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November 2017 - Terra Infirma

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29 November 2017

OK, so I was wrong on the plastic bag tax

Regular readers will know that I have been somewhat dismissive of the plastic bag tax (to put it mildly...) Well, hands up, I was wrong.


My case was that plastic bags are such a tiny part of our carbon footprint, that the regulatory effort to tax plastic bags would be better spent, say, requiring higher insulation standards. But two things have happened since the plastic bag tax was introduced in the UK.

  1. Increased understanding of the scale of the problem of ocean plastics, particularly the feedback loops that mean plastic fragments are now being found in drinking water. The issue is much more critical than (almost) everybody thought.
  2. Rather than being a token gesture, the plastic bag tax has opened up the political path to further action on all single-use plastics (and arguably other eco-actions) as promoted by the unlikely green champions Michael Gove and Philip Hammond in recent weeks.

The latter is a really difficult one to predict. I get regular complaints from industry contacts that their organisation's leadership likes to have a green project or two to wheel out periodically to show they are doing something before they are put back in the cupboard and life goes on as before.

On the other hand, as with the plastic bag tax, a relatively minor achievement can lead to a snowballing effect. It's the same with employee engagement for Sustainability – getting people involved through 'quick wins' can help open minds to more radical change. But the leadership must be there to keep rolling the snowball down the hill every time the natural momentum stalls.

The difference then, as always in Sustainability, is leadership.


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27 November 2017

Save the world, today!

This morning I was out plodding around my usual Monday run route when I spotted a couple of plastic packing straps on the pavement just 100m from our house and, more importantly, just  10m from the river. I wasn't hitting any PBs today (I cycled 50+ miles yesterday and the legs were heavy) so I stopped and picked them up.

I'd already fulfilled my personal pledge to pick up one piece of plastic litter a day, but I really hate plastic loops like these or beer six-pack rings. If you've been watching Blue Planet II, you'll know this is exactly the kind of litter that entangles sea life. I know this is a tiny speck of the millions of tonnes of plastic litter entering our oceans, but I'm damned if I'm going to use that as an excuse not to pull my weight.

When I got in and sat at my desk, I opened an e-mail quoting Anne Frank thus:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

I'm usually impervious to motivational quotes, but I thought that was a wonderfully uplifting sentence. Yes, it will take the combined forces of industry and government to deliver a sustainable future, but there is nothing stopping any of us doing something positive right now. And, as implied by the tragic young Anne, you don't need anybody's permission, just do it. It could just be questioning business as usual, or it could be organising a litter pick or it could be setting up a staff environmental group.

And you might just inspire somebody else...

So what are you going to do today?


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22 November 2017

A Green Budget, Phil?

It's Budget day here in the UK and everybody, well a few of us, are waiting to see what Chancellor Philip Hammond will pull out of his red box. As you would expect, I'll be looking for the green:brown ratio to be high, but I'm not getting too excited as, on past experience, Chancellors of all political ilks tend to see Sustainability as the responsibility of other Government departments rather than a core economic principle.

But here's why I think Spreadsheet Phil should reinvent himself as Treehugger Phil:

  • It's the right thing to do, obviously;
  • Meeting our Paris Agreement commitments would give the country an internationalist, outward looking fillip at a time of Brexit and worrying nationalism;
  • Instead of propping up sunset industries by bunging tax relief at the UK's dwindling Oil & Gas sector (a perennial Tory habit), he could be investing in the industries of the future which will would boost higher-paid jobs and prosperity;
  • The Government's Clean Growth Strategy should really become the semi-mythical Long Term Economic Plan if it is to work;
  • The Government is struggling – no majority, infighting, struggles with Brexit and the whiff of post-Weinstein scandal are draining whatever enthusiasm it had. How about a bold, new and unexpected direction?
  • The Conservative Party's standing with young voters, particularly students, is very poor and climate change is a key concern of that demographic – it's easy to join the dots;
  • Environment Secretary Michael Gove has recently wrong-footed many of his critics (including yours truly) by making some big green announcements – it does work;
  • In my opinion, Sustainability is one of the few things the UK has going for it at the moment (fastest decarbonisers in the G20 etc) yet few people actually know how well we are doing – why not play to the country's strengths?

Hammond has made a very strong right-of-centre case for tackling climate change in the past, so there is a possibility of progress. But he is also notoriously unadventurous, so I suspect there will be just a few goodies tucked in amongst a very banal soup of dry economic tweaks. I'll update this post after the Budget Speech this afternoon with my thoughts.

UPDATE: What Phil did...

The good (from a Sustainability pov):

  • Investment in EV funding and tax break for those charging at work;
  • Increased duty on older/dirtier diesel cars with funds going to tackle air quality
  • Expected review into single-use plastic packaging

This was accompanied by some very strong statements on leaving a decent planet for future generations, but just as I thought he was going to make a big, bold, unexpected announcement, he moved on.

Not so green:

  • A continued freeze on fuel duty: although raising it would hit those on low incomes hardest, so I have some sympathy;
  • A suggestion of another tax break for oil and gas: money literally down the well;
  • No mention of the Clean Growth Strategy: another case of one of the Government's best moves being ignored in set piece speeches – so easy to say "This is what we are doing!"

Overall conclusion: some welcome moves, but the big opportunities have been missed.


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20 November 2017

Michael Gove, Eco-warrior

The environmental movement let out a groan of exasperation when Michael Gove took over the reins as UK Environment Minister earlier this year. A long list of anti-greens or time-servers had filled the post since 2010 and the only environmental thing we knew above Gove was that, in his divisive stint as Education Secretary, he had apparently considered taking climate change off the national curriculum. So when he stepped up to the podium at the Conservative Party Conference, expectations were rock bottom. But then he said: Read the rest of this entry »

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17 November 2017

The Best Way to Engage People in Sustainability

Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group Workshop

I'm currently working with two clients on the roll-out of their Sustainability Strategies. Both of these roll outs basically involve delivering suitable workshops for key decision makers. The guts of each workshop will be a backcasting process where we work out what needs to change by 20XX and work backwards to the present day to determine what they need to start doing now to get on the right trajectory.

I also have designing the next Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group (on customer behaviour) on my to do list. That means designing yet another workshop.

Basically, my consultancy consists of designing workshops, delivering workshops and turning the results of workshops into recommendations.


Because nothing gives people such an intense experience of what Sustainability means to their day job than working it out for themselves in a workshop format. You get buy-in and action plans. Workshops work.

If you want to find out how we use the workshop so effectively, including the backcasting process, check out our on-demand workshop facilitation masterclass. It contains all my secrets!


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15 November 2017

Sustainability Signal vs Noise

Fascinating piece of research by Sustrans which found that 78% of city-dwellers would like to see more segregated cycle lanes even if it meant losing road space for motor vehicles. This flies in the face of the raging media battles where you would think lycra-clad cyclists were a widely detested menace to society.

I was asked to comment on the research as a local Councillor and gave it a full-throated welcome. In a way I'm lucky as the patch I represent is very liberal and generally pro-walking and cycling –we're 20 minutes walk from the city centre, which also helps. Colleagues in the suburbs often feel under more pressure as there is nothing noisier than the anti-cyclist and leaving the car in the driveway isn't as easy. A recent court case where a cyclist on a road-illegal bike fatally collided with a pedestrian hogged the headlines for a week; 35 people died in car-related accidents in that same week and didn't garner a mention.

Such noise obscures other Sustainability trends such as the strong public support for renewables. In fact the climate change denial movement relies on noise in environmental trends to detract from the worrying signals. But the left can be as guilty as the right: I often read about soaring inequalities in the UK when inequality measures haven't changed significantly for 30 years and are actually lower than just before the financial crash and the subsequent austerity. That's not a political statement, that's simply a fact.

I have made it a rule to do some simple fact-checking on anything before I comment in public – I even check the provenance of oft-used quotes before using them in this blog which can be very interesting... Let's look for the signal, rather than the noise.


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13 November 2017

Doing the right thing right.

"This is like building a loft extension in a house suffering from subsidence." is the rather brutal advice I had to give an organisation recently. They were trying to launch a substantial Sustainability initiative in a division which was failing to perform even its most basic tasks. How they ever thought it could take on a massive change management process was beyond me.

Drucker was damn right (as usual) when he said:

“There is nothing quite so useless, as doing with great efficiency, something that should not be done at all.”

But a close second must be doing the right thing incompetently. Sustainability requires direction AND competence and, if it goes pear-shaped, Sustainability will get the blame rather than duff management.


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10 November 2017

How to spot a Sustainability fig leaf...

Yesterday I drove down the A19 to Teesside for a client meeting. Every time I do this, there's always a nostalgic moment when I crest the lip of the Tees Valley; a vista of sprawling heavy industry opens up and I know I'm nearly at my destination.

Usually, this scene brings back memories of my lengthy commute to the University of Teesside where I ran the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) for six years, my second Sustainability job. But yesterday, a memory from my maiden Sustainability job at Newcastle University popped back into my consciousness.

I was one of two researchers working on the Design for a Clean Environment project at the Engineering Design Centre. Every couple of months, a retired senior industrialist would pop in for a chat. He always came armed with a red folder, and, no matter what the subject of conversation, he would, without fail, flip it open to show us the same graph of air quality in the Tees Valley through the day.

"Look at the peaks of pollution!" he would say "They correspond with rush hour in the morning and the school run in the afternoon. It's not industry doing the polluting, it's people taking their kids to school!"

The folder and the graph became a running joke. Once my colleague asked to borrow the folder and he was like a parent leaving his toddler at nursery for the first time.

The sudden realisation I had yesterday was, as the petrochemical plants ran 24/7, given steady weather conditions, their contribution would be largely constant. Therefore any cyclical pattern would simply superimpose itself on top of the industrial contribution and produce those peaks. I would love to see that graph again and look at the relative contribution in terms of the area under the line which would probably tell a truer story.

But dubious statistics aside, one of the giveaways of a Sustainability fig leaf in this case is the predictable repetition. If an individual or an organisation keeps wheeling out the same data or case study again and again, I smell a rat.

A genuine commitment, whether in science, politics or industry, moves things forward. If someone doesn't have something new to say over the course of a year, then the greenwash klaxon should be going off in your head.


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8 November 2017

Prince Charles and the green investment conundrum

One of the more intriguing revelations from the 'Paradise Papers' – a leak of documents relating to offshore tax schemes – is that the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles's private estate, had invested in Sustainable Forestry Ltd  which lobbied politicians to amend global agreements to allow the trading of carbon credits from rainforests.

Eyebrows were raised at this revelation as the prince has also made speeches in support of such a change. The Duchy says the prince has no direct involvement in investment decisions, but, if he wasn't aware of the company's position on this, the co-incidence is remarkable.

The Prince is not alone, Al Gore has been attacked for both having investments in green technology (by the right wing climate change denial movement) and for having investments in other technologies (from the hard left). He can't win: if he invests in green then he has a vested interest; if not, he's a hypocrite.

While my investments in green energy schemes are decidedly small beer (understatement klaxon!) compared to the fortunes of the prince and Mr Gore, I decided that I'd rather use my limited spending power in the pursuit of a sustainable future than worry about perceived conflicts of interest. If I saved for my future through 'business as usual' investments, then I'd be helping sustain business as usual. That's a no brainer.

Where Prince Charles has fallen down is not declaring, or possibly being unaware of, a conflict of interest in a specific policy intervention. This is a basic transparency principle for politicians and it should apply to royalty as well.



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6 November 2017

The Only Natural Remedy For Me...

Real panic chez Kane this morning as we turned up in school to find all the other reception class kids clad head to foot in waterproofs and wooly hats. We'd be wondering when they'd be doing their Monday morning class in the woods, and now I knew. Cue a quick dash home and back with the right kit.

But the stress didn't last long as I took off on my regular Monday morning run up the Ouseburn river valley where I live. This wondrous green corridor slices through the east of Newcastle and you hardly get a glimpse of the surrounding suburbia. We get kingfishers, otters and even deer and yet we're 20 minutes walk from the city centre. But, most importantly, it is incredibly relaxing and I need it – I've got two jobs (this one and as a local councillor) and three primary school age kids. As a family, our default outing is to an area of natural beauty (the pic above of middle child was taken a couple of weeks ago at Allen Banks) and nobody complains about not having their iPad there.

As regular readers know, I'm seriously intolerant of new-agey nonsense, clean eating (give me a 'dirty burger' any day), and every 'natural remedy' except one: nature itself. And there's plenty of evidence behind the idea that nature is good for our mental health (such as this UK Government report).

And you can take this over into the corporate world: I've seen plenty of examples of on-site biodiversity areas, composting, bird feeding, plus all kinds of off-site conservation volunteering. This will help your colleagues feel good about themselves and their work, and the link between those two things and the natural world helps conversations about, say, waste disposal, clean energy, pollution prevention and even product design (e.g. biomimicry).

So why not bring a little of the natural world into your workplace?



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3 November 2017

Rolling out a Sustainability Strategy

org charts

I was down in London yesterday, facilitating a workshop for a client who is about to roll their Sustainability Strategy out across the entire organisation – which happens to span the entire globe. This is an incredible challenge.

We could of course produce a standard slide deck and tour the world with it (physically or electronically), but we all know what would happen – everybody would nod along and then go back to their desks/workstation and go back to doing what they have always done.

On the other hand, when you are dealing with a huge multinational organisation, you can't run an interactive workshop for every last individual, you would never complete the job by the end of the Strategy timeframe. The engagement principle I use in such cases is:

Everybody needs to know something about everything, but certain people need to know a lot about certain things.

'Everybody' can be reached by the slide deck, but those 'certain people' would need direct engagement.

My task is to help my client map out 'who needs to know what' and yesterday's workshop was held to generate the first iteration of that map. The interesting thing was that the results were quite different from what I and my client had envisaged in our pre-meetings.

This is the power of a properly structured and facilitated workshop – the process of starting with identifying exactly what we were trying to achieve and then moving on to how we were going to achieve it blew many implicit assumptions out of the water. It was a highly valuable exercise!


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1 November 2017

Whoop! Green Academy 2018 Early Bird Offer

I'm delighted to announce that our Green Academy series of dynamic, actionable training webinars will be back in 2018, better than ever. These aren't your usual gee-whizz-marketing webinars, these are genuine training courses bringing the very best of Sustainability thinking to you. Even better, you get a workbook for each session which helps you apply the learning to your organisation so you end up with a hot-to-trot action plan at the end of every session.

2018 Syllabus

This year we're offering a whole series of early bird packages, all of which are amazing value:

  • Standard: you get to take part live in all 10 sessions, plus the taster, and get the recording afterwards for revision (or to run through if you miss the live edition). Normal price is £330.00 + VAT, to get the early bird price of £220.00 + VAT click here.
  • Standard Plus: you get the standard Green Academy series plus access to both our on-demand training sessions: The Workshop Facilitation Masterclass and Green Jujitsu: Smart Employee Engagement for Sustainability. Normal price £485.00 + VAT, to get the early bird price of £300.00 + VAT click here.
  • Premium: you get the standard Green Academy series, both on-demand courses AND a monthly 1-2-1 coaching call with me where I will help you solve your Sustainability challenges and push your performance onto the next level. Normal price £1,500.00 + VAT (minimum), to get the early bird price of £1,200 + VAT click here.

All of these offers close midnight on 30 November 2017. If you want to try before you buy, then sign up for the free taster session on 24 January 2018, but you won't get the same discount afterwards...

Note: the links above take you to PayPal which includes a debit/credit card payment facility. If you would prefer to pay via BACS, please let us know the details you require on the invoice -


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