on Edie that the UK Government has no plans in place to  meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and that private sector uptake has been slow. The implicit assumption in the article is that the SDGs are a good thing, but I always believe you should question everything.

The case for the SDGs are that they are comprehensive, third party and UN endorsed. Demonstrating how you are doing against the SDGs makes a pretty good table in an annual report or a slide in a corporate presentation.

The case against is that there are a whopping 17 SDGs, 169 targets, and many of those targets are extremely vague – e.g. "7.2 Increase substantially the level of renewable energy". How do you know when you have contributed to that target?

If you want to inspire people inside your organisation then you need 3 - 7 stretch targets – something jaw dropping like 'zero carbon' or 'zero waste' that really make people sit up and think.

Seven is pretty much the limit of how many items in a list we can easily recall – I'd be very surprised if anyone could recite all 17 SDGs without stumbling. By all means compare your targets against the SDGs, but using the SDGs to drive Sustainability in one organisation is the tail wagging the dog.


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