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11 June 2018

Sustainability - for the many?


Sometime last Tuesday, a hashtag #PlasticFreeDay appeared on my Twitter feed. I was vaguely aware that it was World Environment Day, but, like so many eco-days, this new one had passed me by entirely (as I read the eco-press daily, this says more about the ineffectiveness of the plethora of awareness days, hours and weeks than my ignorance). So I did a bit of googling and found that the organisers wanted 250 million people would go 'plastic-free' for a day.

My immediate reactions were 1. how on earth could anyone do this?, and 2. why would you want to?

My kids love my bacon and pea pasta, so let's say I've promised them that on Plastic Free Day. Of the four major ingredients, I could use chopped tomatoes from a tin rather than a carton, ditto peas (although they taste awful compared to frozen peas from a bag), but bacon and pasta? I can't think of anybody who sells pasta in anything other than a plastic wrapping, so I'd have to make it myself. Even if I went to a traditional butcher, they'd wrap sliced bacon in a piece of plastic, otherwise bacon juice would ooze into the rest of my shopping. Sorry boys, treat's off, because, y'know, a hashtag.

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21 May 2018

Why behavioural change for Sustainability is difficult (and how to make it easier)

Last week I was locking my bike outside one of my regular refuelling points when two Mobike employees appeared and started rounding up some of their dockless bikes which had been left there. "We play 'how many are in the River Tyne today?'" one of them joked to me. But there was a serious point behind the jest – Mobikes are undoubtedly getting people cycling, but the dockless nature does mean they are left in all kinds of places, good and bad. And people are starting to complain.

A number of wags on Twitter (another good and bad thing) have created the 'dockless car' meme – pointing out that while people complain about the bikes, the anti-social behaviour of many drivers doesn't raise the same hackles.

Why? Familiarity. We don't see the badly parked cars because we're used to them, but the bikes are novel so they stand out – the same way that you notice all kinds of architectural detail in a foreign city while ignoring similar beauty in your home town.

We need to understand the psychology of change if we are to make Sustainability happen. People will look past plantation forests, grain silos and radar domes to complain about wind turbines 'blighting' the countryside. They will get upset if you remove their waste baskets in favour of paper recycling bins or ban single-use takeaway coffee cups from the cafeteria. You are upsetting their routine and they will hate you for it.

Here's my five top tips to help you bring change to your organisation:

  1. Ditch the green-speak in favour of Green Jujitsu (adopting the language, imagery and tone of your audience)
  2. Involve people in designing the new system/product/process/procedure;
  3. Make the Sustainable option easier to use than the old one (making people jump through hoops to prove their commitment to Sustainability is one of the stupidest ideas of all stupid ideas);
  4. Make sure all people in positions of responsibility – including you – are seen to be doing the new thing.
  5. Buy a tin hat and keep it close to hand.


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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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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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5 February 2018

Habit-changing is hard

Photo © 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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16 August 2017

Food for thought or gut instinct?


I really enjoyed the piece in last week's Guardian pricking the balloon of the 'clean eating' movement whose proponents claim that modern life is killing us. I can get quite grumpy about happy-clappy pseudoscience and how it inveigles its way into everyday life. My local coffee shop proudly presents its 'gluten-free' brownies, even though the vast majority of people who think they are gluten intolerant simply aren't. I asked for one with gluten recently and the poor guy behind the counter looked utterly confused.

But the really disturbing part of the article is the author's anecdote of sharing a stage alongside a qualified dietician and one of the beautiful young champions of the clean eating movement. Whenever either of the first two questioned some of the claims made in the best-selling books of the latter, the audience got aggressive, and they were mocked later on social media. How dare these two criticise something we've invested emotional capital in using mere facts? Read the rest of this entry »

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13 March 2017

Cutting Corners: Making Sustainability the easy option


On Saturday I was at a workshop looking at improving the experience of pedestrians and cyclists in inner-city neighbourhoods in our city. One of the guest speakers brilliantly summed up why that horrible 1980s/90s street design style which corralled pedestrians into convoluted, fenced routes to guide them away from busy roads didn't work:

"We're natural Pythagoreans. We'll never walk around a right angle if we can see a hypotenuse."

One of my principles of embedding Sustainability into organisations is to make the sustainable option the easiest route. That means removing barriers to that hypotenuse and making the unsustainable option(s) the 'right angled' route(s).

This can be physical (like putting cycle parking by the front door) or it can be bureaucratic (making it more difficult to book flights than trains), but I have seen time and time again that it works.


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5 December 2016

WaterAid makes me think twice!


A couple of years ago, the kids asked could we "send some money to poor people in Africa" and it has now become a regular thing to do a bit of fundraising on the run in to Christmas. The two years we gave to SolarAid, this year the kids wanted something related to water so WaterAid was the obvious recipient. As with last year, we ran a yard sale, and although we didn't shift that much stuff, we raised over £100.00 and caught up with the neighbours over a glass or three of mulled wine. It's a nice antidote to the traditional consumerism and gluttony, of which we partake liberally.

When I was clearing the garden to put up the stalls, I realised I needed to clean the decking as it gets very slippery during the winter. So I filled a bucket with hot soapy water and gave it a scrub. I went back to the kitchen to get some cold water to sluice it down. Just as I was about to fill the bucket, it dawned on me. "We're raising money for WaterAid and you're about to throw buckets of drinking water quality water at your decking, you idiot." I went back out into the garden and filled it from the water butt.

Goes to show how behavioural change requires interruptions, even for someone who eats, lives and sleeps sustainability every day!


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9 December 2015

Adding friction to unsustainable behaviour

shopping plastic bag

Regular readers will know I'm a bit sceptical about the plastic bag tax – mainly because it's aimed at a minor environmental impact rather than a major one such as home insulation. But what I can't argue with is its effectiveness, with Tesco (the UK's biggest retailer) announcing that plastic bag use had fallen 78% within a month of the tax coming into force.

And I'm quite surprised at the change it has made in my own behaviour. I've endeavoured to take reusable bags to the shop with me for 25 years, but I all too often forget. Strangely enough, the thought of having to pay 5 or 10p for a bag has sharpened my memory and I go much better prepared. The proof is in the pudding – the once huge stash of plastic bags under the sink is dwindling fast.

The difference really hit me yesterday – I had to do an unexpected grocery shop between meetings as old friends announced they were visiting out of the blue. I ended up cursing myself for not having a reusable bag with me always in case of such a situation.

This goes to show the power of adding even small amounts of friction to habitual unsustainable behaviour. It's classic 'nudge'-style behavioural change – remove obstacles to desired behaviour and throw a few in the way of undesired behaviour. Very rapidly people will adjust their behaviour to the path of least resistance.



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12 February 2014

Nigel Farage has a soggy experience

There was a comedy gold sequence on Channel 4 News last night when Garry Gibbon asked a couple of climate-sceptic politicians, including UKIP leader Nigel Farage, what their views on climate change were as they were knee deep in floodwater (it's towards the end of the sequence above). Wonderful squirming with the normally bullish Farage admitting "I don't know" when he was asked whether he thought climate change was man-made.

But behind the schadenfreude there's a serious point here. It's one thing to sneer at climate science when you're sat at your computer blogging or sinking a pint in the golf club bar, quite a different thing when you are standing slap bang in the middle of its (probable) impacts. We learn much better from first hand experience than being told something second hand.

I often talk about my road to Damascus moment on the road to Monchegorsk in Arctic Russia (below) where I saw and even taste in the air the damage done by acid rain from a nickel smelter. This propelled me from armchair environmentalist to actually doing something about it.


But experiences don't have to be negative. Nestlé allowed their employees to try out and even borrow electric cars so they could gain positive experiences and reduce the fear of the new. Other bodies such as Sustrans run guided cycle trips to give adults confidence to get back in the saddle.

Primary school children are taught to "show, don't tell" - something that sustainability practitioners - and the environmental movement in general - should take to heart.


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3 February 2014

Getting into a Sustainability Mindset


To act without knowing why; to do things as they have always been done, without asking why; to engage in an activity all one's life without really understanding what it is about and how it relates to other things - this is to be one of the crowd.

Meng Tzu aka Mencius 379-289 BC

What Mencius (the most famous interpreter of Confucius) was getting at is our innate tendency to do what we have always done and/or what everybody else does. This is the key barrier to sustainability and why 'business as usual' has such inertia.

The green movement has its own blinkers as well, and its inability/refusal to see the world through the eyes of the person in the street is a key barrier to it reaching its own objectives.

So how do we broaden our minds to overcome these forms of inertia? Here's some ideas that work for me:

  • Read everything and anything about change - many of the most influential books on my shelves eg Nudge, Switch, have little to do with sustainability and everything to do with psychology. I'm currently reading Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman;
  • Every book you read, seek out the counter argument, if any, and consider the arguments;
  • Do this with the news too - if you read the Guardian, then scan the Telegraph too, or vice versa;
  • If a statistic seems to good/bad to be true, seek out the raw data - journalists, campaigners and activists are no strangers to cherry-picking;
  • Learn to filter out dogmatic views, green or anti-green (reading James Delingpole is just a waste of vital seconds of your life, some green drivel is just the same);
  • Train yourself to always ask Why? Use the Toddler Test - ask Why? 5 times and you'll get to the true reason;
  • Challenge people to solve problems - if they get the kudos for the 'win', it seriously breaks down the mental barriers to success;
  • Interact with others - particularly those who challenge your assumptions. My Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is based on interaction, not one-to-many teaching;
  • Set stretch targets - incremental targets encourage incremental thinking, stretch targets make you raise your sights;
  • Be an intelligent contrarian - if someone blithely parrots received wisdom, gently challenge them;
  • Choose your words carefully - don't close down options before they've been explored;
  • Allow people to be creative - workshops are much more powerful than meetings.

That should be enough to be getting on with, but if you have any more, add them to the comments below:

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25 July 2013

Queuing for a Ferry and the Psychology of Energy Use

traffic jam 3

I'm on our family summer holiday - this year, we're in my hometown of Belfast. My mother has just turned 70, so we had a family get together here at my parents' place to celebrate. I grew up in this house and there's something terribly pleasing about seeing my boys enjoying playing with my old lego in my old bedroom.

Anyway our journey here involved driving from Newcastle to Cairnryan for the ferry. I practised what I preached and (for once) made sure the car's tyre pressures were correct with noticeable benefits on the fuel gauge. We had a very pleasant drive, stopping at a great local salmon smokery/cafe/castle for lunch and got to the ferry terminal at the right time.

Everybody pulled up in their allotted queue, switched their engines off and wound down the windows. A few went off for ice creams. We were in queue 7 with at least 15 cars in each queue. Then something very strange happened. As soon as queue 1 started moving, everybody rushed to their cars, newspapers were stowed, windows raised - and started their engines. It took about 30 minutes for us to need to start ours, yet everybody sat there burning fuel unnecessarily, hunched over the steering wheel, despite the fact it was clearly going to be a while before we got moving and we'd have plenty of notice when it was going to happen.

Two things got me:

  • The weirdly powerful peer pressure - the way the muted panic rippled across hundreds of people for something so trivial as being ready to drive on board. No one was going to miss the boat at this stage;
  • The irrationality of keeping the engines running when it became clear that it was going to take some time to get moving - nobody seemed willing to 'admit their mistake' - would this have happened if other people weren't there?

One of the things I'm working on in my constantly developing Green Jujitsu concept is how to harness these peer/group factors to produce greener behaviour - where everybody would feel comfortable leaving their engines off in this case. What would work? Countdown boards - "start your engines in 20 minutes"? Would that keep enough people relaxed enough to switch off that it would become the norm?

This sort of approach would take a lot of trial and error in each case - and would probably produce enough case studies to produce an entire sequel to the book Nudge. But there is power in peer pressure, and that means it is something we should be trying to exploit.

By the way, the ferry journey was notable for the diving gannets doing that wing tucking-in thing before hitting the water that I'd only ever seen in wildlife documentaries - amazing!


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23 July 2013

Make Green The Default

printerI have an ageing HP laser printer - I bought a duplex device as I wanted to be a good little greenie and print double sided to save paper. I've had to set up drivers for a few computers over the years and one thing strikes me every time...

The driver defaults to single-sided printing.

To set up duplex printing you have to dig in to the settings, find the right page, find the right setting to change, change it and save the preset. While this isn't a Herculean task, it's not something my mother could do easily. Why not default to the greener option? Why make green difficult at all?

In an odd moment on the train in the last couple of weeks, I cheekily tweeted HP and asked them why this was. They referred me to their technical support to 'fix the problem', I retorted I wasn't asking 'how?' but 'why?' and they went silent - probably some contracted 'social media consultant' worried about what damage they would do their clients' brand if they told me where to go.


I think it is a good illustration of one of zillions of little barriers that make green harder than business as usual. People will tend to take the path of least resistance - especially those who don't self-identify as green. So you've got to make green easier than ungreen. And one powerful tactic to do this is to make sure that the default option in every case is the greener one, so green is the 'do nothing' option.


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28 March 2012

Getting the message right, first time, everytime

In one of my client workshops, a manufacturing operative, straight off the factory floor and still wearing his dirty overalls, put it bluntly:

“We’ve got these stickers on the machines telling us to switch them off. But there’s nothing in the standard operating procedures about it. It is hammered into us from day one to follow the SOPs, so, if we’re not sure, we ignore the stickers. If you want it to happen, it should be in the SOPs.”

You can take several lessons from this one statement:

  • Your sustainability programme must be integrated into core business processes, not seen as an added extra.
  • If you want to test this integration, ask your target audience for anomalies. If there's a problem, they'll soon tell you about it.
  • Consistency of the message is essential - cognitive dissonance in this case led operatives to retreat to their comfort zone.
  • You should be trying to tap into the culture that is already there - in this case the fact SOPs are seen as gospel.

In a different project, I have been helping a major plc develop sustainability training packages for recent newcomers. Again a key success factor we have identified is to ensure the message in the training is reflected back at the workplace - eg awareness posters should be in the same format and give the same message as the training so inductees see consistency between what they have been taught and their working environment.

I like Marks & Spencer's approach for their famed Plan A sustainability programme where they use the same celebrity models to promote Plan A as they use for their general marketing and advertising. This gives two strong messages - sustainability is mainstream, and that it is glamorous and fun.

Like the proverbial stick of rock, your message must be integrated and consistent all the way through.

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22 October 2010

The Human Aspect to Clean Tech

As I write this, I've just finished the first full day of the European Green Capitals conference in Stockholm. The session that stood out was from the three industrial sponsors - Siemens, IBM and Nordic energy company Fortum - talking about what business could bring to sustainable urbanism. As expected they all did quite a bit of PR, but the message that came out is that they are all increasingly focussing on the human factors side of the solutions they deliver. Up to 75% of potential carbon abatement relies on other organisations and the general public to change their behaviour. The low carbon technology bit is easy, went the message, but designing it to be used effectively is quite a different matter.

I believe that the techno-fix vs behavioural change argument is often a false one. The best technologies enable green behaviour, eg iTunes which saves up to 80% of the carbon of buying a CD and a lot of hassle. The tricky bit is finding lots more such synergistic solutions where the consumer wants to take the low carbon option.

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3 June 2009

Nudge, nudge!

OK, so I'm a 12 months behind the curve, but I've just finished last year's political must-read "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness" by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The central thesis of the book is that we humans like having choices rather than being told what to do, but paradoxically we're not that good at making the best choice for ourselves or society if the issue is complex. Thaler and Sunstein introduce the rather clunkily titled concept of "libertarian paternalism" which translates into plain English as "the choice is yours, but if I were you I'd pick that one", the second part of this being the 'nudge' of the title.

The book is long on examples and arguments and a little short on the 'how to' aspect, but I've gathered that the three main types of 'nudges' are:

1. The default choice is chosen carefully to be the 'best' one eg should we have to opt out of organ donation rather than opt in?

2. The 'best' choice is the easiest, cheapest or most obvious one eg lower car tax for less polluting vehicles.

3. Sufficient information is disclosed to help the chooser make a good choice (would the current MPs expenses scandal have happened if they all had been forced to disclose their expenses claims to the electorate?).

On some levels this may appear manipulative, but the authors make a strong argument that the alternatives are to either ban undesirable behaviour (the infamous 'nanny state'), or to abandon people to make suboptimal choices.

Chapter 12 of the book is entitled "Saving the Planet" and examples of eco-nudges include:

1. Cap-and-trade for industrial carbon emissions (not cutting emissions is going to cost you, but the choice of how to cut them is yours).

2. Information provision through disclosure, labelling or feedback eg the US Toxic Release Inventory, domestic smart meters, and cars that tell you if you're overdoing the accelerator.

3. Voluntary schemes and standards for industry (the authors use the US 'Green Light' label as an example).

I can think of many more cases where these have been, or could be applied. The EU's energy label (below) has been brilliantly effective in transforming the white goods market, raising the market of share of the most efficient A-rated models from 0 to 76% in a decade. It's easy to see why this nudge works - you can buy any washing machine you like, but as you're spending the money you might as well go for an A-rated machine rather than a D. Who wants a D? And, if no-one is buying Ds, why would anyone manufacture one? The market is transformed, but the only rule is that showrooms have to display the certificate.

Kerbside recycling shows how communities can nudge themselves - once a certain proportion of a street puts out their separated waste participation suddenly shoots up. In contrast, when UK councils started trying to reduce residual waste collections from weekly to fortnightly by dictat there was uproar in the media and some councils changed political control due to this issue alone. Maybe if councils had introduced it by saying "you can keep your weekly collections, but you have to opt in for this on an annual basis" the uproar would have been subdued and the laggards would have gradually caught up with the mainstream as those neighbours who went with the default option demonstrated that the system is OK. Actually, it strikes me that local authorities could benefit most from the 'nudge' approach - they tend to bear the brunt of media attacks on any change ("Town Hall Bullies/Loonies" etc) and this could deflect most of that initial ire and transform behaviour more gradually.

Having read Nudge, I'm not surprised it caused such a fuss in the political sphere and there is a huge opportunity to use it to transform environmental behaviour both within industry and consumers alike. Highly recommended reading.

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