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26 April 2018

Eyes on the (Sustainability) Prize

There's a new, if rather clunky, phrase going around the political commentariat at the minute - 'tribal epistemology'. Coined by US journalist David Roberts, the concept is confirmation bias writ large where the validity of any statement, whether it's blindingly obviously based on measurable facts or the craziest conspiracy theory, is determined by whether or not it suits the tribe you are part of. Tribal epistemology often renders rational debate redundant and often takes us deep into tin foil hat territory.

The climate 'debate' has long been defined by this phenomenon. The climate change denial movement believes that climate change is a cover for dangerous socialism, many of its leading lights noting that the science emerged into the public sphere at about the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. QED. There is even a far-left denial clique who believe that climate change was invented by Margaret Thatcher to destroy the UK's coal miner unions. Both views, of course, require a massive, highly-disciplined conspiracy by the scientific community sustained over decades, which is hilarious if you've ever spent time in a University faculty tea room.

Feeding the paranoia of the reds-under-the-climate-bed deniers of course are the various people who claim that we cannot cure the climate problem under the capitalist/free-market system and that only socialism is the answer. This makes me smile as my inspiration to dedicate my life to Sustainability was witnessing ecological devastation in Russia wreaked by Soviet-era industry.

As I wrote last month, those of us who cling to enlightenment values of rational debate shouldn't feel we have to beat the tribal loons into submission – because we won't win arguments with people who have invested so much personally in irrational concepts. The most dangerous belief in Sustainability is that we have to get everybody on board. We don't, we just have to do Sustainability.

This time last year, the UK had its first coal-free day since the industrial revolution. This week we had three days straight with no coal-fired power. The Sustainability revolution is happening, tribal epistemology or no tribal epistemology. Let's make it go faster.


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23 April 2018

A Neat Sustainability Innovation Story

About a decade ago, I bumped into Simon Daniel on a station platform. Simon and I been in the same year at Uni in the early 1990s, but hadn't seen each other in the meantime. We'd both been at the same event, the sadly defunct Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange, and he showed me what he had been promoting there on behalf of his company Moixa – a rechargeable AA battery which you plugged into a USB port. "Oh, that's a clever idea!" I said, being polite, as my mind was going "Who'd ever want to recharge stuff via a USB port?"

How wrong I was, of course. Just this weekend I've been recharging my Garmin watch, my iPhone, my front bike light and my new bluetooth speaker via a USB port. What's great from a Sustainability point of view is a. all of these gadgets are rechargeable, cutting the use of single-use batteries, and b. only the iPhone came with its own charger (which I used to charge all the other items) so a whole bunch of other eWaste has been avoided. The drawer of random battery chargers has not had a new addition in many years. The lightweighting of life continues.

While I have dedicated the last 20 years of my life promoting change for Sustainability, it takes the real innovators like Simon to see the logical progression of technology and behaviour and how they can combine to create new ideas which quickly become standard practice. More power to their collective elbows!


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18 April 2018

When is a Sustainability Strategy not a Sustainability Strategy?

I saw this odd story yesterday that BP had released a 'Sustainability Strategy' based on holding its carbon emissions steady while the business was predicted to grow. Of course this is wholly inadequate when emissions have to plummet, but it got me thinking about wider questions such as "Can you call this a Sustainability Strategy as it maintains the business as part of the problem?", and the logical follow-on "What's the threshold to call something a Sustainability Strategy?"

To me, 'Sustainability' implies (and requires) a step change. But how big?

When I developed a strategy for/with NHSBT, the headline quantitative targets were 'carbon footprint halved' and 'zero waste' – big meaty goals. The first of these was based on the Government's carbon trajectory (effectively a science-based target), plus a bit to take it up to a 50% cut (because 50% is easier to communicate than 43%). This seems like a good litmus test for carbon – "is it a science-based target or better?"

You don't have to do the sums to know that BP has flunked the test.

Check out our white paper 7 Steps to a Successful Sustainability Strategy



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16 April 2018

Long term vs short term in Sustainability

In Sustainability, we talk a lot about lengthening our mental timescales – 'building cathedrals', making products longer lasting etc. And while this is great, we also have to be cognisant of the fast-moving world around us. Two of my clients have recently been blindsided by the sudden upsurge in public interest in plastic waste when they were focussed on building a low carbon/low waste legacy for future generations. Overnight, coffee cups have become THE measure of Sustainability performance in the public mind.

I'm a great fan of 'and' thinking rather than 'or' thinking. We need those long term strategies, planning and capital investment, but we also have to bear in mind that the perception of others can and does change rapidly and we need to keep abreast of that.

So what are our already overloaded Sustainability Managers to do? Well, if you have a champions' network – and most of them are under-utilised – challenge them to solve the short term stuff. They'll appreciate something positive to do!

If you don't have a network, you can spontaneously invent one by running a competition between sites/divisions/teams to tackle a short term problem – 'The Coffee Cup Challenge'?

The benefits of these approaches is that you can respond very quickly when the latest green thing comes flying over the horizon.



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11 April 2018

Do SMEs feel the heat on Sustainability?

This month's Ask Gareth is slightly different as it reflects on a conversation on Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) with fellow Sustainability consultant Michelle Marks of Coral Mountain (@losetheplastic) rather than a direct question from a viewer. The topic was such a good one, and we haven't done many Ask Gareths on SMEs, I thought I would cover it.

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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9 April 2018

The Power of Sustainability Rankings

One of the more uplifting concepts in the last decade or so has been the emergence of pro-Sustainability activist corporations, a welcome break from the traditional 'minimal rules, narrow interest' mindset of the corporate lobbying industry. UK thinktank InfluenceMap has attempted to plot these efforts in the diagram above.

It's worth noting the layout of the quarters. Top left is the traditional anti-regulation mob (Koch et al), bottom left could be categorised as 'stick our heads in the sand', and the good guys drift towards the top right. So there's something of a U-shape in the line of increasing virtue, rather than the usual bottom left to top right diagonal.

I like publications like this, not just because they lay out the detail, but the pressure they bring on brands to improve. After all, it was a Greenpeace Sustainability ranking of electronics companies a decade ago that spurred Apple into action – and they've since gone from bottom of that list to InfluenceMap's A-list. Businesses are competitive by nature and they never like to be shown up by their rivals.


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6 April 2018

Inspiring yourself on Sustainability

The other day my eldest was watching the news with me and asked "Why isn't there a good news channel to cheer us up?" He was right – the news was unremittingly bleak or frustrating with hardly any moments of cheer. And it really can wear us down.

I know I'm not the only one in the Sustainability world who occasionally hits that slough of 'are we really making a difference'? And then you read a headline that the UK's plastic bag tax has led to a reduction in plastic bags in marine litter while other plastic litter increases. Or you read that wind power alone was providing over a third of the country's electricity one day during the recent 'Beast from the East' freeze.

Stuff we do does make a difference – provided of course you are picking the right stuff (check out how the 80:20 Rule can help). And we've got to keep reminding ourselves and others about this. I try to tweet out at least one Sustainability good news story everyday. That small action reminds me that there is a constant stream of good news and hopefully a few other people too.


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3 April 2018

Fear and Loathing in Sustainability

The Sustainability news falls into two polarised camps: 'climate impacts found to be worse than thought!' and 'renewable energy is booming!'. Why these might seem contradictory, due to lags in the climate's response to carbon emissions (and similar lags in other natural systems), both are very true. There's a lot of impact built in that we can't avoid, but we can work hard to minimise the impacts on future generations.

But the question I always have is 'does scaring people help in any way?' The problem with presenting people with stark facts is that, instead of inspiring people to act, you can cause them to freeze – or throw them into denial. If you watch how people devoted to particular political leaders react when unpleasant truths emerge, persuading themselves that black is white, you can see how climate denial works.

For this reason I never play the fear card. You are effectively telling people everything they do is wrong, which is a hard position from which to persuade them to do something different. You don't have to go into that zone to give the message "together we can make the world a better place" and nor should you.



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26 March 2018

Don't be a Sustainability Sheep

I took most of Friday off to go and help Mrs K move office at Durham University. So I decided to cycle down and, on the way back, I thought I'd take a diversion and see the memorial in Haswell to world champion cyclist Tom Simpson who died on Mont Ventoux during the Tour de France in 1967 (with a gut full of brandy and amphetamines, but lets gloss over that).

Haswell is in East Durham, an extremely deprived part of the country and it really showed – many of the houses were boarded up and the memorial was locked behind the community centre fence. But the weird thing is the roads – the whole area is covered in A-roads, many of them dual carriageways. You see the same thing in South East Northumberland – dual carriageways and A-roads criss-crossing the area, but without an obvious employment base (and a nightmare if you're a cyclist looking for a quiet route).

The reason for this, of course, is that there has always been a mantra that economic regeneration requires infrastructure. So they built the roads and... nothing. But they kept building roads. So we have roads and precious little industry for them to serve.

I suspect they did this because a. it was what everybody else was doing and b. they couldn't think of anything else to do. Like sheep they just follow the crowd.

I often find that Sustainability practitioners fall into the same trap. They don't know what to do, so they do what everybody else does, no matter whether it works or not. So there is a whole raft of generic activity, much of which is of dubious benefit. But at least people feel they are doing something...

My approach to Sustainability is completely different. Whether I am doing Sustainability Strategy or Employee Engagement, or both, I tailor everything to the organisation concerned. So the strategy gets built around the business drivers and the engagement gets built around the existing culture. I do this because I've tried a lot of stuff and ditched the ideas that don't work.


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23 March 2018

Decoupling or 'recoupling' carbon to growth?

Had a great meeting of the Green Thinkers last night, despite the fact I had managed not to read the book I had suggested, A World of 3 Zeroes by Muhammed Yunus. Yunus's proposal is that we should be aiming for zero poverty, zero unemployment and zero carbon, not a bad definition of global priorities. However those who had read the book thought that the zero carbon element was much weaker than the others, and furthermore, hitting the two social goals could drive carbon up.

I believe that mindset is the key to Sustainability, whether that's the mindset of the general public, politicians, or those of us in the Sustainability field. To this end, the free-wheeling conversation at Green Thinkers is important to me as it crystallises some of my thinking, lubricated by a couple of bottles of Golden Plover IPA...

So the phrase that resonated during this conversation was 'decoupling carbon from growth'. I suddenly realised that this is a very weak way of putting what happens in a truly Sustainable economy. Instead of just decoupling the carbon wagon from the economic locomotive so the two are independent, we need to be turning that locomotive around, and 'recoupling' it to the other side of the wagon, pulling it in the opposite direction, so growth drives carbon down.

I made the example of my small investments in renewable energy. I get a healthy interest return for every low carbon unit of energy produced. I get richer by the process of decarbonisation. That model should the ultimate goal we are trying to achieve.



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21 March 2018

Skewing choices to Sustainability

As a foodie, I was very taken with the One Planet Plate project getting major restaurant chains to put one dish with strong sustainability credentials on their menu. However, I've long preached that the litmus test on Sustainability is what you stop doing, rather than what you start doing. Otherwise business as usual remains just that. Accordingly, I would like to see participating restaurants remove the most 'unsustainable' dish on the menu as well to make a real shift in the right direction.


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19 March 2018

Sustainability in an age of unreason


I was very taken with Nick Cohen's column in yesterday's Observer bemoaning the rise of conspiracy-theory-driven, narrowly nationalist, identity politics around the globe. Cohen rightly singles out climate science as one area where the denialist fringe now has a seat at certain top tables against all rational argument.

Those of us who cling to a credo of liberal, rationalist enlightenment values seem stuck with an unenviable choice: hunker down until the cycle swings back as it has always done, or fight back, slaying the beast of gut instinct with the sword of logic and evidence. The problem with the first is that many of our environmental challenges require change now; the problem with the second is that human psychology is set to favour emotion over logic.

There is of course a third way, if we can liberate that phrase from its association with venal political chameleons of the 1990s. Despite all the noise of Trump, Putin, Modi, Xi et al, the world is still largely moving in the right direction – the Paris Agreement still stands, carbon emissions are stalling, and clean technology is hitting new records on a monthly basis. Instead of throwing our hands in the air, we have to find clever ways of keeping that momentum building.

My Green Jujitsu approach to behaviour change is based on one fundamental principle: everybody is an environmentalist deep down, you just have to find the right button to press.

Take the Daily Mail – it may be a nest of climate change deniers and cyclephobes, but they are also leading the populist battle against plastic pollution in the oceans. Instead of deriding their inconsistency, we should be leveraging that message to the public to get real change happening. More recycling = less plastic in the oceans + fewer carbon emissions. If we have to focus on the former rather than the latter, then so be it.

Now more than ever we have to fight smart rather than fight hard.

Join us next week for our annual Green Jujitsu webinar – full details here.


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16 March 2018

Stephen Hawking on Sustainability

As a member of that huge club who only got a third of the way through "A Brief History of Time", the death of Stephen Hawking this week marked the end of an era. Not so much in sadness, because this is a guy who managed to outlive the terrible prognosis of Motor Neurone Disease by a country mile. He made the most of the life he had by not only getting a new understanding of the Universe, but bringing those esoteric concepts of theoretic physics into the mainstream (even if they hurt our heads).

So I thought I'd mark Prof Hawking's passing with an extract from a Guardian article of his which really resonated with me:

We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans.

Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it. Perhaps in a few hundred years, we will have established human colonies amid the stars, but right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.


We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites, from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.


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14 March 2018

The Boxer vs Green Jujitsu

Last week I was reading a newspaper article on simmering tensions in Northern Ireland (from whence I hail) where somebody quoted The Boxer by Simon & Garfunkel:

All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest

Despite having heard this song a zillion times, I'd never really paid attention to the last two lines.

This delicate description of confirmation bias was still bouncing around my head when it was announced that climate sceptic Mike Pompeo had been appointed the new US Secretary of State by Donald Trump. Pompeo is on record saying:

“There are scientists who think lots of different things about climate change. There’s some who think we’re warming, there’s some who think we’re cooling, there’s some who think that the last 16 years have shown a pretty stable climate environment.”

Which is technically correct, but only if you are prepared to stretch to breaking point the statistic that the first group represents 97% of climate scientists and the other two just 1% between them (the other 2% aren't sure). But even though this statement is in reality a steaming pile of horse manure, I have no doubt that Pompeo believes it, because he hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

And this is why shouting about climate change doesn't really change very much – it falls on deaf ears. There's a neat synergy between my thinking on engagement and Paul Simon's songcraft as I often liken the standard engagement approach to boxing – try to pummel the other guy into submission, and they'll instinctively put their guard up.

My Green Jujitsu approach to engagement gets around this by reframing Sustainability into something that gets through that guard. If people want to hear about engineering, we talk engineering, if they are interested in finance, we talk money and if they're healthcare professionals, we talk health.

Our next Green Academy session on Green Jujitsu is on 28 March at 14:00BST. Click here for more details. Alternatively check out our on-line Green Jujitsu training course.


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12 March 2018

Why people will behave Sustainably...

There are two reasons why people will behave in a Sustainable way:

  • Because they want to, or;
  • Because they have to.

There is no guarantee that they will do it for a third reason:

  • Because they feel they should do.

Think of all the things that you think you should do that you don't – mine is a very, very long list – and yet this is the first and often only lever that most Sustainability professionals pull. Far better to get people to want to do it (e.g. via Green Jujitsu) and/or hardwire it into their job description/personal objectives.


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9 March 2018

Wiggo, grey areas and business ethics

I am a cyclist and I use performance-enhancing drugs.

Well, one drug. I will never set out on a long ride without a couple of cups of strong coffee and all my training rides are punctuated by a further coffee stop en route. You will see almost every endurance athlete, from lowly weekend warriors like me to professional marathon runners, take exactly the same drug to improve their performance.

If you think I am being facetious, I'm not. Caffeine is not only a stimulant, it is catabolic – it facilitates the burning of fat for energy as well as more immediate energy reserves, just like the steroid triamcinolone. It is completely legal in professional sports at present, but until 2004 the World Anti-Doping Agency put a limit on the amount of caffeine used by athletes, and it remains under consideration.

If you follow sports at all you can hardly have missed this week's Parliamentary report into doping in sport which made a variety of scathing pronouncements about the alleged use of drugs, particularly triamcinolone, at Team Sky during the build up to Bradley Wiggins' successful tilt at the Tour de France in 2012. 'Wiggo Doping Shock' screamed The Sun and other papers were not much more sympathetic. Read the rest of this entry »

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7 March 2018

The 3 biggest pitfalls in developing a Sustainability Strategy

In the latest edition of Ask Gareth, I'm asked what are the pitfalls to avoid when developing a Sustainability Strategy. I put forward the three I see most often, so watch and enjoy.

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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5 March 2018

Sustainability... as a toaster?

No. I haven't gone crazy with snowbound cabin fever, I just happened to (re)read something about Steve Jobs which reminded me that Jobs' original concept for the Apple Mac was a computer like a toaster. Instead of having to immerse yourself in the arcane language and concepts of computer science and remember the secret codes of command line interfaces, you'd pull your Mac out of the box, plug it in and use it. Fast forward 35-odd years and toddlers can operate an iPad without knowing what an iPad is (I remember one of mine trying to 'swipe' the pages of a baby book as a tot).

What a brilliant analogy for how Sustainability should be. Far too many practitioners work on the premise that we have to change the worldview of 7.6 billion people, and then struggle to change behaviour in a couple of hundred in their organisation. They expect people to jump through hoops, accept shoddy systems, products and services, and dress everything up in a hair-shirt and wonder why people won't join their guilt trip. If you read a "we won't get to Sustainability without mindfulness" article, that's exactly what I'm talking about.

If we really want to make Sustainability happen then we've got to follow the Apple philosophy of simple, intuitive and desirable. If people take Sustainable options without even realising what they are doing, that's A-OK with me.


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2 March 2018

Hot takes on The Beast from the East

So, much of the UK is gripped by a long cold snap with blasts of some pretty horrendous weather. While the Press whips itself into a frenzy over the country's supposed inability to cope, I can still walk to the corner shop every morning and get a couple of litres of milk to feed the mob (although the Guardian didn't make it this morning – quelle horreur!).

Here's my hot takes on the Beast from the East:

  • Sudden extreme weather is very difficult to prepare for. The reason the UK isn't equipped with all the paraphernalia for deep snow is that we haven't had any for 8 years, so it makes no sense to maintain all the snow chains etc 'just in case'. A couple of years ago I visited the usually damp Portland, Oregon in the middle of a crazy heatwave and they were struggling to cope too. Unpredictability will make climate adaptation a real challenge.
  • Many people expect no disruption during extreme events. From the guys trying to get up the steep hill outside my house when a couple of inches of snow has just fallen and failing (pic), to those stuck on motorways, I can't help thinking the phrase 'essential travel only' gets interpreted very loosely. Hats off, though, to all the brave souls who are keeping the country running, from the gritters to the carers who really do have to battle through the elements.
  • The old 'I can see snow, therefore climate science is bunk' zombie myth has risen again (two letters in our local paper today). Trying to persuade people that, as in 2010, the cold spell is being caused by anomalous warming in the Arctic is a hard sell as it is so counterintuitive – maybe not the best time to rebut such nonsense.
  • One thing that we should be flag waving about is that at a time the country's gas reserves are running low, the fact that 25% of electricity is coming from wind power is a very good thing indeed.


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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".


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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