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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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31 January 2018

How to resurrect a dead Sustainability programme


This month's Ask Gareth considers an excellent question from Bill: how do you resurrect a dead Sustainability programme? Warning, this video contains references to a naff 80s movie...

What do you think? 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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29 January 2018

Sustainability is no place for the fickle

I saw a blog post last week entitled something along the lines of "Forget Carbon. The Latest Crisis Is Plastics." This would have annoyed me massively at the best of times, but particularly so given that Kick Ass Idea no 1 of my 12 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2018 webinar last week was "No Fads".

The point I was making was to avoid the entreaties of those constantly pumping out the 'latest thing in Sustainability' – a couple of years ago it was all about Creating Shared Value, then we were told that mindfulness was a prerequisite of Sustainability, now people are desperately trying to work out how blockchain can deliver Sustainability. This flighty faddism over techniques is distracting enough without people saying that, because the full scale of the plastics problem has hit the public consciousness, climate change is no longer a priority.

That, my friends, is highly dangerous bullshit.

One problem becoming clearer does not make another disappear. While it's almost impossible to compare two environmental problems objectively, my subjective opinion is that climate change remains the head and shoulders above the rest purely on the scale and range of its impacts – from extreme weather through sea-level rises to ocean acidification – there is no hiding place.

But, whatever your view on their relative scales, it is not beyond the wit of the human race to tackle two major problems at the same time. In fact one solution – the circular economy – will go a long, long way to tackle both the climate and ocean plastic crises.

 

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26 January 2018

On Demand: 12 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2018

If you missed Wednesday's Green Academy taster, 12 Kick Ass Sustainability Ideas for 2018, fear not. You can stream the session by clicking on this link (requires a Webex player download).

To get the full experience you should also download the workbook first and use it to apply the thinking to your organisation.

A number of taster participants have signed up for the full Green Academy syllabus – if you want to take advantage of the 25% discount offered on the full price of £330 + VAT, then use this link to pay by Paypal or debit/credit card before 31 January 2018. 

 

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24 January 2018

What does embedding Sustainability really mean?

North Tyneside Council has just announced a new cycling strategy. Which is great, except the authority has recently remodelled two major road junctions and the cycling 'provision' is limited to permitting cyclists to zigzag their way through a maze of pedestrian crossings, complete with 90° changes of direction, rather than giving them any form of priority on the road itself. As we're unlikely to see the JCBs back to fix this omission, it's an opportunity missed.

This illustrates the point that we must be embedding Sustainability into mainstream decision making, not just special projects. It is particularly important in major capital projects as once mistakes are made, it is very difficult to fix them.

As usual, there are two elements to this: procedure and culture. The former determines what should be done and the second determines whether it will be done. My favourite tactic is to involve as many people as possible in developing the procedure as then they will 'own' it automatically rather than you trying to sell it to them.

 

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22 January 2018

Sustainability and true grit

En route to an early morning meeting today I came across the prone figure of a cyclist on one of our off-road cycle paths. As she clambered to her feet and checked nothing was broken, she said she had thought the sheet of ice across the path was slush and, indeed, it looked as if slush had frozen overnight then started to melt this morning resulting in an incredibly slippy rutted surface.

One of my campaigns as a Councillor is to get the City's strategic cycle routes, of which this is part, gritted in cold weather. We have a transport policy which says that cycling is higher in the transport hierarchy than use of private motor car, yet we grit major roads and not supposedly strategic cycle routes.

To me this illustrates the danger of institutional inertia to your Sustainability plans. Everybody nods when I say strategic cycle routes should be gritted, but nobody actually does it, because that would require quite a number of people going out of their way to do things differently. I'm steeling myself for a battle to use the current weather to get the cycle routes gritted next year – if I'm lucky. Obstinance is an important weapon in the Sustainability practitioners' arsenal.

 

 

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19 January 2018

Is the circular economy at a tipping point?

As I look out over the white-coated river valley I live in, 'snowballing' is a very appropriate analogy for the revolution going on in public discourse over waste and plastic waste in particular. Bloomberg journo Jess Shankleman sums up nicely how that snowball is fast gathering momentum:

When you're making a snowman, that little snowball you start rolling round takes for ever to start to grow, but then suddenly it takes on snow at an ever faster rate and it's up to your waist. This kind of exponential growth happened with renewables largely for financial reasons – as demand increased, prices fell, fuelling further demand. Suddenly, from a tiny fraction of the UK's electricity supply, renewables are delivering huge chunks of our power.

Waste is quite a bit more complex than energy given the eco-system of players from product producers to retailers to consumers to collectors to reprocessors, and this complexity presents many more barriers to change. But you just have to read the newspapers – from across the political spectrum – to see the consensus that change must come.

Among politics geeks, this is called the 'Overton window' – the stuff you can freely debate in public without appearing like a crank. The window has shifted decisively towards the circular economy since the days when then Deputy PM Nick Clegg had to fight to bring in the plastic bag tax – the fist-sized snowball that started this all off. I have no doubt that the current Government sees plastic waste as a rare opportunity for good news amongst their many other struggles, but they seem serious about mining that seam of political goodwill, and I'm certainly not going to criticise them for it.

And, as Jess says, it's amazing what a little bit of proactive leadership can do.

 

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17 January 2018

Why SMART Sustainability targets are really dumb

My big personal goal for 2018 is to do a triathlon, not just getting round, but not coming last. At sprint triathlon distances, the cycling and running will be straightforward for me, but the big problem is the 400m swim. I could do it easily breast stroke, but to compete it needs to be front crawl, of which at the turn of the year I could only do 200m without a break.

At the start of the year I started googling potential events and found to my dismay that if I wanted to go for one with open water swimming, the distance was actually 750m. And of course in a lake I couldn't just take a break if I ran out of steam, it's 'in for a penny, in for a pound'. I started to wonder whether I'd bitten off more than I could chew.

But what has happened since has been extraordinary. First swim of the year I did 250m at a go which I was pleased with. Then last Wednesday I did 300m and on Friday 400m. Yesterday I did 500m without stopping (at a faster pace than the 400m). So I went from worrying about hitting 400m to smashing that barrier within two weeks simply because I lifted my sights from 400m to 750m.

I've seen exactly the same thing happen in Sustainability. Businesses who set really audacious goals – zero waste, zero carbon, zero toxics – change their whole approach as it is clear that tinkering around the edges just won't do. Ambition makes you to consider options you'd never ever dream of by pursuing continual improvement.

When people tell me they set SMART targets – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound – I always worry about the A for Achievable. It narrows the mind inwards to the everyday rather than stretching it out to the extraordinary. As per my new favourite quote from conservationist Alan Rabinowitz “Only those who set goals beyond what is obviously achievable make a real difference in this world.”

 

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15 January 2018

If people don't get Sustainability, it's not their fault

I recently attended a meeting where a representative of a local authority blamed the general public for falling recycling rates. This made me quite angry because if recycling rates have been higher in the recent past then it is clear the public is willing to do their bit. I know for a fact that a number of blunders, including giving out contradictory information, have confused the residents of that particular area.

This is just one example of many I've witnessed where people in the Sustainability profession blame others for the lack of behaviour change. 'Bless their little cotton socks' one practitioner told me, as if their employees were slow-witted children. But this is a dangerous attitude – the equivalent of a supermarket manager blaming their customers for deserting them for the better stocked rival down the street – it will do nothing to reverse decline.

I often say that the only difficult part of my Green Jujitsu approach to Sustainability Engagement is having the humility to see the world from your target audience's point of view. Everything you know about Sustainability is useless unless you can translate it into a form which means something to that audience. Completely useless.

 

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12 January 2018

Lessons from 'The War On Plastic'

So, the big news this week is that PM Theresa May has listened to me and announced a 'war on plastic waste' at the launch of the long awaited 25 year Environment Plan. Like most commentators my opinion is the plan contains all the right subjects and targets but is light on the actions required now to get us on to the right trajectory.

Here are some wider thoughts about what we can learn from the announcement:

  • Sustainability is now right at the top of the political agenda and that is a good thing, no matter who is in charge. The Government has finally woken up to the fact that the UK is doing rather well on the environment and by showing leadership they can do even better (and appeal to some of the young people who have deserted the Conservative party in droves - quite a carrot for more action).
  • Everybody is an environmentalist: the ocean plastics issue has united everybody from the deepest green to the climate-sceptics at the Daily Mail (right) and even those purveyors of nonsense, the Global Warming Policy Forum. If you want to engage people in Sustainability, be prepared to start the conversation on common ground, particularly with something very tangible (like the iconic picture of a seahorse carrying a cotton bud).
  • Blue Planet II is already one of the most significant TV programmes ever. Ignore the green snobs, if we want real change, we've got to get the message into the mainstream.
  • 25-years is too long for a plan: Even if you want to set distant aspirations, I usually recommend 10 years for Sustainability Strategies as this is long enough to make real change on the ground (e.g. capital investment) but not too distant for decision-makers to think it'll be for their successors to sort out.
  • Aspiration without action remains just that. If I was advising Mrs May and Mr Gove, I'd have insisted on a backcasting process to fill in the gaps between those goals and what needs to happen right now to get on the right trajectory. This is what I do with my clients and it works extremely well.

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10 January 2018

Getting the Sustainability Optics right

Yesterday, the Guardian published side-by-side pictures of UK Environment Secretary Michael Gove heading into Number 10 Downing Street last October with a disposable coffee cup and then yesterday with a reusable cup.

Why is this important? Well about the time of the first pic, Gove had just announced moves to tax single use coffee cups, so the image gave out a contradictory message. He's obviously learnt his lesson since, or a wise head bought him a very appropriate Christmas present.

I've long preached that Sustainability practitioners must get their heads out of the detail and look at the big picture. While that is true, we also have to be aware that the media and the general public often latch on to minor but resonant issues. Climate change is difficult to communicate, a coffee cup is tangible and familiar to everyone. Having the wrong coffee cup sends a louder message to the masses than, say, the UK's Clean Energy Plan, the new UK ban on microbeads or the forthcoming ban on neonicotinoid pesticides.

So the lesson is get the big issues and what politicians call 'the optics' right. You may be installing a huge solar panel on the roof, but if your canteen coffee cups aren't being recycled you will see cynicism in the workforce. You could argue that the solar panel will make a much bigger difference, but, as Ronald Reagan said, if you're explaining, you're losing.

Images copyright as per caption - used under 'fair use'.

 

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8 January 2018

Your Sustainability Goals for 2018

Last week I took a big fat marker and wrote out my three top line goals for 2018, just six words between them, and stuck them up by my desk where I can see them every day. Already I have taken tangible steps to make progress those three – at least one of which I know I would have put off for sure if the goals weren't right there in my face.

When I was interviewing people about their company's ambitious Sustainability Goals, one guy told me the importance of those goals, likening them to the bar in a high jump. "If you can't see the bar," he said "you'll never jump that high."

So what are your personal Sustainability goals for 2018? Pick three, write them down, and put them somewhere you can see them (or if you are shy, use them as category headings in your weekly to do list every week). Do it now, or the chances of you doing so recede fast.

And remember, the first step towards each goal is almost always the most important.

 

 

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