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September 2017 - Terra Infirma


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29 September 2017

Sustainability Bites: Labour Conference, UK Green Summer, Demise of GSB


Here's my hot takes on the week's big Sustainability news - join us each Friday (unless I'm away) at 10am on Facebook. Comments in the comments, please!

 

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27 September 2017

Putting the Personal Into Sustainability

Take_a_Break_(magazine)_coverSo, the Guardian Sustainable Business site is no more. I don't think I'm really going to miss it because I don't think I ever read anything there that really made me stop and think. Most articles read like PR pieces, because that's largely what they were – native advertising, advertorials, whatever you want to call them, businesses were paying to get their case studies up there. And of course, if they're paying, they want to make everything sound fantastic, but end up sounding incredibly bland.

I came up across this when I was doing interviews for my second book, The Green Executive. The initial purpose of the interviews was to get fresh examples rather than rehashing the same old case studies as everybody else, but soon they took on a life of their own, telling the inspiring story of individuals doing great things, so I decided to insert one more or less verbatim after each chapter. In my view they are worth the cover price alone.

As I was attributing these stories to the individuals who were telling them, I thought it was only fair to let them see a draft to ensure there were no errors or potentially career-limiting revelations. One guy forwarded the text to his PR department for a once over and it came back rewritten in that strangely antiseptic language of the advertorial, with all the personal insights and gritty reality excised. It was sooooo boring. The PR contact couldn't, or wouldn't, understand my repeated pleas for a simple gaffe-check, so I gave up and just published my original.

As I was explaining to one of my clients this week, nobody reads case studies unless they have to. But they do read personal stories – particularly the classic quest story where someone just like us takes on a challenge, faces down adversity and triumphs with great results. Think of all those Take-a-Break style magazines which clog up your newsagent shelves – full of personal stories about  ordinary people bringing up a child with a disability or losing weight or fighting off a mugger. If the Guardian Sustainable Business had taken a leaf out of those publications, maybe I and others would have paid a bit more attention.

 

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25 September 2017

Wake Up Sheeple!

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I nearly choked on my Weetabix this morning when I saw the Guardian was running a splash on The Ethical Case Against Wool. "This I've got to see," I thought, and lo and behold G2 had an article from a vegan activist saying that as some sheep are treated roughly by shearers "on amphetamines" we should boycott wool.

Which begs the question "What are we going to wear, then?" I mean, if wool's out, fur and leather don't make the ethical grade, cotton is usually produced using huge doses of pesticides and large amounts of water, polymers are made from fossil fuels and don't biodegrade... what does that leave? Sisal? Ooo, itchy!

Sarcasm aside, we're going to have to realise that our presence on Earth will always have an impact and not always a good one for our fellow creatures. That doesn't set us apart from other animals – if you are a sand eel then that cute puffin looks like a mass-murdering bastard. And while I would never condone unnecessary cruelty to sheep or any animal, we're disappearing up weird dead-ends if we set out ethical bar so high that a natural material such as wool doesn't make the grade.

And, while I'm quite happy for this activist to boycott wool if that makes her happy, a big splash of lunacy on the front of a national newspaper like this doesn't help the case for moving to broadly more ethical supply chains.

 

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22 September 2017

Sustainability Bites: #ClimateOptimist, Cause for Optimism and Theresa May

Here's this week's edition of Sustainability Bites. I covered the Climate Optimist campaign (again), the Nature Geosciences paper on progress towards Paris Agreement commitments and Theresa May's speech to the UN. Comments in the comments please!

 

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19 September 2017

Why #ClimateOptimist makes me want to cry


Yesterday afternoon, my Twitter feed suddenly filled with garish 80's-home-computer style graphics urging me to "Opt-in to be a #ClimateOptimist!".

"'Ello?" I asked myself and did some clicking. More hi-viz colours, more flashing slogans, some nice T-shirts, not much else. My heart sank.

Not because I'm a pessimist, no, quite the opposite. I'm a committed, if quietly pragmatic, optimist.

My problem is the answer to the fundamental question "Who is this for?", which appears to be "People like me (but maybe a bit more tolerant of childish text fonts)." But I already get it. I don't matter.

What does it say to the consumer on the high street on a Saturday afternoon? What does it say to the product designer choosing materials for the product those consumers are buying? What does it say to the policy maker deciding on transport investment, building standards or energy subsidies?

Not a lot. Nothing, in fact.

This is vitally important, because it is these people we need to speak to – the people who we must persuade to make different decisions to the ones they normally make. And to do that we need to translate Sustainability into a form that means something to them. Rattling slogans around the Sustainability echo-chamber is just a waste of time and effort.

Rant over.

 

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18 September 2017

Moving the Sustainability Conversation on...

Sustainability Engagement

An old friend and colleague dropped by for a cup of tea yesterday. While our respective kids decanted all the toys in the house onto the floor, we tried to put the world to rights. He was a bit frustrated as he had recently organised a high-brow discussion event on climate change, but despite all the intellectual firepower in the room, the conversation got stuck on one topic: domestic recycling.

We discussed this – agreeing that as recycling is the most obvious change in our home lives in the last decade or two that nods towards Sustainability, so that's why people default to it. We then mulled on how to move the conversation on.

My view is that if you want, say, people to choose more sustainable forms of transport, then trying to persuade them that their current choice is unsustainable is the wrong way to go (I referenced the newspaper column I ridiculed the other week). If you want to get people walking or cycling, then personal health is often the best button to press (I speak as someone who has lost 6kg since Christmas without reducing my cake intake) – along with providing the necessary infrastructure to make those choices more pleasant than driving. Likewise the Tesla approach of EV-as-status-symbol makes electric vehicles aspirational, not hair-shirt shroud-waving.

This is, of course, a form of Green Jujitsu, as we are often better not talking climate change, but the language which appeals to the audience. Cycling is good for you and the planet; it doesn't matter why people do it, just that they do.

 

[As an aside, the conversation getting stuck on recycling at the event may be due to the format and human nature. If you simply open the debate to the floor, then the first topic raised will often dominate the conversation – it's a simple psychological phenomenon. That's why for my engagement, I prefer to use a workshop format and large discussion templates – the format of the template is designed to make sure the participants cover every part of the exam question and not just the first thing that springs to mind. For more on this, check out our Workshop Facilitation Masterclass.]

 

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13 September 2017

Embedding Sustainability: Bottom Up or Top Down?


This month's Ask Gareth considers an excellent question from 'Rob' (names have been changed to protect the bashful) – should you approach Sustainability from the bottom up or the top down? In response, I say both, plus another angle and add some strong caveats... Comments in the comments, please!

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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11 September 2017

It's a nice idea, but it will never work...

workshop lo resThose words were (allegedly) said by the Head of Cambridge University's Engineering Department to a young Frank Whittle when the latter presented a new idea for aircraft propulsion, the jet engine. I'm always reminded of those words when people poo-poo the potential for clean energy. At every stage in the renewables revolution, a choir of naysayers has launched a chorus "yes, but..." with perfect timing. And yet the milestones keep coming – today it was announced that offshore wind was now cheaper than new nuclear.

This is not to say I disagree with a certain amount of cynicism. Regular readers will know I have strong reservations about the effectiveness of carbon capture and storage and heat pumps – I can't get my head around how the second law of thermodynamics doesn't render them impractical. But we need to hit the right balance of realism and ambition; challenging wishful thinking while embracing potential.

In my early days as a Sustainability Consultant, I used to get frustrated that my wonderful ideas were rarely implemented by clients. They never said "That's a bad idea."; rather it was "We won't be able to resource that until our restructuring has been completed." or a similar excuse. Individually these seemed reasonable, but I soon noticed there was always a reason to do nothing.

So I started down a different approach – facilitating workshops where the client's employees developed the ideas. The difference was palpable – they wanted to implement these ideas as a matter of pride. Often we wouldn't get to the level of what I would have recommended from my experience of best practice, but I soon learnt it was better to implement a less-than-perfect solution than not implement a perfect solution. We would also uncover wholly unexpected cans of worms which needed tackling.

I'm current working on workshops for three different (very different!) clients. If you rang me up and asked me to help you with a task, I would almost certainly suggest running a workshop. Because they work!

 

Check out our Workshop Facilitation Masterclass which sets out the unique way we go about structuring and running our workshops.

 

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8 September 2017

I never learn!

blinkers

I really have tried to ditch the habit of responding to those who are way beyond redemption when it comes to Sustainability. One such chap is a fellow member of a mailing list for engineering consultants. He seems to have toned down his climate denial since I challenged him to a bet on his assertion in 2010 that global temperatures may be falling (he refused to put his money where his mouth is).

Anyway, a couple of days ago he said of renewables "anything that requires a subsidy is uneconomic." I couldn't resist responding with a link to a report saying G20 nations were subsidising fossil fuels four times as much as renewables. He dismissed the report as "superficial and devoid of analysis."

That just made me smile as none of his assertions came with any evidence or analysis whatsoever. I know it wouldn't matter how much evidence I produced, it would never be good enough. It shows once again that we are wasting our time arguing with people with such entrenched views; better to work around them, or find a clever way to engage them on their grounds. Butting heads just gives both a headache.

 

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6 September 2017

The biggest truth in Sustainability...

Framing Sustainability

On Monday I spent a total of 7 hours going to and from Birmingham by train for a project close presentation to a client. This always gives some time for thought, background reading and poking around social media – all soundtracked by the Rolling Stones live in Brussels '73 or some other classic live album of the 1970s.

One tweet from another sustainability practitioner caught my eye; roughly speaking it went:

We have #Brexit and the #McStrike and all people can talk about is the #RoyalBaby 😡.

Now let's deconstruct this a little. The Brexit jalopy has been spluttering along for 15 months since the referendum without a dun-dun-DAAAAAH moment. I'm politically active, campaigned for Remain, would love a second referendum, and yet I am bored stupid by Brexit – I now skim read the newspaper stories and I guess most do the same.

I am not surprised that MacDonald's employees are striking given their poor wages and insecure contracts, BUT, let's put it into perspective: there were 2 restaurants striking out of 1249 in the UK – hardly Hold the Front Page stuff no matter how much you or I might support the cause.

Lastly, the royal baby has all the ingredients of public appeal – celebrity, gossip, glamour, happiness, impending cuteness etc, etc. It hasn't captured much of my attention, or that of the tweeter above, but it is not surprising it has caught the public mood.

Because here's the rub. Not everybody thinks like me, the tweeter, or you. Or should do. Just because I'm not that into the royal baby news, it doesn't mean that millions of people aren't - or shouldn't be.

My biggest realisation is Sustainability was that to engage people for whom Sustainability is an alien concept, we've got to stop talking about Sustainability from a practitioner's point of view. If they haven't 'got it' already, they won't 'get it' by being preached at. Instead we've got to put ourselves in the audience's shoes, see the world from their perspective, and reframe Sustainability to resonate with that worldview. I call this Green Jujitsu.

If you haven't checked out our new Green Jujitsu Employee Engagement training yet, then click here for details.

 

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4 September 2017

Sustainability Bites Ep1: Harvey & Climate Change

Here's the pilot episode of a new series of short, sharp, lo-fi Sustainability snippets I've decided to launch. I've called it Sustainability Bites as a. the episodes are bite-sized, and b. it's all about how Sustainability is starting to bite – we've gone way beyond chin-stroking and are now making different decisions to make things happen.

This edition is about whether natural disasters are the right time to raise climate change.

At present, these will appear as and when I feel like it rather than on a regular basis, although it may find it's own niche naturally. The best way to keep up is head over to my Facebook page and send me a friend request!

 

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1 September 2017

Sustainability is becoming 'The New Normal'

rusty car

Last week I chuckled at a typical silly season column in the i newspaper about Ford offering a scrappage scheme for older models of their cars. The author, Esther Walker, was justifying holding on to her old Fiesta on the (evidence-free) grounds that keeping it is greener than replacing it with a new model. She also quoted her other environmental efforts in her 'defence':

And – worse – I consider myself to be on the vanguard of modern environmental responsibility! You can hardly move in our kitchen for different recycling bins, colour-coded and stacked neatly. We break down our boxes tidily and use compost bags in our food waste caddy so’s not to traumatise the bin men with our grotesque food leftovers.

Sorry, to break it to Ms Walker, but this is not 'the vanguard of environmental responsibility'. With 43% of the UK's household waste recycled or composted (bearing in mind at least a third of household waste cannot easily be recycled at present), this is simply normal behaviour, replicated in kitchens across the country and across all demographics. My Dad recycles and he's no eco-warrior, it's just what people do now.

I remembered this week when I visited the factory of a potential client. What really impressed me was the way this pretty normal, well established engineering company had identified an important link in the low carbon economy to which they could apply their technology. They had built working demonstration models and were seeking investment to develop a fully commercialised version. They didn't see themselves as Elon Musk-style green evangelists, they were just identifying future market developments and working out how to exploit them. Normal entrepreneurial business behaviour, in other words.

Sustainability won't come from mindfulness, hugging trees or green evangelists. It will come when normal people, normal organisations and normal Governments see a sustainable economy as our normal way of life. And it appears to be happening.

 

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