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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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7 March 2016

Turning 'OR' into 'AND' for sustainability

what can I do

Years ago I was at a regional sustainability workshop and the facilitators made the mistake of giving each table a blank flipchart to list our priorities.* One lady in our group from a conservation group promptly slammed a fat file of newspaper clippings and internet print-outs on the table and commenced a lengthy rant against wind turbines, oblivious and impervious to all attempts to change the subject.

More recently we've had the big debate about climate change vs local air quality – I'm one of those who went diesel in the drive to cut carbon emissions, but at the expense of other pollutants. Of course the anti-climate change brigade have jumped on this as an example of 'green idiocy'.

And I'm sure we've all come across minds which are fixed in the concrete of "sustainability = reduced profits" despite all evidence to the contrary.

In all three cases, progress gets stuck on the spike of a false 'OR'. We can have renewable energy AND protect the countryside, we can tackle climate change AND local air quality, we can be sustainable AND turn a healthy profit. But those ORs must swap to ANDs or we'll be stuck on the start line.

 

* if you want to learn how to avoid workshops going wrong like this, check out our Workshop Masterclass.

 

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