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February 2018 - Terra Infirma


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28 February 2018

The most dangerous word in Sustainability

There's a revamp of the Terra Infirma website going on behind the scenes, and, for SEO reasons, I googled 'Sustainability Strategy' yesterday to see what came top. But I was horrified to see one of the top Google suggestions for a search was "Sustainability Strategy Template".

Template.

How on earth can you transform your organisation with a template?

Because that's what we're talking about when we talk about Sustainability, transformation. New products, processes, supply chains, business models, technology, mindsets, culture.

There is magic wand which will deliver all that. No magic formula. No single secret sauce.

Apart from one.

You must tailor everything – vision, strategy, goals, engagement, communications, priorities, techniques – to YOUR organisation. And you can't do that with a template.

 

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26 February 2018

Why retailers are so crucial to Sustainability

Last week at the North East Recycling Forum, we had a presentation from a DEFRA policy officer about the UK's forthcoming waste plan. She presented a three level lifecycle and asked for ideas on how to engage at each level:

  • Producer
  • Consumer
  • End of Life

I always like to take a step back and consider the premis of a question before I answer it (my Mum always said I was an awkward bugger). And I suggested to the DEFRA representative that there was a vital level missing in this model: retail.

The reason being is that a third of what the UK public spends is spent via retail (and I would guess that this is the most waste-producing third given much of the rest is utility bills, subscriptions etc). Of that retail spending, fully half is via 10 the top 10 retailers, the most prominent being Tesco. The buying power of that 10 not only dominates each market, but shapes it too – if Tesco demanded, say, a new type of recyclable packaging for meat, then it makes economic sense for packaging suppliers to sell that new product to every meat producer, not just those selling to Tesco, and for meat producers to sell the same packaging type to all their customers, not just Tesco.

So, in terms of intervention, here are a small number of players with huge influence – a classic 80:20 situation. And not only that, retailers already see themselves as gatekeepers for the consumer. Marks & Spencer (no 6 in the retailer top 10) talk about doing 'the heavy lifting' for the consumer by ensuring that all new products are in someway more sustainable than their predecessor. 10 years ago, B&Q (part of the Kingfisher group at no 7) refused to stock patio heaters – a massive piece of Sustainability choice-editing.

So retail is in a unique position – they have the buying power to decide what producers produce, and they decide what the consumer consumes, and thus they decide the Sustainability of all of that. And for policy-makers, the small number of big players makes engagement much easier than, say, 60 million UK citizens.

 

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23 February 2018

Are you incentivising the right people?

I was at the North East Recycling Forum yesterday, one of the very few events I go to as a punter as it really punches above its weight when it comes to speakers and content.

I brought two big thoughts away from me, one I'll blog about on Monday as it requires some stats to make my point, but a qualitative one arose from a presentation on Deposit Return Schemes (DRSs). These are the automatic reverse vending machines which accept glass and plastic waste and pay out cash in return. I've seen this work in action a decade ago in Cologne, not only do people tend to return their bottles, but there is a whole grey economy around homeless and kids collecting litter to make a few shekels.

The problem with this is that these very materials are the ones which make cash for local authorities through existing recycling channels. So by moving to DRS, more material would get recycled, but it would shift the direct economic benefit from local authorities to private companies. The aim of yesterday's talk was to persuade the Council waste officers in the room that the economic benefits from reduced collection costs, reduced litter etc, made up from the lost income from selling materials. They didn't look terribly convinced.

This made me think more generally about the alignment of incentives, beneficiaries and decision-makers. To take an example I've come up against a few times, if you rent a building, either for living or working, then you usually pay the energy bills, but the landlord owns the heating system. Therefore there is no incentive for the landlord to install an efficient heating system as the benefit will go to you, not them.

But you can fix some of these disconnects. If you use activity based accounting, then all overheads are attributed to each activity – so, say, each production manager is responsible for the whole cost of energy, waste etc for their production line, rather than the whole lot being lumped together. You can write contracts to incentivise contractors and suppliers to solve your problems.

You really need to be conscious of this problem or it could jump up and bite your Sustainability efforts on the backside.

 

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21 February 2018

You gotta make Sustainability easy, or it won't happen

I was on the wireless on Saturday, commenting on a new injection of cash for cycling infrastructure in Newcastle and other major UK cities. The bit of my pre-recorded freeform ramble they used was when I said that whenever I took my kids on a ride, it usually started off OK, but inevitably we'd hit a major road and/or a gnarly junction and would have to get off and walk.

I proved that point to myself later that same day when eldest son Harry and I tried out a new route and quite literally got bogged down as a bridleway turned out somewhat less solidly built than it looked on the map (above). But this was the only traffic-free route out of the North of the City.

Good news from the City of London where new infrastructure has lead to cycling now being the most popular vehicular transport mode in the morning peak. Calgary has seen a 50% rise in cycling in a single year following a similar investment. Newcastle's infrastructure continues to develop, but the really good bits are not yet connected together to make journeys straightforward.

My point here is not about cycling, but about behaviour change. You cannot expect people to take the Sustainable option if it is more difficult (or dangerous!) than 'business as usual'. I've often said that the most effective quick wins are usually removing barriers to Sustainability. Make Sustainability easy.

We cover how to make Sustainability easy in our online training course Green Jujitsu: The Smart Way to Engage People in Sustainability.

 

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19 February 2018

What does emotional engagement really mean?

Photo by Justin Hofman - used under 'fair use'

Last week I had a long Twitter discussion with a friend and colleague about why people are getting so worked up about ocean plastic while still paying lip service to climate change. We got on to discussing the difference between the massive impact that this now iconic picture of a seahorse holding a cotton bud has had, compared to the corresponding image of a walrus struggling to lift its calf onto a melting piece of ice.

The difference is that we all know instantly where that cotton bud came from (somebody's bathroom), so the connection is immediate. To make the link between, say, turning up your domestic heating and the plight of the mother walrus requires a working knowledge of climate change science i.e. a complex mechanism which you cannot see. We can analyse data all we like, but the emotional connection is elusive.  Read the rest of this entry »

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16 February 2018

Thoughts on the Oxfam scandal

Years ago at a wedding, I found myself making small talk with a friend's boyfriend who worked in famine relief in Africa. I'd recently been involved in a campaign to relieve unfair third world debt, so in an attempt to keep our rather stilted conversation going, I asked him what he thought of that campaign. His answer shocked me:

"You'd lose control over them." he said shaking his head.

"Them" It was like he was talking about infants, not one of the most vibrant continents on earth. And the whiff of colonialism was unmistakeable.

If we look at all the big sexual abuse scandals: Weinstein, sports coaches, paedophile priests, it has always been a case of the powerful exploiting the powerless and the Oxfam scandal fits right into this mould. Those Oxfam officials in Haiti clearly saw themselves as colonial overlords with droit de seigneur over 'the natives'.

As Lord Acton famously put it "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But, how do so many get away with so much for so long? Why does nobody say anything?

One of my great frustrations in life is the way gang mentality rules in large organisations. If you ever try to make a complaint about an injustice you will find your point slowly sandpapered down to something which can be 'resolved' by 'lessons have been learnt' or some such rot. I once received a rather convoluted argument explaining how someone libelling me (which wasn't disputed) didn't breach the organisation's code of conduct re 'respecting other people'. Because nothing says 'respect' quite like defamation.

At present, whistleblowing is rarely a good career move: you'll be made to feel uncomfortable in the post and, if you look for a new job,  others may worry they're taking on a liability.

So what can we do?

I take some comfort in the new breed of whistleblowing policies which make it a duty to report wrongdoing. Perhaps if enough people get disciplined alongside perpetrators for not reporting corrupt practice, it could start to shift the paradigm. I live in hope!

 

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12 February 2018

Small is Sustainable?

Interesting report from advertising agency 18 Feet & Rising this week. They polled 100 CEOs of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) about attitudes to Sustainability. 88% said they valued Sustainability, but 70% were struggling to do so.

I found the former statistic encouraging but the latter baffling. Having worked with a couple of hundred SMEs over the years, I've found their agility often makes it easier for them to adopt Sustainability principles than their larger competitors. Of the 18 interviews in my book The Green Executive, I quote the SMEs examples more than the others. Instant decision-making, short levers of control and relatively few assets mean change can happen very quickly indeed.

In my experience, the difference between those doing so and those who aren't is almost always the attitude of the boss. Leadership is the critical factor as usual.

So perhaps many of those 88% aren't being entirely honest with themselves – or the interviewers.

 

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9 February 2018

I have no intention of going plastic-free, and nor should you

I cannot recall a single television programme in my lifetime which has had a bigger impact on public discourse than Blue Planet II (Cathy Come Home was 5 years before I was born). As I've commented before, we have a wonderful opportunity to engage with the public and business to make a big leap forward in Sustainability.

The only problem is that the War on Plastic is tending towards a 'plastic is evil' meme. As Julia Hailes, author of the groundbreaking Green Consumer Guide wrote last month, we're risking throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Plastic is a fabulous material – light, durable, flexible – provided it is in the right place, i.e. not our oceans, hedgerows or landfills.

Shifting to loose vegetables, for example, could cause more waste problems than it solves. Plastic packaging fulfils an important role in minimising food waste – never mind the carbon impact of that waste, we'd need much more farmland to feed us which means impacting on natural habitats.

Likewise, when my client Interface were looking for sustainable raw materials for carpet tiles to replace virgin nylon, they could not find a source of 'natural' material that they could exploit sustainably at the scale required. Instead, they concluded the best raw material for new carpet was... drumroll... old carpet.

The impacts of going plastic-free would be enormous. So the big post-Blue Planet II message must be promoting the circular economy. Not eradicating plastic, but designing products and systems to capture it post-use and use it over and over again.

 

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5 February 2018

Habit-changing is hard

Photo © stock.com/Jacob Ammentorp Lund (and no, it's not me!)

Regular readers can't have helped notice my big personal goal for the year is to do a triathlon. As I mentioned last month my swimming came on leaps and bounds - my distance going from 250m to 600m in a couple of weeks. But I knew there was a problem with my stroke as my legs were too low in the water. "I know," I thought, brightly "I'll check out YouTube for some tips."

Oh dear.

It turned out I wasn't really doing front crawl at all, more of an overarm doggy-paddle. No problem I thought, I just need to adjust my timing to stretch out before each pull. So I tried it and could hardly do 50m without gasping for breath.

My problem is that doing the stroke properly engages the large back muscles. In theory this should give me much more power, but of course those muscles have been sitting idle for years (ever?) while I've trained up my shoulders, so I'm pretty much starting over again. Plus, my breathing rhythm needs to change and that hasn't proven easy.

Mrs K tells me my swimming looks 1000% better than before, but I feel awkward, clumsy and slow. Towards the end of each length I find myself heading back into old bad habits and have to correct myself again.

This is exactly why change management in organisations is so difficult. We're all creatures of habit and breaking that habit not only requires 'awareness' but building the new routine into normal behaviour while staying away from the temptation of the old habits. A Sustainability awareness presentation is like the YouTube videos I watched – the hard work comes afterwards to make the new routine stick.

Six weeks of discipline to change a habit is the rule of thumb according to some behavioural experts. Does your Sustainability engagement take this into consideration? I don't find many that do.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep reaching out - literally and metaphorically!

 

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2 February 2018

The first step to culture change for Sustainability...

Yesterday was one for my other job - City Councillor and Opposition Spokesman on Sustainability. There were two big set-piece events: the launch of the Newcastle Waste Commission Report and a public meeting on Air Quality. The emerging theme was the same – culture change is everything.

The problem the Council always has had is its assumption that culture change will come from sending residents letters or hosting consultation events. Clear communications are important, but not enough.

As I said in the AQ meeting, the desired option must be the easy one to take. There's no point in having a wonderful cycle route if it just comes to an abrupt end at a busy road junction – I won't take my kids that way. Likewise the big surge in Newcastle's recycling rate a decade ago (when I was 2nd in command 😉) came because we made recycling really easy. About the same time, we put a (hybrid) bus service through the Quayside part of my Ward and for years endured jokes about them being empty. 10 years later they're busy – it took time for people to adjust their lifestyle to the new opportunity.

There's much more to culture change than this, but your first task is to minimise every barrier to the behaviour you want to promote.

 

 

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